Thursday, March 11, 2004

The Talented Mr Copperfield

I've been reading bloody Charles Dickens again. The last time I was in my local library, looking for something by Phillip K Dick, there wasn't anything there I hadn't re-read at least once in the last two years, so I succumbed to the temptation to look a couple of shelves lower and came away with a copy of David Copperfield. It's the 1996 Penguin Classics edition with a post-structuralist introduction by Jeremy Tambling; Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze all score a mention in the first paragraph.

Now, we all know that life was tough in Dickensian England - that's why we call it Dickensian after all. The poor lived out their lives in squalid, drastically underlit hovels walled only by cheap painted canvas flats, while the more affluent middle class could afford more robust constructions of wallpapered plywood, with a birdsong atmosphere track and a yellow flood outside the cellophane window to simulate the afternoon sun. The affluent and the poor alike were all pretty shabby people, dressed in re-tailored cast-offs from last year's serialisation of Pride and Prejudice. It's hardly surprising that people living in such deprived circumstances would have such a high mortality rate.

But the body count in David Copperfield is pretty high even by Dickens' standards. In Chapter IX, David has a memorable birthday; he is told by Mrs Creakle, the wife of his school headmaster, that his mother has died of Supernumary Character's Disease (SCD). By the time he arrives home for the funeral, he learns that it was, in fact, a highly contagious form of SCD which has carried off his step-brother as well.

In chapter XXX, Barkis, the carrier who has married Peggotty his childhood nurse also succumbs to SCD. In the following chapter, Little Emily, his childhood friend, abandons home and fiancee to become a fallen woman - in due course she will suffer a Fate Worse than Death (FWD) and achieve eventual redemption in chapter L. Chapter XXXVIII brings the Mysterious Sudden Death (MSD) of David's employer Mr Spenlow who is also the father of David's intended Dora. By chapter XLVIII Dora, now married to David, is showing the first symptoms of an obviously terminal case of SCD herself. In chapter LIII ( a good 57 pages later), she too dies, but not before infecting her dog Jip.

In between the deaths of Mr Spenlow and Dora, David and his friend Mr Peggotty (brother of his childhood nurse) prevent the suicide of another fallen woman Martha. Finally, at the end of chapter LV we learn of the death of the estranged husband of David's aunt Miss Trotwood; a death which releases the last slender hold the obsequious Uriah Heep might have over her.

At least three of these deaths - the deaths of Mr Spenlow, Dora and the dog Jip - occur in circumstances which suggest that there might be darker forces at work than the ordinary risks of being a minor character in a Dickens novel.

Spenlow is found lying by the road a mile from his home, after his horses and carriage arrive there without him. His death occurs the very night after he has confronted David with the love letters that David has sent to his daughter Dora without Spenlow's knowledge. Their confrontation includes the following revealing exchange:

'... you can hardly think,' said Mr Spenlow, 'having experience of what we see, in the Commons here, every day, of the various unaccountable and negligent proceedings of men, in respect of their testamentary arrangements [i.e. making their wills] - of all subjects, the one on which perhaps the strangest revelations of human inconsistency are to be met with - but that mine is made?'

I inclined my head in acquiescence.

'I should not allow,' said Mr Spenlow ... 'my suitable provision for my child to be influenced by a piece of youthful folly like the present. It is mere folly ... But I might - I might ... be induced in some anxious moment to guard her from, and surround her with protections against the consequences of, any foolish step in the way of marriage. Now, Mr Copperfield, I hope that you will not render it necessary for me to open, even for a quarter of an hour, that closed page in the book of life, and unsettle ... grave affairs long since composed."
[My emphasis]

Later, after giving an account of the rest of his day, and how he spent the evening, David describes how he arrives at work the following day to learn that Mr Spenlow is dead, and includes this hearsay description of Mr Spenlow's corpse:

"[he was] more than a mile off [from home] ... lying partly on the roadside, and partly on the path, upon his face. Whether he fell out in a fit, or got out, feeling ill before the fit came - or even whether he was quite dead then, though there is no doubt he was quite insensible - no one appears to know. If he breathed certainly he never spoke. Medical assistance was got as soon as possible, but it was quite useless."

Very strange; was Spenlow's death the result of a desperate author realising that he has painted himself into a corner plot-wise, or did a certain protagonist decide that he would actively prevent the father of his beloved from opening "even for a quarter of an hour, that closed page in the book of life"?

The case of Dora and her dog Jip is even more troubling. The basic facts are these; by chapter LIII, Dora's Supernumary Character's Disease has progressed to the point where she is bedridden and, as is typical of these cases, aware that she only has another dozen pages, tops, before she's out of the story. The dog Jip, has also aged rather rapidly ovee the course of fifty or so pages and is now quite decrepit. Dora has also developed the remarkable insight into her own situation and the motivations of other characters that is often seen in patients in the late stages of Supernumary Character's Disease:

"I am going to speak to you Doady [David]. I am going to say something I have often thought of saying lately. You won't mind?" [Dora said] with a gentle look.

"Mind my darling?"

"Because I don't know what you will think, or what you may have thought sometimes. Perhaps you have often thought the same. Doady, dear, I am afraid I was too young."


"I am afraid, dear, I was too young. I don't mean in years only, but in experience, and thoughts, and everything. I was such a silly little creature! I am afraid it would have been better, if we had only loved each other as a boy and girl, and forgotten it. I have begun to think I was not fit to be a wife."

Dora's thoughts on her marriage to David aren't far from thoughts of his own that David has revealed to us. But the most remarkable part of this episode is yet to come.

David's real love Agnes is also present in the house (at Dora's request). After this last conversation with David, Dora tells him that she wants to speak with Agnes in private. So David returns to the parlour, where he is alone with the dog, while Agnes is upstairs alone with Dora. Here is how the chapter ends:

He [Jip] comes very slowly to me, licks my hand, and lifts his dim eyes to my face.

"O, Jip! It may be, never again!"

He lies down at my feet, stretches himself out as if to sleep, and with a plaintive cry, is dead.

"O Agnes! Look, look, here!"

- That face, so full of pity and grief, that rain of tears, that awful mute appeal to me, that solemn hand upraised toward Heaven!


It is over. Darkness comes before my eyes; and, for a time, all things are blotted out of my remembrance.

The coincidence of the dog dying immediately before David learns of Dora's death is striking; but we can't help wondering what Agnes got up to while she was alone upstairs with Dora. Did she rearrange the pillows with extreme prejudice while David was downstairs seeing off the dog? Was it just Dickens, glossing over the detail to get Dora out of the way so he could move onto more interesting* things, or did something darker happen here?

* "more interesting" in the same way that you might consider scratching your balls more interesting than scratching your arse. Or vice versa; your scratching preferences are your business. Let's keep it that way.

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