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Book review: “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens


Among the many distinctive characters in David Copperfield, I have a soft spot in my heart for Jane Murdstone.

Actually, that’s wrong.  It’s not so much a soft spot for her.  It’s for the way Charles Dickens makes it clear who this woman is.

David is still a very young boy.  His mother Clara has just remarried.  His stepfather — one might as well say “evil stepfather” — Edward Murdstone has Clara under his thumb.  Even so, he calls in his spinster sister as a reinforcement:

It was Miss Murdstone who was arrived, and a gloomy-looking lady she was; dark, like her brother, whom she greatly resembled in face and voice; and with very heavy eyebrows, nearly meeting over her large nose, as if, being disabled by the wrongs of her sex from wearing whiskers, she had carried them to that account. She brought with her two uncompromising hard black boxes, with her initials on the lids in hard brass nails. When she paid the coachman she took her money out of a hard steel purse, and she kept the purse in a very jail of a bag which hung upon her arm by a heavy chain, and shut up like a bite. I had never, at that time, seen such a metallic lady altogether as Miss Murdstone was.

She was brought into the parlour with many tokens of welcome, and there formally recognized my mother as a new and near relation. Then she looked at me, and said:

‘Is that your boy, sister-in-law?’ 

My mother acknowledged me. 

‘Generally speaking,’ said Miss Murdstone, ‘I don’t like boys. How d’ye do, boy?’ 

Under these encouraging circumstances, I replied that I was very well, and that I hoped she was the same; with such an indifferent grace, that Miss Murdstone disposed of me in two words: 

‘Wants manner!’

Having uttered which, with great distinctness, she begged the favour of being shown to her room, which became to me from that time forth a place of awe and dread, wherein the two black boxes were never seen open or known to be left unlocked, and where (for I peeped in once or twice when she was out) numerous little steel fetters and rivets, with which Miss Murdstone embellished herself when she was dressed, generally hung upon the looking-glass in formidable array.


“Disabled by the wrongs of her sex”

OK, where to start?

Well, first, of course, Dickens makes it clear that Jane Murdstone is the antithesis of what a woman of his era is expected to be — bright, warm and pretty.  Instead, she’s “gloomy-looking” and “dark” and resembles her brother in appearance.  Sounds like him, too.

Add to this the name of the brother and sister, Murdstone, which brings to mind “murder,” and she’s really getting ugly.  This echo is intentional on the part of Dickens as he makes clear some 150 pages later when David’s aunt is railing against the siblings, complaining that Clara “goes and marries a Murderer—or a man with a name like it.”

The Murdstones by Phiz

Then, there are Jane’s eyebrows which not only are “very heavy” but also nearly meet above her “large nose.”

It’s at this point that Dickens, in continuing the description, goes completely over the top in an hilarious way that perhaps no other writer could pull off.

The eyebrows look “as if, being disabled by the wrongs of her sex from wearing whiskers, she had carried them to that account.”  She’s a bearded lady, so to speak, and she not only looks and sounds like a man but also wants to be a man. Or at least act as hard and sharp as a man.


“A metallic lady”

The key to this passage, however, are all the metal metaphors.

Miss Murdstone is “a metallic lady” with “uncompromising hard black boxes” that are marked with her name in “hard brass nails.”  She carries “a hard steel purse,” which is “a very jail of a bag” and is shut up “like a bite.” And what David later sees in her room are the “numerous little steel fetters and rivets” that Miss Murdstone uses as adornments.

Dickens has Miss Murdstone’s number.  Like the little boy David, Dickens does not like her at all, and he wants the reader to know, right from the get-go, that she, like her brother, is an odious person.


Mr. Slope

As it happened, I read David Copperfield immediately after reading Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers.  The two books were published very close to each other — David Copperfield in 1850 and Barchester Towers in 1857.

Reading Trollope, I was struck again at how human and humane he is.  He likes his characters very much, even the ones who are mean-spirited and self-centered, such as Mr. Slope, the oily, conniving, lying chaplain to the bishop and the cause of so much havoc in the Barchester Towers story.

Trollope makes it clear that Mr. Slope is pretty repugnant.

At a moment when the clergyman is paying court to an exotic beauty, Trollope notes that Mr. Slope, “big, awkward, cumbrous and…ill at ease,” bends over and kisses her hand. It was, he writes, “a sight to see”:

The lady was fair, as we have said, and delicate; every thing about her was fine and refined; her hand in his looked like a rose lying among carrots, and when he kissed it he looked as a cow might do on finding such a flower among her food.

Trollope is no fan of Mr. Slope.  Even so, he can’t deny the humanity that he shares with the clergyman.  He sees Mr. Slope, as he sees the other characters in his novel, as a fully rounded person.  Which means not all good or, in this case, all bad.  He writes:

And here the author must beg it to be remembered that Mr. Slope was not in all things a bad man.  His motives, like those of most men, were mixed; and though his conduct was generally very different from that which we would wish to praise, it was actuated perhaps as often as that of the majority of the world by a desire to do his duty.  He believed in the religion which he taught, harsh, unpalatable, uncharitable, as that religion was.  He believed those whom he wished to get under his foot…to be the enemies of that religion  He believed himself to be a pillar of strength, destined to do great things; and with that subtle, selfish, ambiguous sophistry to which the minds of all men are so subject, he had taught himself to think that in doing much for the promotion of his own interests he was doing much also for the promotion of religion.


The Heeps

Dickens is not so gentle-hearted, as his description of Jane Murdstone shows.

Or the way he describes Uriah Heep and his mother.  Let’s look at one of many examples.

David, now a young man making a career as a writer, comes to visit Agnes Wickfield and her father.  Upon arrival, he finds Uriah Heep ensconced in a new office as the full partner of the ever-more-debilitated Mr. Wickfield.

Going in search of Agnes, the dear “sister” of his childhood, he find her in a room but not alone.  Mrs. Heep, Uriah’s mother, had intruded into the room, and David tells the reader:

Though I could almost have consigned her to the mercies of the wind on the topmost pinnacle of the Cathedral, without remorse, I made a virtue of necessity, and gave her a friendly salutation.

‘I’m umbly thankful to you, sir,’ said Mrs. Heep, in acknowledgement of my inquiries concerning her health, ‘but I’m only pretty well. I haven’t much to boast of. If I could see my Uriah well settled in life, I couldn’t expect much more I think. How do you think my Ury looking, sir?’ 

I thought him looking as villainous as ever, and I replied that I saw no change in him. 

‘Oh, don’t you think he’s changed?’ said Mrs. Heep. ‘There I must umbly beg leave to differ from you. Don’t you see a thinness in him?’ 

‘Not more than usual,’ I replied. 

‘Don’t you though!’ said Mrs. Heep. ‘But you don’t take notice of him with a mother’s eye!’ 

His mother’s eye was an evil eye to the rest of the world, I thought as it met mine, howsoever affectionate to him; and I believe she and her son were devoted to one another. It passed me, and went on to Agnes. 

‘Don’t YOU see a wasting and a wearing in him, Miss Wickfield?’ inquired Mrs. Heep. 

‘No,’ said Agnes, quietly pursuing the work on which she was engaged. ‘You are too solicitous about him. He is very well.’ 

Mrs. Heep, with a prodigious sniff, resumed her knitting…. 

At dinner she maintained her watch, with the same unwinking eyes. After dinner, her son took his turn; and when Mr. Wickfield, himself, and I were left alone together, leered at me, and writhed until I could hardly bear it…. 

This lasted until bedtime. To have seen the mother and son, like two great bats hanging over the whole house, and darkening it with their ugly forms, made me so uncomfortable, that I would rather have remained downstairs, knitting and all, than gone to bed.


“Two great bats”

The punchline here — and the phrase that sums of the feeling that Dickens had about these two characters — is “two great bats hanging over the whole house.”

Leave it to Trollope to see his characters fully rounded, leave it to him to see their humanity, to understand what deep, if flawed, emotions move them.

That’s not for Dickens.  For him, the world has bad people in it, and Uriah Heep and his mother are prime examples.

In the novel, David goes through life and the world with an openness, an earnestness, a sweetness that makes him able to accept and like and even love people like Daniel Peggotty and Wilkins Micawber.

But not Uriah Heep.

Here, David describes him as “villainous as ever,” and leering and writhing in his usual awkward, nervous, twisted way.

David, the boy and man who wants to like everyone, walks into the room where Agnes is and immediately wants, without remorse, to consign Mrs. Heep “to the mercies of the wind on the topmost pinnacle of the Cathedral.”

David doesn’t like these two people.  And neither does Dickens.



David’s distaste for Uriah Heep dates from their first meeting.

David was a young boy, and Heep was a “cadaverous” 15-year-old

whose hair was cropped as close as the closest stubble; who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded, that I remember wondering how he went to sleep. He was high-shouldered and bony…and had a long, lank, skeleton hand, which particularly attracted my attention, as he stood at the pony’s head, rubbing his chin with it, and looking up at us in the chaise.

Later, during the visit, David saw Heep shutting his office.

[F]eeling friendly towards everybody, [David] went in and spoke to him, and at parting, gave him my hand. But oh, what a clammy hand his was! as ghostly to the touch as to the sight! I rubbed mine afterwards, to warm it, AND TO RUB HIS OFF.


“Rough and ready”

For comparison, look at how Dickens describes David’s first meeting with Daniel Peggotty.

Peggotty, David’s beloved nurse, has taken the boy to Yarmouth to visit her brother and the many people under his care.  The family lives in a high and dry boat that has been turned into a house.  David finds it all delightful.

By and by, when we had dined in a sumptuous manner off boiled dabs, melted butter, and potatoes, with a chop for me, a hairy man with a very good-natured face came home. As he called Peggotty ‘Lass’, and gave her a hearty smack on the cheek, I had no doubt, from the general propriety of her conduct, that he was her brother; and so he turned out—being presently introduced to me as Mr. Peggotty, the master of the house. 

‘Glad to see you, sir,’ said Mr. Peggotty. ‘You’ll find us rough, sir, but you’ll find us ready.’ 

I thanked him, and replied that I was sure I should be happy in such a delightful place… 

Having done the honours of his house in this hospitable manner, Mr. Peggotty went out to wash himself in a kettleful of hot water, remarking that ‘cold would never get his muck off’. He soon returned, greatly improved in appearance; but so rubicund, that I couldn’t help thinking his face had this in common with the lobsters, crabs, and crawfish,—that it went into the hot water very black, and came out very red.

Mr. Peggotty is the salt of the earth, a man who, although “hairy,” has “a very good-natured face.”

Mr. Peggotty and his family meet David. By Phiz

In English society, David is a member of a much higher class, but it is a measure of his child’s curiosity and his general openness to the wonder of life that he is ready to embrace Mr. Peggotty and his clan.

His willingness to embrace these unquestionably odd people (at least, for someone from his background) stands him well as his life and the novel progress.


Rough and ready

The art of Trollope’s novels is in his ability to see the full person, the mix of good and bad, in each of his characters.  This has been described as realistic writing and, as such, can be compared with a photograph.

But, if Trollope takes a photograph of his characters, Dickens paints an impressionistic masterpiece of his.

Trollope limns the subtle gradations of his characters.  Dickens splashes in thick, strong, emphatic brushstrokes the essential nature of his.

Trollope is refined.  Dickens is messy and raw and crude.  He’s rough and ready.

Trollope is chamber music.  Dickens is a wild Beethoven symphony.

I am a great fan of Trollope.  But Dickens is breathtaking in his sprawling chaotic novels of Uriah Heeps, Daniel Peggottys and David Copperfields.


Patrick T. Reardon


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