October 04, 2010

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Following the Eliot novels I blogged about earlier in the summer, my progression through re-reading all the novels of my thesis slowed somewhat as I reached the final stages of writing up my full draft- long working days left me with little time to do anything much else, let alone read David Copperfield at any great pace (in retrospect, at 900 pages of cramped tiny font, this was not a wise choice to accompany the stressful writing phase. But at least there was Dickens' humour to maintain my enjoyment of the novel and spur on my, at times somewhat flagging, motivation). The blog too has also taken a little longer than usual to write up, but here are a few notes on the novel.

dc2.jpgDavid Copperfield (1850) is a very mobile novel, with almost all characters taking, at one point or another, a substantial journey that sees them uprooted from one permanent location to another. David's own movements set out the typical structure which the mobility of most of the other characters follows, in particular delineating the geographical scope of the novel from Suffolk to London to Kent. These three locales - the only British places in the novel - form a microcosmic world within which David and the other characters move: that Yarmouth and Dover are situated at the ends of David's earth is nicely alluded to when the young David first travels to Yarmouth and is surprised at the flatness of the landscape, wondering as he does, if "the world were really as round as my geography-book said, how any part of it came to be so flat. But I reflected that Yarmouth might be situated at one of the poles; which would account for it" (p. 27)*. London features as the centre-point to this world: all journeys are either to, or pass through, London, and all characters, whether they start out either South or North of the city, eventually migrate, through the culmination of various circumstances, to London; meanwhile those who start out in London, the Micawbers, follow the opposite pattern, ending up in Canterbury.

There's a neat, tight structure to the novel's geography, then, a national space that is at once both constricted in its expanse and yet far from static given the constant mobility of even minor characters. As with most novels of the period, though, one or two characters break out of this setting and venture into the wider world beyond southern England. The most substantially detailed of such journeys is that of Mr Peggotty, who goes off to Europe in search of his niece "little Em'ly". Interestingly, considering the tight plotting of English space, his journey to the continent is into a vague and unknown space: no specifics are given as to where he is going to seek her, only that he is going abroad "to seek her, far and wide". the first movement out of southern England is into a vague and undefined foreign space - there's a seeming reluctance here to engage with the specifics of foreign travel, further suggested when Peggotty describes arriving in France as having "landed theer, as if I'd fell down from the sky” (p. 567). In the narration of his cross-continental travels, it is specifically social interactions which form the basis of his narrative rather, and the continental space appears to be a protracted, expansive space: as he approaches the Swiss mountains, he finds that "ever so fur [far] as I went, ever so fur the mountains seemed to shift away from me" (p. 568).

Beyond Europe, two journeys further afield also provide the subject for a more richy imagined geography of other spaces, firstly with Jack Maldon, and later the Mills', journeys to India. The surrounding discussions of these travels mostly focus around the dangers to health that the country's "trying climate" poses - Mrs Markleham is sure that Jack will die there - thus contributing to familiar Victorian discourses about the potential threat that colonial spaces pose to the British body (in other novels of the period many other travelling subjects become visibly marked or ill as a result of their journeys, and India is perceived as an especially dangerous space for the vulnerable (white) British body- think of Jane Eyre, for example, who is warned that to travel to India would be going towards a "premature death"). India also provides a space for the young David's rather imaginative constructions, "floating dreams concerning golden shawls and elephant's teeth", no doubt inspired by the travel stories he reads as a young boy. It is Australia, though, that figures as the space for imaginative freedom in the novel, with the Micawbers, Mr Peggotty and Em'ly setting sail to begin a new life there. Whilst India represents a potential threat to the healthy British subject, Australia is perceived as a space conducive to health - "the climate is healthy ... finest in the world!" - and as a space of opportunity - "no better opening anywhere for a man who conducts himself well, and is industrious". Its potential comes largely from the perception that this is a blank space, unconquered and uncharted, open for the British subject to roam free; the Euroimperialist mindset is nowhere more clearly stated than when Mrs Micawber tells of how she hopes her husband will, as they approach Australia, "'take his stand upon that vessel’s prow, and firmly say, “This country I am come to conquer! Have you honors? Have you riches? […] They are mine!”’" (p.788).

Throughout these other journeys, the movements of little Em'ly thread through somewhat silently; the story of her journey, eloping with Steerforth and then, having escaped, making her way home on her own, is told only through her uncle's narration. Like Hetty and Maggie, Em'ly's story is one of sexuality and wandering- interestingly, there's a similar early set-up of this theme between her and David, for as children they walk together but on David's next visit at a slightly older age ("more of a little woman than I had supposed"), she will no longer walk with him but instead avoids him, running home another way; in this, there's something of a suggestion of female temptation and seduction played with, as David notes "when I went to meet her, [she] stole home another way, and was laughing at the door when I came back, disappointed" (p. 137). Later, though, it is Em'ly who is tempted into straying away from home, seduced into eloping with Steerforth to the continent, thus playing into another familiar foreign trope of the continent as the space of illicit sexuality. Em'ly returns a "fallen woman", emphasised all the more strongly by her returning to the most "sombre" of London streets, a space of "corruption and decay". The strong condemnation of Em'ly is played out through her near-removal from the novel - she is barely glimpsed by the narrating David, only appearing as a shadowy figure in the background as if the narrative can't quite be brought to encounter the wrongdoing she represents. Her fate for this wrongdoing echoes that of Hetty, for though not transport, Em'ly is taken to Australia by her uncle, thus safely displacing her from Britain just as many other novels cast out villainous or disreputable characters to foreign spaces.

David also journeys beyond the borders of Britain, undertaking a continental journey in search of peace and the restoration of his health following the deaths of Dora and Steerforth; but this also operates as something of a Grand Tour for him, giving him the opportunity to see "the novelties of foreign towns" and improve his "store of knowledge". Like many other young men of the period (and earlier), this gives him the freedom to roam and wander before returning to England and settling into his adult, married, life.

*Page numbers refer to the 1999 Oxford World's Classics edition, ed. Nina Burgis.


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