David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Double Number 19/20
January 22, 2011 § 1 Comment
Finished: David Copperfield.
So at last, we’ve reached the end. As Dickensian endings go, it’s not one of my favorites, though it’s certainly what you would expect from him, and I suppose it’s successful on his own terms. Nevertheless, here are my favorite passages from the last number of DC:
I came, one evening before sunset, down into a valley, where I was to rest. In the course of my descent to it, by the winding track along the mountain-side, from which I saw it shining far below, I think some long-unwonted sense of beauty and tranquillity, some softening influence awakened by its peace, moved faintly in my breast. I remember pausing once, with a kind of sorrow that was not all oppressive, not quite despairing. I remember almost hoping that some better change was possible within me.
This chapter, “Absence,” is mostly Dickens at his worst, and for being so full of emotion and despair it feels rather like he put a stamp on it and mailed it in. Which is not to say that it’s not interesting or useful: it could function as a kind of paint-by-numbers of Victorian poses and cliches and sentimentality and unexamined truisms. For instance, there’s this passage about Switzerland, in which David’s standard impression of the “sublimity and wonder” of his setting gives way to the moment in which “great Nature spoke to” him, though the power of mountain scenery at sunset and the sound of peasant-folk — shepherds — singing in the distance, just as if on their way to visit the baby Jesus. You could do a lot worse for an examination of the decay of Romanticism into Victorian piety, or for a literary equivalent to the overwrought landscapes so popular at the time. Nevertheless, there’s something insightful and true in the paragraph above, in David’s sense of the gradations of sorrow (or, as we might say now, depression) lightening, giving way to just the “possibility” that all might not be lost. Then, of course, because this is Victorian England, “great Nature” (with capital N) speaks and David lays down on Swiss grass (who has ever done this, ever, ever, this laying down on grass overcome with emotion?) and bawls for the wife he secretly wished was dead all along.
A small sharp-looking lad, half-footboy and half-clerk, who was very much out of breath, but who looked at me as if he defied me to prove it legally, presented himself.
I’ll let this quick little sketch of Traddles’ servant stand in for the whole wonderful first part of the chapter, on David’s return to London and anxiety for the state of Traddles considering his living situation, leading to the delight of seeing him in domestic bliss (contrasted, despite its crowded and difficult nature, with the domestic squalor of David and Dora’s life — the difference, it is implied, being Traddles and Sophy not making the mistake of being too horny and getting married young, and therefore maintaining a balance of affection and dutiful service). I love it when Dickens can’t help but invent a little character for those people he needs only to move the plot along — this footboy need not have do more than open a door, or not exist at all and just have Traddles open it in his impoverished state, but Dickens gives him this sharpness and protective reluctance and breathlessness of having (I’d guess) been playing with Sophy’s sisters.
When I returned, Mr. Wickfield had come home, from a garden he had, a couple of miles or so out of the town, where he now employed himself almost every day. I found him as my aunt had described him. We sat down to dinner, with some half-dozen little girls; and he seemed but the shadow of his handsome picture on the wall.
Not a terribly remarkable piece of prose, but what interested me about this passage was how much it reminded me of Tolstoy, who greatly admired Dickens. That little detail about Wickfield, recovered from his Heep-encouraged alcoholism and dissipation, taking up gardening in the country, like Levin from Anna Karenina having his epiphany about the value of working the land. Agnes, meanwhile, opening a girls’ school. And the conversation that follows, in which Wickfield reflects on the wrongs he’s committed, the great love he’s received from Agnes, and the story of his own long-dead wife: all of it seems quite like something out of Tolstoy. Actually, nearly all of this last number seems that way to me, especially in the Agnes-David plot.
After some conversation among these gentlemen, from which I might have supposed that there was nothing in the world to be legitimately taken into account but the supreme comfort of prisoners, at any expense, and nothing on the wide earth to be done outside prison-doors, we began our inspection. It being then just dinner-time, we went, first into the great kitchen, where every prisoner’s dinner was in course being set out separately (to be handed to him in his cell), with the regularity and precision of clock-work. I said aside, to Traddles, that I wondered whether it occurred to anybody, that there was a striking contrast between these plentiful repasts of choice quality, and the dinners, not to say of paupers, but of soldiers, sailors, laborers, the great bulk of the honest, working community; of whom not one man in five hundred ever dined half so well. But I learned that the “system” required high living…
A fascinating set piece, this chapter, entitled “I Am Shown Two Interesting Penitents.” It is one of Dickens’ standard curtain-call chapters, in which loose ends are wrapped up and popular secondary characters are given one last scene in which to take a bow. But in this case, the chapter is almost completely detachable from the larger narrative, and concerns David and Traddles visiting a prison. There are all sorts of interesting features here, but what’s most interesting to me is how Dickens, whose own father was in debtors’ prison for a while, clearly had not given much consideration to criminal incarceration, or the purposes of imprisonment, or the means of making prisons places for rehabilitation rather than holding pens of punishment and misery. These were all hot topics in Victorian society, but Dickens, in this chapter, displays a kind of knee-jerk distaste for the whole subject that’s rather unlike him — insisting, instead, that too much effort is being expended on the behalf of criminals, when more should be spent on the poor and needy who have not committed crimes. It is a punishment-based view of prison, in other words. All the same, his eye does catch some of the absurdities and hypocrisies of the nascent prison industry.
We stood together in the same old-fashioned window at night, when the moon was shining; Agnes with her quiet eyes raised up to it; I following her glance. Long miles of road then opened out before my mind; and, toiling on, I saw a ragged way-worn boy, forsaken and neglected, who should come to call even the heart now beating against mine, his own.
This is, in essence, The End. Dickens always seems to end his plots before the end, then either gives more curtain calls or telescopes his vision to encapsulate a view of the rest of a life — like those synopses of what happened to characters at the end of movies. Here, you can tell it’s the end by the use of three intra-chapter breaks — quite unusual in Dickens. And it’s quite a fine “last” line, too, David viewing in the moon’s glow his own remarkable journey from hopeless orphan to winner of his true love’s heart.
“For Em’ly,” he said, as he put it in his breast. “I promised, Mas’r Davy.”
A happily-ever-after chapter, with a clever little fairy-tale allusion at its beginning, and this sweetly sorrowful fairy-tale ending of eternal fidelity and redemption. A reminder that Dickens could, occasionally, be understated.
Traddles’s house is one of the very houses — or it easily may have been — which he and Sophy used to parcel out, in their evening walks. It is a large house; but Traddles keeps his papers in his dressing-room, and his boots with his papers; and he and Sophy squeeze themselves into upper rooms, reserving the best bed-rooms for the Beauty and the girls.
I love that turn of phrase, “his papers in his dressing-room, and his boots with his papers.” In this last chapter, Dickens mixes the dark with the light, as always, giving us brief cautionary tales to go along with the happinesses of the main characters. It’s interesting to me that he grew so fond of Traddles and his family that he gets nearly the last mention, and much longer than the brief sentences at the end about Agnes. I would’ve sworn, upon first meeting him and reading about his strange habit of drawing skeletons everywhere, that he was just a tertiary comic character, invented to take abuse from Creakle and little else, perhaps showing up now and again later as a happy-go-lucky sad sack. Shows what I know.