Re-reading David Copperfield after less self-centred Dickens novels which take the pulse of the nation and the wider world, I’m again struck by its relative narrowness of vision. First-person narration might seem to make this inevitable yet we don’t feel it in Great Expectations, where larger issues of social justice flow from a process of critical self-scrutiny. While young Pip is racked by shame and guilt, David just feels sorry for himself while pointing out his numerous virtues. As Felicia acutely pointed out last month, these largely conduce to conformity with social (middle-class) norms. DC charts a conventional pattern of heroic narrative, from adversity to success (and pace the opening clause of the novel, there’s no doubt who Dickens thinks is the hero). David has ‘great expectations’ – ‘hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man’ (ch 11, p. 168) – but without any ironic distancing, the sequential notes of self-pity and self-congratulation are pretty unattractive. Moreover, the autobiographical form exposes the fault-lines in Dickens’ class-consciousness more starkly than is apparent elsewhere. These features are evident in the chapters under review this month. But being by Dickens, it goes without saying that they also contain memorably brilliant things, some of which are actually facilitated by the first-person perspective.
In these numbers, misery continues to be the dominant note. At school David is one of the ‘miserable little dogs’ (101) propitiating the sadistically brutal Creakle; at home he is tormented by the equally sadistic Murdstones – ‘[h]e ordered me like a dog, and I obeyed like a dog’ (131); and then at work, he suffers in secret: ‘How much I suffered, it is…utterly beyond my power to tell’ (172; it isn’t actually!). The dismal mood is leavened in each setting by shards of solace or pleasure, all of them, however, adulterated or curtailed. The title of ch.8 prepares us for blessed relief, which does indeed materialise in that ‘happy afternoon’ with David’s mother and Peggotty. But how short-lived is that happiness, barely half a chapter. By the end of it, he has been banned from Peggotty’s company in the kitchen, and is losing his mother for ever as he returns to school. Chapter 9 likewise has a hopeful title, which is even more misleading. There is some diversion from the emotional plight of the orphan in the humorous account of the Barkis-Peggotty marriage and in David’s return to the Peggotty boathouse at Yarmouth, where everything looked just the same’ (150). But the cherished relationship with Little Em’ly is not the same: ‘she laughed at me, and tormented me’ (152). They do get closely attached again in the chaise after the wedding: David dreams of a never-never land in which they marry but never grow older – idyllic, but poignantly unreal. Yet in his attitude to her and the rest of her family, common people all, there is not a trace of condescension, let alone shame in the connection – a total contrast to his revulsion about associating with the ‘common men and boys’ he has to work with in ch. 11.
At school, all the consolations are derived from the patronising friendship of Steerforth, whose insistence that David tell stories in the dormitory every night (‘We’ll make some regular Arabian Nights of it’ (103)) provides the serial-novelist-to-be with his first delicious taste of a devoted audience (‘the being cherished as a kind of plaything, and the consciousness that this accomplishment of mine…attracted a good deal of notice to me…’ (105)). David becomes bound in love, admiration and gratitude to Steerforth, he tells us in the first paragraph on p.104 (and typically reminds us what a good little chap he himself was). This emotional bondage means that in the gripping scene which follows, David is a cheerleader in witnessing Steerforth’s brutal verbal assault on poor Mr Mell: ‘what a noble fellow he was in appearance’ (109); ‘I felt quite in a glow at this gallant speech’ (110); ‘we gave three cheers…I supposed for Steerforth, and so joined in them ardently, though I felt miserable’ (111). This last clause reveals the deep unease underlying her0-worship, but then Steerforth announces he’ll supply Mell with financial compensation and his nobility is restored. The dramatic ironies in this episode are superbly constructed, but they create unfulfilled expectations of a grand repudiation of the noble fellow when the scales later fall from David’s eyes (see the opening of Ch. 32, 461-2). Significantly, Steerforth attacks Mell in class terms: he’s no gentleman; indeed, he’s a beggar. Four chapters later, David’s ineradicable resentment at being sent to work at Murdstone and Grinby is also primarily a matter of class identity, as he clings precariously to the status of ‘the little gent’. When Mealy Potatoes ‘rebelled against my being so distinguished…Mick Walker settled him in no time’ (173). Dramatic irony? Hardly, since this passage is taken almost verbatim from Dickens’ own autobiographical lament (see App.I, 898). Hence Shaw’s neat characterisation of Great Expectations as ‘an apology to Mealy Potatoes’. Returning briefly to ch. 7, there’s much more there deserving of discussion, for example the part played by Traddles in its central compelling scene, and Steerforth’s contemptuous retorts of ‘you girl’ and ‘Miss Traddles’ (112). I can’t help thinking of Boris Johnson’s disparaging designation of David Cameron as ‘girly swot’. An imprecise analogy, I know, except that Steerforth will similarly dismiss academic attainment as a way to seal entitlement: ‘”I take a degree!…Not I!…I have not the least desire or intention to distinguish myself in that way”’ (300).
During David’s wretched introduction to the world of work (‘I never…was otherwise than miserably unhappy’ (173)), solace of a kind comes through the entry of the Micawbers into his life. This is more entertaining for the reader, perhaps, than for David, since ‘Mr Micawber’s difficulties were an addition to the distressed state of my mind’ (173). And of course, in the short run, it can’t last; from the start, Micawberism is a byword for instability. The family’s imminent departure from the city after release from prison is one of the factors prompting the formation of David’s resolution to run away. This plan is under way as No. IV closes, but not very propitiously, since at the outset he’s stripped of all his worldly goods by the long-legged young man. No half measures with Dickens.
Among those aforesaid felicities of first-person impression and expression, there are two types notably developed in these numbers. One was mentioned in Michael Slater’s brief introduction: the use of the present tense in the invocation of particular vignettes of memory. This isn’t just for greater immediacy, but to enact the process of summoning up those buried images. Examples: ch. 7, p. 101 – three awful recollections of being under Creakle surveillance at school; and ch. 11, p. 165 – images of the rat-infested warehouse (‘They are all before me…’). The second, not unrelated type is the clustering of distinct sense impressions – sight, sound, smell, taste, touch – to characterise an experience more intensely or more extensively. A virtuosic example is the paragraph near the end of ch. 7 (117) pulling together a ‘jumble’ of recollections of school life: ‘The rest of the half year…a dirty atmosphere of ink surrounding all’. Only Dickens could produce such a list, in which, among many other memories, the sensation of the schoolroom as ‘a great shivering-machine’ gives way to a child’s preoccupation with monotonous dinners and having his hair cut.
- After the Steerforth vs Mell scene discussed at some length above, and his introduction of Steerforth to Mr Peggotty and Ham, David devotes a paragraph to the charismatic attractions of his hero/friend, a process of ‘enchantment’, the casting of a spell, ‘which not many persons could withstand’. Does this convincingly or sufficiently account for the withholding of moral judgement (except on the part of Traddles)?
- What should we make of David’s conflicted responses in ch. 10 to Little Em’ly’s pubescence (or thereabouts), including the strange passage describing their first meeting again, when ‘a curious feeling came over me that made me pretend not to know her, and pass by as if I were looking at something a long way off. I have done such a thing since in later life, or I am mistaken’ (151)?
- ‘No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship….But I never, happily for me no doubt, made a single acquaintance’ (166, 178). Is this avoidance of working-class contamination, in passages incorporated from Dickens’s own autobiographical memoir, reconcilable with David’s warm friendship with the Peggottys, or indeed with Dickens’ reputation as friend of the poor?
2nd Oct 2020