New ways to read Dickens

When I read my parents’ Penguin Classics edition of David Copperfield at the age of 17, I loved it so much that I went out and bought my own copy, in what I then considered a rather handsome Everyman edition, at least for my meagre income at the time. It isn’t especially handsome, in fact, but it contains all the original illustrations, is edited by a man from the University of Kent and has a nice picture of St. Paul’s Cathedral on the front. All excellent reasons to take it off the shelf and revisit it, which I got around to doing a few weeks ago.

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The novel remains every bit as wonderful as I remembered – a little more, in fact – though this reading brought with it a couple of discoveries that I hadn’t anticipated.

The first concerns my handsome, self-funded teenage purchase, which at the end of page 254 threw up the sentence ‘having my boots cleaned over and over compliment he had paid my relation’. Further investigation revealed the reason was that page 254 was unexpectedly followed by page 223, with the subsequent 30 pages repeated all over again but pages 255 to 286 missing altogether.

I fumed for a bit. So much for my handsome Everyman edition and Malcolm Andrews from the University of Kent. But I decided that 17 years after making the purchase I couldn’t reasonably expect a refund.

Not being prepared to read Dickens on a Kindle, I decided to invest in a really handsome edition of David Copperfield to make up for the disappointment: I wanted hardback, I wanted faux leather binding, I wanted gold trimmings. I spent many obsessive hours researching what was available and ended up with this:

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That’s 36 volumes of Dickens. Sometimes I overcompensate for disappointment.

My other discovery was more literary and I’m surprised it hasn’t been discussed more often, though not that I didn’t notice it at 17 years old. I’m talking about the psychological complexity of the central character when it comes to gender identity and sexuality – perhaps Dickens revealed more about himself than he meant to with this, his ‘favourite child’.

David Copperfield is feminised from the opening chapter, by an Aunt who expects him to be born a girl, and who later rechristens him with the non-gender specific name of Trotwood. What is it that Mr Murdstone finds objectionable about young David, except that he has been brought up to be a bit girly? Murdstone’s whole attitude reeks of forced masculinity, from the moment he takes David boozing with his loutish friends (the Murdstones are themselves a fascinating study in predatory fundamentalism; Murdstone’s need to subjugate women, aided by his sexless sister, speaks volumes about his own insecurities). At school, David becomes a wife figure to Steerforth, reading aloud to him in bed and acquiring the nickname ‘Daisy’ – Steerforth, like David’s Aunt, seeks to feminise him from the word go (for presumably rather different motives):

‘You haven’t got a sister, have you?’ said Steerforth, yawning … ‘If you had had one, I should think she would have been a pretty, timid, little, bright-eyed sort of girl. I should have liked to know her.’

As for actual wives, David’s relationship with Dora (the most pathetic female character ever committed to typescript) is written about in the same terms as his childhood infatuation with Little Em’ly, all romantic imagery and idealised yearning, and the unhappy reality of the marriage is that he ends up treating her as a child – she even begs him to call her his ‘child-wife’. His second marriage grows out of ‘sisterly affection’, his love for Agnes developing ‘in the withering of his hopes’ and having a platonic domesticity from the off.

No, if you want real passion then you have to look again to Steerforth and David’s extraordinary outpourings of desire whenever he describes or remembers him. The most erotic thing we hear about David’s married life is seeing his wife’s hair in papers; Steerforth is the only person we see undressing David and putting him to bed. And look at the way Steerforth dies – he is dragged fighting into a sea that explicitly mirrors a tumult in the depths of David’s memory, in a chapter full of elemental, virile imagery, reducing him at the end to the sleeping form David recalls gazing at long into the night in his schooldays. (Dora’s death, by way of a comparison, is represented by the last gasp of a dog.)

No wonder Steerforth’s betrayal hits David so hard. It has a similar impact on Rosa Dartle, an extremely complex character who more than makes up for Dora’s two-dimensional femininity (Steerforth’s attitude towards both his mother and Dartle make it explicitly clear that he is sexually aware); Rosa is one of many female characters in the book for whom a heated awareness of passionate, sexual love leads to unbridled misery (Martha, Emily, maybe even Betsey Trotwood if you’re looking for reasons as to why she emasculates the only men she associates with). Dickens seems to be saying that innocence is bliss, and David’s apparent bliss at the novel’s end is only achieved through an almost wilful naivety. Do his schoolboy passions and night of drunken abandon hint at what he is striving to repress?

Far be it from me to restyle David Copperfield as an archetypal model of closeted Victorian homosexuality, a virginal counterpart to Dorian Gray.

But he sort of is.

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