I recently re-read Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. I should say that I recently finished re-reading CDDC, since it took so long it felt like I started it several centuries before it had even been written.
Why? I asked myself 450 times during the course of the book — ie, pretty much every time I turned a page, why are you doing this to yourself? It was bad enough the first time round when I had to study the book for English A Level. Now I’m an independent 52-year-old and there’s no Mrs Sanderson standing over me with a steely look from under her steely perm making me do it.
There’s something a little bit perverse about it. I think I might be a bibliomasochist, taking pleasure in reading books that cause you great pain. I remember the first time round wondering how a book with such a soppy protagonist — and peppered liberally with such unutterably twee, brainless females — could have ever risen to the status of ‘classic’.
As a child, David may be forgiven for bursting into tears a lot — after all, his darling muddle-headed mother does it at the drop of a hat. Her life after marrying the ghastly Mr Murdstone is enough to reduce anyone to tears and that’s exactly what it does — to her, and to her son. David is sent to Salem House and cries his way through school. His mother dies — understandably resulting in more tears — and then he’s sent to work, where he is miserable and sobs a lot.
David’s tender-heartedness is measured in soggy tissue, and all this crying got my 16-year-old goat. Pull yourself together, for god’s sake, I’d mutter, rolling my eyes and harrumphing. But worse, far worse, than young Copperfield’s lachrymosity were objects of his affections. The women in David Copperfield, starting with his mother Clara (dubbed ‘Baby’ by his aunt), and swiftly followed by ‘Little Em’ly’, Dora Spenlow (who he marries first) and Agnes Wickfield, are held up as the absolute shining apotheosis of female virtue. Of all of them, only Agnes has a whit of common sense: the others are pretty, vapid and pretty vapid and (by the end of the book, respectively) dead, deported, and dead.
It used to make my teenage blood boil. Little Em’ly was bad enough, with her skittishness, curls and missing ‘i’ but Dora and her blasted lapdog Jip brought out my inner Nazi. “Dora seemed by one consent to be regarded as a pretty toy or plaything. My aunt… always called her Little Blossom; and the pleasure of Miss Lavinia’s life was to wait upon her, curl her hair, make ornaments for her and treat her like a pet child… they all seemed to treat Dora, in her degree, much as Dora treated Jip in his.”
At one point his bride asks if he will think of her, and call her, by her newly chosen name.
“‘What is it?’ I asked with a smile.
‘It’s a stupid name,’ she said, shaking her curls for a moment. ‘Child-wife.’”
Thirty-seven years after I had scrawled “Arghghghgh!!!” in the margins, I echoed the sentiment out loud.
The real-life model for dopey Dora was Maria Beadnell, the daughter of a banker, who Dickens fell head over heels in love with at the age of 18. His youthful passion found release in a torrent of seriously terrible poetry, of which this snippet is fairly typical:
Then I will say sans hesitation
This place shall be my habitation
This charming spot my home shall be
While dear “Maria” keeps the key,
I’ll settle here, no more I’ll roam
But make this place my happy home.
Dickens kept the flame flickering for years. Maria appeared in various guises in Dickens’s novels, most notably as Flora Finching in Little Dorrit. However, the real Maria didn’t have the decency to fade away fetchingly of some wasting disease, but survived well into prosperous middle-age. Dickens persuaded her to meet up again 24 years after he first fell in love — and that was the end of that. “We all have our Floras,” he wrote to a friend, “mine is living, and extremely fat.”
He never contacted her again but I am happy to report that during that one meeting, she at least gave him her cold.