A Christmas Carol.


Quotation said by Ferdinand Barnacle, the private secretary to Lord Decimus and one of the younger members of the Barnacle family. Ferdinand has visited Arthur Clennan inside the Marshalsea debtors prison. He is talking to him about the Circumlocution Office, a bureaucratic government department largely run by his nepotic family.

Ferdinand, is well aware of the overly bureaucratic nature of his workplace, here trying to justifying it to Arthur by stating that we must all have ‘humbug’.

Ferdinand Barnacle and Arthur Clennam.
Ferdinand Barnacle and Arthur Clennam in his room in the Marshalsea debtor prison. Illustration by James Mahoney’s from a 1873 Chapman and Hall Household Edition volume of Charles Dickens’s novel Little Dorrit.

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 2, Chapter 28 of Little Dorrit:

‘Thank you. Frankly,’ said the engaging young Barnacle, ‘I have been excessively sorry to hear that you were under the necessity of a temporary retirement here, and I hope (of course as between two private gentlemen) that our place has had nothing to do with it?’

‘Your office?’

‘Our Circumlocution place.’

‘I cannot charge any part of my reverses upon that remarkable establishment.’ Upon my life,’ said the vivacious young Barnacle, ‘I am heartily glad to know it. It is quite a relief to me to hear you say it. I should have so exceedingly regretted our place having had anything to do with your difficulties.’

Clennam again assured him that he absolved it of the responsibility.

‘That’s right,’ said Ferdinand. ‘I am very happy to hear it. I was rather afraid in my own mind that we might have helped to floor you, because there is no doubt that it is our misfortune to do that kind of thing now and then. We don’t want to do it; but if men will be gravelled, why—we can’t help it.’

‘Without giving an unqualified assent to what you say,’ returned Arthur, gloomily, ‘I am much obliged to you for your interest in me.’

‘No, but really! Our place is,’ said the easy young Barnacle, ‘the most inoffensive place possible. You’ll say we are a humbug. I won’t say we are not; but all that sort of thing is intended to be, and must be. Don’t you see?’

‘I do not,’ said Clennam.

‘You don’t regard it from the right point of view. It is the point of view that is the essential thing. Regard our place from the point of view that we only ask you to leave us alone, and we are as capital a Department as you’ll find anywhere.’

‘Is your place there to be left alone?’ asked Clennam.

‘You exactly hit it,’ returned Ferdinand. ‘It is there with the express intention that everything shall be left alone. That is what it means. That is what it’s for. No doubt there’s a certain form to be kept up that it’s for something else, but it’s only a form. Why, good Heaven, we are nothing but forms! Think what a lot of our forms you have gone through. And you have never got any nearer to an end?’

‘Never,’ said Clennam.

‘Look at it from the right point of view, and there you have us—official and effectual. It’s like a limited game of cricket. A field of outsiders are always going in to bowl at the Public Service, and we block the balls.’

Clennam asked what became of the bowlers? The airy young Barnacle replied that they grew tired, got dead beat, got lamed, got their backs broken, died off, gave it up, went in for other games.

‘And this occasions me to congratulate myself again,’ he pursued, ‘on the circumstance that our place has had nothing to do with your temporary retirement. It very easily might have had a hand in it; because it is undeniable that we are sometimes a most unlucky place, in our effects upon people who will not leave us alone. Mr Clennam, I am quite unreserved with you. As between yourself and myself, I know I may be. I was so, when I first saw you making the mistake of not leaving us alone; because I perceived that you were inexperienced and sanguine, and had—I hope you’ll not object to my saying—some simplicity.’ ‘

Not at all.’ ‘

Some simplicity. Therefore I felt what a pity it was, and I went out of my way to hint to you (which really was not official, but I never am official when I can help it) something to the effect that if I were you, I wouldn’t bother myself. However, you did bother yourself, and you have since bothered yourself. Now, don’t do it any more.’

‘I am not likely to have the opportunity,’ said Clennam.

‘Oh yes, you are! You’ll leave here. Everybody leaves here. There are no ends of ways of leaving here. Now, don’t come back to us. That entreaty is the second object of my call. Pray, don’t come back to us. Upon my honour,’ said Ferdinand in a very friendly and confiding way, ‘I shall be greatly vexed if you don’t take warning by the past and keep away from us.’

‘And the invention?’ said Clennam.

‘My good fellow,’ returned Ferdinand, ‘if you’ll excuse the freedom of that form of address, nobody wants to know of the invention, and nobody cares twopence-halfpenny about it.’ ‘

Nobody in the Office, that is to say?’ ‘

Nor out of it. Everybody is ready to dislike and ridicule any invention. You have no idea how many people want to be left alone.

You have no idea how the Genius of the country (overlook the Parliamentary nature of the phrase, and don’t be bored by it) tends to being left alone. Believe me, Mr Clennam,’ said the sprightly young Barnacle in his pleasantest manner, ‘our place is not a wicked Giant to be charged at full tilt; but only a windmill showing you, as it grinds immense quantities of chaff, which way the country wind blows.’

‘If I could believe that,’ said Clennam, ‘it would be a dismal prospect for all of us.’

‘Oh! Don’t say so!’ returned Ferdinand. ‘It’s all right. We must have humbug, we all like humbug, we couldn’t get on without humbug.

A little humbug, and a groove, and everything goes on admirably, if you leave it alone.

With this hopeful confession of his faith as the head of the rising Barnacles who were born of woman, to be followed under a variety of watchwords which they utterly repudiated and disbelieved, Ferdinand rose. Nothing could be more agreeable than his frank and courteous bearing, or adapted with a more gentlemanly instinct to the circumstances of his visit.

Have Your Say.

Give your view on “We must have humbug, we all like humbug, we couldn’t get on without humbug” with a rating and help us compile the very best Charles Dickens quotations.

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars6 Stars7 Stars8 Stars9 Stars10 Stars (No Ratings Yet)

We must have humbug, we all like humbug, we couldn’t get on without humbug.
  • If you like this, we think you might also be interested in these related quotations:

Discover more.

Read Liitle Dorrit.

Discover more quotations from A Little Dorrit.

Learn more about Charles Dickens, his works,