David Copperfield, Week 3 ~ and a Week 2 Wrap-Up


(Banner Image: By Phiz.)

by C. E. Brock

By the members of the #DickensClub, edited/compiled by Rach

Friends, it was a surprisingly difficult choice between “banner” images for the post this week. The one that seemed obvious–David making himself known to Miss Betsey Trotwood–nearly became one of Steerforth meeting the Peggottys at the boat house, as we have talked so much of that fascinating Austenesque problem-character, James Steerforth.

We’ve covered a lot of ground in the discussion this week. Here are the quick links:

  1. General Mems
  2. David Copperfield, Chs 13-21: A Summary
  3. Discussion Wrap-Up
  4. Upcoming Installments from Dr. Christian Lehmann: Reading the Victorian Novel – David Copperfield
  5. A Look-Ahead to Week Three of David Copperfield (25 April to 1 May, 2023)

General Mems

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.

Also: if you’ve commented on any of our posts and it is pending approval, please feel free to send me a message–thankfully, it usually only asks us to approve comments the first couple of times, and then it will approve them automatically (though often the exception seems to be link sharing), but I don’t always receive notifications, and these sometimes get lost in the many pingback approval requests. We don’t want to miss any commnents!

If you’re counting, today is Day 476 (and week 69) in our #DickensClub! This week, we’ll be on the third week of David Copperfield, our seventeenth read of the group. Please feel free to comment below this post for the third 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!) and The Charles Dickens Illustrated Gallery for providing such marvelous online resources 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 13-21: A Summary

(Note: The below illustrations are by “Phiz,” Hablot Knight Browne, from the original edition, and have been downloaded from the marvelous Charles Dickens Illustrated Gallery. Thank you!)

“When I had recovered my breath, and had got rid of a stifling sensation in my throat, I rose up and went on. In the midst of my distress, I had no notion of going back. I doubt if I should have had any, though there had been a Swiss snow-drift in the Kent Road.”

We embark on a 6 day, 70+ mile adventure with our young hero as he makes his way on foot to Dover to seek his aunt, without the money or belongings he’d started with. Poor David rests near a hayrick close to his old haunts at Salem house; he must pawn his waistcoat and jacket to continue on his journey; he is accosted by boys and vagrants as he waits for a pawnshop owner to see him; he sleeps in a field of hops.

‘”Oh, how much for the jacket?’ cried the old man, after examining it. ‘Oh – goroo! – how much for the jacket?’

‘Half-a-crown,’ I answered, recovering myself.

‘Oh, my lungs and liver,’ cried the old man, ‘no! Oh, my eyes, no! Oh, my limbs, no! Eighteenpence. Goroo!'”

Finally, as David nears the end of his journey to Dover, and after several attempts to ask townsfolk the way to Miss Betsey Trotwood’s home, he’s finally pointed in the right direction by a hackney driver.

(Note: For a fantastic “curated walk” from Kent Maps Online, visit here.)

“‘If you please, aunt.’

‘EH?’ exclaimed Miss Betsey, in a tone of amazement I have never heard approached.

‘If you please, aunt, I am your nephew.’

‘Oh, Lord!’ said my aunt. And sat flat down in the garden-path.”

David introduces himself to his formidable aunt, who is all astonishment and hastily takes him in and pours all sorts of liquids down him as if they were the antidote to his bedraggled and hungry condition. She then sends for Mr Dick, a kindly man who seems to have a disability, or to have been mentally affected by some trauma, as is related to David later by Miss Betsey. (Miss Betsey will also explain later that his real name is Richard Babley, but that he no longer prefers that name; she had saved him from a mental asylum where his own brother had committed him.)

Mr Dick, ever full of good sense and empathy, suggests that David be given a bath. Later, after he has been fed and warmed and is clean, the eccentric aunt asks Mr Dick’s advice again, and he suggests that the weary David be put to bed.

“…I found out afterwards that Mr. Dick had been for upwards of ten years endeavouring to keep King Charles the First out of the Memorial; but he had been constantly getting into it, and was there now.

‘I say again,’ said my aunt, ‘nobody knows what that man’s mind is except myself; and he’s the most amenable and friendly creature in existence.”

David is still in suspense about what his aunt will do with him the next day, and hears to his terror that Mr Murdstone will soon be visiting. Murdstone arrives with his sister Jane–and the latter is already on Miss Betsey’s bad side for bringing a donkey onto her lawn. Murdstone has come to reclaim David, saying that he will either “care” for him as he deems fit and in accordance with David’s resources—Miss Betsey comments on Murdstone’s ability to take over Clara’s annuity with such ease—or else he assumes that Miss Betsey will take complete responsibility, and David would, in that case, be a stranger to Murdstone forevermore. After consulting David, who is terrified of going back to Murdstone, and then of Mr Dick, who suggests that David be measured for a new suit of clothes (i.e. that they themselves should take him in and care for him), Miss Betsey gives Murdstone a round scolding and a piece of her mind in regards to his treatment of David and of his mother Clara, and proclaims her intention to take charge of David’s care from that moment on—and that Miss Jane’s bonnet will not be safe from a good knocking off if she ever trespasses on her lawn again.

“‘Good day, sir,’ said my aunt, ‘and good-bye! Good day to you, too, ma’am,’ said my aunt, turning suddenly upon his sister. ‘Let me see you ride a donkey over my green again, and as sure as you have a head upon your shoulders, I’ll knock your bonnet off, and tread upon it!'”

David begins a peaceful time with his aunt and Mr Dick, accompanying the latter on his kite-flying, which relieves Mr Dick of some of his mental agitation and his obsession over the beheading of King Charles I, as Mr Dick perseveringly attempts to finish his Memorial.

Eventually, Miss Betsey brings up the subject of David’s going to school (in Canterbury), and it is a relief to David who had long been anxious about his neglected education. Mr Dick is at first distraught, but they arrange twice-weekly visiting days, which appeases his worries.

They all visit Miss Betsey’s friend and solicitor Mr Wickfield in Canterbury, who recommends a school which they approve of. Wickfield then offers that David might give a trial to being a lodger in his own home, as local accommodations are difficult to find. During this visit, they meet Mr Wickfield’s young daughter, Agnes, and the fawning, pale youth, Uriah Heep, who appears to be observing David almost obsessively.

“I saw a cadaverous face appear at a small window on the ground floor…It belonged to a red-haired person – a youth of fifteen, as I take it now, but looking much older – whose hair was cropped as close as the closest stubble; who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded, that I remember wondering how he went to sleep. He was high-shouldered and bony; dressed in decent black, with a white wisp of a neckcloth; buttoned up to the throat; and had a long, lank, skeleton hand, which particularly attracted my attention…”

David meets his schoolmates and Dr Strong, who runs the school and has been gradually at work on a dictionary. We are also introduced to Dr Strong’s far younger wife, Annie. We also hear of Annie’s cousin, Jack Maldon, who is soon to go to India, as has been arranged by the doctor.

David begins a comfortable life with the Wickfields—comfortable, that is, except for the presence of Uriah Heep, who, reading law books but protesting that he could never attain to the position of a partner with Wickfield because he is so humble.

At the sending-off party for Jack Maldon, a moment of melodrama ensues when Annie passes out after going missing for a bit, and there is evidence that she had just been speaking to Jack Maldon, and is looking for a ribbon that, it is assumed, was given her by Jack. We meet Annie’s mother, Mrs Markleham (the “Old Soldier”), who seems to take every opportunity of focusing on the disparity in ages between Annie and her husband, of condescendingly speaking of the good old doctor, and of generally making everyone uncomfortable with her insinuations. Later, when David fetches a purse of Agnes’s that she had left behind, he takes note of the tenderness between the doctor and his young wife as he reads to her.

David has been settling in well, with regular visits from Miss Betsey and Mr Dick, and a regular correspondence with Peggotty (and he learns that his old home is in a state of neglect, and much furniture has been sold by the Murdstones). Mr Dick is very popular with David’s classmates and with Dr Strong, with whom Mr Dick strolls about regularly, talking of the dictionary. During one of Mr Dick’s visits to David, as the former praises Miss Betsey, David learns that Miss Betsey is continually giving aid to a mysterious stranger. David, however, wonders if it is delusional thinking on Mr Dick’s part.

David has tea at the Heeps’ home, where the protestations of extreme humility, he finds, are just as much a habit of the mother as of the son. David also meets up with the Micawbers again, who are now in Canterbury pursuing a new course of employment, and David consoles them in their disappointed expectations.

“‘Any friend of my friend Copperfield’s,’ said Mr. Micawber, ‘has a personal claim upon myself.’

‘We are too umble, sir,’ said Mrs. Heep, ‘my son and me, to be the friends of Master Copperfield. He has been so good as take his tea with us, and we are thankful to him for his company, also to you, sir, for your notice.'”

David then takes us more quickly through the narrative of his childhood into young manhood: his fights, his various crushes and disappointments in love (a recent one having been for a Miss Larkins who ends up marrying a Mr Chestle), and fights he has gotten himself into. He and his aunt talk of his future, and Aunt Betsey suggests a little hiatus and a visit to Peggotty while he thinks it all over.

Before heading for Yarmouth, David says his farewells to the Micawbers and Wickfields—not before having a serious conversation with Agnes, who expresses her concern for her father and what seems to be a decline. David wonders whether Heep has something to do with it. Dr Strong is thinking of retiring in order to devote more time to his dictionary, and Mrs Markleham expresses concerns for Jack Maldon who is suffering in India—and there is awkwardness on Annie’s part on the whole subject, including when she is requested to present a letter from Jack. An atmosphere of secrecy and vague guilt is palpable. Mr Wickfield expresses discomfort at a growing friendship between Agnes and Annie—almost as though the latter might have a bad influence on his Agnes.

David meets with his old schoolfellow and friend, Steerforth, on the way to Yarmouth, and accepts Steerforth’s invitation to stay with him at his mother’s home in Highgate for some days. There they meet the overindulgent mother who lauds her son endlessly; they also meet the wan and bitter young woman with the scarred upper lip, Rosa Dartle, an orphaned relation that Mrs Steerforth has taken into her home. Miss Dartle has an unusual way of speaking on subjects, feigning ignorance about things she is clearly insinuating—a passive-aggressive, cynical manner that is disquieting. Her scar, we find, was caused by Steerforth, who had thrown a hammer at her when they were children. David is also introduced to their respectable-looking older servant, Mr Littimer, who seems to insinuate himself into the activities with James and David to a degree unusual for a servant.

“When the evening was pretty far spent, and a tray of glasses and decanters came in, Steerforth promised, over the fire, that he would seriously think of going down into the country with me. There was no hurry, he said; a week hence would do; and his mother hospitably said the same. While we were talking, he more than once called me Daisy; which brought Miss Dartle out again.

‘But really, Mr. Copperfield,’ she asked, ‘is it a nickname? And why does he give it you? Is it – eh? – because he thinks you young and innocent? I am so stupid in these things.'”

On David’s way to meet with Peggotty, he reunites with and warmly greets his old acquaintance Mr Omer (whose daughter, Minnie, is now married to Mr Joram, and they have a child). Emily—who still desperately wants to be a lady—has been helping in the shop.

The reunion with David’s old nurse Peggotty—whom he hasn’t seen in so long that he is barely recognizable to her—is warm and tear-filled. Her husband, Mr Barkis, has been ill. Steerforth, who has accompanied David in dinner with Peggotty, insists that David stay there as she would wish, and he will return to his hotel quarters. Steerforth later accompanies David in a surprise visit to Mr Peggotty’s boat house, and they come upon a merry party, as Ham and Emily have just decided that very night that they would soon be married; even Mrs Gummidge seems less of a lone, lorn creature than she usually makes herself out to be. Emily tries to make herself scarce upon their entrance, and appears to be made both fascinated and uncomfortable by them. Steerforth charms everyone—including the bashful Emily.

‘”Ah, Steerforth! It’s well for you to joke about the poor! You may skirmish with Miss Dartle, or try to hide your sympathies in jest from me, but I know better. When I see how perfectly you understand them, how exquisitely you can enter into happiness like this plain fisherman’s, or humour a love like my old nurse’s, I know that there is not a joy or sorrow, not an emotion, of such people, that can be indifferent to you. And I admire and love you for it, Steerforth, twenty times the more!’

He stopped, and, looking in my face, said, ‘Daisy, I believe you are in earnest, and are good. I wish we all were!'”

Discussion Wrap-Up

Miscellany & Resources; What We Loved

I shared a link on twitter to a wonderful curated walk by Kent Maps Online:

Henry and Chris reminded us of the fabulous resource online of Dickens’s Working Notes:

Here are some wonderful thoughts from Henry on David as “hero,” and his “anti heroic shadow” (a thought that Lenny had too) in Steerforth:

In David Copperfield, Betsy Trotwood is Thomas Carlyle and voiced his theory of the self reliant hero to David to encourage him to be the hero of his own life.

The Doctor who runs David’s school is a Carlyian anti-hero, clearly modelled on Johnson but written as his antithesis

Steerforth is David’s anti heroic shadow.

Originally tweeted by Henry Oliver (@HenryEOliver) on 17 Apr 2023.

Chris shares a wonderful thread from Tom Holland (on twitter) about the Medway, and Rob shares a view of chambers in Buckingham Street alluded to in David Copperfield:

And Henry shares with us an optimistic view of history from our favorite Mr Dick:

Dickens’s “Writing Lab”: Characterization

The Stationmaster shares some fascinating character analyses, including a consideration of Mr Dick as another “victim of abuse,” like Creakle’s boys:

Adaptation Stationmaster comment

Chris also analyzes some of our characters (Heep, Mrs Markleham, and Agnes):

Chris M. comment

Character Spotlight: James Steerforth–and Rosa Dartle

–Or, Austenesque Antagonists and the “Shadow Side” of David’s Personality

Though we focused on Steerforth, the intriguing comments on Rosa Dartle, who also deserves a “character spotlight,” illuminate James, too. (See also the “What’s in a Name?” topic below, for more on Rosa.)

Lenny tackles the complicated character of Steerforth–“part mentor, part groomer, part ingratiating ‘friend'”–as “representing the negative shadow aspect of David’s personality”:

Lenny H. comment

The Stationmaster wonders whether Steerforth is “callous” rather than “sadistic”:

Adaptation Stationmaster comment

Dana agrees with Lenny about Steerforth’s fascination as a character, “not as colorful as Betsey or Micawber or Heep…but a fascinating portrait, psychologically, both in himself and in the effect he has on others.” Have “most (all?) of us known a Steerforth in our lives”?

Dana R. comment
Daniel M. comment

Rob considers Steerforth as “one of Dickens’ handful of Byronic characters–a curious blend of both hero and villain”:

Rob G. comment

The Stationmaster considers the attractiveness of Steerforth, and David’s ability to have some impact on him–though not, as Lenny says, enough to be a deterrent to James’s actions:

Adaptation Stationmaster and Lenny H. comments

Chris considers the ways in which Rosa’s characterization, and the exchange between her and James, should “put David on the alert”:

Chris M. comments

Lenny responds on the “scar which is SO emblematic of James’s potential for Violence”:

Lenny H. comment

Character Spotlight: Miss Betsey Trotwood and Mr Dick; Miss Betsey as the novel’s “unsung hero” or “moral center”; Wordsworthian Romanticism; Dr Christian’s Lecture on Mr Dick and Disability

The conversation surrounding Miss Betsey Trotwood touched on so many other thematic elements, but I didn’t like breaking the thoughts up.

Chris considers that “one little trait” in Miss Betsey’s former behavior which encourages David to seek her out so many years later, and her brilliant “dressing down” of Murdstone:

Here the Stationmaster does justice to the “heroic and hilarious” character of Miss Betsey, who is also “one of the most complex characters Dickens created”:

Adaptation Stationmaster comment

Lenny responds, asking whether our “unsung hero,” Miss Betsey, might be the novel’s “moral center”:

Lenny H. comment

The Stationmaster considers Miss Betsey as “humanly flawed but sympathetic and sometimes admirable,” but that Agnes is probably a better candidate for the “moral center” of the novel”:

Adaptation Stationmaster comment

Lenny responds:

Lenny H. response

I consider that all the characters are flawed, but that although Agnes is David’s own moral compass, this is different from, perhaps, the moral center for the reader in Dickens, and that Miss Betsey and Mr Dick are my favorite candidates for that position. I also touch on Dr Christian’s Installment V lecture, on Mr Dick and Disability:

Rach M. comment

Dickens and Shakespeare: the Ribbon as “Desdemona’s handkerchief”?

Although we didn’t continue the subject yet, I want to highlight this intriguing idea from the Stationmaster:

Adaptation Stationmaster comment

Dickens, Single Parents and “Fatherless Boys”

Daniel considers the instances of “fatherless boys” in Dickens, and the “passivity vis-a-vis strong, charismatic male figures,” so applicable to our own time, and all time:

Daniel M. comment

The Stationmaster considers the parental role of Uriah Heep’s mother, as Heep is another example of a fatherless boy:

Adaptation Stationmaster comment

What’s in a Name?–and other Unanswered Questions…

Lenny and Rob consider the various nicknames of David. What do they say of David, and of those who name him?

Lenny H. and Rob G. comments

Lenny asks about the name “Rosa Dartle,” and the Stationmaster responds with some thought-provoking ideas:

Lenny H. and Adaptation Stationmaster comments

And Lenny’s response to Chris’s essay brings up some wonderful questions to ponder in the time ahead:

Lenny H. comment

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:

Installment VIII (Chapters 22-24)

Installment IX (Chapters 25-27)

Installment X (Chapters 28-31)

A Look-Ahead to Week Three of David Copperfield (25 April to 1 May, 2023)

This week, we’ll be reading Chapters 22-31, which constitute the monthly numbers VIII, IX, and X, published from December 1849 to February 1850. 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.


  1. Rach–thanks, as always, for your thorough and well-organized synopsis of a rich, deep, wide collective reflection on this masterwork of Dickens.

    The question about the moral center/compass of the novel is intriguing. It does seem that our prime candidates are Betsey Trotwood, Mr. Dick (and those two in combination), and Agnes.

    It does seem to me that Betsey Trotwood has the highest and most mature view of things in general, and is able to articulate a moral outlook–as someone pointed out.

    She also has the strength and force of character to take on the likes of Murdstone and his sister. ADMIRABLE!!!

    Other characters embody facets of human goodness, mercy, kindness, love, humility (no, not the kind that Uriah and his mother “possess”).

    But, Betsey Trotwood strikes me as unique in her self-possession and broad view, as well as seasoned compassion.

    A great question to ponder.

    Blessings, as we pilgrim on with our beloved Dickens!


    Liked by 3 people

  2. I noticed that Steerforth calls David by his real name at a couple of points in Chapter 22. (“David, I wish to God I had had a judicious father these last twenty years…I am not about to be hipped again, David; but I tell you, my good fellow, once more, that it would have been well for me (and for more than me) if I had had a steadfast and judicious father!”) I hadn’t noticed it before and I wondered if it was supposed to indicate something, mainly that Steerforth was being uncharacteristically honest. However, he does it again in Chapter 23 during a much less dramatic conversation, so maybe it’s just a coincidence. (“Find a voice, David. What about that letter you were speaking of at breakfast?”)

    There are sort of two sides to Betsey Trotwood, her kooky eccentric side and her serious side. In Chapter 23, she actually sort of acknowledges the first side in a serious conversation about herself when she asks David to bear with her whims and fancies. That moment of self-awareness is one of the things that makes her such a rounded character.

    I enjoy Mr. Spenlow’s character and the way he scapegoats Mr. Jorkins. The way Mrs. Crupp takes advantage of David foreshadows what is to come. So did his childhood encounter with the waiter on his way to Creakle’s, come to think of it.

    In a fun coincidence, on the same night I read about David’s first dinner party in his own apartment, I attended my brother’s first dinner party at his new home. Don’t worry. We didn’t party like Copperfields. The whole description of David being drunk is hilarious and so are multiple attempts to write a letter of apology to Agnes.

    The Waterbrooks, Mr. Henry Spiker, “Hamlet’s aunt” and Mr. Gulpidge are wonderful examples of how Dickens could invest the most minor characters with memorable personalities. The conversation about “Blood” in Chapter 25 is one of the most hilarious things he ever wrote IMO. It’s almost a pity it’s tucked away in such an obscure part of the book.

    If he weren’t difficult to worth with, I think Tommy Wiseau would be a good actor to play Uriah Heep.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I am really quite please to stand corrected regarding Steerforth – he DOES have other friends besides David – two Oxford friends, Grainger and Markham! (Ch XXIV) I’m very relieved to find that Steerforth is not as isolated as I had portrayed him to be in my earlier post – as indeed someone as gregarious as he is could not be.

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  4. A minor but noteworthy difference between this book and earlier Dickens works: it focuses more on the dark side of alcohol. Though David’s “first dissipation” is funny, it also seriously embarrassing. And the seriousness of Mr. Wickfield’s addiction goes without saying. Contrast this with The Pickwick Papers or A Christmas Carol.

    I’d forgotten or hadn’t noticed before how David is charmed by the thought of Dora Spenlow walking in her garden before he meets and falls in love with her. Could that imply that he was already primed to fall for his boss’s daughter? That really wouldn’t fit in with my conception of his character. Maybe it’s just to show that he was in a mood to fall in love with somebody. (He also thinks Dora is a beautiful name before he sees the lady herself, but that could just be because Dickens liked the name. I believe he named one of his children that.)

    It’s gratifying to read in Chapter 26 that David won’t hear his aunt spoken of disrespectfully, especially since it means he’s standing up to Miss Murdstone.

    With this week’s reading, we see a dark side or at least a possible dark side to the Micawbers as they take advantage of Traddles. (Like Steerforth takes advantage of David?) This begins Mr. Micawber’s surprising character arc, though you could argue it’s not so much that he changes as that we see him in many different lights.

    This week also furthers the theme of “women’s wit” in David Copperfield as Agnes and Rosa Dartle seem to be the only ones to be suspicious of Steerforth. Who would have thought that those two characters could have something in common? The girls at Omer and Joram’s were also the only ones to criticize Emily prior to her running away.

    Do you think Dickens intended Barkis’s death to be somewhat humorous? The details of him still clutching his treasure horde and his last words being “Barkis is willin'” sound kind of comical. (Though, come to think of it, those last words could be interpreted as rather solemn in this new context.) Reading it in context however, I don’t feel like laughing. Barkis wasn’t a huge player in the story, but he was still part of it and for all his stinginess and the fact that he was motivated by Peggotty’s cooking to marry her, it seemed like the two of them had a good thing going on.

    The first time I read the book, I knew from the beginning that Steerforth was going to be bad, but I was still surprised by just how bad he turned out to be. Rereading it, of course, I see all the crystal-clear setup for his relationship with Emily. I can only assume I didn’t pick up on it on my first read because I was enjoying it so much that I kept reading and reading without stopping to speculate. I remember Chapter 31 being one of the chapters in Dickens that made me feel the glummest when I first read it, which is interesting since, unlike some other tearjerking scenes Dickens wrote, nobody dies in it. Well, they don’t literally die, but you could say that the idealized versions of Steerforth and Emily in the characters’ heads have been killed by the real ones.

    More than any other Dickens book, David Copperfield feels like it’s about life. Within the course of this one week’s reading, I’m struck by the number of common life experiences that are included: Getting a job for the first time, paying for your own home for the first time, dealing with a first hangover, falling in love, losing a loved one and being disappointed by someone you admire.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Stationmaster: Yes, there always was–in the early stages of the novel–the sense that there was a clever, darker side to Steerforth’s personality even though he (and Dickens) cagily transmit only tidbits of information about his darker side. One of the instances which Rachel brought up late last week involves James’ taking over David’s money given to him by Peggotty, but he does this appropriation so cannily that David (and perhaps the reader) sees this transaction as one that benefits David and not so much Steerforth. Steerforth asks David how much money he has, and after finding it amounts to seven shillings, says, “You had better give it to me to take care of….” Ok, so far, as we think that David has found someone who sympathizes with him and his vulnerability and will be a kind of protector. But with this seemingly benign transaction, Steerforth has allowed David to “buy him” and his “friendship” and ultimately (David thinks) secures someone he can count on (more or less) for his safety while he resides at the school. This “transaction” DOES work in David’s favor as it allows him more camaraderie with his schoolfellows–yet also serves to placate Steerforth’s appetite for control and successful scheming.

      And I also believe you are right on when you suggest that this novel is “about life” in ways that are more familiar and perhaps more “real” to the reader than the more distant visions we have of character and event in the earlier novels. Our feelings about this more “realistic” presentation I believe are created by Dickens’ use of the first person narration. When David announces to us at the very beginning of the novel that we must decide whether he is the hero of the series of events that follow, he is immediately closing the gap between his readers and the story he tells. His first person “I” narration creates the sense of immediacy and intimacy by which his (as you say) “life experiences” are given to us more or less at first hand while he narrates them. Rather than give these events from the point of view of a third person, detached narrator, David’s “voice” individualizes these events and makes them somehow seem more personal, more familiar to the common reader of this novel.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. OK, I’ve got to mention this. The other day, I was watching a humorous YouTube video and it had a joke about how someone never pays their bills. I couldn’t resist commenting that that was Micawber’s motto even though I didn’t expect there to be any target audience overlap between David Copperfield and the video. But three people liked my comment and one of them replied saying, “Dickens and I are grateful to you” or something like that. That’s not a lot of people recognizing the reference, but it was still more than I expected, and I’m gratified.

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  6. There is that “doubling” in Dickens again: Martha/Emily. I love the early glimpse of Martha in Chapter 22: “a black shadow following the girl [Emily]”–or someone who comes from “the shadow on the wall”–and Steerforth asks: “What does it mean?” Steerforth’s very uncharacteristic brood in this whole passage ever since David surprises him (“like a reproachful ghost”) at the Peggottys’ is indicative of some deeper meaning behind it all. A foreboding. They speak of Martha as “it” rather than “she,” as though she were a ghost, a manifestation of “this something-settled matter in his [Steerforth’s] heart” (Hamlet III.i.).

    When we have a person referred to as a *ghost*, especially with Dickens, I think we’re hearkening back to a touch of the stage melodrama that Dickens loved; something of the dreamlike in real life which foreshadows a disaster. This reminds me of what Lenny and Henry were saying about Steerforth as David’s “shadow,” or the darker side of David’s personality. Or we could flip it and almost say that David is the better angel of Steerforth’s nature, and Steerforth is the “protagonist” in this chapter (22)–not in the sense that he is the positive character that we are rooting for, but in the sense that he is *the one things are happening to* (ghosts, shadows, forebodings) and who is *about to make a choice*–and he doesn’t heed the warnings.

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  7. David’s first dinner party chapter is a lesson in creative writing. Dickens puts us inside David’s head so completely via the out of body experience of over indulging – “Somebody” smoking, opening more bottles, leaning out of windows, talking too much, too loudly, and incomprehensibly. The arc from his elation to humiliation is so naturally and whimsically related that the skill it took to write is imperceptible.

    Heep is thoroughly despicable. Mr Wickfield, Agnes, David all know what he’s doing, just not HOW he’s doing it. He’s like mold – the definition of which is: “a superficial often woolly growth produced especially on damp or decaying organic matter or on living organisms by a fungus” (merriam-webster.com). Heep may not be “woolly”, but he certainly is “damp”! And he grows more powerful as he preys on “decaying” Mr Wickfield. David’s dislike of him is returned despite the fawning; Heep knows full well that his ambition to marry Agnes will rankle David and gnaw at him, and that by confiding in David he adds salt to the wound, so to speak, knowing David is powerless to do anything about it. Let’s just hope Agnes doesn’t make the ultimate sacrifice – ICK!

    I have mixed feelings about Em’ly. Everybody talking around her. No one talking TO her except Steerforth and Littimer. The people who should be looking out for her – Mr Peggotty, Ham especially – see her only in relation to themselves – she is the over-fond niece, the fairy child, the future wife, all ringlets and blue eyes. Mr Ormer, oddly, sees her more objectively, worries for her, but rather than speaking with Em’ly directly – perhaps because he feels it isn’t his place – he speaks to Mr Peggotty and to Ham. That Em’ly is “unsettled” is all too obvious, but they only see marriage as the remedy, the cure-all for an unsettled woman. Em’ly’s internal struggle is great and she pleads to everyone to help her:

    “Oh, pray, aunt, try to help me! Ham, dear, try to help me! Mr David, for the sake of old times, do, please, try to help me! I want to be a better girl than I am. I want to feel a hundred times more thankful than I do. I want to feel more, what a blessed thing it is to be the wife of a good man, and to lead a peaceful like. Oh me, oh me! Oh, my heart, my heart!” (Ch XXII)

    Em’ly’s been giving hints all along of wanting to be a lady – “to be a better girl” perhaps – but these hints are treated as a girlish notion – no one understands how deep-seated this desire is in her. Except Steerforth, who takes full advantage of it. He listens all too well and, though we are not privy to his cajoling, I imagine he, and Littimer as his surrogate, are as slick and sliver-tongued as Heep.

    On the other hand, Em’ly has the example of Martha Endell in front of her. She saw how Martha was treated by the town, and how Martha treated herself. The prospect of running away with Steerforth fills Em’ly with remorse and makes her miserable even before she leaves with him because she knows it is wrong on every level – except on the level of a pipe dream. How gullible (simple, naive) she is to imagine that even if she did return a lady, respectably married to Steerforth, the Yarmouth community would accept her and love her as of old. There would always be a taint associated with her because of the way she left, jilting Ham and disrespecting Mr Peggotty’s generosity. Whatever promises Steerforth & Littimer made must have been grand indeed. But then (on yet another hand), Em’ly doesn’t appreciate class differences the way Steerforth does – His class consciousness treats no scenario wherein he could/would/should ever consider making Em’ly an honest woman.

    Which leads me to the Steerforth-Rosa Dartle dynamic. Something surely is simmering there. A love-hate relationship with both parties being conciliator/antagonizer by turn. What was it that led Steerforth to throw a hammer at Rosa? Was it simply willfulness on his part or was he goaded into it by some word or action of hers?

    Returning to the lighter side of things – I’m happy to see Tommy Traddles return, even though he is in Mr Micawber’s line of sight. That Tommy’s innocence and good nature will be taken advantage of by Mr Micawber is a foregone conclusion; that Tommy will be a good influence on David to balance the Steerforth effect remains to be seen.

    Mr Spenlow’s description of “the best sort of professional business” seems to be the germ that will turn into our next read, “Bleak House”:

    “a good case of a disputed will, where there was a neat little estate of thirty or forty thousand pounds . . . where there [were] very pretty pickings, in the way of argument at every stage of the proceedings, and mountains upon mountains of evidence on interrogatory and counter-interrogatory (to say nothing of an appeal lying, first to the Delegates, and then to the Lords); but, the costs being pretty sure to come out of the estate at last, both sides went at it in a lively and spirited manner, and expense was no consideration.” (Ch XXVI)

    And Dora makes her appearance! While she may be one of Dickens’s so-called empty-headed dolls, she, to her immense credit, correctly judges Miss Murdstone as “so absurd!”, “a tiresome creature”, “a vexatious thing”, “cross”, “a sulky, gloomy old thing” with whom she, Dora, and her little dog, too, “won’t be confidential, and we’ll make ourselves as happy as we can in spite of her, and we’ll teaze her, and not please her, – won’t we, Jip?” (Ch XXIV) After such a spirited speech we cannot fault David for falling in love with her!

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  8. Oh Boy, Rach, that IS an erie, shadowy image that fits the context of Chapter 22 so well! As such, this Chapter just resonates with “dark ” confrontations, dark suggestions, and dark “confessions.” One confessional I alluded to earlier last week is the dialogue between David and Steerforth detailing his sadness over not being guided by a strong parent figure, a “judicious father.” Most remarkable is his edgy moodiness as he verbally strikes out at David for interfering with his soul-searching reverie. And in his irritation, there is a hint of guilt (David as “reproachful ghost”) and the sense that James fears and laments his own jaded, educated and self-consciously hateful, scheming life–especially as compared to that which is Daniel Peggottys (‘than to be myself, twenty times richer and twenty times wiser, and be the torment to myself that I have been, in this Devil’s bark of a boat, within the last half-hour!’) Here the allusion is to experience versus innocence and to the self condemnation which Steerforth feels, given his more intellectual and insightful view of life–as it speaks to him about what has been going on with him vis-a-vis the Peggottys and, of course Emily. Here’s the quote:

    “One dark evening, when I was later than usual—for I had, that day, been making my parting visit to Blunderstone, as we were now about to return home—I found him alone in Mr. Peggotty’s house, sitting thoughtfully before the fire. He was so intent upon his own reflections that he was quite unconscious of my approach. This, indeed, he might easily have been if he had been less absorbed, for footsteps fell noiselessly on the sandy ground outside; but even my entrance failed to rouse him. I was standing close to him, looking at him; and still, with a heavy brow, he was lost in his meditations.

    He gave such a start when I put my hand upon his shoulder, that he made me start too.

    ‘You come upon me,’ he said, almost angrily, ‘like a reproachful ghost!’

    ‘I was obliged to announce myself, somehow,’ I replied. ‘Have I called you down from the stars?’

    ‘No,’ he answered. ‘No.’

    ‘Up from anywhere, then?’ said I, taking my seat near him.

    ‘I was looking at the pictures in the fire,’ he returned.

    ‘But you are spoiling them for me,’ said I, as he stirred it quickly with a piece of burning wood, striking out of it a train of red-hot sparks that went careering up the little chimney, and roaring out into the air.

    ‘You would not have seen them,’ he returned. ‘I detest this mongrel time, neither day nor night. How late you are! Where have you been?’

    ‘I have been taking leave of my usual walk,’ said I.

    ‘And I have been sitting here,’ said Steerforth, glancing round the room, ‘thinking that all the people we found so glad on the night of our coming down, might—to judge from the present wasted air of the place—be dispersed, or dead, or come to I don’t know what harm. David, I wish to God I had had a judicious father these last twenty years!’

    ‘My dear Steerforth, what is the matter?’

    ‘I wish with all my soul I had been better guided!’ he exclaimed. ‘I wish with all my soul I could guide myself better!’

    There was a passionate dejection in his manner that quite amazed me. He was more unlike himself than I could have supposed possible.

    ‘It would be better to be this poor Peggotty, or his lout of a nephew,’ he said, getting up and leaning moodily against the chimney-piece, with his face towards the fire, ‘than to be myself, twenty times richer and twenty times wiser, and be the torment to myself that I have been, in this Devil’s bark of a boat, within the last half-hour!’

    I was so confounded by the alteration in him, that at first I could only observe him in silence, as he stood leaning his head upon his hand, and looking gloomily down at the fire. At length I begged him, with all the earnestness I felt, to tell me what had occurred to cross him so unusually, and to let me sympathize with him, if I could not hope to advise him. Before I had well concluded, he began to laugh—fretfully at first, but soon with returning gaiety.

    ‘Tut, it’s nothing, Daisy! nothing!’ he replied. ‘I told you at the inn in London, I am heavy company for myself, sometimes. I have been a nightmare to myself, just now—must have had one, I think. At odd dull times, nursery tales come up into the memory, unrecognized for what they are. I believe I have been confounding myself with the bad boy who “didn’t care”, and became food for lions—a grander kind of going to the dogs, I suppose. What old women call the horrors, have been creeping over me from head to foot. I have been afraid of myself.’

    ‘You are afraid of nothing else, I think,’ said I.

    ‘Perhaps not, and yet may have enough to be afraid of too,’ he answered. ‘Well! So it goes by! I am not about to be hipped again, David; but I tell you, my good fellow, once more, that it would have been well for me (and for more than me) if I had had a steadfast and judicious father!’

    His face was always full of expression, but I never saw it express such a dark kind of earnestness as when he said these words, with his glance bent on the fire.”

    We could spend many paragraphs on the suggestive details and ideas contained within this long passage of dialogue and confession of Steerforth, but I’ll only get at a few more salient points. First is my awareness that Steerforth is–in the interval before David awakens him from his thoughts, actively communing with his negative shadow, actually confronting it and attempting, maybe, to account for why these psychological demons have so forcefully taken over his consciousness and moved him to carry out the various misdeeds we’ve witnessed earlier in this novel and those we haven’t witnessed in the present situation that he is addressing himself and David about and which we are shortly going to experience as readers–and David more directly as Steerforth’s “friend.”

    Second, We have David’s extreme empathy with James’ gloomy and depressive demeanor, almost desperately seeking to discover from him what is bothering him, what is on his mind: “‘At length I begged him, with all the earnestness I felt, to tell me what had occurred to cross him so unusually….'” We want to applaud David for his sensitive loyalty, here, and his loving care for Steerfoth’s moodiness, but shortly later in the novel (of course, in retrospect) we see that there is a huge irony in all these concerns that David has because Steerforth’s worst misdoings–unknown to David at this moment–will create trying and tragic situations for most of our lovable characters in the Yarmouth family, and for David himself! David’s caring questioning is really going on deaf ears….

    Third, is James’ calling David “David” during the first 2/3’s of the dialogue, but resorting to the more intimate and diminutive “Daisy” when he tries to soften his explanation into a more casual context: “‘Tut, it’s nothing, Daisy! nothing!’ he replied. ‘I told you at the inn in London, I am heavy company for myself, sometimes.'” Steerforth’s earlier use of “David” places David in more of a straight forward man to man discussion and explanation, James to a mature “David”–whereas the “Daisy” appellation takes the entire discussion down a notch, in its intensity and its seriousness. More Boy to Boy stuff, as though they were back at school. But it’s important to note that even there, there is still rhetorical chicanery: Steerforth knows that this softer tone will suffice to forestall any more revealing questioning by David/Daisy. Yet, however, Steerforth’s final explanation near the end of this segment of the dialogue still contains important elements of self recognition, though he casually tries to throw them off: “‘What old women call the horrors, have been creeping over me from head to foot. I have been afraid of myself.’”

    As I indicated at the beginning of this discussion, this is a tightly packed, explosive chapter and I’ve only spoken in some depth about one of its early movements. But subsequently, we find that James has (1) bought a boat and named it suggestively “The Little Em’ly,” (2) we witness the significant interchange between Miss Mowcher and Steerforth and the various statements she makes about Steerforth, (3) we watch and listen to the strange and meaningful appearance of Martha Endell, and lastly (4) we hear the very pertinent and harrowing “confession” of Emily regarding HER feelings of unworthiness!

    So much to think about; so much to talk about!

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    1. Lenny– YES there is so much to discuss here! I also was listening to Dr Christian’s lecture on thus sequence, and there is this theme running through this passage about the objectification and possession of women on the part of Steerforth, as you suggest above: he takes possession of a boat and rechristens her “The Little Em’ly”! David in his innocent admiration of Steerforth thinks it is all for the Peggottys’ benefit, but here JS is playing a game with them, toying with them and “owning” them–particularly Emily, as though she were a thing, a vessel, something to be bought. So eerie!

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      1. Rach (et al), I think we could call Chapter 22 the “Shadowy” chapter, not just because so much of what happens is darker in its meanings and doings, but because there is so much that seems hidden by the shadows, by the darkness of ambiguity and ellipses–huge spaces where we can only guess about what is happening within characters, why things are happening and what it all means. One of my favorite books dealing with reader response is Walter Slatoff’s WITH RESPECT TO READERS, where he talks about these openings, or gaps or “empty” spaces in novels wherein we have to interpret or simply intuit what is happening, and he calls this left out material (significantly, I think) “…the roar on the other side of silence.” What the heck IS going on with with all these ambiguities which David/Dickens presents us with. Obviously there is so much that is important, here, with regard to Martha, Miss Mowcher, Little Em’ly, and of course Steerforth, and no matter how hard we drill down into these various passages, there is still so much ambiguity, so much that ISN’T said, that we are left to decide what IS the “roar” that that we can’t hear but which we know is there and which is so important–even earthshaking–and which probably sets a new stage for the rest of the novel.

        The created narrator, David, is in a tough spot, here, because he is trying to replay these various events AS HE ONCE EXPERIENCED THEM, but at the same time knowing full well that he knows–or at least has somehow ascertained (to some extent!)–what has been going on, what IS going on, and what WILL go on. Thus, he wants to recreate the same sense of anticipation that HE had during these strange and upsetting experiences for his READERS’ experience, but he’s walking a tightrope, here, because he doesn’t want to divulge too much because–after all–this is HIS novel that he is creating and he wants to keep his readers guessing and anticipating!

        But, of course it IS Dickens’ novel, really, and his composition at this point, it seems to me, is really complex and a tough one to devise. How much will he let David know, here, how much will he let David let the reader know, and how much should he withhold from David and the reader!????

        IT STRIKE.S ME THAT WE ARE GETTING INTO SOME NEW WRITING LAB STUFF THAT WE’VE NOT SEEN MUCH OF BEFORE: and that is the first person “I” narration and the newer narrative task and strategy that Dickens has set out for himself. With this “new” format, we readers are not able to get into the minds of the characters as we did in our earlier novels; so much of what we think characters think is suggestive through what this single point of view (David) gives us. So when we come to a really ambiguous and frustrating reading experience that we have when we read Chapter 22, we can understand that, in a way, we are being shortchanged, and that’s because of this more controlled and controlling narrative voice. Ah, we readers love the upside of the intimacy and confessional nature of this kind of “I” narration, but it also gives us new challenges as readers…

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  9. I’m reading “Dickens the Novelist” by F.R. Leavis & Q.D. Leavis and came across this enlightening observation regarding doubling in “Copperfield”. After discussion of David’s idyllic infancy with his mother and Peggotty which is disrupted and destroyed by Mr Murdstone via being sent to boarding school and then exiled to London to work at the wine warehouse, David

    “escape[s] from a second phase of misery in order to find a substitute home and mother, which he does at Dover with his great-aunt, where he is reborn as Trotwood, goes to school all over again, is launched into the world of London on his own a second time, where he – in a dreamlike or Alice-in-Wonderland world – strays into the previous dimension inhabited by the figures of his previous state – Steerforth, Micawber, Traddles, the boat household at Yarmouth, and meets the double of his mother, Dora.” (51)

    I hadn’t really appreciated how parallel the two situations are even though I, of course, realize the same characters and types are involved. I’m thinking too now, that Steerforth can be seen as a kind of Murdstone in that he disrupts and destroys the idyll at Yarmouth.

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  10. Rach and I have spent the past couple weeks reading Henry Mayhew’s enormous four-volume work, London Labour and the London Poor, and in the second volume Mayhew describes the mid-century mania for spaniels:

    “Of these street-sellers or hawkers there are now about twenty-five. There may be, however, but twenty, if so many, on any given day in the streets, as there are always some detained at home by other avocations connected with their line of life. The places they chiefly frequent are the Quadrant and Regent-street generally, but the Quadrant far the most. Indeed before the removal of the colonnade, one-half at least of all the dog-sellers of London would resort there on a very wet day, as they had the advantage of shelter, and generally of finding a crowd assembled, either lounging to pass the time, or waiting “for a fair fit,” and so with leisure to look at dogs. The other places are the West-end squares, the banks of the Serpentine, Charing-cross, the Royal Exchange, and the Bank of England, and the Parks generally. They visit, too, any public place to which there may be a temporary attraction of the classes likely to be purchasers—a mere crowd of people, I was told, was no good to the dog-hawkers, it must be a crowd of people that had money—such as the assemblage of ladies and gentlemen who crowd the windows of Whitehall and Parliament-street, when the Queen opens or prorogues the houses. These spectators fill the street and the Horse-guards’ portion of the park as soon as the street mass has dispersed, and they often afford the means of a good day’s work to the dog people…

    “The customers of the street-hawkers of dogs are ladies and gentlemen, who buy what may have attracted their admiration. The kept mistresses of the wealthier classes are often excellent customers. “Many of ’em, I know,” was said to me, “dotes on a nice spaniel. Yes, and I’ve known gentlemen buy dogs for their misses; I couldn’t be mistaken when I might be sent on with them, which was part of the bargain. If it was a two-guinea dog or so, I was told never to give a hint of the price to the servant, or to anybody. I know why. It’s easy for a gentleman that wants to please a lady, and not to lay out any great matter of tin, to say that what had really cost him two guineas, cost him twenty.” If one of the working classes, or a small tradesman, buy a dog in the streets, it is generally because he is “of a fancy turn,” and breeds a few dogs, and traffics in them in hopes of profit…

    “The spaniels, terriers, &c., the stock of these hawkers, are either bred by them—and they all breed a few or a good many dogs—or they are purchased of dog-dealers (not street-sellers), or of people who having a good fancy breed of “King Charleses,” or “Blenheims,” rear dogs, and sell them by the litter to the hawkers. The hawkers also buy dogs brought to them, “in the way of business,” but they are wary how they buy any animal suspected to be stolen, or they may get into “trouble.” One man, a carver and gilder, I was informed, some ten years back, made a good deal of money by his “black-patched” spaniels. These dogs had a remarkable black patch over their eyes, and so fond was the dog-fancier, or breeder of them, that when he disposed of them to street-sellers or others, he usually gave a portrait of the animals, of his own rude painting, into the bargain. These paintings he also sold, slightly framed, and I have seen them—but not so much lately—offered in the streets, and hung up in poor persons’ rooms. This man lived in York-square, behind the Colosseum, then a not very reputable quarter. It is now Munster-square, and of a reformed character, but the seller of dogs and the donor of their portraits has for some time been lost sight of.”

    This is remarkable because it means Dora Spenlow’s ownership of her beloved Jip was a telling character detail freighted with significance that anyone reading the book in 1851 would have immediately recognized (much like Steerforth’s residing in Highgate). Readers would have inferred that Dora was a member of the upper class, a lover of fancy things, that at one point a member of her household – possibly her father – had ventured out into the street and purchased a spaniel from one of the dog-sellers in West End, Hyde Park or Charing Cross. Certainly Dickens would have known all this instinctively, and it furnished the background of the story in his mind’s eye. It’s fascinating to think of characters, like the dog-seller, who never appear in the pages of the novel but whose existence is implied. We never meet the man who sold Jip to the Spenlows but his presence looms large.

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    1. You can almost see Dora locking eyes with little Jip, and all is over. 🙂 When looking up something else in relation to this odd phenomenon, I came across someone selling an antique Victorian spaniel “trading card” (like trading baseball cards?). AND Staffordshire spaniel figurines for the mantlepiece were apparently “a status symbol”! Did this arise because of Queen Victoria’s spaniel, Dash (1830-1840), or was this around before? The delightful madness…

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