A Christmas Carol.
  • A politico-diplomatic hocus pocus piece of machinery for the assistance of the nobs in keeping off the snobs” is a quotation from Little Dorrit (Book 1, Chapter 10).


This quotation is a description of the Circumlocution Office, a bureaucratic government department in Little Dorrit. It is said in the context of a description of Ferdinand Barnacle, the private secretary to Lord Decimus and one of the younger members of the Barnacle family. Ferdinand seems to be the only member who is aware of the flaws of the place in which he works.

Illustration from the original publication of Little Dorrit by Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne) of Little Dorrit leaving the Marshalsea prison.

Character Profile: Ferdinand Barnacle.

Ferdinand Barnacle is Lord Decimus Tite Barnacle ‘s private secretary, and a younger member of the nepotic Barnacle family that control the Circumlocution Office, a bureaucratic government department. He is friends with Henry Gowan, an artist and distant relative to the Barnacle family.. Ferdinand Barnacle visits Arthur Clennam at the Marshalsea prison, happy to learn the Circumlocuation Office did not put him into the debtors’ prison, and tries to explain the value of their office doing nothing to Arthur. advises him to give up his struggles with the Circumlocution Office

Background: Dickens and The Circumlocution Office.

In Book 1, Chapter 10 of Little Dorrit, Arthur Clennam visits a government department called the Circumlocution Office trying to find out about the case against a man called William Dorrit, who has been imprisoned for debt. He is passed from official to official trying to find a satisfactory answer. The officials in charge of the department are typified by the nepotic and self-serving upper-class Barnacle family, who revel in obfuscation and red tape. Charles Dickens deliberately introduced the Circumlocution Office into the novel to parody civil service mismanagement. At the time Dickens was writing and publishing the early chapters of Little Dorrit there was a public outcry at government mismanagement of the Crimean War, a conflict that had started in October 1853 between Russia and an alliance that included Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire. Graphic descriptions had appeared in the British press of troops serving in the war suffering from disease, hunger and neglect. The alarming reports of mismanagement led to an enquiry by a parliamentary select committee. Public opposition culminated in a riot on Sunday, 21 January 1855, in London’s Trafalgar Square. Less than two weeks later the government, a coalition of political factions under the leadership of Lord Aberdeen, fell and the Home Secretary, Lord Palmerston, took over as the new Prime Minister. The Crimean War ended with the signing of The Treaty of Paris in March 1856. Little Dorrit was serialized in twenty monthly parts from December 1855 through to June 1857, followed shortly after by the whole novel in one volume.


Taken from the following passage in Book 1, Chapter 10 of Little Dorrit:

‘But surely this is not the way to do the business,’ Arthur Clennam could not help saying.

This airy young Barnacle was quite entertained by his simplicity in supposing for a moment that it was. This light in hand young Barnacle knew perfectly that it was not. This touch and go young Barnacle had ‘got up’ the Department in a private secretaryship, that he might be ready for any little bit of fat that came to hand; and he fully understood the Department to be a politico-diplomatic hocus pocus piece of machinery for the assistance of the nobs in keeping off the snobs. This dashing young Barnacle, in a word, was likely to become a statesman, and to make a figure.

‘When the business is regularly before that Department, whatever it is,’ pursued this bright young Barnacle, ‘then you can watch it from time to time through that Department. When it comes regularly before this Department, then you must watch it from time to time through this Department. We shall have to refer it right and left; and when we refer it anywhere, then you’ll have to look it up. When it comes back to us at any time, then you had better look US up. When it sticks anywhere, you’ll have to try to give it a jog. When you write to another Department about it, and then to this Department about it, and don’t hear anything satisfactory about it, why then you had better—keep on writing.’

Arthur Clennam looked very doubtful indeed. ‘But I am obliged to you at any rate,’ said he, ‘for your politeness.’

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A politico-diplomatic hocus pocus piece of machinery for the assistance of the nobs in keeping off the snobs.
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