The Internet Personified: The doomed women of David Copperfield
I read Dickens' favourite novel for the first time and I have thoughts!
(Significant spoilers for David Copperfield by Charles Dickens to follow, if you can spoiler a classic book of English literature.)
School textbooks have killed Charles Dickens for a lot of people. When I posted on Facebook yesterday (I don’t use it much except for a) stalking people on my newsfeed, b) moderating my insane Fans of Cats group with its daily drama and c) cross-posting photographs from my Instagram which it no longer does automatically) about finishing David Copperfield for the first time, my friend Ashwati (hi!) said she never liked the book since they hit her over the head with it in class five or six. I was quite surprised by this, since David Copperfield is quite full of sexy bits (well, not SEXY-sexy, Dickens is a bit of a prude about spelling them out, but you know, people are seduced, people are whores-with-hearts-of-gold etc). Luckily for me, in our CBSE education, English literature wasn’t so much literature as it was textbooks with excerpts from here or there. The last time I remember having a book as part of our coursework was class 8, where we had an abridged version of The Scarlet Pimpernel (kind of boring, though I still remember: “they seek me here, they seek me there, those English seek me everywhere!”) and The Room on The Roof, which I loved. (Which also had one sexy bit, if I recall correctly, where he’s in love with his friend’s mother, and she cuts his hair and it’s quite erotic even though there’s nothing more to it than that.)
Anyway David Copperfield. I’ve been reading Dead Authors these days, and if I do read live ones, I prefer books that were published in the 80s or the 90s. I’m not sure why—maybe it’s because I’m ensconsed in my own book writing and I don’t need contemporary authors with their contemporary novel ideas infecting my brain inadvertently. [Second draft done, just a little tinkering left before I send it to my agent for queries, so wish me luck!] [Have you, fellow writers, noticed how you have a verbal tic that sometimes makes its way into your writing? My thing is apparently “or something” and I had to do a ctrl + f all through my MS this morning and delete all the “or somethings” I had attached to the end of sentences.]
Charles Dickens though. A guy I only knew through Oliver Twist which I read many years too early for it to have a significant impact on me, and only then because I had just watched the musical. Trust Disney to turn a story about an orphan brought up in a workhouse who goes to the mean streets of London and becomes a thief into a MUSICAL of all things. But Dickens was a revelation. I always knew (vaguely) that he was a great author etc, but it was only after reading David Copperfield that I realised what a touchstone he was for all my other favourite books. (Not including Tolstoy, but yes, he too drew inspiration from this book.) There’s a Dora reference in Joy In The Morning by Betty Smith, lots of references in Jo’s Boys (“I’ll never desert you, Mr Micawber!” “I hope she’s not a Dickens Dora.”) and in What Katy Did At School (“Lily’s a regular Mrs Gummidge, isn’t she girls?”) and as you probably know, The Catcher In The Rye opens with these famous lines: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” To read about these characters, who I felt like I already knew, Uriah Heep, the Micawbers, Pegotty, they all read like familiar names, even though I didn’t know how I knew them, but to meet them for the first time in a story about one life: David Copperfield’s and the stories of the people he meets as he grows up, that’s it, that’s how simple the story is and yet, how vast.
But I realised, the deeper I read, how Dickens really doesn’t know what to do with his women. The book ends with David marrying Agnes, perhaps the most cipher-like of all his female creations. We meet Agnes for the first time when she is a very little girl keeping house for her alcoholic father who relies on her rather more than a parent should, and for whom she takes complete responsibility because it was her birth that kills her mother who her father loved. But we’re never allowed to know what Agnes thinks, what Agnes feels. Instead, she is described at various times like “an angel in a stained glass window” or calm and placid or something to that effect. Imagine if Beth from Little Women had lived, she’d grow up to be an Agnes, so you know the type.
Far more exciting than Agnes is David’s first wife, but I’m getting ahead of myself. First, a list in chronological order of all the women in David Copperfield and how fucked they are—with two notable exceptions.
1) David’s mother. Doomed from the start, she’s described as young and silly, enjoys being attractive, is left widowed and loves her small son, who she raises with the help of her maid Pegotty. But! She is quickly seduced and married by the Evil Murdstone, who instantly moves into her house with his Equally Evil Sister and they set about separating mother and son, and being really cruel to everyone. (Why? The book is never clear, but just to be Evil, I guess?) Point of note: we do run into Evil Murdstone and his Equally Evil Sister later, where they are Dooming yet another young woman into insanity by their domineering ways. David’s mother dies after she has a baby, but not like immediately after, maybe six or seven months later. I don’t know why she dies, but she does and the baby also dies and David is sent off to work for his living at age 11.
2) Mrs Micawber. I mean, sure, she loves her husband, but I think she also has to love her husband, because her family has basically cut her off, she has several children and this shiftless, wastrel of a fellow keeps borrowing money and never returning it and eventually they all go and live in jail. At least Mrs Micawber is fleshed out a little bit, but it’s Mr Micawber that Dickens lingers on, clearly loving this character the most.
3) Little Em’ly. Poor little Em’ly. Doomed from the very beginning, an orphan girl, taken in by loving relatives, thinking every day of how she had to be grateful, growing up to be absurdly beautiful, bethroted to her well-meaning but quite oafish cousin, with no sexiness about him at all, finally seeing a glimmer of light in the form of a fascinating upper class man, running away with him and then being punished for it, by becoming an absolute wreck, a fallen woman who needed rescuing by her uncle who eventually shipped them both off to Australia. Take that Emily! That’s what you get for having sex! (Related: Martha, Em’ly’s hooker friend, who she has to meet in secret because her uncle doesn’t think they should hang out. Martha is pretty down on herself as well, but she does get a happy ending when she helps “save” Emily and then eventually gets married to a man who doesn’t care about her past.)
4) Dora. Problematic. Dora is the most affected woman you’ve ever read about, to the point where you wonder if she’s actually, you know, not all there. She’s a mass of curls and sweet lips and has a lapdog who she cuddles constantly and is always telling David not to talk to her about things because she’ll cry and eventually, in one of the book’s most revealing passages about her, asks him to call her “his child-wife” because then he can excuse all her mistakes. Dora grows on you eventually, but just as you feel bad for her, because she’s cottoned on as well that her marriage is not going to be great, she dies, following a long sickness after a miscarriage. Oh well. Goodbye Dora! Very interesting, or not, how David basically married his mother.
5) Miss Mowcher. Originally written as this dwarf who’s super popular amongst the rich and famous, and is always arch and funny, think Tyrion’s predecessor. But apparently—and this is quite interesting—because Dickens got a cease and desist letter from the OG Miss Mowcher who read part of his serial story and concluded that he had based the story on her, he suddenly takes a u-turn with the character, who goes from being arch and devilish to sad and pity me in the course of a few chapters. (Note: I think a spin off story just about Miss Mowcher would be a great thing to read. Please let me know if this exists or whether I have to write it myself.)
6) Mrs Strong. An Agnes-mould of Dickens’ womanhood. A noble and beautiful person who bafflingly loves her ancient and fat husband, even though he’s old enough to be her dad. Explanation provided later: “Took a while to see him not as my dad, but was so honoured to be chosen.” Everyone suspects Mrs Strong of being into her dashing cousin, they tell Dr Strong, who, even though he doesn’t suspect his wife or so he says, becomes kind of a dick to her, by being very patient and drawing up his fucking will, passive-aggressively, till she’s forced to spell it all out.
The two women who are not doomed, however, are David’s two mother figures. There’s large and protective Pegotty, his nurse, who he stays in touch with forevermore because she loved him and was kind to him as a child, and there’s his aunt, who rattles everyone in chapter one, but turns out to be kind of awesome later when David shows up at her doorstep, turning into the kind of fairy godmother you read about in fairy tales, loving, full of cash and wisdom and leaving him alone at the right moments. Plus no kids of her own, so she literally renames David after herself and then watches over him.
Okay, that is all I have to say about David Copperfield. (That’s a lie, I have so much more to say, so one more line: Uriah Heep is the creepiest character I have ever come across in literature, but it’s kind of sad that the one working class person allowed to be mean and nasty instead of fawning and keeping to their place, has to be also a criminal and get his comeuppance.) If I say any more I will probably lose more readers than I already have, inflicting Dickens on you, when I promised this newsletter would be a light-hearted romp about the life of an urban Indian woman, but what can I do, the ‘rona’s got us all and Great Novels by Dead Authors are turning out to be my only joy.
Links I Like
Has the AAP become super right wing?
How Ferrero Rocher became a status symbol.
Michael Chabon travels in Morocco (in the before times, with his fam.) (Sharing this because we’ve been making a list of places we’d like to go as soon as we can go to places, and Morocco is currently in a top five position, but the food sounds boring, and half the reason I go places is to do a tourism of the mouth, but how much cous cous can one person eat?)
When you’re bored of cooking.
Which reminds me, I half invented this great recipe yesterday for buff (but you can use mutton) in thick gravy, which was SO GOOD. Here it is, for posterity, you’ll need an Instant Pot or a pressure cooker. It’s called Minna’s Marvelous Meat:
Chop two big onions, fine. (I use my string chopper, the second best thing I have purchased during this lockdown.) (The first is a robovac.)
Fry these till they’re brown. Add two generous dollops of ginger-garlic paste and two chillis slit lengthwise and a handful of karipatta. (Please acquire a karipatta plant if you don’t already have one, they grow like weeds and are invaluable to have on hand.)
Once all of these are cooked, add chilli powder, dhaniya powder, haldi, salt and, this is my secret, a tablespoon of Catch Kitchen King masala powder. Mix well, add the meat, stir fry till brown.
Add a tablespoon of lemon juice and a half cup of dessicated coconut.
Add a little water to the bottom of the pan, till you loosen the burnt ends of onions clinging to the pan, but not so much that you drown it, you want it to be a little wet, but mainly dry.
Close the lid and pressure cook (or Instant Pot) for 35 minutes. The meat will release enough liquid while it’s cooking to tenderise itself.
Serve with frozen Malabar parottas that you can either bake in the oven till they’re flaky or warm on a tawa for more fat.
There’s a rise in self proclaimed time travellers, apparently. (Why did no one warn us about this year?)
And, here’s what it’s like, taking an Air India flight back home in these COVID times.
Have a great week! Today’s featured gifs are from the vintage archives of giphy, this one made me laugh.
Where am I? The Internet Personified! A mostly weekly collection of things I did/thought/read/saw that week.
Who are you?Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
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