Although I have always been fascinated by tiny things, it was only while I was writing a book on Charles Dickens that I began to look hard at a kind of littleness that Dickens may seem to have invented. It is quite explicit even in an early story, which features a Mrs Chirrup, "a condensation of all the domestic virtues," "a pocket edition of the young man's best companion,--a little woman at a very high pressure, with an amazing quantity of goodness and usefulness in an exceedlingly small space."
In his last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, Dickens introduces a very similar type of woman, but one who is aware of what her littleness means, and knows how to use it. Miss Peecher, a schoolmistress, is described as "a little pincushion, a little housewife, a little book, a little workbox, a little set of tables and weights and measures, and a little woman, all in one." (Modern readers should note that in this context a "housewife" is a small handy set of sewing equipment, not a person.)
Miss Peecher takes pride in her ability to "write a little essay on any subject,, exactly a slate long, beginning at the left-hand top of one side and ending at the right-hand bottom of the other, and t he essay should be strictly according to rule." But Miss Peecher knows what she is doing. She is in love with a violent man who loves someone else, and who will soon be seen as a murderer, and what the schoolmistress is writing so tidily on her slate are fantasies about this man. We discover a whole set of techniques with which she has barricaded herself against the person she loves.
Dickens was the creator of Little Dorrit, a novel named after its heroine, and Tiny Tim of A Christmas Carol. Little Nell and Little Em'ly are his creations, though it was readers, not Dickens himself, who called Nell "little," and Emily, rescued from her life as a "fallen woman," rejects the title specifically: "You need not call me Little, you need not call me by the name I have disgraced."