Uriah persists in hovering near us, at the dinner
party

Uriah persists in hovering near us, at the dinner party by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). January 1850. Steel etching. Illustration for chapter 25 of Charles Dickens's David Copperfield. Source: Centenary Edition (1911), volume one. Image scan, caption, and commentary below 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.]

Commentary

For the first illustration in the ninth monthly part, January 1850, Phiz introduces into the narrative-pictorial sequence the significant figure of the young attorney Tommy Traddles (in the group of figures to the right which includes David Copperfield, Agnes Wickfield, and, behind them, Uriah Heep, at Mrs. Waterbrook's London dinner-party), and reaffirms Uriah's romantic interest in his employer's daughter, Agnes. Much to David's disgust, Uriah has assumed a social footing equal to that of the other young guests despite his "common" — that is, lower class — accent. According to J. A. Hammerton (1910), the plate illustrates this passage in the text:

I could have wished [Uriah] had been less obliged by me, for he hovered about me in his gratitude all the rest of the evening; and whenever I said word to Agnes, was sure, with his shadowless eyes and cadaverous face, to be looking gauntly down upon us from behind. [444]

The text enables the reader to identify Mrs. Henry Spiker, "a very awful lady in a black velvet dress, and a great black velvet hat" (444, extreme left in the illustration) and Uriah Heep "in a suit of black" (extreme right); David, Agnes, and Tommy, the youngest members of the party, are identifiable by elimination; the rest of the company are Phiz's low-keyed caricatures of the metropolitan professional class to which young legal clerk and shorthand reporter Charles Dickens had himself aspired to be a member two decades earlier. These are not individuals but representatives of a class: unemotional, complacent, affluent, self-confident, self-centred, and elegantly dressed. Since Dickens does not specify much about the natures or even the number of figures at Mrs. Waterbrook's dinner-party, telling the reader only that "there were other guests — all iced for the occasion, as it struck me, like the wine." Phiz has taken the opportunity to dress his stage with a total of eighteen bourgeoisie, fourteen of them being middle-aged males and their wives, supplying details where Dickens has merely stated that David was not the Waterbrooks' only guest. While Dickens accords the few women whom he names some prominence by describing their fashion sense (or lack thereof), Phiz emphasizes the masculine members of the dinner-party, drawing with care their swallowtail coats and waistcoats, high collars, starched shirtfronts, and ties. Of the eighteen figures in the scene, only seven are females. The tall, thin man in the group left of centre resembles Mr. Spenlow in the next illustration, both in terms of hair and clothing, for example, so that Phiz may be using his presence to create visual continuity, just as the scenes are thematically linked, as Steig notes, by the clerk's desire to "marry the boss's daughter":

Uriah as the double of David, the other side of his respectable ambition to be a gentleman, is suggested in two [January 1850] etchings. In "Uriah persists in hovering near us, at the dinner party" (ch. 25), the ostensible meaning implies that Uriah threatens Agnes with his lecherousness and his ambition to marry the boss's daughter; but Browne's introduction of the statuette of an angel standing protectively behind a child (itself probably inspired by the chapter title, "Good and Bad Angels") makes matters less simple. In the text, David's "good angel" is Agnes, his bad one, according to her, Steerforth; but in the illustration the angel and child visually parallel the positions of Uriah and Agnes, implying that Uriah is at once a threat to Agnes and possibly also another "bad angel" for David. [Steig 121]

Having finished school at Canterbury and "looked about him" as his aunt suggested, David has taken up an obscure branch of the legal profession as an articling proctor for the Doctors' Commons, a vestige of medieval England's ecclesiastical courts. His aunt has paid the thousand pound premium for articling her nephew "Trot" in the firm of Spenlow and Jorkins. Now an urban professional, David attends a dinner party of fellow lawyers, including (to his delight and surprise) ex-school mate Tommy Traddles. One might assume that the good angel standing behind David (as in the inset pair of statues immediately above the group at the right) is Agnes Wickfield and the bad Uriah Heep. However, the text makes plain that Agnes, having seen David on the previous evening drunk and disorderly at the theatre under Steerforth's influence, feels that the bad angel in David's life is Steerforth. The moment realized occurs two evenings after that dinner-party in David's Adelphi rooms in Buckingham Street that had deteriorated into a debauch, with David now contritely discussing his uncharacteristic behaviour. Here, to reintroduce a character who will be important in the novel's plot, Dickens has David recount seeing a young attorney who looks like a young adult version of Tommy and inquires as to whether the youth is indeed his former school chum from Salem House. This is the class to which David was born, for which his public schooling at Salem House and Dr. Strong's has prepared him, and into which his aunt's wealth has propelled him, the professional middle class, there being but one person present (a "solicitor connected with the Treasury" in some vague capacity) who may one day enter the ranks of the aristocracy.

References

Dickens, Charles. The Personal History of David Copperfield, il. Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"). The Centenary Edition. London & New York: Chapman & Hall, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1911.

Hammerton, J. A., ed. The Dickens Picture-Book: A Record of the the Dickens Illustrations. London: Educational Book, 1910.

Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington & London: Indiana U.P., 1978.


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Last modified 24 December 2009