“A Glimpse into Mysteries”: Harry Stone on the “Tempest” Chapter in David Copperfield

A “Dickens’s Writing Lab” post; an Excerpt from Harry Stone’s Dickens’ Working Notes for His Novels on the details of his “Tempest” chapter in David Copperfield; with brief commentary.

Edited by Rach; extended excerpts from Harry Stone

by Harry E. Greaves

“I now approach an event in my life so indelible, so awful, so bound by an infinite variety of ties to all that has preceded it, in these pages, that, from the beginning of my narrative, I have seen it growing larger and larger as I advanced, like a great tower in a plain, and throwing its fore-cast shadow even on the incidents of my childish days.”

~David Copperfield, Chapter LV, “Tempest”

The “Tempest” chapter in David Copperfield is, arguably, not only the greatest chapter in the novel but one of the greatest pieces of writing in English literature. When rereading it recently on audiobook during a walk, tears kept rolling down my cheeks for the sheer beauty of the writing; for Boze, this chapter and its last sentence made him want to become a writer when he was very young.

One of the books I’ve been most eager to devour is Harry Stone’s Dickens’ Working Notes for His Novels, and I just found it in the oversize section of the university library, its pages filled with facsimiles of Dickens’s manuscript pages and working notes, with typed versions side-by-side for ease in deciphering Dickens’s handwriting.

As we have previously discussed in the group, Dickens’s method, which was largely present from Dombey and Son and on, went something like this, in the words of Harry Stone:

That format, which allows us to glimpse ‘the story-weaver at his loom’–to use Dickens’ evocative metaphor for himself at work (“Postscript,” Our Mutual Friend)–is worth describing in some detail. He customarily took a sheet of approximately 7″x9″ pale blue laid paper–often with gilt edges similar to his stationery–and folded it, long side horizontal, in half. He then opened the folded sheet, and on the left half he queried himself as to options, jotted down tags and motifs, decided what to include in and exclude from the number, sketched out future developments, established recurring images, and pondered what he must do. Also on the left half he often listed questions (they usually have question marks) in the form of names, conjunctions, possibilities. To these questions, which seem to have been his first written formulations concerning concerning the primary contents and strategies of the number, he later jotted down–often days later as different nibs or inks make clear–his decisions or answers. These answers are as laconic as his questions and usually consist of such directives, frequently underlined, as “Yes,” “No,” “Slightly,” “Not yet,” “Scarcely yet,” “Carry through,” “Consider for next No,” and so forth.

At the top of the right half of the sheet he wrote the name of the novel and the plan number, and below that, with room after each entry, the number and then, as he settled the question, the title of each chapter in the plan. In the space under each chapter he usually jotted down the chief events and motifs in the chapter (Stone xv-xvi).

For example:

Zooming in now on the “Tempest” chapter that Stone discusses below, here are Dickens’s notes, with the typed transcription below:

An excerpt from the facsimile of Dicken’s Working Notes on David Copperfield
Typed transcription of the Working Notes

But I’ll let Harry Stone take it from here as we take a deeper dive, so to speak, into the “Tempest” chapter:

The notes for Copperfield provide many additional illustrations of how the number plans can be utilized. In the annotations for Part XVIII, Dickens writes: “Flying sand, seaweed—and flakes of foam/seen/at Broadstairs here, last night—Flying/in blotches.” Dickens is anticipating in this entry the “Tempest” chapter—the “most powerful effect in all the Story,” as he called it—a chapter he was just about to begin (17 September 1850). He had prepared for this episode and its cataclysmic upheaval from the opening pages, indeed from the opening paragraphs, of the novel, and Dickens as David puts it (and as the story confirms), sees the Yarmouth storm as an event that is “bound by an infinite variety of ties to all that has preceded it,” an event that looms ever larger through the book, “throwing its fore-cast shadow even on the incidents of my childish days” (55:556). What is so fascinating here is to see how swiftly and how skillfully Dickens incorporated the unexpected observations of the moment into the long since settled and elaborately articulated development of his design.

He does this in two ways. First, he makes the flying sand and seaweed and the flakes of foam flying in blotches unforgettable details in the primordial storm. “The sand,” David writes, “the sea-weed, and the flakes of foam, were driving by; and I was obliged to call for assistance before I could shut the gate again, and make it fast against the wind” (55:561). The details are repeated. Earlier David had gone out into a street “strewn with sand and seaweed, and with flying blotches of sea-foam” (55:559). These wild features of the storm are unexpected and compelling; they become additional touches of verisimilitude in one of the greatest renderings of natural forces in English fiction. But the details play another role as well. They become part of the symbolic meaning of the episode and of the novel. For this unnatural encroachment of the sea upon the land, this breakdown of the beneficent harmony of the universe, tells us, as so many other occurrences in the chapter tell us, and as the book as a whole has been telling us, that David too has violated the natural order, that death and destruction and breakdown must take place before that order can be restored. The flying sand and seaweed and the flakes of foam flying in blotches that Dickens saw by chance at Broadstairs just before writing the “Tempest” chapter do not say this if taken out of the context of Copperfield, but they do say this when combined with all the other touches that Dickens marshals for his purpose. The Broadstairs entry, like many other entries in the number plans, gives us a glimpse into mysteries. The brief, heavily emphasized notation helps us define Dickens’ imagination, and it helps us define how that imagination worked. We watch Dickens in the very act of transforming the random happenstance of ordinary experience—in this case the happenstance of a few fortuitously observed details—into the richness and resonance of art (Stone xix-xx).

Works Cited

Stone, Harry. Dickens’ Working Notes for His Novels. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.


  1. A wonderfully atmospheric chapter! and such beautiful writing.

    I was rather impressed by CD’s writing of storms at sea in American Notes (Chapter 2) and in Chapter 15 of Martin Chuzzlewit. The latter I feel is worth a little passage of (perhaps as comparison or as a pre-cursor/practice to this wholesome dose of Copperfield atmospherics 🙂 )

    Whither go the clouds and wind so eagerly? If, like guilty spirits, they repair to some dread conference with powers like themselves, in what wild regions do the elements hold council, or where unbend in terrible disport?

    Here! Free from that cramped prison called the earth, and out upon the waste of waters. Here, roaring, raging, shrieking, howling, all night long. Hither come the sounding voices from the caverns on the coast of that small island, sleeping, a thousand miles away, so quietly in the midst of angry waves; and hither, to meet them, rush the blasts from unknown desert places of the world. Here, in the fury of their unchecked liberty, they storm and buffet with each other, until the sea, lashed into passion like their own, leaps up, in ravings mightier than theirs, and the whole scene is madness.

    On, on, on, over the countless miles of angry space roll the long heaving billows. Mountains and caves are here, and yet are not; for what is now the one, is now the other; then all is but a boiling heap of rushing water. Pursuit, and flight, and mad return of wave on wave, and savage struggle, ending in a spouting-up of foam that whitens the black night; incessant change of place, and form, and hue; constancy in nothing, but eternal strife; on, on, on, they roll, and darker grows the night, and louder howls the wind, and more clamorous and fierce become the million voices in the sea, when the wild cry goes forth upon the storm ‘A ship!’

    — Martin Chuzzlewit Chapter 15

    Chapter 8 of Bram Stoker’s Dracula has another amazing storm scene: The Storm at Whitby – (I wonder if Stoker was a Copperfield reader… Hmmm!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love that passage, Rob! Gosh, especially for one who was not a “man of the sea” like, say, Joseph Conrad, few could write of the sea like Dickens did! And the river, and the “waterside characters” 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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