Weep. Weep. Centrelink just contacted me to say that they've noticed that my income was incorrectly entered - a transposition of digits which they acknowledge was clearly their fault. Consequently I owe them a heap of money. God, how I hate them. If they allowed information out as well as in, it would be possible to check your income against what it should be and stop them from making this kind of error (third time in four years).
So, instead of thinking about the *ongoing* nightmare of dealing with Centrelink, I will tell you about Charles Dickens' *David Copperfield* (1850).
I've just read it for the first time. It was Dickens’ ‘favourite child’ and it has everything he does best: vast, interwoven plots, comic grotesque characters, the development of the hero over time, poverty, riches, and very, very badly characterised women.
Dickens is notorious for not being able to write women and this is a draw back in a novel where the pov character marries twice.
Rather than doing a proper review, I want to talk about David’s first love, Dora. Reportedly the originator of the phrase ‘dozy Dora’, she is a ‘favourite child of nature’ made of ‘sweetness, light and air’. She is in no way an adult, but is constantly described as doll-like.
To me she comes across as distinctly mentally challenged. Here is the scene where David has to break the news to her that his aunt has lost her fortune so he is indigent and will have to work hard and live frugally when they are married.
Dora came to the drawing-room door to meet me; and Jip came scrambling out, tumbling over his own growls, under the impression that I was a Bandit; and we all three went in, as happy and loving as could be. I soon carried desolation into the bosom of our joys—not that I meant to do it, but that I was so full of the subject—by asking Dora, without the smallest preparation, if she could love a beggar?
My pretty, little, startled Dora! Her only association with the word was a yellow face and a nightcap, or a pair of crutches, or a wooden leg, or a dog with a decanter-stand in his mouth, or something of that kind; and she stared at me with the most delightful wonder.
'How can you ask me anything so foolish?' pouted Dora. 'Love a beggar!'
'Dora, my own dearest!' said I. 'I am a beggar!'
'How can you be such a silly thing,' replied Dora, slapping my hand, 'as to sit there, telling such stories? I'll make Jip bite you!'
Her childish way was the most delicious way in the world to me, but it was necessary to be explicit, and I solemnly repeated:
'Dora, my own life, I am your ruined David!'
'I declare I'll make Jip bite you!' said Dora, shaking her curls, 'if you are so ridiculous.'
But I looked so serious, that Dora left off shaking her curls, and laid her trembling little hand upon my shoulder, and first looked scared and anxious, then began to cry. That was dreadful. I fell upon my knees before the sofa, caressing her, and imploring her not to rend my heart; but, for some time, poor little Dora did nothing but exclaim Oh dear! Oh dear! And oh, she was so frightened! And where was Julia Mills! And oh, take her to Julia Mills, and go away, please! until I was almost beside myself.
So they agree to maintain the engagement, but Dora does not want to talk of practicalities.
If it were possible for me to love Dora more than ever, I am sure I did. But I felt she was a little impracticable. It damped my new-born ardour, to find that ardour so difficult of communication to her. I made another trial. When she was quite herself again, and was curling Jip's ears, as he lay upon her lap, I became grave, and said:
'My own! May I mention something?'
'Oh, please don't be practical!' said Dora, coaxingly. 'Because it frightens me so!'
'Sweetheart!' I returned; 'there is nothing to alarm you in all this. I want you to think of it quite differently. I want to make it nerve you, and inspire you, Dora!'
'Oh, but that's so shocking!' cried Dora.
'My love, no. Perseverance and strength of character will enable us to bear much worse things.' 'But I haven't got any strength at all,' said Dora, shaking her curls. 'Have I, Jip? Oh, do kiss Jip, and be agreeable!'
It was impossible to resist kissing Jip, when she held him up to me for that purpose, putting her own bright, rosy little mouth into kissing form, as she directed the operation, which she insisted should be performed symmetrically, on the centre of his nose. I did as she bade me—rewarding myself afterwards for my obedience—and she charmed me out of my graver character for I don't know how long.
David suggests Dora might learn to do accounts or read a cookery book, but the suggestion makes her faint.
What is the reader to make of this? I am deeply annoyed by Dora’s hopeless helplessness, but as I read the rest of the novel I saw that this was not an affectation but the genuine extent of her abilities. Her most useful ever act is to hold David’s pencil case as he makes notes.
Dickens isn’t writing a satire about the uselessness of contemporary ideas of middle-class femininity. Dora does not fritter her time away in ladylike accomplishments like art or visiting, but plays with the dog and plays her guitar and amuses herself by playing with David’s hair as he studies. She is utterly child like.
Indeed, she asks David to call her his ‘child-wife’ which just squicks me but does encapsulate their relationship. It seems to me that although she is characterised as plump and pretty and slightly sexual (with the rosy lips in pouting form), she is mentally about eight. She certainly is not capable of meaningful consent and their entire relationship disturbs me.
Why would David, an otherwise sympathetic character, have this weird relationship? It makes sense in terms of his personal history – his mother was a child-wife to the terrible Murdstone, and his favourite teacher is a full forty years older than his wife. And, of course, Dickens himself had a mistress 28 years his junior.
Anyway, the whole thing ends happily (for David anyway) when Dora dies from an illness brought on by a miscarriage and David then marries the more adult Agnes. BTW: Jip expires at the same time as Dora, which I find hard to believe even the Victorians found pathetic rather than bathetic.
*David Copperfield* was the first novel Freud gave to his fiancé while courting – and I can see why. It is a semi-autobiographical novel that cries out for the author to receive a hefty dose of counselling.