"Take a word of advice, even from three foot nothing. Try not to associate bodily defects with mental, my good friend, except for a solid reason." [Miss Mowcher and David Copperfield] 1870s. Illustration by Fred Barnard for the Household Edition of David Copperfield (Chapter XXXII, "The Beginning of a Long Journey," p. 225). Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL.]

Certainly the Victorians were not especially enlightened about the disfigured and abnormal, as the 1981 film The Elephant Man (based on the life of deformed Londoner John Merrick) makes clear. Dickens first uses the dwarf Miss Mowcher as a curiosity, a misshapen reflection of Steerforth's warped character, and then actually develops her as a sympathetic character whose ethical being is anything but distorted. One might well make the comparison to Shakespeare's handling of the character of the villain Shylock, the Jewish moneylender of The Merchant of Venice: the dramatist begins with a stock figure of a religious and social outsider, then develops him into an individual with deep feelings and great personal dignity. The two illustrations in question — Phiz's original serial illustration for chapter 22 (Part 8, December, 1849), realizing the initial meeting between the protagonist and the manicurist, and Fred Barnard's Household Edition wood-engraving from some twenty years later, complementing David's meeting her again, in chapter 32 (originally in the March 1850 number), after Steerforth has absconded with Em'ly — are perfectly consistent with the intentions expressed by the text, first to imply that she acts as a procuress for Steerforth, and then to show her in an entirely different light ethically, as the main economic prop and support of a family and a sympathetic character who is morally outraged at Steerforth's base conduct. Barnard, composing Miss Mowcher's form and face in a manner consistent with Phiz's, shows a woman of about forty-five years of age with a roguish expression and a snub nose. Her bonnet is, as Dickens specifies, "very disproportionate to her figure." Although society, she complains, treats her as a doll, a curiosity, a child, she is indeed an experienced adult who, although somewhat cynically, sees life for what it is, but deplores baseness wherever she encounters it.

The passage illustrated in Barnard’s wood-engraving is this:

"Come!" said she, accepting the offer of my hand to help her over the fender, and looking wistfully up into my face, "you know you wouldn’t mistrust me, if I was a full-sized woman!"

I felt that there was much truth in this; and I felt rather ashamed of myself. "You are a young man," she said, nodding. "Take a word of advice, even from three foot nothing. Try not to associate bodily defects with mental, my good friend, except for solid reason." [231]

Thus, Dickens graphs David's changing appreciation of the issue fair appearance versus underlying reality in his growing understanding of Miss Mowcher's character. That he is chastened for misjudging her based on her on outward form is a lesson to the protagonist — and to the reader.

Barnard's dual character study of David Copperfield and Miss Mowcher is effective because of the binary opposites it contains: gentlemanly youth versus working class age, handsome and suave versus ill-proportioned and physically awkward, socially naive and superficial in his understanding of the world versus Mis Mowcher's knowing cynicism. So often in Dickens outward deformity is but the outward and visible sign of a disordered personality — the hideous Fred Quilp of The Old Curiosity Shop is a pertinent example. Here, however, she is David's oracle and eventually will serve as Littimer's nemesis.

References

Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield, with 61 illustrations by Fred Barnard. Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1871-1879.

The copy of the Household Edition from which this picture was scanned was the gift of George Gorniak, Editor of The Dickens Magazine, whose subject for the fifth series, beginning in January 2010, is this novel.


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Last modified 31 December 2010