David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 11 and 12
January 8, 2011 § Leave a comment
Now reading: David Copperfield.
Continuing the survey of my favorite passages from each chapter:
“Yes, it’s always so!” she said. “They are all surprised, these inconsiderate young people, fairly and fully grown, to see any natural feeling in a little thing like me! They make a plaything of me, use me for their amusement, throw me away when they are tired, and wonder that I feel more than a toy horse or a wooden soldier! Yes, yes, that’s the way. The old way!”
This from Miss Mowcher the dwarf, in a surprising scene with David, revealing her sorrow at Steerforth’s behavior and her not catching it beforehand. A great example of the celebrated humanity of Dickens, his empathy for the motivations of behaviors of even his minor or comedic characters.
Taking that part of the Commons which happened to be nearest to us – for our man was unmarried by this time, and we were out of Court, and strolling past the Prerogative Office – I submitted that I thought the Prerogative Office rather a queerly managed institution. Mr. Spenlow inquired in what respect? I replied, with all due deference to his experience (but with more deference, I am afraid, to his being Dora’s father), that perhaps it was a little nonsensical that the Registry of that Court, containing the original wills of all persons leaving effects within the immense province of Canterbury, for three whole centuries, should be an accidental building, never designed for the purpose, leased by the registrars for their Own private emolument, unsafe, not even ascertained to be fire-proof, choked with the important documents it held, and positively, from the roof to the basement, a mercenary speculation of the registrars, who took great fees from the public, and crammed the public’s wills away anyhow and anywhere, having no other object than to get rid of them cheaply. That, perhaps, it was a little unreasonable that these registrars in the receipt of profits amounting to eight or nine thousand pounds a year (to say nothing of the profits of the deputy registrars, and clerks of seats), should not be obliged to spend a little of that money, in finding a reasonably safe place for the important documents which all classes of people were compelled to hand over to them, whether they would or no. That, perhaps, it was a little unjust, that all the great offices in this great office should be magnificent sinecures, while the unfortunate working-clerks in the cold dark room upstairs were the worst rewarded, and the least considered men, doing important services, in London. That perhaps it was a little indecent that the principal registrar of all, whose duty it was to find the public, constantly resorting to this place, all needful accommodation, should be an enormous sinecurist in virtue of that post (and might be, besides, a clergyman, a pluralist, the holder of a staff in a cathedral, and what not), – while the public was put to the inconvenience of which we had a specimen every afternoon when the office was busy, and which we knew to be quite monstrous. That, perhaps, in short, this Prerogative Office of the diocese of Canterbury was altogether such a pestilent job, and such a pernicious absurdity, that but for its being squeezed away in a corner of St. Paul’s Churchyard, which few people knew, it must have been turned completely inside out, and upside down, long ago.
It’s long, I know, but I do love it when Dickens gets himself worked up like this over some unjust, rectifiable absurdity of bureaucracy or government. He developed such an effective and entertaining rhetoric of outrage.
Peggotty was glad to get it for him, and he overwhelmed her with thanks, and went his way up Tottenham Court Road, carrying the flowerpot affectionately in his arms, with one of the most delighted expressions of countenance I ever saw.
Traddles’ love affair with the two pieces of furniture for his future household with his beloved Sophy, which he bought, then pawned, then bought back, is another delightful example of the way in which Dickens creates the illusion of not just a plot or a community, but a universe: it is the accumulation of just such tertiary incidents, and the care which he put into them, which gives the impression that the characters are living, in a world very similar to (but not identical with) our own, operating on tweaked rules of logic and behavior. Such rules lead to characters like Tommy Traddles inevitably winning back the flowerpots they’ve earned for their beloveds, and cradling them happily in their arms.
There was a beggar in the street, when I went down; and as I turned my head towards the window, thinking of her calm, seraphic eyes, he made me start by muttering, as if he were an echo of the morning:
“Blind! Blind! Blind!”
The fact that David is blind when it comes to Dora is indisputable. He is an idiot about her; she is a child; that childlike selfishness, pettiness, and idleness is, of course, the reason for the attraction for him, who was deprived of most of his childhood. The startling thing is how David (the narrator) foreshadows this fact, and gives us these hints of foreshadowing darkness in even the besotted-courtship phase of their relationship, such as this startling tableau with the beggar to close the chapter, after the revelation of his impoverishment.
I began the next day with another dive into the Roman bath, and then started for Highgate. I was not dispirited now. I was not afraid of the shabby coat, and had no yearnings after gallant greys. My whole manner of thinking of our late misfortune was changed. What I had to do, was, to show my aunt that her past goodness to me had not been thrown away on an insensible, ungrateful object. What I had to do, was, to turn the painful discipline of my younger days to account, by going to work with a resolute and steady heart. What I had to do, was, to take my woodman’s axe in my hand, and clear my own way through the forest of difficulty, by cutting down the trees until I came to Dora.
This is great, this bright and beautiful beginning to the chapter, following right on the pensive and deeply dark end to the previous one, its optimism so indicative of the feeling you can get on a crisp morning that anything is possible. And oh, that “woodman’s axe”: one of the most vivid examples of David seeing and telling the fairy tale of his life.
My aunt had obtained a signal victory over Mrs. Crupp, by paying her off, throwing the first pitcher she planted on the stairs out of the window, and protecting in person, up and down the staircase, a supernumerary whom she engaged from the outer world. These vigorous measures struck such terror to the breast of Mrs. Crupp, that she subsided into her own kitchen, under the impression that my aunt was mad. My aunt being supremely indifferent to Mrs. Crupp’s opinion and everybody else’s, and rather favoring than discouraging the idea, Mrs. Crupp, of late the bold, became within a few days so faint-hearted, that rather than encounter my aunt upon the staircase, she would endeavour to hide her portly form behind doors — leaving visible, however, a wide margin of flannel petticoat — or would shrink into dark corners. This gave my aunt such unspeakable satisfaction, that I believe she took a delight in prowling up and down, with her bonnet insanely perched on the top of her head, at times when Mrs. Crupp was likely to be in the way.
I love that “insanely perched” bonnet and that “wide margin of flannel petticoat.” The third sentence would be a lot of fun to diagram — it’s one of Dickens’ twisty marvels.