Down in to the Yard, by way of the steps, came Daniel Doyce, Mr Meagles, and Clennam. Passing along the Yard, and between the open doors on either hand, all abundantly garnished with light children nursing heavy ones, they arrived at its opposite boundary, the gateway.

(Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, Chapter 12)

What does the term "light children nursing heavy ones" mean?

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    Hi Anjan, please format your posts properly. As a regular poster, you should be well aware of basic formatting required in a post. See this Help page for more details. The source of your quoted paragraph should also be cited (in case anyone needs further context). The title of your post should clearly summarize what you want to ask ("Little Dorrit Chapter 12" is not a suitable title).
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    Commented Mar 31, 2022 at 3:21
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    Imagine seeing 4 questions all with the same title: Little Dorrit Chapter 11 and then another 4 questions with the same vague title "Little Dorrit: Chapter 12" as a user, as someone who is just looking at question titles would you know what each question was about?
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    You have had many users who have edited your questions and shown you how to present a question to the community but instead you still write the same vague titles. You ignore the help and guidance that you have been given. This is not a nice thing to do.
    – Mari-Lou A
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    You also must show what research you have done. For example, for the verb nurse you could look at Lexico. You have to go a long way down, but senses 1.6 or 2.2 for the verb provide meanings which fit the context. If you don't find anything you understand as fitting the context, you must say what you looked up and found, and (if possible) how they don't fit. Here's a meta post on research with more links too.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Mar 31, 2022 at 9:14

2 Answers 2


In Little Dorrit: Strategies of Paradox in the World Turned Upside Down by Mitsuharu Matsuoka, the lines preceding "light children nursing heavy ones" provide a great explanation of what the phrase implies:

One of the ironies of the Dorrits is that the father's childishness forces his youngest daughter to play the role of a parent: "... she had nursed her father in that room when she had been but a baby, needing all the care from others that she took of them." (736) From her mother's death, when she was a little girl aged eight, "the protection that her wondering eyes had expressed towards him, became embodied in action, and the Child of the Marshalsea took upon herself a new relation towards the Father." (70) The child must become a mother to the father turned child, as she has done, like "light children nursing heavy ones" (130), to the mentally retarded Maggy about twenty eight, who calls her "Little mother" (96).

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    In the literal sense, the reference is to young, underfed children being left in charge of a baby brother or sister while their mother works, when they are barely big enough to hold a baby easily. Commented Mar 31, 2022 at 8:35
  • So the Light Children here are those who are barely big enough to hold their heavy baby brother or sister. and those Light Children are also malnourished, therefore they are light, and those they are nursing are heavy because they are well-fed. But why this contrast among siblings?
    – anjan
    Commented Mar 31, 2022 at 9:19
  • I didn't mention the babies being well-fed. Even a thin baby might be a heavy weight for a small child to carry around Commented Apr 4, 2022 at 14:39

Small children left in charge of babies almost as big as they were seems to have been a common sight in large, poor families in Dickens's time, as Justin and Kate Bunting pointed out. Presumably the babies would literally be lighter than their siblings, but still "heavy" in the sense of being far too heavy for the child trying to carry them. There's a longer, and very funny, riff on this idea in Chapter 2 of "The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain" (also by Dickens).


Besides which, another little boy—the biggest there, but still little—was tottering to and fro, bent on one side, and considerably affected in his knees by the weight of a large baby, which he was supposed by a fiction that obtains sometimes in sanguine families, to be hushing to sleep. But oh! the inexhaustible regions of contemplation and watchfulness into which this baby’s eyes were then only beginning to compose themselves to stare, over his unconscious shoulder!

It was a very Moloch of a baby, on whose insatiate altar the whole existence of this particular young brother was offered up a daily sacrifice. Its personality may be said to have consisted in its never being quiet, in any one place, for five consecutive minutes, and never going to sleep when required. “Tetterby’s baby” was as well known in the neighbourhood as the postman or the pot-boy. It roved from door-step to door-step, in the arms of little Johnny Tetterby, and lagged heavily at the rear of troops of juveniles who followed the Tumblers or the Monkey, and came up, all on one side, a little too late for everything that was attractive, from Monday morning until Saturday night. Wherever childhood congregated to play, there was little Moloch making Johnny fag and toil. Wherever Johnny desired to stay, little Moloch became fractious, and would not remain. Whenever Johnny wanted to go out, Moloch was asleep, and must be watched. Whenever Johnny wanted to stay at home, Moloch was awake, and must be taken out. Yet Johnny was verily persuaded that it was a faultless baby, without its peer in the realm of England, and was quite content to catch meek glimpses of things in general from behind its skirts, or over its limp flapping bonnet, and to go staggering about with it like a very little porter with a very large parcel, which was not directed to anybody, and could never be delivered anywhere.

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