27 November 2011
Chapters 1-9 – Books 1-3
This was first published in instalments, so it would have taken Dickens’ original readers some time to get this far. I wonder if the occasional break of a month would have helped them through the plodding oppressiveness. Or maybe I’m finding it all just a bit too familiar: however long ago it is that I last read it – decades, probably – I have a clear memory of the relentless bullying that goes on once we get past Book 1. I’ll come back to that.
It doesn’t start off with routine brutality: aside from his being fatherless, David’s early life is presented as one long idyll. Of course, any reader would know that when an author – especially this author – presents us with an earthly paradise, there must be at least one serpent close by. David, as the first-person narrator, occasionally drops dark hints about this, but Book 1 takes us through a childhood of almost unalloyed happiness with his beloved Mama and his equally beloved Peggotty. These women both strike me as almost shamefully underdrawn – and I don’t just mean in Book 1 – because Dickens allows the child’s-eye-view of them to stand in for the kind of characterisation that might give them any roundness.
What do I mean? As Dickens takes us through an early 19th Century liberal version of the development of the child’s consciousness – the awakening sense of self, the growing awareness of the otherness of other people – the two women in his life are only presented in terms of what he gains from them. Both of them show him unconditional love, and between them Dickens has them demonstrate the truth of that other great liberal belief: that this is the only viable way for children to learn. Soon the young David is teaching Peggotty all about crocodiles – a word she mispronounces in that way a lot Dickens’ serving-class characters have – and, basically, becoming a far more rounded person than she is.
She suggests a trip. In that variant of dramatic irony that Dickens has developed through the first couple of chapters, the reader knows that this does not come out of the blue. David’s mother has been walking home from church with (gasp) a man, one that Peggotty clearly doesn’t like, and the young David is surprised how willing she is for him to go on holiday for two weeks. We know why, don’t we, reader? I’m thinking, Can we get on with it?
No, we can’t, because we have to be introduced to (sigh) Peggotty’s family. Specifically, they are her brother, nephew, niece and an old woman whose USP is feeling sorry for herself….This isn’t working for me yet: I’m finding it suffocating. Somehow, families in Dickens novels usually operate according to a narrative rule of his own invention that allows us to accept them as comic grotesques. They aren’t supposed to be real people, and we’re not expected to believe that they are. (I’m blithely saying all this, but don’t ask me how Dickens gets away with it.)
What’s my problem with the charming, wholesome, generous Peggottys? Pass me the sick-bucket and I’ll tell you. Mr Peggotty himself won’t have his generosity mentioned, won’t stop the endlessly maundering Mrs Gummidge from endlessly maundering on. Ham hasn’t a malicious bone in his body, can find nothing better to do in an idle moment than play nicely with David and Emily, the young girl our boy fallen in childish love with. The Peggottys aren’t great talkers – there’s a running thread in this novel of lower-class characters who have trouble talking – but what they lack in communicativeness they make up for in every single one of the human virtues. Dickens does drop one dark hint about the future – to do with Emily and one of those nasty old serpents in paradise – but it isn’t enough.
It isn’t enough for the Peggottys, like the two women in David’s early life, to have their development limited to his child’s-eye-view. Later, in Book 3, it isn’t enough when Peggotty is willing to take as her life-partner the carrier Barkis who finds it hard to string together a sentence longer than three words. Sure, by the time she makes this decision she’s had to face the abyss: she’s been given her notice and soon discovers that nobody wants a middle-aged housekeeper, however charming, wholesome and generous she might be. Barkis could keep her ‘comfortable’, and Dickens’ readers know exactly what he means: we’ve had plenty of lessons in the importance of money-management (or the lack of it) before this, and don’t doubt that there’ll be more. Big theme in this novel, money.
But I haven’t reached the end of Book 1 yet. David arrives back from his seaside idyll to be confronted by what we all expected, but he didn’t. His mother has married the monster, and the new world order is summed up by the welcome David gets from a ‘great dog—deep mouthed and black-haired like Him—and he was very angry at the sight of me, and sprang out to get at me.’ Oh dear.
The ‘Him’ refers to Mr Murdstone, one of the best-named of all Dickens’ characters. He goes for what he calls ‘firmness’, which the narrator translates for us as tyranny. He’s tyrannical to the new Mrs Murdstone, as he is to David, and we know it’ll end in tears. He has an ally in the form of his sister, as metallic as he is stony – her accoutrements are ‘fetters and rivets’ – and, eventually, they terrorise poor Clara to death. But that’s later. First they have to reduce David to such a state of terror that he bites his stepfather. The monster is punishing so him severely on some trumped-up charge that the boy has to be kept indoors for five days to hide his injuries. (We deduce this from the solitary confinement, and from his being kept out of the sight of his mother.)
The running thread of these chapters is not only brutality, but the undeserved punishment: what better way to fire up any reader’s sense of injustice on the part of a character? As you’d expect, Dickens plays on this all the time. The Murdstones subject David to the daily humiliation of lessons he’s learnt but is rendered too nervous to get right under their basilisk stare. And they either ignore anything he’s good at – he’s a fluent and responsive reader, for instance – or root it out for ritualised denunciation. Meanwhile, Dickens has made sure that there is nothing in his mother’s makeup to offer any help. On the contrary: from the start she is made to feel that the cruelty they dish out to her son is not only for his own good, but for hers as well. She thanks them.
As the abuses continue and David’s purported failures mount up, a day of reckoning arrives. Murdstone has made for himself a cruel-looking new cane, and the mental torture that comes even before the physical punishment culminates in the desperation leading to the bite. What comes next amounts to a sadistic revenge as Dickens winds his readers up to a pitch of righteous fury, so he doesn’t need to tell us that it isn’t the quivering little lad who should be confined to his room for nearly a week. Boo, hiss. Only one thing saves David: the books on the shelves. Remember them, because his reading helps him later, when he’s stuck in the middle of the next chapter of misery that Murdstone has in store for him: Salem House school.
He’s told (by Peggotty) only the night before that he’s going away, but Dickens takes his time to get him there because journeys are important in this novel. He has a rubbish time, obviously. He is cheated by a waiter, who all the time persuades the poor little mite that he’s doing him favours. (File that idea away for use later.) Then, in the coach, the other passengers are selfish and routinely disregard his needs. Just remembering it now, I can see why I was beginning to hate it. And no, before you ask, we’re not nearly there yet.
In London, he meets the one helpful character outside his own family and the Peggottys: Mr Mell. But, this being the novel it is, he doesn’t last: he is bullied and humiliated not by Creakle, the almost psychopathic headmaster, but by the other character who ruthlessly exploits David under the guise of helping him: Steerforth. Whenever David mentions this older boy – a young man in his eyes – it’s in heroic terms. But Dickens has turned on his favourite dramatic irony mode, and we can see the truth behind the charismatic exterior. (According to the OED the modern usage of charisma only came into operation in the 20th Century, so Dickens has to spend almost a whole paragraph defining it for us. He does all right.)
David gets through the first term, beatings, humiliating placard (‘He bites’), the boy (Traddles) who draws skeletons incessantly just to stay sane, incompetent management and all. There’s always Steerforth, to whom David tells endless versions of all the stories he’s read in the lonely hours at home (sob), and an inkling of a sense of community, however tainted. He tells Steerforth he has no sister when the older boy innocently asks, but he does know a girl…. Uh-oh. But anyway, the term ends – which would be fine if he had a proper home to go to at the end of it. His aunt, the metallic Miss Murdstone, counts off the days of his month’s holiday and… and so on, until it’s back to school, and a promising-sounding chapter: ‘I have a memorable birthday.’
If we’ve been too slow to notice that David’s mother isn’t very well over Christmas and goes on about not lasting terribly long – and yes, it is that obvious – we’re quickly disabused of any optimism. There’s the first laugh-out-loud moment of the novel as Creakle’s wife tells David why he’s been taken out of lessons on his birthday. No, it’s not for presents or a hamper from home, it’s to do with his mother. She is, at first, ‘very ill.’ Mrs Creakle adds helpfully that she is ‘very dangerously ill,’ and finally that ‘she is dead.’ It made me laugh, anyway. Although, I suppose, it’s part of Dickens’ theme of how adults fail to communicate with children. Nobody – including Peggotty – prepared him for his mother’s marriage, nobody warned him about the school, nobody… etc.
So it’s home again, never to return. (Dickens must be as tired of Salem House as his readers are. This reader, anyway.) Things haven’t improved, obviously, although the chapter is lightened up, if you like that sort of thing, by the jolly family of funeral directors and by Barkis’s wooing of Peggotty. Give me strength, because the first chapter of Book 4 is looming: ‘I am neglected….’
Chapters 10-18 – Books 4-6
To give it its full subtitle, Chapter 10 is ‘I am neglected, and provided for.’ This sounds better than it is, because being provided for by the Murdstones isn’t what you’d necessarily want. It isn’t what David wants… but I’m jumping the gun. After the funeral, Peggotty is given a month’s notice, Murdstone skulks and looms like an overhanging cliff while his sister, the one who talks to David, is as horrible as ever. David’s young half-brother, the one I forgot to mention who was born during his first term at Salem House, has died shortly after his mother. So we can see why David, with no blood-ties to the Murdstones, would seem a poor substitute even if they’d been looking for one. To them, he is a sullen, vicious creature – Dickens has given them the ability to go beyond hypocrisy so that they seem genuinely to see things only on their own terms – so it’s perfectly ok to neglect him. Thank god for books, again.
There’s a brief respite in another trip to Yarmouth, but things aren’t exactly as they were there. Mr Peggotty and Ham seem the same, but little Emily doesn’t. She’s learnt how to be ‘shy and sly’ at the same time – in other words, she behaves coquettishly and confuses the young David entirely. We know, because Dickens has had David tell us in Chapter 3, that things won’t end happily for her. We also know (new readers pass over the rest of this sentence, because I’m using scraps of what I remember from previous readings to spot clues) that David has told Steerforth about her. No doubt the girlish parody of womanly wiles that she’s showing now is a kind of preamble to something more serious later.
There’s more misery to come before any of us can emerge on the other side of it. The provision that the Murdstones make for David is to send him to work in London as a bottle-washer. While at the warehouse south of the river, he can’t make friends with the other boys… and maybe this is one of the problems I have with it. He’s a fish out of water, isn’t made for such a life as this – and lets us know how miserable it all is by telling us how he ‘no words can express the secret agony of my soul.’ Maybe it’s a problem with the first-person narrative to have the sufferer relate his own sorrow and his own sense of being hard done by. All I can think about are the other boys, especially the one only ever identified as Mealy Potatoes. What about their lives?
We get a pair of Dickens grotesques to help us through: the Micawbers. It’s not surprising that Mr M has become one of Dickens’ most famous characters, genteelly incapable of following his own maxim of living within his means. ‘Annual income twenty pounds…’ and all that – a quotation I’ve used myself in my more tedious moments. His wife is one of those Dickens heroines: no matter how feckless Micawber is, her love remains unconditional. When we see them later, through one of those coincidences we’re prepared to tolerate because they’re entertaining, precisely nothing has changed about them. Dickens’ clownish grotesques aren’t there to be developed…. I should shut up about them.
Anyway, after months of living just above the poverty line, David shows some gumption. Right at the start of the novel Dickens introduced a character who promptly left because the new baby was a boy. Now we know why he did it. During her brief appearance all those years ago, we have the chance to see this woman’s character fully rounded and fully formed, right down to the exasperated sympathy she feels for the newly widowed new mother. And, after a journey to Dover – I’ll spare you the details of the cheating and daylight robbery – David finds her. It’s Betsey Trotwood, another grotesque, but a character capable both of development and genuine humanity. So that’s all right.
(Sigh.) Dickens might famously have called this book his favourite child, but I don’t find the chapters dealing with the happy remainder of David’s childhood any easier to like than the wretchedness earlier on. I’ll be quick, because it’s not about plot – hardly anything happens – and, finally, Dickens jogs through six or seven years of it in the short Chapter 18, ‘Retrospective’. But not yet…
…because we have the five chapters before that to get through. Events: David’s arrival at Dover and, eventually, the finding of his aunt. Her taking him in, supposedly on the advice of the comedy nutter Mr Dick. Her making short work of sending the Murdstones packing, with a whole circus of fleas in their ears. (Good this, innit? I just made that up.) Her decision to send him to school in Canterbury. His introduction to the lawyer, Mr Wickfield, and his daughter Agnes – the one David always regards as a sister while he falls in comedy love with three or four other girls over the coming years. (I’ve just remembered where I last encountered the tiresome trope of the young man who doesn’t recognise for what it really is the supposedly fraternal love he feels for the girl he’s known since childhood. It’s Austen’s Mansfield Park, another novel I had problems with.)
School, after the briefest of uncertainty (less than a fortnight), is fine. He’s met Dr Strong, his new headmaster, and his almost absurdly young wife, Annie – and dark hints have been dropped that we don’t know the whole story there. Relationships between men and women in Dickens are always bizarre, bearing little relation to real ones as, I suppose, any pretence of realism is subsumed to some narrative purpose or other. We’ve seen Murdstone playing on his new wife’s reliance on him as a sort of teacher: once married, he can shed any pretence of love as fast as Dickens needs him to. Barkis and Peggotty represent a kind of semi-comic pragmatism. The Micawbers are there because, well, nobody is really like them. And now Dickens decides it will be hilarious for David to play-act different roles, right down to the courtly love tropes of self-neglect and loss of appetite when his idol marries the old man for money. How we laughed.
But as I said, it’s not about plot. The main thing is the introduction of new characters who are clearly going to have a bigger role later. There’s the skeletal and/or cadaverous Uriah Heep, ‘umble, like his mother and constantly wheedling his way into other people’s business. There’s Annie’s grasping mother, always trying to get something from her son-in-law Dr Strong. Usually this is on behalf of Annie’s cousin Maldon, who seems somehow resentful about having to make his own way in the world. Dickens has had David noticing, in the obtuse way he’s often forced to notice things, something that might be going on between this cousin and the young Mrs Strong. His departure for India, clutching one of her bows in his hand – which she is being evasive about – has left her looking pale and unable to sing….
Wickfield is constantly having to give Dr Strong advice on money matters, and is the one who’s made sure Maldon is sent a long way away. He doesn’t like Agnes, his daughter, spending too much time with Annie and her mother. Why ever not – and why, when David catches a glimpse of him at the end of the evening of the departure, does he have a look of horror on his face? What on earth does he suspect? And, meanwhile, Dickens keeps dropping those hints that Wickfield really is drinking far more than is good for him. There are few enough reliable characters in the world of this novel, strewn as it is with cheats and frauds…. Whatever will become of Dr Strong, if anything should happen to the only man capable of giving him proper advice? To say nothing of Agnes, one of those tiresomely adoring daughters that Dickens goes in for?
Ok. I feel that what we’ve mainly had so far in this novel – among a few other things, admittedly – is one long set-up for whatever is going to come next: we’re only ever getting a part of the story. It’s a problem I often have with first-person narrators. The author has to withhold certain information for the usual authorial reasons of keeping the reader guessing; meanwhile, he has to make the narrative sound as though it really could have been written by one of its characters, one who knows how things are going to turn out but decides – what? – that he’ll tell it to us as though he doesn’t. Dickens wants to give us an impression of what it was like at the time for the character, but it’s the character himself who has to pretend not to know any more than we do as events unfold. This only works up to a point, obviously. David the adult narrator is constantly forced, somehow, to patronise his younger self – the love-sickness, the born-yesterday naivety – and it’s one of the things that gets on my nerves.
Time to shut up about it and read on.
Chapters 19-24 – Books 7 and 8
At last, something to get our teeth into as Dickens begins to close in on one of the hares he set running hundreds of pages back. The hare is Steerforth, first introduced to us in Chapter 7. Then, and now, after David has met him through another one of those Dickensian coincidences we’re perfectly willing to accept – I’ll come back to them – his total lack of Christian charity is presented through the eyes of the person most taken in by his surface charm: David himself. Dickens introduced us to what I called his variant of dramatic irony right at the start of the novel, so we’ve always known that we are supposed to see beyond David’s wide-eyed adulation. At Salem House we can see that the main attributes of the boy he presents as a charismatic hero consist of fleecing him of whatever little he has and reducing the only man who shows kindness to the boys to a wreck.
Now, as David introduces him to the world of the Yarmouth Peggottys, the only fragment of paradise left from his childhood – Dickens is careful to show us that nothing else remains, now that the old family home is inhabited by a lunatic – we recognise the serpent that David doesn’t. For chapter after chapter now, as the two spend some weeks together, Steerforth is still as much of a hero in David’s eyes as he ever was. Time after time he fails to see the signs that Dickens more and more brazenly lays in his path. He doesn’t recognise Steerforth’s new nickname for him, Daisy, as the insult it is to his naïve interpretation of his own cynicism. What’s an author to do, especially one like Dickens?
Have fun, that’s what. Before they go to Yarmouth we’re shown ‘Steerforth’s Home’ in a chapter it has to itself. Aside from the valet he’s brought with him from Oxford – Dickens makes sure we understand his function as Steerforth’s fixer by using variants of the word ‘respectable’ sixteen times in his description of him – there are the two women who seem to be the only family that Steerforth has. (Later, he regrets the absence of a father who might have guided him. Much later.) There’s the doting mother who has made Steerforth’s old room into a shrine to her son, in needlepoint – I don’t know how I’ve managed to leave out so far the pains Dickens takes to define his characters through their houses – and there’s a character that Dickens uses as an even more blatant sign of what Steerforth is. This is Miss Rosa Dartle, and she might be my favourite character so far.
She’s the first of three women in these chapters whose only function is to warn David of what he is dealing with in his so-called friend. Not that we actually know by the end of Book 8… but the hints have been getting stronger and, somehow, darker all the time. Miss Dartle is the kind of living embodiment of an idea that you only really get in novels: she could be said to represent Steerforth’s careless cruelty to women. He started early: he gave her the disfiguring scar that splits her mouth by throwing a hammer at her as a child because she ‘exasperated’ him.
Now, she offers an ice-cold interpretation of anything he says or does in the form of innocent-sounding questions. One that comes up is to do with the family they are to meet in Yarmouth, the ones Steerforth calls ‘that sort of people.’ Miss Dartle ruthlessly homes in on his snobbery. ‘Are they really animals and clods, and beings of another order?’ And when Steerforth explains, her pretended relief is as ice-cold in its sarcasm as her question: ‘It’s such a delight to know that when they suffer, they don’t feel!’ There’s a lot more like this, but it’s worth singling this one out because it rings bells. We haven’t forgotten that things are going to be spoiled for Emily before too long, and we know that Steerforth has a problem thinking of anybody but himself. It’s only a chapter or two later when he describes Emily as an ‘engaging little Beauty’, and Ham, who is engaged to be married to her, is ‘rather a chuckle-headed fellow’ for such a woman. Gulp.
The second woman is Martha, over whom a terrible shadow has been cast. We know what this means: some man has seduced her and ruined her in the eyes of the Yarmouth community. The first time we meet her she is following Ham and Emily, looking ghastly and described almost exactly as though she were some terrible spectre. Steerforth is troubled because, he explains, ‘I was thinking of something like it when it came by. Where the devil did it come from, I wonder!’
Eh? Does he know her? Or does he merely recognise the type, because he’s the sort of person who might encounter ruined women quite often? I had a brief thought that he might be her seducer: in a world in which paths cross as though on a village green – as they always do in Dickens – they could easily have met before. Or maybe they met in Yarmouth, during the two or three weeks when Steerforth has been left largely to his own devices as David is safely hidden away with Peggotty at Barkis’s place. But surely not?
Finally there’s Miss Mowcher, a dwarf described as a kind of hobgoblin who deals with Steerforth’s bald patch. They meet her by accident – yes, again – but it’s ok because the encounter gives us another embodiment of… something. She’s outrageously familiar with anyone she speaks to, drops broad hints about Steerforth being up to no good in this out-of-the-way place, talks about her famous clients in terms of what they are hiding from public view in more senses than one. David instinctively rejects her offer of a makeover, which must tell us something.
But I’m not telling you the plot. Except I have, largely, because not much happens. David leaves Dover at the start of Book 7, where he goes from being big fish to very small, very young ingénue; meets Steerforth by chance and, as besotted as ever, is patronised by him mercilessly. No change there, then. To Yarmouth, seeing Emily again, and seeing how Steerforth’s easy manner – he knows instinctively which buttons to press – makes him a hit with everyone. Ham and Emily’s engagement on the very night they turn up as a surprise; David noticing that Emily doesn’t sit as close to Ham after his arrival and, we note, Steerforth’s. David leaning over backwards to interpret Steerforth’s easy cynicism as humour. The reader finding it a bit tedious.
This is where we get Steerforth’s moment of contemplation as David discovers him looking into the fire in the hearth. It’s the first and only hint of self-doubt, as though one tiny part of him recognises that what he does is not always – well, what? Not always good? Fair? Careful of the needs of others? This is when he regrets the lack of a guiding father, and a 19th Century reader might nod sagely and think about this on a theological level.
Just before they prepare to leave after their stay, David witnesses Martha’s plea to Emily to help her get away to London. He sees what he perceives as Emily’s unusual expression of faith in Ham…. What could have brought that on? Steerforth’s fixer has arrived, and he is going to stay behind sorting out a boat for Steerforth – who agrees that he may never return to use it. (Can somebody turn those alarm bells off now, please?)
And Betsey Trotwood has written, suggesting that David might want to become an articled clerk in Doctors Commons. Yep, why not? Dickens shows us the absurd languor of the London law courts, then bores the reader with David’s pride over the commodiousness of the tiny apartment she finds for rent … etc. A chapter called ‘My First Dissipation’ is exactly as you’d expect: Steerforth lets David entertain him and two other hangers-on to an expensively catered dinner, patronises him relentlessly, lets him show himself up. Plus ça change…. It’s like Salem House all over again, and I wish it wasn’t. Except… the description of what it’s like to get properly drunk for the first time might be a long time coming, but when it does it’s is spot-on. When he meets Agnes at the theatre – by this time in a Dickens novel I’m usually quite surprised to meet any characters we don’t recognise – we wonder how she’ll take it. Will she close the door on any possible future with him? Seems unlikely.
Can we get back to the big betrayals now? Is Maldon back from India? Has Uriah Heep wheedled his way further into Wickfield’s business? Is Emily, following her apparent resolution to be more loyal to Ham, still the picture of fidelity? Or not?
Chapters 25-31 – Books 9-10
Wonderful. Dickens always plays a long game, and in these two instalments he works on at least three storylines he set up early in the novel. One, the Steerforth thread that emerged more or less fully formed in Books 1 and 3 (the dark murmurings concerning Emily’s future during David’s first visit, and Steerforth’s cynical egoism), reaches its inevitable crisis in Book 10. As for the other two…. We’re not surprised at Uriah Heep’s emergence as a real threat to the happiness of others, but during a single chapter the Micawbers mutate from clownish fantasists into possible wreckers of other people’s lives.
The Steerforth storyline is pivotal. His seduction of Emily and the betrayal of the Peggottys comes at the half-way point in the novel, and it’s the end of childhood. Whenever we see Steerforth before this – his musings in Yarmouth in Book 8, his dark hints to David in Book 10 that things might not always be so smooth between them in the future – he’s focused on the burning coals in the fire and tries to break them up. In Book 10 he keeps smashing them up in David’s hearth as if – as if what? – as if he could change something that’s tormenting him. We later discover that by the time he’s talking to David he’s already set something in motion that he has no intention of stopping.
It also seems that he can’t stop patronising David, still always ‘Daisy’ to him. Except it isn’t quite as simple as that: there’s nothing to make him visit David a couple of days before the great betrayal in Yarmouth, but he comes anyway. He has an ostensible reason: he’s going to see his mother, and David will make things easier with her and Miss Dartle. But, well, Steerforth is always coming back to him. It’s as though David is the better self Steerforth envies and can never be. There’s a character in the novel sees Steerforth for what he is: Agnes refers to him as David’s ‘bad angel’ shortly before this encounter. It’s fairly clear that Steerforth can see this just as clearly, doesn’t like it, but just can’t stop himself.
(I usually don’t go for autobiographical readings of novels, although this one is often referred to in that context. It’s easy to see Dickens’ experience in David’s, as the middle-class boy is forced into the hardship and humiliation of manual labour. But I wonder if there’s something of Dickens in Steerforth as well. One thing we know about this author is that there’s a wide gap between the innocence of his heroes’ attitudes to women and Dickens’ own relationships. He famously lost part of the manuscript for Our Mutual Friend, which contains just such an idealised relationship, as he travelled by train for an adulterous meeting. Maybe in Steerforth he is – what? – not exactly revealing a darker side, but allowing that such natures exist, and are troubled by their own conduct. But what do I know?)
It’s taken nearly half the novel’s length for the almost satanic reality behind Steerforth’s plausible exterior to become apparent to its narrator, and… and I was about to say that David is utterly shocked that his hero could behave in such a way. In fact, he isn’t shocked. Agnes makes her cool appraisal of his friend at the beginning of Book 9, two days after the night of ‘dissipation’, and he rejects it, surprised by her lack of judgment. The reader stifles a yawn, and is relieved that for most of Books 9 and 10 he allows her opinion to work its way into him. Now, Steerforth is associated with darkness and shadows in his imagination – so long as he isn’t actually present. Once he is, the old hero-worship kicks in. David is far more mystified than the reader when Steerforth makes a plea for him not to think of him too harshly if things, er, change.
There is something terribly painful about David’s last sight of him. If Dickens has got to send Steerforth to hell – which he has, obviously – he’s going to send him off with a flourish. As David watches his sleeping form on the morning just before departing for Yarmouth we get this: ‘I left him. – Never more, oh God forgive you, Steerforth! to touch that passive hand in love and friendship. Never, never more!’ Well. It’s worth saying that Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe were great fans of one another, and Poe’s inspiration for ‘The Raven’ – with that repeated ‘Nevermore!’ – was an earlier novel by Dickens. Any reader in 1850 – or 2011 – is bound to recognise in this final tortured parting the echo of the raven’s cry, with all its melodramatic overtones. The poem was published five years earlier.
But five paragraphs, and nearly 700 words, is enough about Steerforth. Other things are also going on, and I’ve mentioned some of them already. There are elements of this novel that are seriously like a mystery play or Pilgrim’s Progress. I’m thinking of the hobgoblin who tends to Steerforth’s appearance – and I’m also thinking of Uriah Heep. He’s back, and Dickens has David’s skin crawling as he explains his strategy of ruining Wickfield in order to take everything he has – including Agnes. The archetypal moment has Uriah – Tolkien must have had him in mind, a cold-blooded inhabitant of the dank underworld of the soul, when he created Gollum – grinding his thumb into his palm as he describes how a less scrupulous partner than he is would have treated Wickfield. David, and therefore the reader, imagines a vivid image of him grinding Wickfield’s head beneath his boot.
Dickens gives us (at least) two further pictures of Uriah to make sure we get the message – and to endow his evil persona with a physical presence. One is his sleeping form in David’s apartment, where he has arranged for it to be too late to get back into his own hotel: simply knowing that he is there is enough to prevent David from sleeping at all. The other is as he perches on top of the coach to Canterbury above where Agnes is sitting. David knows all about his master-plan, and he can’t help but see Uriah as ‘her evil genius writhing on the roof, as if he had her in his clutches and triumphed.’
And the Micawbers are back, as comic as ever on one level, with Mrs M feeding her husband’s fantasies of greatness. David first meets them again just after he’s witnessed the milk-man telling the servant he’s stopping deliveries from tomorrow – it’s always tomorrow with the Micawbers – and we get the first glimpse of the effect of their serial defaults on the lives of other people. Later, when it becomes clear that they will need a bond to pay for the advertisement they’ve decided on, David warns Traddles – he’s their lodger now – not to lend them anything. Too late: he’s in for the previous bond, and will put his name to this one as well.
What was I saying about the end of childhood? All the young people he met as a child are either somehow despoiled, or under threat of it. Emily, Steerforth, Traddles, Agnes…. Things are looking as bleak for them as for David’s childhood places. How can Dickens give his battered readers a bit of relief?
Introduce the love interest, obviously. He meets Dora, the daughter of his boss Spenlow, and… and he is so geared up for what he calls love that his reaction when he meets her is crashingly predictable. I’d rather have the misery of the chapters in which everything gets smashed up than Dickens’ version of a kind of innocent young love. As so often, the adult David patronises his younger self, but in such a forgiving tone of indulgence it seems we’re supposed to find it ok. Dora is the antithesis of Agnes – spoilt, silly, born yesterday – so… so what does that make her?
I’ve no recollection of where Dickens goes with this storyline, but pray that the happy ending will be that David will save Agnes from the slime-monster and marry her before things get too serious with baby-curls. At the very start of Book 9, when Agnes refers to Steerforth as David’s bad angel, it’s in the context of him having called her his good angel for forgiving him his awful behaviour on his night of ‘dissipation’. She is everything a man could want – Dickens continually makes this clear – and yet… it’s only a few chapters later when David decides it’s Dora he can’t live without. I’ve got a sinking feeling that the Uriah/Agnes storyline is going to get very ugly – and that the Dora storyline isn’t going away. (Sigh.)
Chapters 32-37 – Books 11-12
Can I deal with the Dora thing first? I’m hating it. Dickens has thrown some complications into David’s life because, well, it’s been far too easy for him since his arrival in Dover. Betsey Trotwood’s investments have all failed – this is the main storyline of Book 12 – so, suddenly, he’s not the comfortably-off young gent he thought he was. This is fine, and he responds with gung-ho enthusiasm to the new realities. I’ll get back to all that. But what to tell Dora? Chapter 37, ‘Cold Water’, is the set-piece meeting, and it’s all horrible. He’s too much of a baby to realise that a life of hard work and relative poverty is simply impossible for her. She’s too much of a baby to understand a word of what he’s talking about. Her response to his silly little suggestions that she might need to learn how to cook and to manage a limited household budget – give me strength – is to pretend that he’s behaving like a nasty monster as a sort of teasing game that goes too far.
20-odd years later, in Middlemarch, George Eliot uses a similar storyline. Lydgate, who tends to behave like an adult rather than an overgrown child, realises both that he will never be able to offer Rosamund what she has been brought up to expect, and that she would divert him from his idealistic medical ambitions. He tries to end it with her – but she won’t let him. She’s no baby either, and manipulates him into a situation in which marriage to her becomes an inevitability. For Lydgate – look away now if you don’t want to know what happens to him – it sets in motion the small-scale tragedy of the rest of his life. He dies in early middle-age, with his ideals unfulfilled.
Meanwhile, in Dickens-land – well, what? I’ve still no recollection of where this storyline goes. Before speaking to Dora, David has made no attempt to visualise a real future with a real woman. He’s had warnings, in the form of a dismal chorus, a couple of chapters previously. Betsey Trotwood recognises infatuation in David’s description of his undying love, and how he would go out of his mind without her. ‘Ah,’ she says, ‘blind, blind, blind!’ – and she repeats it a few lines later. Fine. But the true direness comes out at the end of the chapter. He has been talking to Agnes a lot and, as we continue to tear our hair out at his obtuseness, he continues to fail to recognise her true value.
‘Oh, Agnes, sister of my boyhood, if I had known then, what I knew long afterwards—!
There was a beggar in the street, when I went down; and… he made me start by muttering, as if he were an echo of the morning: “Blind! Blind! Blind!”’
But although it’s implied that David will eventually learn some sense, for now Dickens wants to keep him as a child playing at being a grown-up. I wish he’d stop it, but he obviously isn’t going to. We see David, in a chapter entitled ‘Enthusiasm’, embracing the culture of self-help that was becoming known of around the time of the novel’s publication. He rises at 5.00 a.m. to work as a secretary for – guess – Dr Strong, his old headmaster. So Dickens can revive another of the childhood storylines: we meet Dr Strong’s young wife again, and we meet Maldon again, now the archetype of self-satisfied indolence on his fine horse. In case we’re wondering, Dickens has Annie seeming rather indifferent to him, whatever might have gone on in the past. It could be a smokescreen, obviously.
Before all this, Dickens deals with the other storylines, and sets off that other one of Betsey’s financial ruin. After the massive kicks given to the narrative in the previous two instalments, Dickens can deal with the fallout at his leisure. David is still in Yarmouth at the beginning of Book 11, and we see that Mr Peggotty really is set on his hopeless quest of pursuing Emily and killing Steerforth. Ham, meanwhile, is a wreck. Ok.
There’s a wonderful set-piece in which David takes Mr Peggotty to see Steerforth’s mother. Nobody wins, because although Dickens makes Mr P’s plea to her full of an understated (and, let’s face it, highly implausible) eloquence, she isn’t listening. What he gets from her is a blast from the same world of class snobbery that Dickens has made a theme throughout the book. (I’m surprised I haven’t mentioned it before.) Early on there’s Steerforth’s own mockery of Mr Meld, based on nothing worse than the fact that he has proof of the teacher’s low origins. There’s Mrs Waterbrook at the party David attends when he first joins Doctors Commons, whose eulogy on the theme of Blood leads to the most extraordinary displays of abasement before the altar of this particular god.
And now there’s Rosa Dartle showing her true colours, choosing to present her jealousy of Emily’s success with Steerforth as the reward of low cunning: ‘They are a depraved, worthless set. I would have her whipped! … I would have his house pulled down. I would have her branded on the face, dressed in rags, and cast out in the streets to starve.’ It sounds extreme – until you realise that all Miss Dartle is doing is voicing the opinion of middle-class Victorian society. Just in case we’d forgotten, Dickens reminds us that this is how it is.
Otherwise, the main theme of these instalments is almost all to do with rising and falling fortunes. Betsey Trotwood and Wickfield (and, by implication, Agnes) are the losers. Uriah Heep, now a full partner of the firm, is one of the winners. And so are all those who work in jobs that David is becoming confident enough to call sinecures – by whom he means everybody who works in the law in all its forms: all they do in their closed shop is accumulate more and more money. Meanwhile, there’s the (not quite) comedy subplot of continuing vicissitudes of the Micawbers’ lives, and poor Traddles. I’ll get back to them.
First, Uriah Heep. What do you want to know? We see him this time with Wickfield, who looks to him for confirmation of whatever decisions he still needs to make. (I’m reminded of Jorkins, the nominal head of Spenlow and Jorkins, who takes great pains to make sure what Spenlow has actually decided before voicing any opinion of his own. He’s the excuse that Spenlow always parades before David for the harsh decisions he makes, usually concerning money. I’m sure Uriah will do the same, if he hasn’t already started.) Dickens always likes to connect Uriah to some sort of invasion of privacy – the haunting of David’s rooms that night in Book 9, the more obscene invasion of Agnes he’s contemplating – and we find out he’s now inhabiting David’s old room at the Wickfields’ in Canterbury. (Shudder.)
Betsey Trotwood… decided her financial expertise was greater than Wickfield’s, and made one bad investment after another. She arrives at David’s rooms – much to the consternation of Mrs Crupp, the comedy landlady – and announces her ruin. She will get £70 a year in rent from the Dover house – and that’s it. But it’s ok: we get one of those all-in-it-together moments that Dickens likes, when it’s some ad hoc crew against the world. Aunt Betsey sorts out the apartment, Mr Dick is set to copying legal documents – he’s good at it – and David is Doc Strong’s amanuensis. Sure, the cold water comes in buckets when he tries to sell this to Dora, but hey.
And… in case we need it, Dickens reminds us of the slipperiness of appearances. The Micawbers – living under a false name to confuse creditors – always seem more benign than they are. And Mr M’s proud presentation of the 40-odd pounds that he owes Traddles – in the form of his IOU – makes them all feel proud of his great gesture. I don’t need to mention Steerforth just now, although in Yarmouth they have plenty to say about how he’d always seemed a true gentleman to them.
But the appearance/reality thing can work the other way as well: Miss Mowcher only plays the part of a hobgoblin to make her way in a world that is endlessly cruel towards her, and promises to do what she can to help the Peggottys to find Emily. And Mrs Gummidge throws off her cloak of maundering self-pity as soon as she feels needed again. She organises the house-boat, will be there if Emily should ever return – becomes part of this novel’s other all-in-it-together crew of self-helpers. Sentimental nonsense? How could anyone even think such a thing?
Books 13-15, Chapters 38-46
I’m bored by a lot of this now: Dickens isn’t taking us to enough unexpected places. There are exceptions, often to do with Uriah Heep: any pages on which he appears are interesting, whereas anything to do with Dora, for instance, is endlessly tedious. And we get more of Dora than of Uriah in these instalments. Book 14 ends with their wedding day, and it signals another ending: the end of the toy romance of David’s wooing of the woman who, in Book 15, becomes the ‘child-wife’. Is it possible for a 21st Century reader – or any reader, ever – not to find this grotesque?
I’ll try to be quick about the David/Dora thing. Early in Book 13 their secret correspondence is discovered by Miss Murdstone – did I mention that she’s the companion her muddle-headed father has chosen for Dora? – and Spenlow is as pompous about it as you’d expect. (There’s a lot of ‘as you’d expect’ in these chapters.) A crisis looms, as David refuses to bring things to an end. Dickens brings things to an end instead or, more specifically, he brings Spenlow to an end. So it goes – and Dora is whisked off to live with her spinster aunts. (Dickens will introduce new characters if they’re minor – theirs is just a short-term holding operation – and he makes them into two fussy little birds.) They are ok with David coming to visit, and he’s ok with it too. Sure, he doesn’t like the way they treat Dora as a kind of toy, and blames them when he finds himself doing the same. Jesus.
Nothing changes. By the time David is making enough money to live on as a parliamentary sketch-writer, Dora still behaves like an indulged eight-year-old and David is still ok with this. Their wedding is a game – church, pretty dress, words like ‘adorable’ bandied about – and, suddenly, they’re together in their ‘little’ house. Is there any sex in this little house? The question doesn’t arise. Sex in this novel is shut away in a hidden, unlabelled box containing Steerforth and Martha. I’ll come back to them. What we see of David and the child-wife – Dodie and Mouse – might as well be taking place in a kindergarten. Don’t even ask about the endless comic scrapes – the succession of lazy and/or dishonest servants, the over-priced, second-rate groceries, the meat that is either raw or burnt black when it comes to the table – because it’s all as you’d expect. Aunt Betsey, when David begins to be just a tiny bit exasperated, advises him not to demand of Dora what she is unable to offer. So he stops doing it, and laughs instead at her adorable efforts to do the accounts. Jesus, again.
There’s another, equally disturbing marriage in this novel. Remember Dr Strong and his own lovely child-wife? The girl who grew up with the lazy, self-serving Maldon and who has spent all those evenings with him? Their story runs alongside Uriah Heep’s for a while: he’s always in the background, writhing away in that way of his, and he’s noticed what David has about her behaviour. David doesn’t contradict these suspicions when he thrusts them under his nose, and Uriah decides to bring things to a head by speaking about them in Dr Strong’s presence. It brings about a coolness between Dr Strong and his wife which even Mr Dick notices. In an episode that stretches credibility even further than usual in this novel, Dick decides to help them sort it out. (This follows a conversation in which Dick gives David a succinct self-diagnosis of his mental problems and the way this might give him greater licence than a healthy-minded friend. Yeh, sure.)
It’s the ensuing reconciliation that pushes all the buttons labelled ‘disturbing’. Annie doesn’t call herself a child-wife, but she does call Dr Strong her ‘father-husband’. Dickens devotes most of a chapter to the scene in which she describes the way a young pupil’s relationship with her old teacher developed into a true and lasting love, and… and we’re supposed to be all right with this? My God. But at least this thread brings some benefits. One of them is the humiliation of Annie’s mother, the ‘Old Soldier’ who has always used her daughter’s marriage to benefit herself, Maldon and various family members. (Betsey Trotwood lobs quiet verbal grenades at her from time to time as Annie convinces her husband that she herself doesn’t have a mercenary bone in her body.)
The main benefit is the way it brings Uriah back into the frame. He played up David’s own suspicions when first convincing Dr Strong that his wife might not be behaving properly – and it has led to a new openness in David’s hatred of him. In an earlier scene, Uriah has openly admitted that his mother’s constant presence at the Wickfields’ is to fend off any other suitor, i.e. David, from ‘my Agnes’. Now, having been used as a de facto witness for the prosecution, David slaps Uriah so hard he loosens a tooth. Some of the characters in this novel are pure black or pure white, and Uriah is developing into a figure of pure evil. He doesn’t play by anybody’s rules but his own, and David will need to watch out.
The Micawbers are on the back burner although, for his own inscrutable reasons, Dickens has now got Mr M working as Uriah’s clerk. We see Traddles from time to time, forever the same in the role of one of those ultra-nice characters you find in most Dickens novels. (A Tom, rather than a Tommy, springs to mind from Martin Chuzzlewit.) He’s an endlessly optimistic and cheery soul, there to emphasise by contrast the selfishness of others – like his prospective mother- and sisters-in-law, appalled by the prospect of losing their unpaid housekeeper and servant. Betsey Trotwood is mellowing into a wise old bird, with her eyes now open to her former mistakes.
And Agnes is… Agnes, still everything that Dora isn’t. We even get Dora wishing she could have lived with Agnes for a year before her marriage, to learn how to be more like her – the equivalent of Dickens leaping up and down with flags and klaxons. There are plenty more of these in the Strongs’ reconciliation scene. Annie assures her husband that she is well aware of the traps befalling those with ‘an undisciplined heart’, that ‘there can be no disparity in marriage like the unsuitability of mind and purpose’. These phrases clatter around inside David’s head forever afterwards, as he pretends not to be fully aware of the shambles of his own marriage, and that Agnes… oh, nothing. Anyway. Agnes assures David that under no circumstances will she ever marry Uriah, so that’s all right. Isn’t it?
And then there’s the Steerforth/Emily thread. David has met Mr Peggotty, back from following their trail around Europe, never in time to catch them. Late in Book 15, in the chapter entitled ‘Intelligence’, Litimer the oleaginous fixer tells David and Miss Dartle – David has been invited in for the express purpose – that his boss has left Emily high and dry in Italy. In Litimer’s presentation of it, ‘Mr James’ has proved himself to be scrupulously honourable. What Dickens makes sure we see is that he became bored, and increasingly irritated by her failure to be impressed by his class and wealth. He’s moved on.
I’ve finally realised what I hate about Dickens’ presentation of the child-wife marriages in this novel. We don’t need any biographies to tell us that he knows how things really are between men and women: Steerforth’s behaviour, and the behaviour of all the invisible men who pay for Martha’s services, makes this absolutely clear. (It’s why I see such a strong suggestion of autobiography in his presentation of Steerforth.) In the Strongs’ relationship, and in that between David and Dora, Dickens hides everything he knows and puts something else in its place. It has no basis in reality – so, in the case of David’s ‘love’ for Dora we are to believe that the first flush of infatuation can be prolonged for years.
The first shadowy hints of any misgivings only arise in the mind of this man – purportedly making his way in the rough and tumble of a cynical city – when he is taken to the equivalent of a soundproofed room and other characters scream their doubts in his face. Otherwise, having met Dora several years ago and several hundred pages back, he still can’t see what we could see from the start. As a comic metaphor of of the blindness of young love it simply doesn’t work, because there’s no psychological truth in it. Dickens has to stretch what I’ve called his variation of dramatic irony so far, and over so many pages, that I’ve often been close to throwing the book across the room.
1 January 2012
Previously, twice, I’ve said how I had no idea of where Dickens can go with the David/Dora storyline. Now I know why: he doesn’t go anywhere with it, because there’s nowhere for it to go. By the time he gives us the set-piece vignettes of her picturesque decline into death I was smiling broadly as I read. The fact that her awful lapdog pines and dies at the precise moment that she expires pathetically upstairs – significantly, on the bosom of Agnes, whose presence she’s asked for – made me laugh out loud. (I’m not making this up.)
This thread has spoilt most of the book for me: from Book 9 to Book 17 there’s hardly an instalment in which the ridiculous affair doesn’t raise its wearisome head. I’ve said most of what I mean to about it, except… when we get the first inkling that all is not well – Dora never recovers properly after a miscarriage – I felt nothing but relief. But Dickens feels he has to persuade us that this death is not the act of an author taking the easy way out, but an inevitable step in the psychological development of his main character. It’s rubbish, because we have to be persuaded not only that it would take David all these years to realise that that such a marriage is ill-advised, but that it’s ok in a supposedly serious novel that he will never have to face what real people face: the lifelong misery that is the inevitable consequence. (Cue further comparisons with the Lydgate/Rosamund thread in Middlemarch.) Of course, there’s the obligatory period of loss and devastation (yawn) but, basically, David is now free to start again.
Two last things about the doomed marriage. To go alongside the dark thoughts that David has sometimes had about his ‘undisciplined heart’ and the ‘disparity in marriage’ that Annie denies in her own with Dr Strong – thoughts that he returns to several times – Dora herself, child that she is, also understands it perfectly. Her summing-up of the problem shortly before her death – that, basically, theirs was a childish love they would have been better to have grown out of – is as convenient, and as implausible, as Mr Dick’s self-recognition in Book 15. It’s simply there to make David, and the reader, feel less bad about her death. I wasn’t feeling bad about it anyway.
The other thing is to do with that miscarriage. Don’t ask me where the pregnancy came from: Dora is as asexual as a doll. Dickens has constantly reinforced this idea with references to her prettiness, to her being treated like a toy by her aunts, and to her pathological impracticality. Ok. What I find disturbing is that Dickens appears to think that in a novel for adults it’s ok to create a woman like this. Dickens is often schematic in his characterisations: Uriah represents evil hiding behind veils of hypocrisy; Miss Dartle represents both the self-destructive bitterness of jealousy and the morality of a judgmental Victorian society. Worryingly, the baby that is Dora seems to represent an idealised type of womanhood. David’s love for her is never described as an infatuation: it is real, and his sense of grief at her death is crippling. So… my God. I’m not even going to begin speculating what this might tell us about Dickens. His own marriage to a woman with poor housekeeping skills, and with whom he produced huge numbers of children, is what David does not have to live through. The novel as wishful thinking? I couldn’t possibly comment.
Where to start on the other endings and come-uppances we’ve had? How about Uriah? Dickens, considerate chap that he is, puts us out of our misery on at least two fronts: most importantly, Agnes is out of danger; and the money he embezzled from Wickfield and others – including, yes, that fortune of Betsey Trotwood’s, which she hadn’t invested badly on her own after all – gets back to its rightful owners. Yippee. And all this comes about because, chapters and chapters back, Mr Micawber got that job as his clerk. I suppose when he got the job most readers – like me – took it to be no more than a convenient way for Dickens to keep a couple of threads together. Wrong. The link enables him both to bring about Micawber’s redemption – we’ve lost a lot of faith in him as the book has gone on – and to put the brakes on what had seemed to be Uriah’s unstoppable rise.
Micawber has been uneasy for months – an idea that Dickens has sown in our minds via a letter from Mrs M expressing her concern about him. (David forgets it, and so does the reader. Clever.) Eventually Micawber makes contact and prepares the ground for one of those set pieces that Dickens goes in for when the villain is skewered by a kind of ad hoc Fellowship of the Ring of good guys. Traddles – a lawyer now, remember – is in charge as Micawber, outraged by what Uriah has been making him do on pain of dismissal and the debtors’ prison (again), spills absolutely all the beans. His careful building up to the sonorously pronounced name, Heep, printed in small capitals, adds to the fun as Uriah gives up his mask of ‘umbleness and behaves like a trapped snake. His mother, by trying to get him to keep up the front, reveals even more of their plotting. We see him exactly for what he is.
Ok – but it’s only round 1 to the good guys. They don’t set the law on to Uriah, merely use it as a threat to force him to pay back what he owes. For the next five chapters – to the very end of Book 18 – Uriah is out in the world, serving Micawber with writs and summonses. But his power is gone, and Dickens is able to have Micawber reach ever more baroque flights of theatrical despair in the letters he writes… before the good guys rescue him with money he’s helped them retrieve. (There must have been enough positive feedback for Dickens to know that Micawber has become a great selling-point, because we’ve had a lot of him in these instalments. The bombast reaches at least 11 on the dial – by which I mean he will never use one word when eleven will do.) Betsey and the others have discussed funding for Micawber, have decided to drip-feed him enough to survive – and enough for him to emigrate to Australia…
…which has become one of Dickens’ favourite ways of tying up loose ends. He does it with the Emily thread, starting right back at the beginning of Book 16. David and Mr Peggotty have followed Martha to the riverside – which, in its dereliction and pollution, Dickens has fun turning into a metaphor of her ruined life. (There are even unfinished building projects left alone, a clue that this isn’t the end for Martha yet, however things might look.) She knows about Emily, was eavesdropping some chapters before when David was telling Mr Peggotty about Steerforth’s desertion and… these three become another fellowship of good guys.
I’ve been complaining a lot about Dickens’ treatment of women, but I should make an exception for Martha. Sure, he continues to insist on how polluted she is, how riddled with guilt at her own wrongdoing… but she’s also one of a band of heroes in this thread. Dickens will let her have her reward, no matter what public opinion might demand: when it suits him, public opinion is something to be defied. But only up to a point…
… because when Martha eventually finds Emily, Dickens cobbles together some plot business to bring about a set piece: Rosa Dartle, in a harrowing tirade over several pages, puts Emily through the sort of purgatory which – it might be argued by some of Dickens’ contemporaries – she’s had coming. Is this a sop to the moral Right? I couldn’t possibly comment. Anyway. Mr Peggotty arrives at the room where Martha has hidden Emily, misses Miss Dartle going down the stairs, and we get the reverse image of the tirade that David has just overheard. There’s a big reunion, in which the working man’s unconditional, forgiving brand of love is shown to be infinitely superior to the gentry’s poison. But what to do? And how on earth can they ever thank Martha enough? Emigrate, that’s what. And, as we discover as the ship is about to set sail at the very end of Book 18, they take Martha with them. Job done.
Are we nearly there yet? Don’t be ridiculous. Emily hasn’t forgotten about the terrible thing she’s done to Ham, who divides his time between mourning his lost love and taking extravagant risks at sea. (You got that?) She sends David with a valedictory letter to him, but… the chapter is entitled ‘Tempest’, and Dickens has David warning us of terrible things yet to come, even as he reels from Dora’s death. And what we get is another set piece, outdoing all the others for – for what? – sheer authorial chutzpah. Not only does David arrive at the same time as the worst storm in history. Not only does Ham, safely out of harm’s way, return in time to help save the crew-members of the Spanish ship floundering and breaking up just off-shore. Not only does Ham repel all attempts by David and the locals to stop his attempt to save that one man waving defiantly from the last bit of superstructure standing – waving his cap, in fact, of a ‘finer colour’ than a sailor’s. But – have you guessed yet? – the defiant one is Steerforth, and neither he nor Ham survives. Another job done.
Interesting – and rather disturbing, perhaps – that Dickens allows Steerforth a death as heroic as Ham’s – and that, on David’s part, the hero-worship is undiminished. As we’ve seen with Rosa Dartle’s scar, Steerforth destroys people. He has to die, obviously, but he dies with honour.
Any more loose ends? Only the question of what to do with the bad news. Mrs Steerforth and Miss Dartle get it right between the eyes. In the mausoleum the house now is – its blinded windows have become a motif whenever David passes by – the news seems to turn Mrs Steerforth to stone from inside. Miss Dartle is a Fury, tearing into the old woman with venomous recriminations. But eventually even she relents, and David leaves her trying – and failing, obviously – to offer some comfort. As for Peggotty and Emily: David agrees with those who know that they won’t tell them before they leave. A loose end not so much tied off as stopped up.
Maybe now the real fun will start. Uriah needs to be sorted out, and David needs to learn what an adult relationship looks like. Bring it on.
Usually at the end of a novel by Dickens I’m left gasping by the brilliance of what he does. Not this time. It has good things, obviously: it’s no surprise that Uriah Heep and Mr Micawber are always there in any list of his great characters, and no other novelist can do those figures like Rosa Dartle, archetypes who act as a warning to others. But… but I find huge sections of it emotionally illiterate and lacking in any psychological truth. In this re-drafting of his own biography, Dickens’ alter-ego gets to have his cake and eat it too. I’m not making it up when I say I find it revolting, as a woman in the form of a toy doll is superseded by a woman in the form of an angel. It’s clear from Book 6 onwards that Agnes is always going to be the one, is just as clear from Book 9 that Dora is simply the latest in a long line of childish – sorry, ‘undisciplined’ – infatuations. She was never going to be capable of development into a version of womanhood anyone would recognise. It’s as though Romeo, having met Juliet at Capulet’s feast, decides to marry Rosaline. It’s all a massive waste of time. Anyway…
… by the time we get to Book 19, David has caught up with what the reader has always known. Dickens has been letting him notice something from the corner of his eye for something like the last quarter of the novel, but it takes three years’ exile in a remote alpine valley – I’m not making this up either – for it to fully reach his consciousness. He finally realises that the woman who only lives to be his guiding star – Dickens’ image of perfect womanhood – has been waiting patiently for, literally, about fifteen years. She’s so perfect she’s been prepared to watch him living out his fantasies while they’ve both grown into adulthood, to hide her own love behind a pretence of sisterly affection. It’s a good thing that angels have infinite patience – but readers don’t, and this one wanted to be sick.
Maybe it’s reached Dickens’ own consciousness that he’s got a lot of work to do to make this nonsense acceptable, even to his indulgent contemporary readers. What is expected of him is that he’ll make David suffer for a while, and it forces him to do that trick where he bends reality out of any shape we might recognise. In the alternative dimension we’re now in, the successful author who hasn’t always taken the right steps in life now behaves impeccably to the point of saintliness. His dark night of the soul has made him fully aware of Agnes’ former feelings, but on his return from exile we’re to believe that he thinks she must have moved on from them by now. For almost the whole of Book 19 we’re forced to live through the bizarre, self-inflicted torture of a man who thinks of everything except asking the woman he loves what her feelings might be. For whole chapters we’re to believe that he thinks she must love someone else – and to prolong the agony Dickens has Aunt Betsey, who knows the real score, to speak in code – until, finally, the charade of fraternal love is abandoned. It’s been like picking a scab.
So. If psychological plausibility needs to be sacrificed in order to bring about a desired end, so be it – and, for me, this is the irredeemable flaw at the heart of the novel. It accounts for my unease about how Dickens makes his main character behave from the start. For me, from the early chapters in which David’s childish naivety is the butt of a kind of gently patronising satire to the late chapters in which he is unable to recognise the blatant truth about the loves of his life I never, ever, believe a word of it. Dickens needs his hero to make mistakes in order for this to be a Bildungsroman, and he does it by making him psychologically stunted.
Enough of that. What about the rest – all those loose ends I was listing (plus several others I hadn’t even thought about)? I’ll deal with them quickly, because that’s what Dickens does.
There’s no final showdown with Uriah, no spectacular end like that wonderful death by steam-train in Dombey and Son or the guilt-ridden, self-loathing suicide in Martin Chuzzlewit. Dickens leads up to our final view of him through a broad satire on wrong-headed penal practices. Uriah is in a new model prison, in which redemption is achieved through kindness. As if. Dickens allows his contempt to show as the prison warden – the appalling Creakle from Salem House all those years ago – and a crew of born-yesterday visitors are all taken in by his cant. David isn’t, obviously, and Uriah takes his serpent-like revenge on him by pretending to be concerned about his mortal soul and the souls of all the others who did him wrong. They would all be better off in the same place as Uriah, ho-ho. (The fact that Uriah has avoided transportation by becoming this model inmate is a comment in itself, Dickens’ reminder to us that there will always be cant. For a moment I wondered whether there might be a morsel of self-mockery here: I’ve found the whole David/Dora/Agnes storyline nothing but cant. But… no.)
There’s another model prisoner there, and a couple of loose threads I’d forgotten about. Litimer, Steerforth’s ‘respectable’ fixer – we even get a reprise of the adjective – is in prison for the same reason as Uriah: he’s been using his plausible public persona to commit fraud. And, David learns, the person who found him out was a dwarfish little woman who turns out to be – guess. Yay.
Next. It all ends happily for Traddles and his fiancée: like David, he stands as a model of good behaviour, demonstrating what rewards come your way if you work hard and stay cheerful. And that’s enough about him – except to mention that he even gets a real (rather than imaginary) payment from Micawber, now a success and pillar of society in small-town Australia. What else could he have been? Also out there is Martha, now married to a man who accepts her whilst fully knowing what a life she has led. This is Dickens treading too carefully for a modern reader: she and Emily are constantly presented as wrongdoers rather than victims. And it’s for this reason that he has Emily living out the rest of her years as Mr Peggotty’s helper in spite of the offers of marriage she’s had. Does Dickens get anything right when it comes to women in this book?
Not if Mrs Steerforth and Rosa Dartle are anything to go by. As his own life sorts itself out into a succession of happy events – publishing triumphs, a houseful of children and an angelic wife to look after them – David is able to visit these two in the mausoleum-like house. What can I say? They stand as a warning to women of what can happen if you don’t measure up to Dickens’ high standards.
Meanwhile, all the good characters – Aunt Betsey, Mr Dick and Peggotty – live into happy and productive old age; and Mr Peggotty is happy with his lot in Australia with Emily at his side. Maldon doesn’t get any sort of come-uppance, except for our full and certain knowledge that his life of relative prosperity and status-seeking is of no value whatever. And Murdstone, now on his latest marriage to an unsuspecting wife, is being aided and abetted by his sister to consign the poor woman to a madhouse. These are further reminders, in this novel in which Dickens has performed narrative gymnastics to get David his happy ending, that not all outcomes are happy ones. What’s this at the eleventh hour? A dose of realism? As if.