Holding the pens. 1870s. Illustration by Fred Barnard for the Household Edition of David Copperfield (Chapter XLIV, "Our Housekeeping," p. 305). 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.]

Rereading the chapters which figure as the context for Barnard's "Holding the pens," one finds himself — or, if a feminist, him- or herself — less charmed by Dickens's vision of domestic bliss. By the time that the reader encounters this "early in their marriage" scene, David has established that Dora shows no capacity whatsoever for domestic management: she simply cannot cook or even execute a recipe (no mere oversight that she serves Traddles oysters in the shell, but has not thought to provide oyster-knives); she cannot manage the servants or tradespeople and their bills (under her superintendence, "Everybody [they] had anything to do with seemed to cheat [them]"); she cannot perform the simple arithmetic of the household accounts; and her notion of "housekeeping" centres around Jip's Chinese pagoda and little else! She may be an attractive and adoring pen-holder, but she only volunteers to be such because she feels utterly useless while her young husband, now a budding novelist, spends so many hours writing, and presumably this nocturnal activity (reflective of Dickens's own activity as a young writer) has heretofore excluded her almost entirely not merely from David's conversation, but even from his thoughts. Her request to be of assistance, then, amounts to the child's plea, "See me! See me!"

Because, you clever boy, you'll not forget me then, while you are full of silent fancies. Will you mind it, if I say something very, very silly? — more than usual?" inquired Dora, peeping over my shoulder into my face.

"What wonderful thing is that?" said I.

"Please let me hold the pens?" said Dora. "I want to have something to do with all those many hours when you are so industrious. May I hold the pens?" [Ch. 44]

David, however, recalls that he sometimes invented something meaningful for Dora to do: "I occasionally made a pretence of wanting a page or two of manuscript copied. Then Dora was in her glory." Sometimes David in retrospect wishes Dora had had the intellectual equipment to be his "counsellor" instead of a pen-holder and copying machine. An objective. emotionally detached reader sees these obvious deficiencies in David's first marriage, even though years later in reflection David apparently does not.


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.

Fred Barnard

Last modified 1 January 2010