David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 17 and 18
January 18, 2011 § Leave a comment
Finished: David Copperfield.
Approaching the end now. There have been spoilers all along — and no one can be totally surprised by the end of a Dickens novel — so I’m not going to bother to warn you. But I guess I just did anyway.
With a slight wave of his hand, as though to explain to me that he could not enter the old place, he turned away. As I looked after his figure, crossing the waste in the moonlight, I saw him turn his face towards a strip of silvery light upon the sea, and pass on, looking at it, until he was a shadow in the distance.
There’s a melancholy air to this chapter that seems to me to overcome its more celebratory passages. But melancholy isn’t even the word I’m looking for, exactly; more like elegiac, or a kind of contemplative, lovely nostalgic tone. Whatever the case, this portrait of Ham comes after the message he passes to Emily through David; it may be standard-issue Victorian romance stuff, but it got to me in this chapter.
Uriah, more blue than white at these words, made a dart at the letter as if to tear it in pieces. Mr. Micawber, with a perfect miracle of dexterity or luck, caught his advancing knuckles with the ruler, and disabled his right hand. It dropped at the wrist, as if it were broken. The blow sounded as if it had fallen on wood.
Master stroke, those knuckles of wood. Herky-jerky Heep always had something of the malevolent marionette about him, but I’d never realized it until reading this line, when he, the scheming puppet-master, is turned into the puppet, like Pinocchio in reverse: the poor, wicked boy revealed never to have been human after all.
I have no favorite line in this, the creepiest chapter in the book, a truly disturbing piece of what certainly feels an awful lot like a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which Dickens/Copperfield get rid of a wife that was a “mistake.” Not only that, Dickens transforms the wife from a silly young girl to a saintly portrait of calm death, not only accepting that her existence is over after 20-some years, but also confessing that she’s glad David won’t have to deal with her anymore. It’s even creepier and more cloying than it sounds.
And then he fucking kills off the dog.
“My dear,” said Mr. Micawber, with some heat, “it may be better for me to state distinctly, at once, that if I were to develop my views to that assembled group, they would possibly be found of an offensive nature: my impression being that your family are, in the aggregate, impertinent Snobs; and, in detail, unmitigated Ruffians.”
I am really looking forward to seeing the 1935 film version in which W.C. Fields plays Micawber. He’s not really the kind of figure I had in mind while reading the book, but darned if I’m not looking forward to some of his line readings.
There was a bell on board; and as the ship rolled and dashed, like a desperate creature driven mad, now showing us the whole sweep of her deck, as she turned on her beam-ends towards the shore, now nothing but her keel, as she sprung wildly over and turned towards the sea, the bell rang; and its sound, the knell of those unhappy men, was borne towards us on the wind. Again we lost her, and again she rose. Two men were gone. The agony on shore increased. Men groaned, and clasped their hands; women shrieked and turned away their faces. Some ran wildly up and down along the beach, crying for help where no help could be. I found myself one of these, frantically imploring a knot of sailors whom I knew, not to let those two lost creatures perish before our eyes.
This chapter, “Tempest,” is, as the title would indicate, high-Shakespearean Dickens. It’s nuts, in a good way, with a Lear-grade storm making manifest the grief/guilt of David in a welter of jarring, confused, hyperbolic sensory experiences, followed by this nearly hallucinogenic shipwreck, its shocking cargo, and the apotheosis of Ham Peggotty.
I went through the dreary house, and darkened the windows. The windows of the chamber where he lay, I darkened last. I lifted up the leaden hand, and held it to my heart; and all the world seemed death and silence, broken only by his mother’s moaning.
Sentences like these are what make Dickens seems so cinematic before the cinema: you can see the sequence of shots here, of David walking through the house, the light changing to darkness, holding the hand of his friend, with otherworldly moans in the background, as we fade to black. Another spectacular chapter for the unrivaled, long-repressed id of Rosa Dartle.
Among the great beams, bulks, and ringbolts of the ship, and the emigrant-berths, and chests, and bundles, and barrels, and heaps of miscellaneous baggage — lighted up, here and there, by dangling lanterns, and elsewhere by the yellow day-light straying down a windsail or hatchway — were crowded groups of people, making new friendships, taking leave of one another, talking, laughing, crying, eating and drinking; some, already settled down into the possession of their few feet of space, with their little households arranged, and tiny children established on stools, or in dwarf elbow-chairs; others, despairing of a resting-place, and wandering disconsolately. From babies who had but a week or two of life behind them, to crooked old men and women who seemed to have but a week or two of life before them; and from ploughmen bodily carrying out soil of England on their boots, to smiths taking away samples of its soot and smoke upon their skins; every age and occupation appeared to be crammed into the narrow compass of the ‘tween decks.
An excellent description of an emigrant-ship to Australia, and what a bloody nightmare that trip must’ve been in the Victorian age. Like months and months of the screaming-baby-one-row-behind-you-on-a-long-flight treatment.