WHEREIN WE REVISIT OUR first WEEK’S READING OF David Copperfield (WEEK 67 OF THE DICKENS CHRONOLOGICAL READING CLUB 2022-24); WITH A CHAPTER SUMMARY AND DISCUSSION WRAP-UP; CONTAINING A LOOK-AHEAD TO WEEK Two.
(Banner Image: of Peggotty and David by Fred Barnard. Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham.)
By the members of the #DickensClub, edited/compiled by Rach
Friends, what a joyous first week of David Copperfield! We’ve had Boze’s insightful and heartfelt introduction to this work, supplemental readings shared by Chris, a post on parental figures by the Stationmaster, and wonderful comments to enrich our reading!
There’s a lot to wrap up, but first, a few quick links:
- General Mems
- David Copperfield, Chs 1-12: A Summary
- Discussion Wrap-Up
- Upcoming Installments from Dr. Christian Lehmann: Reading the Victorian Novel – David Copperfield
- A Look-Ahead to Week Two of David Copperfield (18-24 April, 2023)
Friendly reminder that we’ve recently voted about whether to extend the readings, and hence, the Club (by a couple months, or more) or not. As Option 1, extending all of the longest reads to six weeks–with several other alterations–seemed to be the most popular happy medium between the two extreme alternatives, we’ve scheduled David Copperfield based on that. We’ll check in as a group in a few weeks to see how the pacing is before we alter the rest of the schedule.
If you’re counting, today is Day 469 (and week 68) in our #DickensClub! This week, we’ll be on the second week of David Copperfield, our seventeenth read of the group. Please feel free to comment below this post for the second week’s chapters, or use the hashtag #DickensClub if you’re commenting on twitter.
No matter where you’re at in the reading process, a huge “thank you” for reading along with us. Heartfelt thanks to our dear Dickens Fellowship, The Dickens Society, and the Charles Dickens Letters Project for retweets, and to all those liking, sharing, and encouraging our Club, including Gina Dalfonzo, Dr. Christian Lehmann and Dr. Pete Orford. Huge “thank you” also to The Circumlocution Office (on twitter also!) for providing such a marvellous online resource for us.And for any more recent members or for those who might be interested in joining: the revised two-and-a-half year reading schedule can be found here. If you’ve been reading along with us but aren’t yet on the Member List, we would love to add you! Please feel free to message Rach here on the site, or on twitter.
And for any more recent members or for those who might be interested in joining: the revised two-and-a-half year reading schedule can be found here. (Note: it does not show the changes based on our recent poll about the schedule–coming soon!) For Boze’s marvelous intro to our current read, David Copperfield, please click here. For a supplement to the introduction from Peter Ackroyd that Chris shared with us, click here. If you’ve been reading along with us but aren’t yet on the Member List, we would love to add you! Please feel free to message Rach here on the site, or on twitter.
David Copperfield, Chs 1-12: A Summary
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show…”
“I Am Born.” Such is the title of David Copperfield‘s first chapter, but great-aunt Betsey Trotwood is not pleased that the newborn niece of her imagination turns out to be a nephew (David). Having had a wretch of a husband, and not thinking too much of the marriage between David’s father–who had died six months previously–and the young, innocent Clara who has just given birth, Miss Betsey intimidates the poor doctor (Mr Chillip) and then goes off in a huff as quickly as she had come into the Copperfield home, as though she were a discontented spirit. She had, however, shown a moment of softening during her visit, in admiring Clara Copperfield’s prettiness.
“My father had once been a favourite of hers, I believe; but she was mortally affronted by his marriage, on the ground that my mother was ‘a wax doll’. She had never seen my mother, but she knew her to be not yet twenty. My father and Miss Betsey never met again.”
We are introduced to little David’s nurse (and his mother’s friend), Clara Peggotty. We are also introduced to the dark-haired stranger Mr Murdstone, who accompanied Mrs Copperfield upon her return home. David doesn’t like him, and Peggotty too voices her concerns, and Mrs Copperfield dismisses them, saying there is nothing between them. But Murdstone becomes a regular visitor, even taking David out for a trip with friends of his, who talk about Mrs Copperfield in terms of Murdstone’s intentions, and make fun of David under the nickname “Brooks of Sheffield” so that David won’t realize to whom they’re referring.
Peggotty then asks David if he’d like to accompany her on a trip to visit her family in Yarmouth, as his mother will be visiting a friend.
“‘Glad to see you, sir,’ said Mr. Peggotty. ‘You’ll find us rough, sir, but you’ll find us ready.’”
In Yarmouth, David is delighted by the Peggottys’ house boat—literally a converted boat.
“If it had been Aladdin’s palace, roc’s egg and all, I suppose I could not have been more charmed with the romantic idea of living in it. There was a delightful door cut in the side, and it was roofed in, and there were little windows in it; but the wonderful charm of it was, that it was a real boat which had no doubt been upon the water hundreds of times, and which had never been intended to be lived in, on dry land.”
Mr Peggotty is like a fairy godfather to several people he has taken into his home: his orphan nephew, Ham, a strong youth; his orphan niece, little Emily, about David’s age; Mrs Gummidge, a cranky old widow of a friend of his.
“Mrs. Gummidge’s peculiar corner of the fireside seemed to me to be the warmest and snuggest in the place, as her chair was certainly the easiest, but it didn’t suit her that day at all. She was constantly complaining of the cold, and of its occasioning a visitation in her back which she called ‘the creeps’. At last she shed tears on that subject, and said again that she was ‘a lone lorn creetur’ and everythink went contrary with her’.”
David has a child’s crush on little Emily, who wants nothing more than to be a lady when she grows up, and not have to work by the sea for a living.
Upon David’s return home, he discovers that his mother is now married—to Mr Murdstone.
Murdstone’s presence in the house, and that of his sister Jane, change the tone of the house completely. Murdstone compares David to a dog; Jane berates David for his lack of manners, and Jane takes over the house management as though the home were her own, and Mrs Copperfield—now Mrs Murdstone—has no say in it. David’s mother is becoming distressed but is too weak-willed to fight the Murdstones, or even to realize that she should. Davod finds consolation in books that his biological father owned, and retreats more and more. David finds it difficult to succeed in his lessons, the atmosphere of the house is so unkind and stifling. One day, Murdstone beats David with a cane, to his mother’s great distress—though she doesn’t prevent it—and David bites his hand. David’s greatest distress, however, is that he believes his mother thinks him bad, and blames him. David is sent to a London school, but not before Peggotty reassures David of her steadfast love, and that she will take care of his mother.
Mr Barkis, the driver, takes David part of the way, asking David in his strange, telegraphic way about Peggotty—her cooking, whether she is married, etc. He wishes David to relay a message to Peggotty when he has the opportunity, simply that “Barkis is willin’.” (This David does from his school, by letter.)
“‘Well! If you was writin’ to her, p’raps you’d recollect to say that Barkis was willin’; would you?’”
Meanwhile, David meets other characters on the road, including a waiter who tricks David into allowing him—the waiter—to finish David’s meal, and saying unsettling things about the school that David is bound for; Mr Mell, the flute-player and keeper of Salem House (his destination); friends of Mr Mell, one of whom is fascinated by fire. When David arrives at Salem House, he is distressed to find that he must wear a sign saying, “he bites,” as though he were indeed the dog that Murdstone had compared him to at the outset.
The boys start to arrive from their vacation, and David befriends Tommy Traddles, and a popular older boy, James Steerforth, who agrees to look out for David’s money (and directing its use), and takes David somewhat under his wing, telling him of Creakle’s unpopularity and his former failed business, so that the sign David has to wear doesn’t make him as much of an object of ridicule as David had feared. David idolizes the handsome Steerforth, and the latter has taken to his innocent companion.
Caning the boys is a regular habit of Creakle’s—except for Steerforth, who gets away with everything—and poor Traddles seems always to get the worst of it. David begins telling Steerforth some of the tales that he has read and loved from his precious books. Steerforth shows an insensitive cruelty by giving the mild-mannered and poorly-paid Mr Mell a hard time when he takes over the running of the class, to David’s disappointment, and effectively causes Mr Mell the loss of his position.
“Steerforth continued his protection of me, and proved a very useful friend; since nobody dared to annoy one whom he honoured with his countenance. He couldn’t—or at all events he didn’t—defend me from Mr. Creakle, who was very severe with me; but whenever I had been treated worse than usual, he always told me that I wanted a little of his pluck, and that he wouldn’t have stood it himself; which I felt he intended for encouragement, and considered to be very kind of him.”
Mr Peggoty and Ham pay David a visit when they are in the area, bringing seafood with them for David, and update him on the family. Steerforth is then introduced to them, and they are so charmed by him that they informally invite Steerforth to their Yarmouth home as well.
When David is on his way back home for a break, Mr Barkis informs him that Peggotty has not yet given an answer to his curious message. Because David has arrived early and the Murdstones are still away, David enjoys quiet, enjoyable moments with his mother and Peggotty, although he has a new little brother too, just born. They discuss Mr Barkis’s message to Peggotty—who says that she will never leave David’s mother—and Steerforth, and the mysterious great-aunt Miss Betsey.
David apologizes to Murdstone for the biting, and is berated by the Murdstones for spending time with a servant (Peggotty). As David gets ready to return to school, the image of his mother holding up her baby son makes a strong impression on him.
“So I lost her. So I saw her afterwards, in my sleep at school—a silent presence near my bed—looking at me with the same intent face—holding up her baby in her arms.”
On David’s birthday, Creakle and his wife inform David that his mother has died. He returns home, dejected, and Mr Omer, a draper and funeral furnisher, accompanies David on his last leg of the journey and fits him out in funeral wear. David discovers that his baby brother has died too.
Peggotty is dismissed from service by Jane Murdstone; Jane, however, reluctantly gives her consent to David staying with Peggotty at Yarmouth for a while, as it will get David out of their hair. During the trip, Barkis woos Peggotty, and the two of them are quietly married during the trip, and Peggotty promises always to keep a room in their house for him.
David’s return home is dismal, and he finds relief for his neglected heart in books. Soon, however, Murdstone sends him to a life of menial work at the rat-infested warehouse of Murdstone and Grinby, cleaning and labeling wine bottles six very long days per week. During this dismal time, David meets Mr Micawber, a theatrical-souled flamboyant with lofty airs and ways of talking, with whom David will lodge. They take very kindly to one another, but Micawber is pursued by creditors. David finds himself in a position of running a few errands for them to pawn articles. Eventually, however, Micawber is taken to the King’s Bench debtors’ prison. David visits them there regularly. Eventually, they settle their debts and are released, but they are now Plymouth-bound and so David is to lodge elsewhere. He parts with the Micawber family in a cloud of gifts and sentiment. Now friendless, and with his prospects so dismal, David writes to Peggotty about whether his Aunt Betsey, almost a figure of legend in his mind, does indeed live at Dover, and asks for the loan of half a guinea from his old nurse. Upon receiving it, David finishes out the work week and sets out for his great-aunt’s distant home. However, at the onset of his journey, his money and luggage are both stolen, and so David sets out on foot along the Dover Road.
Miscellany & Whimsy
In case you need a little whimsy to start your week, here’s my 15-part (so far) twitter thread on ideas for Dickensian cat names, inspired by discussions with Boze (in which Mr Peggotty, Miss Betsey, and Mrs Gummidge make an appearance):
The Stationmaster shared an award-style blog post about favorite characters from adaptations:
What We Loved
Daniel beautifully listed some highlights from Boze’s introduction and the opening comments of our first week, some of which would be wonderful additions to the “writing lab” section of the discussion here, but I’ll keep the list in its integrity:
On Chris’s Post: Supplemental Readings
After Boze’s insightful and heartfelt tribute to David Copperfield in his Introduction, Chris shared some marvelous supplemental materials as well–e.g. from Peter Ackroyd and G.K. Chesterton.
As brilliant as Chesterton is, I almost thought him too cunning for his own good in his Dora-vs-Agnes bit:
The Stationmaster was inclined to agree with Chesterton, however, on the Dora-vs-Agnes debate:
Lucy loved the Forster supplements with the autobiographical fragments, “and that voice, the adult CD voice re-enacting the child CD’s point of view”:
Daniel particularly liked the Ackroyd supplement, and “the intersection between Dickens’ life” and the creation of the novel:
Rob has some reservations too about the Chesterton, but will be coming back to it later when it won’t avoid spoilers. He balances the views with that of George Gissing:
On The Stationmaster’s Post: “In Search of the Perfect Parent”
I wrote a response to the Stationmaster’s essay on the parental figures–for good and ill–in our reading:
Dickens and Memory
David Copperfield, so suffused with Dickens’s own childhood memories, inspires recollections in its readers, too, as Stationmaster comments on in a personal note:
On Dr. Christian’s Lecture Series, and the Illustrations
Chris reminded us of this wonderful resource for public domain illustrations of Dickens’s novels:
Several of us have been watching–or rewatching–Dr. Christian’s recorded lecture series on David Copperfield. Daniel has some marvelous comments on the first installment:
Dickens’s “Writing Lab”: Narration; “Writing From the Inside Out”; Characterization
Jeff gives us a timely reminder about how much the “spoiler alerts” are appreciated, as this is his first time reading the novel. He considers the characterization of Murdstone and his sister, as well as of the Peggotty family, and the “gray” shades of Steerforth:
The Stationmaster is finding some interesting differences in his experience reading David now, versus earlier: less sympathy with David himself, and less interest in Micawber.
The Stationmaster discusses both the narrative voice and the characterization further:
Lucy, who has read the novel before, is particularly struck by “the absolute power and distinctness of the voice” as the adult recalls the child’s perspective, rather than the “panoramic social commentator.” Dickens is here, as she says, “writing from the outside in”:
Chris considers the Murdstones in the light of Dombey and Mrs Chick:
Dickens and Women: Clara Copperfield; Miss Betsey Trotwood
Chris highlights similarities and differences in a couple of our–very different–Dickensian women:
Dickens, Austen, and Steerforth
Just as Lucy and Jeff made notes about the gray complexity of James Steerforth, the Stationmaster compares him to an Austen antagonist:
Adaptation Stationmaster comment
And I had just been thinking along the same lines:
Rach M. comment
Chris is disturbed by David’s “hero-worship” of Steerforth, comparing the situation with the latter and Mr Mell to a troubling dynamic later in our readalong, from Our Mutual Friend:
Upcoming Installments from Dr. Christian Lehmann: Reading the Victorian Novel – David Copperfield
For those who want to follow along with Dr. Christian’s wonderful lecture series that he made for his students, the entire playlist can be found at this link.
Here are the three installments for this week’s reads, and I particularly loved his discussion of Mr Dick and disability:
Installment V, Chapters 13-15:
Installment VI, Chapters 16-18:
Installment VII, Chapters 19-21:
A Look-Ahead to Week Two of David Copperfield (18-24 April, 2023)
This week, we’ll be reading Chapters 13-21, which constitute the monthly installments V, VI, and VII, published from September to November 1849. Feel free to comment below with your thoughts, or to use the #DickensClub hashtag if commenting on twitter!
If you’d like to read it online, you can find it at a number of sites such as The Circumlocution Office, or download it from sites such as Gutenberg.
Wonderful stuff, Rach. You and Boze are setting up our reading of DC to be filled with thoughtful and extremely useful resources. Boze’s intro and your summary here are just superb–and together they really excite and stimulate our reading processes. And all the wonderful analyses which you have collated give Dickens Club members so many things to explore and think about. A BIG thank you to you both! And to all you readers!!!
As to Steerforth: he is definitely an “interesting” antagonist–not just for the way in which he, himself behaves, but for the ways he works on and influences David. Part mentor, part groomer, part ingratiating “friend, ” he really drives David’s personal voyage into places that, in retrospect, he probably wishes he’d never gone. What is most intriguing to me is the way in which David in the opening chapters just passively watches and accepts Steerforth’s behavior unfold with very little moral awareness and with much romantic acceptance. It’s only during the next 12 chapters where David addresses his readers with more definite reflections about the darker side of his friend, but even in these meanderings, he reveals his awareness in extremely oblique and self-conscious ways. Maybe these darker realizations are just too painful? And because David is telling his life in retrospect, it might be difficult for him–and for the reader, to pinpoint when exactly these epiphanies take place.
As to the “evil” man himself, he does seem to be a descendent of various Austen villains–charming, like Willoughby, predatory, like Wickham, and hurtful, like Crawford. As with all these Austen villains, he has a strong sadistic, nonchalant, non-caring streak which marks him to be, in a more extreme way, a sociopath. Because for a time David finds him to be an heroic character, we might easily see him as representing the negative shadow aspect of David’s personality. To the extent that this will be revealed, we’ll just have to wait and see. Basically, then, the precocious Steerforth acts as a dramatic foil to the innocent naivete of David.
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Hmm, I’m not sure if I’d describe Steerforth as sadistic, more like callous. He enjoys making fun of Mr. Mell and Traddles, but he arguably has a motive for that. (Not a good one, of course.) Both were characters who stood up to him and criticized him and he resents that. He hurts David in a way that’s incidental, not intentional.
As long as I’m writing about Steerforth, I’d like to expand on what I wrote before about how young David’s relationship with Steerforth reminded me of Clara’s relationship to Murdstone. Both David and his mother see any mildly nice thing their bullies do for them as evidence of how great they are and ignore all the bad things they do.
Hope this comment makes sense.
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Lenny, I couldn’t agree more that Steerforth is a fascinating character. Not as colorful as Betsey or Micawber or Heep, et al, but a fascinating portrait, psychologically, both in himself and in the effect he has on others.
I think most (all?) of us have known a Steerforth in our lives, even if we weren’t equally as taken in as David. The handsome, charming, superficial, economically and socially privileged, and risk-taking “Golden Boy,” that’s sure to (we believe) make a success in the world. So many of us want to *be* him, or at least be around him. The “It” guy, the “Cool” kid.
But how quickly it can lead to presumption, a lack of empathy or appreciation for consequences, and, ultimately, moral and personal disaster. It makes all us heretofore envious onlookers wonder just how much benefit all those privileges really amounted to, and if they weren’t more curse than blessing.
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Steerforth is one of Dickens’ handful of Byronic characters – a curious blend of both hero and villain. Later examples being James Harthouse, Sydney Carton and Eugene Wrayburn – although Dickens always to some extent mitigated full Byronism.
“a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection” – Lord Macauley
The brief article on the Victorian Web –In a Dark Wig: Dickens’s Reinvention of Byron as Steerforth, states:
A more fruitful line of inquiry can be found in analyzing how Dickens reimagined Lord Byron as Steerforth. Both figures were spoiled by doting mothers, lashed out at servants as children, became infamous for womanizing, and ultimately left England in scandal to die in the prime of life. In spite of all this, David remained in the thrall of Steerforth, just as the British public retained a fierce admiration for Byron. The tragedy of Steerforth re-enacts the ambivalent and highly charged relationship the Victorians had with the most notorious hero-villain of the Romantic era. The ambiguous portrayal of Steerforth, constantly viewed through the worshipful eyes of David, reflects a broader coming to terms with the past that Victorian Britain sought to undertake in re-evaluating the heroic but problematic legacy of the Romantic era.
link to source: https://victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/dc/armstrong.html
and this article by William R Harvey, Charles Dickens and the Byronic Hero is a jolly interesting read if you can access it:
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Dana: Your final paragraph really sums up my impressions of Steerforth as we continue through the second segment of our reading. Although as we near the end of this part of our reading (Chapter 22), Steerforth undergoes a kind of self reckoning at the Peggottys–while he is staring at the fire in the empty house and is interrupted by David. James regrets not having a strong father figure in his past who would operate as a kind of guide or possibly moral compass to help him with his decision-making. So it SEEMS, then, that there is a conscience working here to warn Steerforth that he is straying into rather murky waters with regard to the Peggottys and especially his growing “relation” to Em’ly.
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Aw, Lenny, thank you sooo much! I am behind on the conversation this week, so will be catching up between now and Sunday, but this brightens the whole week. Thank you so much!!
LOVED the comments on Steerforth here, and would like to write more of this anon too.
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Oh, man, BOOKS could be written about James S. and his relation to not only David but to all the people whose paths he crosses. As I stated to Daniel (Below) he is a primary “artist” in this novel as he charms, manipulates, and schemes his way through virtually any situation he finds himself in. He moves into situations and virtually “creates” or recreates them almost at whim and, sometimes, whimsically! He brings laughter, tears, and joy where there might not have been or if there were, he just increases the decibel level therein by huge amounts !
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Lenny, you covered all of the bases of appreciation and gratitude with eloquence! I just say, “AMEN”!
Thanks to Boze, Rachel, Chris, Stationmaster, and to all who are enriching our read of Copperfield.
I wonder about the issue of David being fatherless–no loving, consistent male presence to help him to navigate his increasingly complex world. David has an abundance of female love, care, and support.
It seems that this condition–being without a caring father–might have set David up to be susceptible to the likes of Steerforth: all sweetness and light on the surface; a manipulative cad on the inside.
There’s considerable research about the issue of fatherless boys in our day. I think that this blight certainly had comparable effects in Dickens’ time: including a strange passivity vis-a-vis strong, charismatic male figures.
Lenny, your insight about Steerforth being a “negative shadow aspect of David’s personality” rings very true to me–and it’s a stunning insight.
Blessings, as we sally forth, happily manipulated by that shameless cad of an emotions-churner, Dickens!!!
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Daniel: I love your final statement here–Dickens as a “shameless cad of an emotions-churner” as it defines how easily I am manipulated by his writing–much as David is by Steerforth. We–and David– are as putty in the hands of these “artists.”
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Betsey Trotwood is so awesome. Not only is she heroic and hilarious but she’s also one of the most complex characters Dickens created. The book definitely doesn’t agree with her antimarriage stance, but it includes enough examples women (Betsey Trotwood herself, Clara Copperfield, Mr. Dick’s sister, even the woman with the black eye David meets on the road) being abused by their husbands or lovers that you can see where she’s coming from. When David objects to her saying that Peggotty deserves to be beaten with a poker(!), she immediately calms down and applauds him for sticking up for his friends. I love how in her tirade against the Murdstones, she calls Clara a fool at one point and then corrects herself, probably realizing that she’s starting to sound like a Murdstone herself.
That whole confrontation she has with the Murdstones is one of the best scenes in the book or at least the one that makes the reader want to cheer the most. After so many characters helplessly wringing their hands over David, it’s cathartic to read about someone really stepping in to help him and fighting firmness with firmness. (I’m sure Peggotty was inclined to stand up to the Murdstones, but I’m also sure she knew that this would get her fired, like Susan Nipper, and then David and his mother would lose an ally. And she’s not as eloquent a character as Betsey Trotwood anyway, so it wouldn’t have been as much fun to read.)
Mr. Dick’s head reminding David of one of Mr. Creakle’s boys’ heads is a good way to imply he has also been the victim of abuse.
(Spoiler alert for this paragraph) While Mr. Wickfield turns out to be a rather flawed character, it’s cool how accepting he is of Betsey Trotwood being a rebel against society. Then again, she is paying him.
I’d forgotten about Agnes having a governess and was actually mildly shocked to read it. She’s written as being such a miniature adult that it’s hard to imagine her needing education.
I noticed two references to Isaac Watts. Mr. Wickfield objects his quote about the devil finding mischief for idle hands, pointing out all the busy hands that do mischief, and Mrs. Marleham’s artificial butterflies are described as “improving the shining hour” at Dr. Strong’s expense like the bees in the poem. (I believe Isaac Watts wrote that poem. I only know it from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.) Did Dickens have something against Watts?
Could Annie Strong’s red ribbon be an homage to Desdemona’s handkerchief?
(More possible spoilers) In my article for this site, when I wrote about all the single parents in David Copperfield, I didn’t think to put anything in about Uriah Heep’s mother. I guess I could have said that she’s the only parent who intentionally encourages their child’s bad behavior as oppposed to being a bad influence accidently. There’s an argument to be made that that makes her the worst parent in the book. But then again, she’s loving and supportive which you can’t say of Mr. Murdstone. Anyway, she’s highly entertaining.
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Stationmaster: such loving and astute analysis, here. If Murdstone is the character we love to hate, Aunt Betsey is the character we love to love.
In another vein, would you say that Betsey stands for the moral center of the novel? Her words to David before he goes off to Dr. Strong’s school, “Never be mean in anything; never be false; never be cruel….” seem to be the moral guides that she asks David to live by and their sentiments, perhaps, radiate out to include ALL the characters and their actions in the novel. “Mean”…”False”…”Cruel” behaviors apply so directly to the “negative” characters in the novel, and work as oppositions to the the behaviors of the “positive” personalities!
Moreover, you rightly use the word “rebel” to apply to her actions–especially as compared to the “norm” as represented by the tyrannical and nasty parents in DC. The Murdstones, Creakle, Mrs. Heep might be considered by an element of Victorian society as justified in their treatments of children and the values they represent. “Children should be seen and not heard” might be one justification for their behaviors. Hence, there is nothing Romantic or Wordsworthian in their child-rearing philosophy (“Child is father to the man”), but mostly the idea of firmness–taken to sadistic extremes–and misplaced notions of “umbleness” as it is used by Mrs. Heep. Accordingly, David’s dear Aunt would castigate all these characters for their faulty parenting skills and mistreatment of children.
So, Aunt Betsey–a single woman who wields a strong and affectionate hand in the growth/maturation of David–might well be the unsung hero of the novel! We’ll just have to see as our reading adventure continues.
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Would I say that Aunt Betsey is the moral center of the novel? Honestly, no. I think there are times when she is, such as the line you mention about meanness, falseness and cruelty. She’ll give more good advice in the weeks to come. But on the whole, I’d say she’s depicted as humanly flawed but sympathetic and sometimes admirable character. The same goes for Daniel Peggotty and Ham. (I wrote about this at length in “David Copperfield and the Search for the Perfect Parent,” but it was super spoilery and I’m not sure I recommend everyone reading it before we finish the book.)
If there’s a character in David Copperfield who is the moral center of the book, it’s probably Agnes, but I hesitate to say this for sure before I finish rereading the whole thing. (I have read it more than once but not for a while.)
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Speaking of Dickens and Byron:
The mysterious man who frightens Betsey Trotwood is usually cut from adaptations, even the longer ones. I like the depth he brings to her character. As awesome and formidable as she is, sadly, there’s still someone who scares her.
This may sound strange since it’s basically a montage, but Chapter 18 might be one of my favorites in the book. The description of David’s fight with the butcher’s boy is great and I love the irony of David worrying he’s too young for Miss Larkins, given whom she ends up marrying.
The main thing that stands out about David Copperfield to me as a Dickensian protagonist is how many love interests he goes through. Usually, Dickens only gives the main character one or, at the most, two. We’ve seen David fall in and out of love with Emily, Miss Shepherd, Miss Larkins and we haven’t even gotten to Dora Spenlow yet! Apparently, he got this from his father who, according to Betsey Trotwood, “was always running after wax dolls from his cradle.” (In the modern vernacular, she would probably have said “barbie dolls.”) This, of course, brings up the question of how much David takes after his father whom we never meet.
Rosa Dartle is one of the most fascinating characters in Dickens. Her behavior doesn’t always make a lot of sense, but I never feel like that’s an artistic problem with the book. She feels like a real person whose psychology happens to be hard to grasp. At this point in the story, she seems like Steerforth’s conscience or maybe David’s conscience, as she insinuates things about the former that the latter seems incapable of acknowledging.
Those who criticize Dickens for being “sentimental” can go to the workhouse for all I care! I love the heartwarming scene of David and Peggotty’s reunion.
I wouldn’t say I’m uninterested in Micawber. I actually find him a very interesting character. I just don’t find him as funny as some readers do.
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Stationmaster: To go back to Aunt Betsey briefly: you make some interesting observations about her “character” which you think make her less of a candidate for the novel’s moral center, but as I’ve read only to Chapter 22, she seems the one person who openly states a moral philosophy to David. However, The entire Peggotty family in their “actions” certainly SPEAK to the issues of right and wrong. And they stand in stark contrast to Steerforth of whom I am very suspicious regarding his subterfuge against them–as he speaks to David of them as “aborigines,” and continually downgrades Ham’s “loutishness.”
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Stationmaster: what do you make of Rosa’s full name. Rosa seems rather romantic and beautiful but also thorny and dangerous, but what about Dartle??? Or is that another half of the same whole?
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Hmm. Well, I associate darting with like animals being hunted, darting for safety, but that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Miss Dartle. Maybe it’s supposed to make us think of darts, which are sharp, in contrast to roses, which have soft petals. Then again, as you rightly pointed out, roses already have sharp implications. Your guess is as good as mine.
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Yeah, Stationmaster, I agree with you completely. Rosa IS fascinating, especially in the dialogues she has with Steerforth and what they seem to say as much about him and her.
The key, here, and it offers one of the rationales for her appearance in the novel, is the horrible scar she bears from the hammer that James Steerforth threw at her. This is a young man who is very capable of violence and misdeeds and, therefore, is not to be trusted. We might see, in his behavior up through Chapter 22, Steerforth’s acts as consisting of multiple “hammers” being thrown during his relations with David and others. In retrospect, we can see that he leaves “scars” all over the place!
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I love that David’s impetus for searching out Aunt Betsey is that “one little trait in her behaviour” at the time of his birth when “my mother had thought that she felt [Betsey] touch her pretty hair with no ungentle hand; and . . . my terrible aunt relent[ed] towards the girlish beauty that I recollected so well and loved so much” (Ch XII) The hope engendered in this “quiet picture . . . of my mother in her youth and beauty, weeping by the fire, and my aunt relenting to her” (Ch XIII) sustains David in his journey and, so he goes on to learn, is not misplaced but reinforced by Aunt Betsey’s every word and action hereafter – “I began to know that there was something about my aunt, notwithstanding her many eccentricities and odd humours, to be honoured and trusted in.” (Ch XIV)
My favorite line in the dressing down of the Murdstone’s is Aunt Betsey’s “I was not aware at first to whom I had the pleasure of objecting.” We know, if we hadn’t known it all along, that Aunt Betsey will be pleased to object to them first, last and always!
Uriah Heep is, for me, one of the best examples of Dickens The Master Craftsman because I never can read a Heep passage without, physically, like David, rubbing my hands on the nearest napkin, towel, table cloth, or pant leg to get his clamminess off!
Mrs Markleham is a fright! Poor Annie Strong is at the mercy of her filter-less mother and made so uncomfortable in company. She, like Little Em’ly, is stared at, talked about, chided and teased but rarely considered as a person with feelings other than those ascribed to her by others. David’s opinions of Annie, and Em’ly, are conflicted because what he sees and experiences first hand does not always mesh with what he hears from other people, and he does not yet have enough experience to interpret either.
Agnes is another of Dickens’s “young, beautiful, and good” women. She is a good friend for Annie to have, and for David too, but I worry that while Agnes is a friend to others she herself is in need of a friend. I worry that she is a little too reticent. For example, it has taken her six years (from when David arrives at age 10-11 until he goes on his vacation at age 17) to ask David about the “gradual alteration in Papa” (Ch XIX). David had picked up on Mr Wickfield’s excessive drinking quickly (CH XV, XVI) and it is a topic of discussion between Uriah and his mother (Ch XVII). But Agnes has kept quiet about it, and actually enabled it by setting glasses and decanters out every night for her father. As the little housekeeper and keeper of the pantry keys she knows better than anyone how much her father is drinking. And while she rightly connects her father’s alteration with his business woes, she seems more eager to blame the business woes and Uriah for his drinking rather than blame his drinking (and thus diminished capacity) for his business problems, even when David so bluntly tells her “he does himself no good by the habit that has increased upon him since I first came here”. (Ch XIX) Will Agnes remain the “little woman” and keep her own counsel or will she seek the aid of others to help her intervene on her father’s behalf?
This exchange between Steerforth and Rosa Dartle should put David on the alert especially after Steerforth’s treatment of Mr Mell (Ch VII):
“‘That sort of people.—-Are they really animals and clods, and beings of another order? I want to know SO much.’
“‘Why, there’s a pretty wide separation between them and us,’ said Steerforth, with indifference. ‘They are not to be expected to be as sensitive as we are. Their delicacy is not to be shocked, or hurt easily. They are wonderfully virtuous, I dare say—some people contend for that, at least; and I am sure I don’t want to contradict them—but they have not very fine natures, and they may be thankful that, like their coarse rough skins, they are not easily wounded.’
“‘Really!’ said Miss Dartle. ‘Well, I don’t know, now, when I have been better pleased than to hear that. It’s so consoling! It’s such a delight to know that, when they suffer, they don’t feel! Sometimes I have been quite uneasy for that sort of people; but now I shall just dismiss the idea of them, altogether. Live and learn. I had my doubts, I confess, but now they’re cleared up. I didn’t know, and now I do know, and that shows the advantage of asking—don’t it?’
“I believed that Steerforth had said what he had, in jest, or to draw Miss Dartle out; and I expected him to say as much when she was gone, and we two were sitting before the fire. But he merely asked me what I thought of her.” (Ch XX)
That David expects Steerforth to be jesting exposes David’s immaturity in that his politeness and deference does not allow him yet to contradict those whom he esteems when he (David) knows better. David’s great experience with “that sort of people” informs hm, and us, that their sensitivity, delicacy, virtues, and very fine natures, and the shock, hurt, wounding, and suffering they experience is just as great and valid as anyone else’s. That David does not speak up during Steerforth’s and Rosa’s conversation shows that he has not yet grasped his Aunt’s advice: “But what I want you to be, Trot . . . is, a firm fellow. A fine firm fellow, with a will of your own. With resolution . . . With determination. With character, Trot – with strength of character that is not to be influenced, except on good reason, by anybody, or by anything.” (CH XIX)
David says, “I joyfully believed that [Steerforth] treated me in life unlike any other friend he had. I was nearer to his heart than any other friend, and my own heart warmed with attachment to him.” (Ch XXI) But what other friends does Steerforth have? His mother sent him to Salem House because “. . . there were particular circumstances to be considered at the time, of more importance even than that selection. My son’s high spirit made it desirable that he should be placed with some man who felt its superiority, and would be content to bow himself before it; and we found such a man there.’ (Ch XX) I’m wondering from how many other schools was Steerforth kicked out or unaccepted as a pupil before Creakle accepted him (or rather, his mother’s tuition check). Steerforth is admired and found irresistible by many acquaintances, but he is close to no one, not his mother, not Rosa, and no one from any other school he may have attended. David latched on to him because he protected and patronized David at a time when David was sorely in need of those things, and so Steerforth seems to latch on to David when they are reunited at the Golden Cross for much the same reason. David offers Steerforth protection from boredom and bestows his friendship (adoration) on Steerforth with no questions asked. What more could an entitled, spoiled, yet insecure and rudderless young man want?
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So would you say that there’s a similarity between David and Agnes. He won’t admit anything bad about Steerforth or try to check his vices and she won’t admit anything bad about her father or try to check his? Put that way, they both kind of sound like David’s mother with her second husband.
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What I usually remember about Steerforth is how characters are attracted to him (not necessarily in a sexual way, just general attraction) and how few immediately see his faults. But you’ve got me thinking. While he does seem to be admired by many, we don’t see him with any close friends besides David. Maybe that’s why he seems to admire/envy him at the end of this week’s reading. “Daisy, I believe you are in earnest, and are good. I wish we all were!” Condescending, sure, but it could imply that David is someone with the power to make Steerforth feel guilty. Neither Tommy Traddles nor Rosa Dartle, it seems, have been able to do that.
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Yes, yes, David I think DOES get to Steerforth, but beyond that–as a deterrent, I don’t think so much so….
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Wow, Chris, so beautifully stated and annotated.
You’re kinda where you were at with DOMBEY in your final “endnotes” where you were wondering about ALL the backstories behind characters and their actions as they have played out in the novel and suggest so much more and which you wanted so much more of! I’ve been thinking so much along the same lines about Steerforth. What about his other “educational” experiences with schools, schoolmasters, and other students. IS David his only friend? Who IS Rosa and what really is the complete story behind HER relationship with James, and why is she so enigmatic and sort of short-circuited in her questions and answers with James and IS there more behind the scar that Steerforth his caused and which has disfigured her and is this responsible for her sort of truncated personality/affect during the conversation you’ve displayed here and on and on ad infinitum….
This scar which is SO emblematic of James’s potential for Violence really sets me thinking. And it’s in his horrible beating of Mr. Mell, undoubtedly, where that dark, violent side of his personality manifests itself so clearly! This man is not someone to be trifled with, or–if so, he will mete out consequences which will be either physically or emotionally painful and scarring. What he wants, he wants badly, and he’ll get it one way or another or raise Cain if he’s rebuffed. So, then, did he make a pass at her or she at him and this misdeed is the consequence…?
As I mentioned earlier today, he seems to act on whim–at times–is often whimsical in a comic or subtly befriending way, but just as often, I believe–he has an agenda that he is laying the foundations for and which take a while to coalesce….
Your final two or three sentences really get at this rather symbiotic and dangerous relationship he has with David. The latter has so much to learn, doesn’t he!
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“David” or “Trotwood” or “Trot”–what’s going on with this, and then “Daisy”?
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Don’t forget he was also “Davy” for his mother and Peggotty 😀
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And, I suppose for completeness at this time, I should probably add “Brooks of Sheffield, ” too 😀
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This may be fancy, but there is something so very Jeeves like about Littimer that I wonder whether we could regard Steerforth as something of a Victorian Bertie Wooster… but like I said, it may be fancy!!
There is so much I’d like to comment on this week–and I LOVE how much the comments have focused on the characters of Steerforth and Miss Betsey–two of our most fascinating characters.
I was pondering the idea that the Stationmaster and Lenny were discussing, about the novel’s “moral center”, and I was thinking of this in connection to Dr Christian’s commentary on Installment V, and the section on Mr Dick, Dickens, & Disability–a subject particularly close to my heart, as I’ve worked with those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Miss Betsey’s advocacy of Mr Dick (and Mr D is another of my very favorite characters in literature) makes her truly a hero to me. I love the way in which Miss Betsey, as brought out by Dr Christian in the lecture, considers the *treatment* of Mr Dick as the *real* “madness” (as opposed to the perception that Dick himself is “mad”); what he has is such a natural empathy (shown in the common-sensical advice about what to do with David, e.g. to give him a bath, to put him to bed, etc–all of which are essentially saying: “we are his family now”). In Mr Dick, there is no trace of the self-serving or self-absorption of a Steerforth, who *seems* to be advocating for you, but only when it tickles his fancy or serves himself (as when he takes charge of David’s money, ostensibly for safekeeping).
Too, as Dr Christian mentions, Dickens is seen as “a forerunner of social movements,” and his portrayal of Miss Betsey’s “tender home care” (as Dr Christian calls it) of Mr Dick is also the remedy to the institutional asylums such as the priceless Mr Dick would have been consigned to had she not intervened. She sees what is TRULY valuable in this world; not “worldly” wisdom, not money; but empathy (as Mr Dick will also show later towards Dr Strong and Annie–not to give spoilers!). So, I’d say Mr Dick and Miss Betsey are the true “moral centers” of the novel.
Agnes certainly is David’s moral compass, however; his “bright star.” No one, even Agnes, is without flaws, and as someone said above, it could even be said that she has enabled the weakness in her father–innocently, almost certainly, as things of that nature (the flaws in ourselves and others) are not always clear to us, especially when we are very young. But I think David’s moral center might be different from the moral center of the reader–and we do seem to have more evidence of role modeling behavior in some of our more eccentric characters, like beloved Miss Betsey and Mr Dick.
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