In what is, no doubt, a blinding glimpse of the obvious, it struck me that David Copperfield is a portrait of the artist as a young man. Unlike Joyce, Dickens doesn’t make the prose of the novel evolve as his young man develops, and he doesn’t involve his hero in elaborate debates about aesthetics. But one of the things Joyce insisted on when quizzed about his novel was that it was a portrait of the artist as a young man. This is interesting because one of the recurrent issues in our discussions so far has been the extent to which we can distinguish the point of view of the evolving ‘young David’ and the ‘older and wiser David’ who we imagine controlling the narrative of his life, and who we may struggle to distinguish from Dickens the novelist, not least because of the powerful autobiographical elements in the novel. In a reflection on his state of mind as he confronts life after school, the narrator makes a distinction between ‘my boyish mind’ and ‘my present way of thinking.’ In these chapters we are often left to recognise a ‘boyish mind’ at work, but there are crucial moments where the narrator intervenes directly to underline the gap separating youthful perceptions and those of an older and a wiser man.
Stephen Dedalus feels he has to fly by the nets of nationality, language and religion to fulfil his destiny. David has to escape the abyss of poverty and the ‘foul black cobweb’ of the law before he can become a successful writer. Each has a traumatic experience early in life which confronts them with a sense of damnation: literally so in Stephen’s hell-fire sermon, figuratively in David’s taste of the inferno of abandonment in poverty.
At this stage of the novel we find David at a turning point in his development: he leaves school and, under the benign sponsorship of Betsey Trotwood, he is able to take stock of his life, think about his future, embark on a career and begin a life of independence in a set of chambers described as ‘a genteel residence for a young gentleman.’ His rooms are in the Adelphi district of London and, once alone in possession, he does not fail to reflect on the way his physical situation underlines the revolution in his fortunes: ‘I turned my face to the Adelphi, pondering on the old days when I used to roam about its subterranean arches, and on the happy changes which had brought me to the surface.’ (p.364) Earlier, when he travels by coach from Dover to London, he is able, from an elevated position, to identify some of the places and people he had passed on his lonely, ragged pilgrimage to Dover in search of his aunt. In neither instance is there evidence of that earlier pledge to ‘never forget the houseless’, just satisfaction in ‘the happy changes’ that put all that behind him, as if any focused reflection on that phase of his life is too painful to contemplate.
Betsey Trotwood is both generous and sensitive in her surrogate parental responsibilities, forming a notable contrast to Mrs. Steerforth. She wants David to have time to think about his future, and wants him to make independent choices. There is a recurring emphasis on independence and self-reliance: she wants him to be ‘a fine, firm fellow, with a will of your own … with strength of character that is not to be influenced, except on good reason, by anybody or anything.’
It is in relation to Steerforth that this emphasis on independence is particularly significant. Just as he wants to bury his experience of poverty and abandonment, David wants to escape a deeply inhibiting sense of his youthfulness. He longs for whiskers, but in his social encounters he is regularly shaved. Waiters, coachmen, landlady – all exploit his callowness. This makes him particularly vulnerable when a chance meeting in a London hotel brings him into contact with the hero (and protector) of his early schooldays.
Steerforth’s effortless social command, his arrogant sense of entitlement, dazzle his young friend and renew the adulatory, hero-worshipping mind-set of the vulnerable schoolboy. The visit to the family home in Highgate cements these feelings and exposes a consistent mis-reading of Steerforth’s character and motives, despite Rosa Dartle’s cryptic insinuations. Mrs. Steerforth’s disastrous indulgence of her son is seen as no more than he deserves, and Creakle’s cringing deference to the ‘high spirit’ of his social superior is ‘a redeeming quality’ in him. The gruesome story of Steerforth’s ‘high-spirited’ assault on Rosa only provokes David’s regret at raising ‘such a painful theme.’ Just as he mis-reads Agnes’s feelings for him, so he reaches the conclusion that Rosa ‘loves you (Steerforth) like a brother.’
The visit to Yarmouth sets in train the disastrous consequences of young David’s illusions about Steerforth, and exposes these illusions against hints of that impending disaster and a future awakening. In Chapter 21 we read, a propos of Littimer: ‘I am particular about this man, because he made a particular effect on me at that time, and because of what took place thereafter.’
Steerforth clearly has a charismatic charm, and uses it to win the admiration and affection of all he meets in Yarmouth, but he is like a conjurer playing with puppets, and a dangerously predatory player. As the older David comments: ‘I have no doubt now… that all this was a brilliant game, played for the excitement of the moment … in the thoughtless love of superiority.’ (p.318) At this point the narrator makes apparent his retrospective sense of shame at his blind indulgence of ‘romantic feelings of fidelity and friendship.’ Even Steerforth’s patronising comment on ‘a quaint place and…quaint company’ doesn’t discomfort him, and he insists on seeing the toxically snobbish description of Ham as ‘a chuckle-headed fellow for the girl’ as a joke.
When David finds Steerforth alone in Chapter 22 he is no longer the dazzling performer but subject to ‘the horrors’, apparently afraid of himself. This is, though, a brief fit of Byronic angst with an Augustinian prayer for the father he never had: ‘Lord, let me be responsible, but not yet…’ The boat and Littimer stand ready.
The treatment of Emily and Martha obviously reflects Dickens’s current involvement in the Eurania Cottage enterprise, the ‘Home for Homeless Women’. We are made aware of the powerful social stigma and ostracism suffered by a ‘fallen woman’ such as Martha, particularly in a small provincial town like Yarmouth. Only Peggotty and Emily rise above the universal shunning of contact, as others see ‘sexual sin’ rather like a contagious virus.
The episode at Mr. Omer’s premises, when David sees Emily as a young woman for the first time, gives an interesting perspective on her character and development. (It also confirms Omer’s status as a uniquely benign and likeable undertaker). What is seen by many in the local community as Emily’s flightiness, a presumptuous form of ambition, might be more sympathetically viewed as the understandable restiveness of a young woman with some talent and ability faced with the prospect of a limited life in a closed world. This is not to accept Steerforth’s evaluation of Ham but to see why Emily might be understandably susceptible to ‘temptation’.
David is sufficiently moved by her compassion, and her struggle with herself, to regard the whole experience as ‘a sacred confidence’ which he is unwilling to share even with Steerforth. This has the indirect effect of heightening Steerforth’s ugly betrayal of Emily and the extended Yarmouth family, underlined by the send-off to which he and David are treated.
- How do you interpret Littimer’s ‘respectability’ and the power he exerts over David?
- Dickens got into trouble over Miss Moucher, as detailed in Michael Slater’s Charles Dickens,(ch.13, p.301). Is she merely a gratuitous exercise in grotesquerie?
- ‘It’s in vain to recall the past, unless it works some influence upon the present’, reflects Betsey Trotwood. How constructively or otherwise do she and other characters reflect on their past?
- For a visual impression of Yarmouth at about the time that the novel is set, you might like to explore the work of Joseph Stannard, one of the Norwich School of 19C painters, who spent the latter part of his life in Yarmouth and painted a number of local scenes. ‘Boats on the Yare’ is in the Fitzwilliam, and you will find ‘Yarmouth Sands’ and ‘Yarmouth Beach and Jetty’ if you Google Joseph Stannard. Tate Britain has a Turner sketch of Great Yarmouth.
- When David mistakes Betsey’s estranged husband for a ‘sturdy beggar’ it is a reminder that Dickens himself, probably because of his deserved reputation for social concern and benevolence, was no ‘easy touch’. This is very clear when he writes about ‘The Begging-Letter Writer’, ‘Pet Prisoners’ or ‘Beggars’: the first half of the latter piece, published in 1860, finds him, like David, on the Dover road, and consists of a catalogue of exposures of ‘sturdy beggars’ as con men. Dickens shared Betsey’s commitment to self-reliance and self-improvement as seen in his support for Ragged Schools, Mechanics’ Institutes and other stimulants to working-class education. Steerforth’s lackadaisical approach to study would not have impressed him, but he had a soft spot for the more ingenious forms of working-class initiative, even when they sailed close to the wind. For a Christmas tonic, I recommend ‘Dr. Marigold’s Prescriptions.’