WHEREIN WE REVISIT OUR fourth and Fifth WEEK’S READING OF David Copperfield (WEEKs 70-71 OF THE DICKENS CHRONOLOGICAL READING CLUB 2022-24); WITH A CHAPTER SUMMARY AND DISCUSSION WRAP-UP; CONTAINING A LOOK-AHEAD TO WEEK Six, our final week with David Copperfield.
(Banner Image: by Phiz)
By the members of the #DickensClub, edited/compiled by Rach
Friends, at the end of our last wrap-up two weeks ago, Emily had run off with Steerforth, and faithful Mr Peggotty was going to go seek his niece to the ends of the earth. Now we conclude the Week 4 and 5 readings with Emily found and forgiven.
There is so much to discuss before we embark upon our final week with David Copperfield!
But first, a few quick links:
- General Mems
- David Copperfield, Chs 32-50 (Weeks 4 & 5): A Summary
- Discussion Wrap-Up (Weeks 4 & 5)
- Upcoming Installments from Dr. Christian Lehmann: Reading the Victorian Novel – David Copperfield
- A Look-Ahead to Week Six of David Copperfield (16-22 May, 2023)
On the poll for our next online meeting:
The two dates were pretty well split. Among those who could make one or both, no one said they couldn’t make June 10th, so we are opting for Saturday, June 10th for our Zoom chat on David Copperfield! Mark your calendars, and please join us! 11am PT/2pm ET/7pm GMT (London time).
If you’re counting, today is Day 497 (and week 72) in our #DickensClub! This week, we’ll be on the sixth and final week of David Copperfield, our seventeenth read of the group. Please feel free to comment below this post for the sixth 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.
David Copperfield, Chs 32-50 (Weeks 4 & 5): 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!)
“I never had loved Steerforth better than when the ties that bound me to him were broken…”
Talk of Emily’s disappearance has been making the rounds, including to Mrs Joram, daughter-in-law of Mr Omer. David is determined to help Mr Peggotty in finding his niece, while still unable to close his heart off to his old friend, Steerforth, who has betrayed them. Ham will be watching the premises and taking over the work while Mr Peggotty is away, and Mrs Gummidge is “another woman” for their sake.
“What a change in Mrs. Gummidge, in a little time! She was another woman. She was so devoted, she had such a quick perception of what it would be well to say, and what it would be well to leave unsaid; she was so forgetful of herself, and so regardful of the sorrow about her, that I held her in a sort of veneration.”
Miss Mowcher makes an appearance, regretful of having been an unwitting accomplice to Steerforth’s designs by delivering a letter to Emily.
David and Mr Peggotty make a visit to Mrs Steerforth and Rosa Dartle, both of whom are hard-hearted about the whole matter, more ready to blame Emily for disrupting James’ position than to blame Steerforth. Mrs Steerforth, for one, shows no desire for her son to marry someone so below him.
While David assists Mrs Barkis (our dear Peggotty) with arrangements about Mr Barkis’s will, Peggotty gets to see some London sights, and David runs into Mr Murdstone who is shortly to be married.
David, head over heels for Dora, is invited to a picnic at the Spenlows, to prepare for which he spares no expense. David meets Julia Mills, a friend of Dora’s who has some personal tragedy in regards to romance, has given it up as to herself, and appears to have sympathy for David’s situation. She offers for David to come to her residence in a couple of days—when Dora will happen to be there too. Miss Mills becomes an accomplice and a go-between to what becomes essentially a secret engagement, while David plans and waits.
David writes to Agnes of his engagement, and Traddles and David talk of their dual engagement. Poor Sophy is now nursing her mother and a couple of the younger children. Meanwhile, Peggotty helps Traddles to reclaim furniture he had lost (by signing his name to a loan for Mr Micawber), by feigning to purchase the items for herself, as the price given to Traddles to reclaim his own things is far too high. The scheme works.
However, David is surprised to find, upon returning to his apartment, that his aunt and Mr Dick are there waiting for him. She tells David that she is ruined, and that she has nothing more in the world than what she carries with her.
David ponders what to do to take care of his aunt and Mr Dick and is making up his mind to give up his articles at the Doctors Commons, thereby getting some of his aunt’s investment in his profession back to her. David also writes to Dr Strong, who is in need of a secretary.
Meanwhile, Agnes arrives, having heard of the news of Aunt Betsey, who had always gone to Mr Wickfield for business advice. Aunt Betsey feels that her own choices led to the loss of her property, and all she was left with was the cottage near the home on the property, which she left to her trusty Janet. Agnes tells David that Mrs Heep has moved in, and that Uriah Heep is now occupying David’s old room.
Between the secretarial situation with Dr Strong and the prospect of some parliamentary reporting work suggested by Traddles—who had also suggested some copying work for Mr Dick—things are looking up. (A couple of chapters ahead, David gives a very lifelike—indeed, autobiographical—account of the immense difficulty of learning the shorthand needed for recording the parliamentary proceedings, especially in such haste, but David, like his author, masters the near-impossible, with the help of Traddles who dictates speeches to him for practice.) The Micawbers too, feel that their fortune has taken a turn for the better with Micawber’s new employment—only that it is, as David soon finds out, under Uriah Heep.
“By this time, we were quite settled down in Buckingham Street, where Mr. Dick continued his copying in a state of absolute felicity.”
David continues in his secret courting of Dora, though he feels “a vague unhappy loss or want of something” overshadow him “like a cloud.” (Aunt Betsey calls him “blind, blind!”) He has meetings arranged with Dora by the help of Miss Mills, and David frightens Dora with his account of his financial situation, and how he is “a beggar” and must work hard for a living, and that they both must bear up and make the best of it, encouraging her to be practical, to learn to look at their accounts…but Dora falls to weeping and Miss Mills must comfort her.
“I then put it to Miss Mills, to say whether she considered that there was or was not any practical merit in the suggestion I had been anxious to make, concerning the accounts, the housekeeping, and the Cookery Book?…
“Mr Copperfield…I will be as plain with you as if I were a Lady Abbess. No. The suggestion is not appropriate to our Dora. Our dearest Dora is a favourite child of nature. She is a thing of light, and airiness, and joy…”
Mr Spenlow finds out about their secret courting, having gotten wind of it from Miss Murdstone who has in her possession the letters that David penned to Dora.
“Have you considered my daughter’s station in life, the projects I may contemplate for her advancement, the testamentary intentions I may have with reference to her? Have you considered anything, Mr. Copperfield?”
David professes his love for her, but Mr Spenlow says he must conquer his feelings, and rejects David’s professions, even after David follows it up with a letter.
One morning, however, David finds out that Mr Spenlow died, possibly from having fallen off his carriage. Dora has gone to stay with her aunts, and David has to hear of her via Miss Mills.
To take David’s mind off things, Aunt Betsey suggests he take a little leave time to see to the business about the lease of her cottage at Dover which is in need of signatures for the contract’s renewal. David does so, and visits the Wickfields and Micawbers too—the latter are in the Heeps’ former home, as Uriah and his mother have taken up residence with the Wickfields. David sees the change in Mr Wickfield who has lost his spirit, but is roused to a sudden anger when Heep proposes a toast to Agnes, suggesting that he has a special intention towards her that gives him that right.
Uriah regrets it after–not his own sentiments, but that he had been to hasty about the timing.
“”I suppose…you have sometimes plucked a pear before it was ripe, Master Copperfield?…I did that last night,” said Uriah; “but it’ll ripen yet! It only wants attending to. I can wait!’
Profuse in his farewells, he got down again as the coachman got up. For anything I know, he was eating something to keep the raw morning air out; but he made motions with his mouth as if the pear were ripe already, and he were smacking his lips over it.”
David meets up with Mr Peggotty, who tells David about his travels abroad in search of Emily—to France, Italy, and Switzerland. During this conversation, David sees a familiar presence nearby: the disgraced Martha Endell. Upon Mr Peggotty’s return to Yarmouth, he was given letters from Emily, asking for forgiveness. These also give him an indication of where she was located at the time, in Germany.
Meanwhile, David had written to Dora’s aunts, Lavinia and Clarissa Spenlow—by the advice of Agnes—and they allow David to pay them all a call, requesting that he bring with him a friend. Miss Mills being unable, he brings Traddles. As the visit proceeds, the aunts agree to an arrangement with David, where he can visit every Sunday to share a meal with them, and a couple of times in the week for tea; they also request to become regular acquaintances with David’s Aunt Betsey. All this is joyfully agreed to.
“I discovered afterwards that Miss Lavinia was an authority in affairs of the heart, by reason of there having anciently existed a certain Mr. Pidger, who played short whist, and was supposed to have been enamoured of her.”
David does regret, however, that he was unable “to hint to Miss Lavinia, that she treated the darling of my heart a little too much like a plaything; and I sometimes awoke, as it were, wondering to find that I had fallen into the general fault, and treated her like a plaything too–but not often.”
Back at Dr Strong’s, and as David hopes for a meeting soon between Agnes and Dora, Uriah makes sly insinuations about an inappropriate attachment between Annie Strong and her old childhood friend, Jack Maldon, who has recently returned. Uriah suggests that David too clearly sees it, and knows exactly what he’s talking about, which David finds reprehensible in Uriah. The implications start to be expressed in front of Dr Strong himself, who has full confidence in Annie, but who begins to regret his own desire to make such a young woman his wife—he is sad on Annie’s account. David, so disgusted by his own presence during this conversation with Dr Strong, strikes Uriah on the cheek after—and Uriah says that there must be two parties to a quarrel, and he will not be one.
“…the only real relief which seemed to make its way into the secret region of this domestic unhappiness, made its way there in the person of Mr. Dick.”
Mr Dick, who has shown great sensitivity about the Doctor and Annie, redoubles his efforts of friendship towards them, determined to help resolve and repair the breach. Aunt Betsey remarks proudly of him, “Dick will distinguish himself yet!”
David then receives a letter from Mrs Micawber; she is worried that her husband, who had become troubled ever since beginning work with Uriah Heep, is “entirely changed”–becoming almost unrecognizable. What is going on? She asks for David’s advice.
“Once again, let me pause upon a memorable period of my life. Let me stand aside, to see the phantoms of those days go by me, accompanying the shadow of myself, in dim procession.
Weeks, months, seasons, pass along…”
David is now able to provide a home for himself and Dora, and the wedding day and honeymoon arrive. David can hardly believe it is real.
Reality hits, however, as David and Dora begin—after a fashion—their “housekeeping” together. Their servants take advantage of them, Dora is a neophyte in the mysteries of purchasing necessaries for their meals, and all is in disarray when Traddles visits. After, Dora, feeling David’s disappointment in her, begs David to think of her as his “child-wife” and with compassion. Aunt Betsey shows a special tenderness for her, calling her “Little Blossom,” and is unwilling to intervene in their domestic affairs and to make herself a scarecrow.
Later, tension is still high at the home of Dr Strong and Annie and Annie’s intrusive mother, Mrs. Markleham. Mr Dick, feeling this keenly and thinking that he might be able to have an influence where others cannot, tells David of his determination to help Annie and the doctor. Time passes, however, and David begins to think that Mr Dick was unable to effect a change or has forgotten to do so, but one evening, with Mr Dick’s gentle encouragement, having paved the way for her ahead of time, Annie goes on her knees before her husband in front of all present, including her protesting mother and Miss Betsey, and begs her husband to speak to her about this unspoken division between them. She then asks it of all the company, and David speaks up, and tells of the evening when Uriah made the insinuations about her and Jack Maldon. She is now able to rectify the misconception, telling of her history with the doctor, of her surprise when he first began to seek her out in a different way to what she had anticipated, but that she loves and honors him, and never could have been with Jack Maldon, as “there can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose.”
“I pondered on those words, even while I was studiously attending to what followed, as if they had some particular interest, or some strange application that I could not divine.”
More time passes, and Rosa Dartle tells David of Littimer’s news about Steerforth and Emily—Emily has left him, due to Steerforth (who had never intended to wed her) proposing that she marry Littimer and lead a more respectable life. David tells the news to Mr Peggotty, and they both seek out the mysterious Martha Endell, who might have some clue regarding Emily’s whereabouts. They follow her.
“…we were in the narrow water-side street by Millbank before we came up with her…that one dark glimpse of the river, through the gateway, had instinctively prepared me for her going no farther.”
Martha seems desperate and despairing—perhaps contemplating suicide as she seeks the river. As they make themselves known to her and tell her their purpose, Martha seems to find a new purpose of her own, determined to help them find Emily, who was the only one who had been kind to her during her misfortunes at Yarmouth.
David, returning home, he sees at his aunt’s adjoining cottage a man leaving, to whom she is offering money. David learns that this man is the unworthy husband that she had married unadvisedly; a man who had been cruel to her and became dissolute with gambling and more.
As David finds success with authorship of fiction, he ceases the parliamentary reporting. Troubles continue on the homefront and David, desiring to “form” his wife’s mind, does so indirectly by teaching or talking at Traddles on his visits, as a means to teach Dora. Eventually, David and Dora come to an understanding, and he promises to do this no more, and so their marriage becomes happier as he makes an effort to accept Dora as she is. But Dora appears to be growing weaker, physically, as time passes, and more dispirited.
David and Traddles, spurred on by a desperate letter from Mr Micawber and a pleading one from his wife, seek Micawber out and have him over, trying to figure out what the trouble is—both his impecunious situation, and his acting so unlike his usual self. Micawber eventually breaks down, curses Heep, and determines that some actions need to be taken before he can hold his head up without shame.
Martha, who has been faithful to her determination to help David and Mr Peggotty seek Emily out, brings David to a squalid tenement in London, where David overhears Rosa Dartle, of all people—berating and belittling Emily. Mr Peggotty enters the scene, causing Emily to faint into his arms.
Discussion Wrap-Up for Weeks 4 & 5
The Stationmaster has a new blog post to share, with a spotlight on the Wishbone episode of Oliver Twist!
And Rob shares the experience of seeing the David Copperfield musical in Highgate:
I would highly recommend listening to this beautiful Chopin piece that Rob shared, expressing that “youthful idolization” that Dickens captures in David’s falling for Dora:
And Chris is getting ready for Hard Times…a couple of books ahead of the game! (I’m wanting to order this one too!)
Dickens’s “Writing Lab”: Characterization & Sympathy for the Villain; Inaction in the Protagonist; Foreshadowing; Deja-Vu
The Stationmaster shares his reactions on his response to the characters in this section, during this readalong. Note the second paragraph, on Rosa Dartle…we’ll circle back to her with a spotlight below.
Here he continues, respecting the reader’s sympathy for the villains:
I respond to the idea of sympathizing with the villains, which Dickens evokes masterfully–though I have trouble having any sympathy for Murdstone:
But even with Murdstone, the Stationmaster suggests, we are given something to sympathize with–or at least, some indication of how to understand him better:
Here, Chris analyzes Dickens’s technique of foreshadowing–Dickens is ahead of his time in the use of that familiar sense of “déjà vu.” She also discusses some important characters in this section–Annie Strong being one of her favorites–including Mr Dick and Martha:
And on that subjects of David’s inaction, or cowardice, the Stationmaster responds:
The Women in Dickens: The Doubling of Clara/Dora; the “Commodification of Women”; the “Sisterhood of Sense and Practicality” in Miss Betsey and Peggotty; Dr. Christian Lehmann’s Lecture
The Stationmaster brings up some wonderful points about the instinct and intelligence of Dora, and how she can name some of the issues that David doesn’t–or refuses to–see. He also discusses some of our other characters, then circles back to David’s trying to form Dora’s mind:
I respond, about the doubling of David’s mother, and Dora, referring to Dr. Christian’s discussion of this in the lecture:
On the illustration comparison, here’s the screenshot from Dr. Christian’s lecture:
Chris tackles the issue that the Stationmaster had brought up, about how quickly the event of David and Dora’s miscarriage is passed over, and then discusses how Dora is written of in much the same way that Dickens will write of Harold Skimpole in our next book, Bleak House:
But one of the most delightful things, as Chris points out, is the growing closeness and respect between two of our most wonderful characters, Peggotty and Aunt Betsey:
Character Spotlight: Rosa Dartle
Chris tackles that mysterious, embittered character, Rosa Dartle, questioning the exact nature of her relationship with Steerforth, and discusses her as a kind of opposite to Dora. “Rosa’s obsession with Steerforth is strangely similar to David’s obsession with Dora”:
The Stationmaster responds about the Rosa-James relationship:
David’s Wooing, and the Language of Romance
Rob delightfully discusses David’s “notions of courtship” and how they manifest. He’d have read the 18th century greats that Dickens himself had devoured as a child. (Rob–note–is asking for a friend about whether it is possible to delve too deeply into Dickensian background; a question that Boze and I would like to ask too–for a friend, obviously!)
Who are David’s other models for wooing and romance? “He has as far as we can tell the examples of Murdstone with his mother and also the notable wooing of that greatest of romantics, Mr Barkis”:
Dickens and Romanticism; Dickens as Realist or Romantic?
Chris assures Rob that his “friend” is on the right track about delving deeply into Dickensiana, where “there have been dippings in and out of Fielding’s Tom Jones, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and a few samples of Smollett.” Rob considers Dickens’s position as a writer, poised between Realism and Romanticism, and whether he is drawing from a number of traditions:
And several of us are eagerly anticipating Micawber’s big scene…more anon!
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 his lectures for our final installments this week:
A Look-Ahead to Week Six of David Copperfield (16-22 May, 2023)
This week is our final week with David Copperfield. We’ll be reading Chapters 51-64, which constitute the monthly numbers XVII-XX (the final being a double number) published between September and November 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.
Emily, in her trauma, temporarily forgetting how to speak an entire language seems like the wildest plot point in the book. But is there a precedent for it in real life? Mr. Peggotty says, “maybe ’tis not so strange to scholars.”
I’d forgotten about the woman who pretends to help Emily but really intends to prostitute her. If we actually “saw” her in the story instead of just being told about her, it sounds like she’d be a memorable villain, sort of a female Fagin. But there are so many memorable villains in this story that Dickens was probably right not to squeeze in too much with another one.
I’d forgotten Daniel Peggotty’s concerns about Mrs. Gummidge annoying his sister if she has to stay with her. (You’ve got to love how sensitively he phrases them.) I’d been under the impression that she’d totally abandoned her annoying ways since the revelation about Emily, but I shouldn’t be surprised that she still kept some of them when I’ve been the one gabbing on and on about how nuanced the characters in this book are. Or could it be she has completely turned over a new leaf and Mr. Peggotty is simply wrong about her? Her speech at the end of Chapter 51 implies this. “I know how ’tis; I know you think that I am lone and lorn; but, deary love, ‘tan’t so no more! I ain’t sat here, so long, a-watching, and a-thinking of your trials, without some good being done me.”
I love Ham’s final speech asking Emily to forgive him. He’s actually one of my favorite characters in the book though I haven’t made any comments about him on here. While the Peggotty family and the Yarmouth community in general are wonderful salt-of-the-earth people, it’s implied here and there that they’re not totally perfect. Besides Ham’s asking Emily to marry him a second time when he maybe should have dropped the subject, there’s the social ostracization Martha faces, though Mr. Omer says that it’s a facade with Minnie at least. And wasn’t Miss Mowcher, who has evidently suffered a lot because of her appearance, from Yarmouth? Maybe that was mostly from rich people though, like Steerforth, rather than the fishing community.
It’s interesting that Dora has appreciated hearing Betsey Trotwood tell her about David’s rough childhood. Previously, she’d seemed to hate hearing about anything unpleasant. To me, this proves her essential good nature. Then again, a more cynical reader would say that she views the description of young David as a “poor little mite of a fellow” with worn out shoes and covered in dust as entertainment and she doesn’t realize the sad implications. But the scene as a whole, which features this detail, feels like it’s supposed to be one that shows Dora off at her best advantage.
Mr. Micawber’s character arc is one of the book’s best surprises! He starts out as an incompetent and irresponsible yet lovable comic character. Then we worry that he’s going to be one of the bad guys as he seems to have been corrupted by Uriah Heep. Finally, he turns out to be one of the novel’s biggest heroes by bringing down Heep at cost to himself. I love comedic characters who turn out to also be serious dramatic characters. Dickens was great at those.
The “explosion” in Chapter also shows us an unexpected side of Traddles, who has previously seemed to be helpless and almost too nice for his own good, surprises David and the reader by handling the situation like a boss. Of course, this is less of a surprise when we remember that he was the only student at Salem House to stand up for Mr. Mell, but he wasn’t able to accomplish much then.
I was surprised to find myself feeling sorry for Mrs. Heep. Previously, I’d just laughed at her panic.
I hate to say something critical of Micawber while he’s coming into his own as a hero, but does anyone else think his description of his son (“I daresay, my love, that he means particularly well; but I have not yet found that he carries out his meaning, in any given direction whatsoever”) could apply very well to himself?
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I’d planning to do a post on my blog next week comparing the 1935 and the 2019 movie adaptations of David Copperfield, which I think are good foils for each other. But then I looked at how many David Copperfield movies there are on Wikipedia and there seem to be so many that I thought maybe I should do a series of blog posts reviewing each one. Since my Dickens Club acquaintances are the ones most likely to read either of these, I thought I’d ask what you guys prefer.
The problems with doing a whole series are (a) by the time, I’d get to the 2019 one, everyone here would be in Bleak House mode and (b) some of the movies, like the 2000 one which I thought was a miniseries, I just don’t have that many thoughts or feelings about. A blog post by me about a single one of them would be boring. (Well, I do have some things to say about the 1969 movie but they’re mostly negative.) Writing about the 1935 and 2019 movies would be the most fun for me.
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Although there’s humor in Mrs. Micawber’s revelation that her family doesn’t like Mr. Micawber because he always wants money and her confidence that they’ll turn up to reconcile now, she also has some really good serious moments, like when she insists that she and her husband aren’t turning their backs on England by moving to Australia. Actually, her hopes about her family, which I just described as humorous, are kind of sad too when you think about it.
There’s something weirdly sweet about Jip finally reconciling with David before he (Jip) dies.
Speaking of which, I’ve written about the parallels between David’s marriage to Dora and Murdstone’s marriage to Clara Copperfield, but I haven’t mentioned the parallels between David’s marriage and that of his father. Given the similarities between Clara and Dora, would David Sr. have grown to regret his marriage too if he had lived longer? Possibly, but I like to think not. His words that his wife remembers on her deathbed, “that a loving heart was better and stronger than wisdom,” are pretty similar to what David said to Dora at one point. “You can never show better than as your own natural self, my sweet Dora.” But his father’s words sound like they have more conviction behind them.
It’s rather a pity we don’t see more of Sophy in the book. She and Traddles are such a cute couple.
Speaking of couples, the union of David and Agnes feels rather bland and boring to me after his complex relationship to Dora. I wouldn’t say Agnes is a badly written character per se. But with Dora and so many of the book’s other characters, there was so much to discover, so many hidden depths. Agnes, on the other hand, seemed totally perfect when we first met her, and it turned out in the end…she was totally perfect. Even when you compare her to other idealized heroines in Dickens’s previous books, her romance seems a little too easy. Madeline Bray and Rosa Maylie were probably less developed than Agnes, but they actually had arguments with their love interests, and a pretty dramatic one in Madeline’s case. With Dora’s tragic but ultimately convenient end and Agnes turning out to have loved David ever since they met, it feels like Dickens is retreating into wish fulfillment.
Actually, the whole ending kind of feels like that. Normally, by the end of a Dickens book, some of the good characters, typically the main ones, have had happy endings and some of the good ones have had sad endings. Here everyone except for Ham is brought back for a happy ending. (Even the butcher!) And, weirdly enough, this is done by randomly turning the book into an advertisement for Australia. Going there seems to magically solve all the problems of the Micawbers, Daniel Peggotty, Emily, Martha, even Mr. Mell whose problems I’m sure we’d all forgotten about by that point. It’s not as bad with the remnants of the Peggotty family since Mr. Peggotty talks about speaks of them, mainly Emily, struggling before finding peace and success. But it’s pretty a staggering turnaround for Micawber. That being said, the 1999 miniseries adaptation shows him at his public dinner, and it includes a really heartwarming moment that makes the ending worth it.
Of course, if the ending of David Copperfield feels more like wish fulfillment than that of other Dickens books, there’s also a way in which it has less wish fulfillment. Except for Steerforth, his mother and Rosa Dartle, the bad guys have not been fully defeated. Murdstone and his sister are still out there abusing women. Jack Maldon is still living an easy life while complaining about Dr. Strong who makes it possible. Mr. Creakle has now become a successful magistrate who weirdly has more compassion on criminals than he had on his students. Uriah Heep and Littimer have been imprisoned but they seem to have bounced back and are conning people just like they did when they were free. (I love how they slyly insult the prison tourists, Littimer by saying he hopes they and their families will see their wickedness and amend, Uriah Heep by saying he wishes everyone, including his own mother, could be “took and brought here.”)
From what I understand, novels from this time period typically featured sympathetic portrayals of prostitutes and other such women, but they didn’t give them happy endings or if they did give them happy endings, they weren’t endings that involved marriage. So, it’s interesting that Dickens has Martha get married albeit to someone who lives four hundred miles from everybody else, but not Emily. Since Emily only had one affair while it’s implied Martha had far more, you’d expect it be the other way around. But it works for me.
David Copperfield’s final six chapters feel somewhat meandering and overindulgent to me. It’s as if Dickens can’t bear to say goodbye to the characters and world he had created, at least not without dotting every i, crossing every t, and wrapping up absolutely everyone’s story. But if the book’s not perfect, who cares? Its virtues are so wonderful that its faults don’t matter much. And if Dickens loved the characters in it too much for the work’s own good, who could blame him? Even as I wrote that about finding some of the happy endings too neat, I still wanted to believe in them.
Something occurred to me on this read. At the beginning, David Copperfield told us that he was supposed to be able to see ghosts because of when he was born, but he never did. Think back on how often in the book he says he can still see the characters before him just as they were at particularly dramatic moments. (It threatens to get downright repetitive.) Looks like he got his inheritance after all!
There are some great parallels between the first and final chapters of the book. In the very first sentence, David raised the question of whether he or someone else would be the hero of his life story. The final paragraph is about Agnes, whom he obviously considers the one to fill that role. (I’d argue she’s one among many heroes.) The book also began with David’s birth and while it doesn’t end with his actual death (it’d be hard for him to have written it if that were the case), it does end with him describing his ideal death. Given the ending’s overall optimism, I’m sure it’ll come to pass that way.
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I love the idea that Agnes is David’s final hero, but that she is “one among many heroes” of his life. That is the interesting thing about Copperfield: everyone *else* is, in a way, the star of the show!
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In response to a tweet from the Dickens Society about our favorite “self-plagiarisms” of Dickens–i.e. where he repeats his own image, phrase, metaphor, etc–I responded that I love the way he uses that ordinary phrase to poignant effect: “better as it is.” It often seems to be used by a character who feels insufficient, unworthy. Dora uses it in Chapter 53:
“I lay my face upon the pillow by her, and she looks into my eyes, and speaks very softly. Gradually, as she goes on, I feel, with a stricken heart, that she is speaking of herself as past.
‘I am afraid, dear, I was too young. I don’t mean in years only, but in experience, and thoughts, and everything. I was such a silly little creature! I am afraid it would have been better, if we had only loved each other as a boy and girl, and forgotten it. I have begun to think I was not fit to be a wife.’
I try to stay my tears, and to reply, ‘Oh, Dora, love, as fit as I to be a husband!’
‘I don’t know,’ with the old shake of her curls. ‘Perhaps! But if I had been more fit to be married I might have made you more so, too. Besides, you are very clever, and I never was.’
‘We have been very happy, my sweet Dora.’
‘I was very happy, very. But, as years went on, my dear boy would have wearied of his child–wife. She would have been less and less a companion for him. He would have been more and more sensible of what was wanting in his home. She wouldn’t have improved. It is better as it is.'”
There is this continual feeling that what is a mournful turn of events for one person, is better for another–and I find this a heartbreaking idea. Dickens will utilize this again to great effect in A Tale of Two Cities, where Carton says this–or a variation of this–at a couple of key moments.
Dr. Christian then responded, loving this whole idea and doing a search for this phrase in Dickens, and finding 11 different examples of it! I will put his tweet in the comment below this one.
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Chapter 53 gets me every time! From the first line to the last I weep like I will never give up weeping! I am surprised that I managed to record the narration for that chapter, but having said that, if you listen closely you can hear the tears in my voice!
I think of every little trifle between me and Dora, and feel the truth, that trifles make the sum of life. Ever rising from the sea of my remembrance, is the image of the dear child as I knew her first, graced by my young love, and by her own, with every fascination wherein such love is rich.
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On my above comment, here is Dr. Christian’s reply:
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I’d like to revisit G.K. Chesterton’s Appreciation of “David Copperfield” because I’ve always felt dissatisfied with the novel’s ending and Chesterfield’s piece has given me an understanding of why I feel so. [See https://www.gutenberg.org/files/22362/22362-h/22362-h.htm#COPPERFIELD%5D
Chesterton posits: “For although [‘David Copperfield’] is the best of all Dickens’s books, it constantly disappoints” because it “begins as if it were going to be a new kind of Dickens novel; then it gradually turns into an old kind of Dickens novel”.
His argument is that David’s vibrant life experience fades into a monotony that is incongruous with such a promising beginning. He compares David to Nicholas Nickleby – Nicholas is “a quite colourless primary condition”, “something which is required to tie the whole affair together . . . a sort of clothes-line on which are hung” the characters and situations of the novel which bears his name; David, however, is “a living boy and man”, who has “superb and terrible friends”, and who is “perpetually entangled in the splendid tortures and sacred surprises that come from living with really individual and unmanageable people”. “David Copperfield” disappoints because, Chesterton argues, Dickens “begins his story in a new style and then slips back into an old one”, that is, David turns into Nicholas. With Dora’s death, the emigration of the Micwaber’s & Peggotty’s, and the transportation of the villains, David loses a cohort of spontaneous, vibrant, worrisome, exacting individuals whose presence gave LIFE to his life, injecting it with meaning, focus and purpose. Chesterton argues that this LIFE is the very essence of Dickens – that “the whole meaning of Dickens [is] that we should keep the absurd people for our friends” because they “are the spice and interest of life”:
“We should have thought more of David Copperfield (and also of Charles Dickens) if he had faced the possibility of going on till his dying day lending money to Mr. Wilkins Micawber. We should have thought more of David Copperfield (and also of Charles Dickens) if he had not looked upon the marriage with Dora merely as a flirtation, an episode which he survived and ought to survive.”
But, this describes DICKENS’S life – not DAVID’S.
While I agree with Chesterton that the last chapters, beginning in Ch LII with Aunt Betsey’s suggestion that the Micawber’s emigrate, feel like “a falling away of a somewhat singular kind”, I don’t think I’d go so far as to blame it on “fatigue” or as an “error” on Dickens’s part. I think, in this pseudo-autobiography, Dickens wanted David to have the happy ending he wished for himself – to have a successful and ever profitable career, the perfect wife, the perfect children, the perfect extended family, and all the troublesome individuals safely out of the way. The “falling away” Chesterton senses is intentional, reflecting Dickens’s refusal – or inability? – to relegate his “favorite child” to a never-ending life of harsh reality like the one Dickens himself was living.
Further, I don’t believe this concept of Dickensian LIFE is completely abandoned in these last chapters as Chesterton seems to suggest. Rather, it shifts from David to Tommy Traddles in the brief glimpse we are given of his and Sophy’s after-story. What beautiful chaos! Their home is open and overflowing with family, friends and love; all are welcome with no hesitation, no questions, no constraints but to be happy and enjoy. And no one is happier than Tommy and Sophy. Such a well deserved reward for their enduring patience and diligence. Oh, if David would write THAT novel, his reputation as Dickens’s doppelgänger would be sealed!
Opposed to these happy endings are the sad fates of Emily and Ham. The severe punishment they receive for the “wrong” that tore them apart is a critique of 19th century cultural views on sex and class. Their promising young lives – individual but shared – are blighted and their existence becomes ascetic, defined by remorse, repentance, contrition, and service to others. That Emily should feel SO ashamed and debased, that she should need to be forgiven, that her people should be considered virtuous for being willing to overlook her transgression, that she should be shunned as a matter of course by her community, that her ungrateful response to being “gifted” by Steerforth to Littlimer should be questioned by Littimer and Rosa – all this rankles – as it should. Especially in the face of how Steerforth is perceived. He is a false-friend, a seducer and a cad, but his most egregious offense is that he did not properly respect and honor – his mother! Even if he never returned to her to beg her forgiveness while showing an appropriate acknowledgement of her authority, he would not be stigmatized by society as Emily is. He would, at the very least, be able to find honest, gainful employment with no questions asked as to why he might need it. His class and his gender protect him – always. Had he not been caught up in the tempest he most likely would have gone on his merry way and eventually made peace with his mother, who would, not doubt, have received him with open arms. And finally, poor Ham, who did nothing more than love Emily, wish to marry her, and trust in the false friendship of Steerforth, is left hollow, hurt and smarting by the ill-usage of both. His initial rage at Steerforth is totally justified, but he is forced by his friends and his better judgment to suppress his rage. Yet, rage, like murder, will out – one wonders just what exactly did happen out there in the tempest?
One minor character who deserves mention is Mr Omer. Such a gentle man. He is at crucial moments an example to David of generosity and kindliness, stability and encouragement. He is a quiet voice of reason, of common sense, or morality. He speaks truths that David needs to hear when there is no one else to speak them. It is he who puts Emily’s state of mind into context – how her wish to “become a lady” isolated her; what a diligent worker she is; how she is unsettled and struggling (Chs XXI, XXX); and it is he who champions Martha when no one else (besides Emily) does (Chs XXX, LI). That he is an undertaker is no accident. His task as an undertaker is not simply to prepare the dead for burial but to ease the experience of a loved one’s death for the living, to bring some semblance of order to an otherwise disorderly and disorienting experience. So he does for David by shepherding his scattered and formless thoughts about events into rational and meaningful shape. His simple principles are guides to living a good life:
“‘You are such a comfortable man, you see,’ said Minnie. ‘You take things so easy.’
‘No use taking ‘em otherwise, my dear,’ said Mr. Omer.” (Ch IX)
“the way I look at it is, that we are all drawing on to the bottom of the hill, whatever age we are, on account of time never standing still for a single moment. So let us always do a kindness, and be over-rejoiced. To be sure!” (Ch LI)
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Great thoughts, Chris and Stationmaster. Chris, Boze and I talked quite a bit about the Chesterton essay too, at the start, and I find a lot of resonances in my own thinking, as well as some things I disagree with. Though I don’t quite see the praise of the marriage with Dora as being so superior to that with Agnes, I get what he is saying: life is messy, and it we cannot expect on this earth the kind of *utter* tranquility (to the point of uneventfulness?) that is suggested as the ideal with Agnes. I love Agnes’s “place” in the story; only, I wish she’d had more of the spice of the Marchioness, or the quiet but very *active* heroism of Little Dorrit. I think in some of Dickens’s characterization, passivity and tranquility get a little muddled? Nonetheless, the ending of the story, the final lines, never fail to move me deeply, no matter what.
I agree that the story of Traddles and Sophy is perfect and that I wish Dickens had written more of them! Their relationship and the long wait for its fulfillment, will make them, perhaps, the happiest characters in the whole novel. Their relationship is the most cheerful, the most hopeful, the most messy-beautiful thing! I think they’ve found the secret of happiness: finding that partner who will perfectly share in the imperfections and mess of daily life–and enjoy it all, because they’re together. I love it that the best room is always reserved for “the beauty”; that they will be surrounded by a house-load of girls, and be the ones to take care of them after the mother’s death; I love it that they embrace all this as part and parcel of life, and make it a joyous romp together. Think of all the happiness they’ll bring to others; the happiness they’ll have themselves in each other, because they’ve embraced it all in such a spirit–not resigned or ascetic or resentful, but on the contrary: this IS LIFE. They are undoubtedly one of the best romantic couples in Dickens–perhaps they represent the very best.
One can never judge in such matters, as we don’t know how we’d fare under similar circumstances, nor can we get into anyone’s particular interior life with all the experiences that have contributed to it. But perhaps, without knowing it, that while Dickens was writing of the life he wished he had had–with a more soul-kindred partner such as Agnes, and utter tranquility to the point of uneventfulness–he didn’t realize he was writing (in Traddles and Sophy) something akin to the kind of life he still *might* have had. Of course, what we all want and might possibly be lucky enough to have is a true partner in mind and heart, and we have the sense that Sophy was that for Traddles, and vice-versa. Nonetheless, perhaps one can still rejoice in the imperfections; sublimating and transforming innate *dissatisfaction* into the thrill of dealing with this imperfect life and turning it to joy for oneself and others. But for such a character as Dickens’s, perhaps that sense of dissatisfaction was too consuming. Part of his interior turmoil contributed to some of the greatest characters literature will ever know; still, I wish for his and Catherine’s sake–and the children’s–that he could have found this joy in chaos and imperfect circumstances.
I was thinking about the parallels between Nickleby and Copperfield, and Nickleby will always have one of the most special places in my heart because of its unabashed theatricality and comedy; and Nicholas himself is one of my heroes–perhaps influenced by Roger Rees’s iconic performance on stage. Dickens has been writing in the Bildungsroman genre all along–with the exception, perhaps, of Pickwick. The focus is on one’s growth to manhood or womanhood; going through many experiences (comic or tragic) to add to one’s store of knowledge. But with, say, Oliver or Nicholas or Little Nell, Floy or Walter, though they may grow in experience, they are essentially the same goodhearted and innocent souls that they were at the beginning. Perhaps deepened with time. With David, I think we have something more like a bildungsroman of the soul; he has to find a maturity of heart–of that “undisciplined heart” that leads him to make decisions that truly affect his own and others’ lives for good or ill: the naivete that made him look up to Steerforth and bring him into the home of the Peggotty’s; the marriage to a woman who was not the one he really wanted as a partner in life. There is a greater focus, in DC, on our hero’s growth in *wisdom* as he grows in experience, and this seems to me the main difference between David and the heroes of his earlier novels–with the exception of Martin Chuzzlewit, whose “hero” needed to be at his own death’s door in order to awaken to wisdom and to be able to *see* others fully.
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I’ve got something to ask you. It’d be better in an email or a Twitter message, but I can’t tell if you got the last ones I sent, so I’m going to ask it here. I’d like to do an essay on Bleak House, like the one I did for Copperfield, to be published during our first week of reading. Would you have time to look at it before then, see if it’s OK, and maybe add some images? (Rachel was the one who provided the images for “David Copperfield and the Search for the Perfect Parent.”) I also have different ideas for the title, and it’d be nice if you could advise me as to which one sounds best.
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Absolutely, Stationmaster! Maybe the email@example.com email? Sorry, I get so absent-minded about the twitter messages…though I try not to miss them! Sorry if I have missed something you sent lately…I will check. It has been a hectic few weeks 😂
How do we feel, here at the end of our journey through David, about Maugham’s (and Dickens’s) assertion that this was his best novel? Certainly one could argue that in terms of characters it was never equalled. In the later portions of the story Dickens reaches a pitch of dream-like mood and atmosphere that’s at times impressionistic. One can almost feel the mist creeping over the stones of Cannon Street and Doctors’ Commons, and his descriptiveness is wedded to some of the more aching internal reflections in the Dickens canon. The double blow of Dora’s loss, and then the fatal aftermath of the tempest, works a kind of mesmeric effect on the reader. We are in a dream world – more, in a sort of nightmare. (Chesterton would employ some of the same effects, this wedding of London landscape with a sense of the unreality of life, in his own masterpiece, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare.) Some of our commenters were struck by the emotional power of the tempest chapter, which I would argue is one of the two or three most moving scenes in Dickens. And yet it hasn’t gotten nearly the attention of the only comparable passage, the (justly lauded) closing sequence in A Tale of Two Cities. Even in the adaptations, the deaths of Ham and Steerforth tend to be underplayed. Have readers perhaps overlooked what Dickens achieved in this passage? Or is it that the scene so devastates us that one can’t bear to think of it for very long?
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I personally wouldn’t call it his best, but I can definitely understand someone else calling it that. (It’s in my top six.) I just might say it has the best cast of characters, which is saying quite a bit since Dickens’s larger than life characters are his main claim to fame.
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