Little Dorrit was published by Dickens in monthly parts between 1855 and 1857. It told the story of William Dorrit, imprisoned for so long in the debtor's prison that he became known as 'The Father of the Marshalsea', and his devoted daughter Amy, 'whose diminutive stature was alleviated by the greatness of her heart'. The Dorrits are befriended by Arthur Clenman, for whom Little Dorrit conceives an unrequited love. Their relative situations are reversed when William Dorrit inherits a fortune and Clenman is despatched to the Marshalsea owing to an unfortunate speculation. Little Dorrit nurses and consoles Clenman, and he learns to love her, but owing to her new found wealth he cannot ask for her hand. Once the fortune is dissipated they are united.
In his autobiography Frith records: 'When Dickens was sitting to me [for his portait of 1859, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum], he mentioned the intention of his publishers to issue a library edition of his works, with two steel illustrations to each volume. I begged him to allow me to be one of the illustrators; and I chose "Little Dorrit", from which I painted two small pictures, afterwards admirably engraved by Stocks, I think. The great pleasure that I felt in anticipation of once more trying my hand in realizing the characters of the author was my sole motive in making this proposal. The pictures found purchasers immediately.'