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.

Taking a Leafe out of whose book?

Thanks to my fairly cushy location these days, when the Church of England made the announcement that the introduction of women bishops had been rejected, I was in a pretty good position to step outside my front door and chuck a few eggs at people coming out of Church House. And I did contemplate it, briefly.

But I realised that my chances of hitting the right people were, statistically speaking, rather slim. When 324 people voted for the measure, with 94% of bishops and 77% of the rest of the clergy in favour, it seemed to me there were plenty of people deserving of far better than having eggs chucked at them.

So what I started to wonder was: who exactly is in the House of Laity? Who are the 36% of non-clergy who don’t necessarily have any real expertise in matters theological yet are clearly prepared to ignore the advice of a current and future Archbishop on this matter? What kind of person even becomes a member of General Synod when they’re not actually a priest of some sort? The very tedious discussion that led up to yesterday’s vote, in which nothing new was said but a lot of people wanted their chance to say it all the same, suggests that you would have to crave a pretty dull life. And perhaps be dangerously opinionated.

You would perhaps have to be a little bit like Susie Leafe.

Susie Leafe has been all over the news in recent weeks, trotting out her belief that God created men and women equal, but different. So far, so reasonable (though I always feel the differences between men and women can be emphasised at the expense of recognising the differences between every single human being, especially as somebody who went through primary school being thought of as a bit girly).

Where Susie Leafe abandons logic and never ever ever justifies her views is in the assumption that this ‘difference’ between men and women explains her belief that a woman simply isn’t created to hold authority in the church. Why not, Susie? Which difference is it that makes such a thing impossible? Is it the breasts, the periods, the long hair, what? I genuinely want to know whether, being a woman, she knows something I don’t, especially as she seems perfectly good at self-promotion, public speaking and making pronouncements about her entire gender, so clearly has aspirations to hold a position of influence – what is it that makes her shy away of applying them in a church?

Susie would certainly be able to quote me a few juicy bits of scripture to back up her views about men being the head of the church and the wife and/or woman, but in the first place she’d be ignoring the social context in which those bits of scripture were written and secondly she’d be being rather selective with her scriptures (or hasn’t she heard that a SILENT woman is a gift of the Lord?). In any case there are plenty of female prophets and strong women in the Bible to counter those wobbly arguments (not to mention the Gospel being first revealed to a woman), and that’s not really what Susie’s argument is about. Susie’s argument stems from her entire world view.

Our failure to recognise the differences between men and women have resulted, she says, in:

A culture where young women see equality with men as about being more laddish than the lads. A culture that has deprived young men of self-esteem or societal responsibility by telling them that they have nothing to offer that a woman cannot do as well as, or indeed better than, them.

Her conclusion that ‘current debate on women bishops in the Church of England brings these issues into sharp focus’ is another leap of logic that defies any analysis, the priesthood hardly being the last bastion of laddish supremacy and, I fear, hardly the best advert for male self-esteem. Nevertheless, on the basis of this imagined cultural problem, Susie Leafe regards herself as ‘a radical feminist’, who has come to understand that ‘the most important right a woman can have is the right to be a woman’.

I’d be very interested to know what my female friends make of this understanding. My feeling is that they probably reckon they’re doing a pretty good job of being women, without the help of other women pigeonholing them with a more precise idea of exactly what a women ought to be. I’d also very like to hear from any men who feel their self-esteem would be substantially dented by the introduction of female bishops. But Susie Leafe has been conditioned to genuinely believe that her right to be a woman is directly affected by other women doing a job that she doesn’t think they should be doing. A radical kind of feminism indeed, that wants females to stop having such high-minded ideas about their own abilities and re-embrace the cosy limitations of yesteryear. It’s chilling that any woman would be so active in campaigning for the limitation of how her abilities are perceived.

This highlights the urgency of the situation facing the church: it’s not just about wanting me to see the church benefit fully from the brilliance of the female priests I am proud to be friends with (and indeed those females who may be more inclined to give their skills to the church if it took them more seriously). It’s about me not wanting my niece growing up in a country where any institution might condition her to become another Susie Leafe. And yes, I’m far more worried by this possibility than that my niece might want to grow up being ‘more laddish than the lads’.

The fact that the clergy in the Church of England are evidently far more open-minded about what women can offer the church may give us a little hope that, from the pulpit at least, these preconceptions are being fought. But actions speak louder than words and people will draw their own conclusions (and in some case mould their behaviour) from the way an institution looks. Indeed, they are doing just that: as Susie Leafe herself pointed out when she presented a petition signed by 2,200 Anglican women against the measure to the House of Bishops earlier this year, ‘our survey of those who signed the petition shows that they come from churches that are growing, youthful and very female friendly.’ There you have it – a growing body of young women in a safe, ‘female friendly’ environment, happily campaigning for their own aspirations to be institutionally limited.

For the sake of the next generation of young women, getting some women into the House of Bishops is a matter of urgency.