This passage is from chapter 32 of Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, with the phrases I’m curious about set in bold:

Occasionally, a vocal strain more sonorous than the generality informed the listener that some boastful bass was in blue water, or in the hunting field, or with the reindeer, or on the mountain, or among the heather; but the Marshal of the Marshalsea knew better, and had got him hard and fast.

  1. What does boastful bass in blue water mean here?

  2. What does had got him hard and fast mean here?

  • Could be more metaphorical than the landscape. There's a way to exaggerate bass notes that a choir leader would correct sharply. Deep water, hunting, reindeer, mountain, and heather all say Rugged, yes, I am. Jan 11, 2023 at 16:15

2 Answers 2


The prisoners are drinking and singing together. Occasionally a bass (deep) solo voice can be heard singing a song about (presumably) the sea, the hunting field or other places, but although they may sing about being in distant places they are all prisoners.

Fast is used in the sense secure, not quick.

  • 3
    Just so long as the boastful bass isn't a singing fish. :)
    – tchrist
    Jan 11, 2023 at 16:55
  • @ Kate Bunting: Yes, yours are much more concise response to the actual question (especially the point about 'fast'.
    – Tuffy
    Jan 12, 2023 at 15:32
  • @Tuffy - As the OP has asked many questions about Little Dorrit, I was assuming they know the basics of the story. Jan 12, 2023 at 17:18

Dickens is being humorous or at least ironic. The Marshalsea is a debtors' prison. The idea was that a debtor could be imprisoned there until his debts were repaid. Their families might help support then, and this is what Little Dorrit does, visiting every day. In the story, the prison has clear class divisions, and those with the most family support might find relatives able to supply the funds for better accommodation and bring in better food .... and alcoholic drink. So a kind of distorted version of 'normal life' could surface within the walls. Dorrit has achieve the status of 'father' of the prison in the sense of the longest serving inmate, and expects all sorts of privileges and respect. Something like social occasions like the one described here could take place. But, Dickens is saying, despite the drinking and singing sentimental songs about far away open spaces as if they were all free to travel about, they are locked in a prison. Dickens chooses this vivid way of making that point: the Marshal of the Marshalsea "knew better" because he had the singer locked securely ("hard and fast") in the prison.

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