Chapter 5: David Copperfield: Progress of a Confused Soul

Michael Steig, Professor of English Emeritus, University of British Columbia

Chapter 5 of the author's Dickens and Phiz, which Indiana University Press published in 1978. It appears in the Victorian Web with the kind permission of the author, who of course retains copyright.

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Dickens' "favorite child," David Copperfield, is unequivocally a Bildungsroman centered on the progress of a single protagonist, to which all other strands are subordinate and usually relevant to the main plot as cautionary tales or ideal models. The illustrations function in several ways. They make comic or serious comment on the characters and events through emblematic details and allusions, underlining implications of the text; and they also anticipate developments -- not simply events, but feelings and attitudes -- which are no more than hinted at in the text.

A third function that I attribute to the illustrations is perhaps more debatable. Critical opinion about the novel has tended to be radically divided. There are those, such as Gwendolyn Needham, J. Hillis Miller, and Q. D. Leavis, who -- whatever their divergence of interpretation -- see the novel as a unified, artistically successful treatment of David's development from self-centered immaturity to moral adulthood and wholeness of self in his marriage to Agnes ((Needham, pp. 81-107; Miller, pp. 156-59; Leavis, pp.34-107.); and there are those who see Agnes as an evasion, on Dickens' or David's part, of the realities of social position, love, and personal development (Chesterton, pp. 132-35; Graves, The Real David Copperfield; Kincaid, pp.65-75 and pp. 74-95.). I am not proposing that the illustrations can resolve this debate, for the critical divisions originate both in the Weltanschauung of each critic and in what is perhaps the ultimate ambiguity of the novel. But Hablot Browne's work for David Copperfield does form part of the evidence of what the novel is, both because of Dickens' [113/114] selection of subjects and because of what may be considered the interpretations and judgments of the novel's first critic, Phiz.

Some of the etchings for David Copperfield are characterized by a slacking Off of technical precision, a flattening out of perspective, a frequent sketchiness of line, and less care in filling in backgrounds. None of the faces, with the exceptions of Uriah Heep, Mr. Micawber, and Aunt Betsey Trotwood, have the memorableness of those in Dombey and Son. Yet the level of iconographic invention is high, and there is a continuity of imagery that makes the illustrations worthy of close attention. The wood-engraved cover for the monthly parts has a curious relationship to earlier and later cover designs, because unlike those for Dombey, Bleak House, and Little Dorrit, it contains no definite references to any of the novel's characters. Yet it is one of the most coherent of the wrappers, and is thematically parallel to a number of others. Like its immediate predecessor, the design is organized in terms of a series of figures ascending on the left and descending on the right, to and from a single figure at the apex. But here the stream of figures is continuous, from birth at lower left to death at lower right, with the cycle beginning over again in the child playing horsey with the tombstone (a scene which Browne had etched six years earlier in the frontispiece to Thomas Miller's Godfrey Malvern, where it derives from the text). The total sequence recalls the Seven Ages of Man, with a mocking Fortuna at the top, as well as modem fools with hobbyhorses, and castles in the air.

The range of traditional iconography is wide, for the stairway of life is a common late Renaissance topos, while the fools and their hobbyhorses may derive from certain of the engravings to Quarles's Emblemes, probably the most familiar emblem book in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Browne had already used Quarlesian images in Dombey's frontispiece (angels in boats appear several times in the Emblemes). The single detail which appears to bear specifically on events in David Copperfield is the child playing with the gravestone, which foreshadows both Clara's death and David's shock at discovering that life goes on. But this allusion may be no more than coincidental. (The inclusion of a mother, child, and nurse in the plate is not necessarily a specific reference to David, his mother, and Peggotty.) [114/115]

Our Pew at Church [Illustration 75]. Click on image for larger picture and additional information.

The first five monthly parts comprise David's early childhood, up to the flight to Dover and liberation from Murdstone, and the first and last plates of this sequence are concerned directly with David's terrifying stepfather. "Our Pew at Church" (ch. 2) is one of Browne's most complex illustrations for this novel, or indeed for any of his commissions; its meanings go beyond the passage of text to which it directly corresponds. From among David's "earlier recollections" Dickens has chosen the church rather than a sentimental domestic scene with David, Clara, and Peggotty for Browne to illustrate. The passage referred to describes David's confusion and boredom in church, and ends with the child falling asleep, and "off the seat with a crash:' to be "taken out, more dead than alive, by Peggotty" (ch. 2, p. 12). But Phiz has transferred David's sleepiness to the congregation so that the little old pew-opener, the beadle, most of the church band, and several other parishioners are fast asleep.

The subject of this etching resembles Hogarth's engraving (based on his own earlier painting), "The Sleeping Congregation," and although "Our Pew at Church" is a far more crowded and complicated picture, there are definite visual similarities. In both, the clergyman myopically reads his text from a Bible propped up on pillows; and in both a young woman is a principal focus, Mrs. Copperfield with her hands crossed and her eyes demurely cast down, and Hogarth's wench with her hands similarly crossed and her eyes closed in sleep. As Hogarth's clerk slyly regards the sleeping woman out of the comer of his eye, so Mrs. Copperfield is the object of male attention in the person of a black-haired, bewhiskered gentleman who can be no one but Murdstone contemplating the "bewitching young widow" and her small annuity as well, no doubt. The clinching evidence that Browne bad Hogarth's engraving in mind is that whereas Hogarth's sleeping female has her prayer book open to the marriage service, indicating where her thoughts and dreams really are, in Phiz's version it is Mr. Murdstone who thinks about marriage, and it is his prayer book which is open: in one of the steels (IA) the letters "MARR" are clearly discernible.

It is altogether curious that Murdstone should be here, since be is nowhere mentioned in the passage that is presumably being illustrated; but his presence is explained several paragraphs [115/116] later when David suddenly asks Peggotty whether one may remarry when one's spouse dies. The source of his wondering becomes clear when his mother comes in with a "gentleman with beautiful black hair and whiskers, who had walked home with us from church last Sunday" (ch. 2, p. 13). One may presume that Dickens told Browne to include Murdstone, although the illustrator could have inferred his presence simply by reading the manuscript of this chapter; either way, the effect is to imply that the narrator, the grown-up David, has momentarily repressed his recollection of Murdstone in the church on the day in question, and further, that the child David repressed any awareness of Murdstone as a prospective stepfather, and yet was prompted by an intuitive insight to question Peggotty about marriage. Thus text and picture are inextricably related, with the allusion to Hogarth's marriage -- crazy young woman a subtle added dimension.

Browne has further elaborated the situation in a number of details. On the one hand, the sleepiness of the congregation is metaphorically represented by the cobweb upon the light fixture at upper left and the spider hanging from the angel's trumpet, as though the figures in the scene are permanently immobile and the church neglected; only the five little boys who look at a bird's nest with two eggs in it and mock the unconscious beadle lend any touch of life to the somnolent scene. Yet the stolen nest may also symbolize the innocence of Mrs. Copperfield, soon to be violated by the cunning Murdstone, and the spider and web assume sinister overtones as emblems of deceit and capture. The most prominent biblical emblem employed in the plate is Eve tempted by the serpent (a symbol which also links David's mother iconographically with the doomed Emily). Still more ominous are the two ostensibly reassuring inscriptions on tombs in the church floor, "Requiescat in Pace" and "Resurgam." Common enough in real churches, these epigraphs take on a special significance in view of David's fear of his father's grave and the "raising of the dead" when Peggotty tells him "You have got a pa" (ch. 3, p. 32). This association would seem to be evidence for Mark Spilka's contention that Murdstone is, symbolically, the "murdered man (or murderer) beneath his gravestone, who has risen to assert his rights" (Spilka, p. 179). Finally, the lamb of God is shadowed beneath the clerk's hand and, given its subordinate [116/117] position relative to Eve and the serpent, may refer to the as yet innocent David.

Working drawing for Our Pew at Church [Illustration 76]. Click on image for larger picture and additional information.

A drawing of this subject is very close to the etching in most respects, but a few changes suggest Phiz's last-minute improvisation. No spider hangs from the trumpet nor do cherubs grimace on the Bodgers monument; instead of the sleeping clarinetist and his neighbor dropping the prayer book off the balcony, a rather large, comic musician plays a long wind instrument -- which would make no sense, as the scene is during the sermon. In addition, the only visible biblical detail is of Eve, the lamb having been added with a blunt point for purposes of transfer. A further example of how Browne went on revising his illustrations up to the last minute can be seen in the vertical railings of the stairway leading to the pulpit: in the drawing their lines are straight, and in the etching wiggly, but the change is clearly visible in blind indentations on the drawing.

The companion plate, "I am hospitably received by Mr. Peggotty" (ch. 3), subtly suggests a contrast between the aloof arch of the imposing church and the protective hull of the humble boat house. The three subsequent illustrations are full of emblematic details, most comic but a few portentous. Thus, the waiter's treatment of David in "The Friendly Waiter and I" (ch. 5) is mirrored in pictures of the fox and crane, and of Sancho Panza on "Barataria," where he is prevented from eating (an especially common subject in political satires of earlier decades, and used a number of times by Phiz), while a poster advertising an auction sale implies that Murdstone is disposing of David like a piece of merchandise. In "My musical breakfast" (ch. 5) a picture of a bearded king dancing with his harp before a group of women doubtless represents King David. One may recall that David was despised by Saul's daughter, whom he reproved that "I will yet be more vile than thus, and will be base in mine own sight: and of the Maidservants which thou has spoken of, of them shall I be had in honour" (II. Samuel 6, 22); similarly the boy David has been despised, but he is now honored by two impoverished old women. Also in this plate the recurring cracked mirror and peacock feathers forecast more trouble.

The confrontation between "Steerforth and Mr. Mell" (ch. 7) is full of significant details, most of them comic and immediate, but not until David's return to his home in "Changes at Home" (ch. 18) [117/118] do we find another plate which we may in some sense "read." It is a carefully composed etching whose major and subsidiary details tell a story related to, but not simply repeating, what is in the text. It focuses upon the brief moment when David enters to find his mother nursing his new baby brother, and the way Browne has positioned Clara's chair with its back to David stresses his recent status as outcast, while the decorative wings on the clock behind him suggest the rapid passage of time. The space between mother and boy is charged with the tension of an uncompleted action. Mother and infant are centered in such a way as to recall the stock image of Madonna and Child, consistent with the rather heavy religiosity of Dickens' text; they are also watched over by an angel on the fireplace surround, hinting at perhaps both holiness and impending death. But we are brought back to earth by the overturned reticule with its sewing implements spilled out on the floor, a reminder of Clara's acceptance of her Murdstone -- as signed role as a flighty child and incompetent housekeeper.

I find it difficult to agree with Q. D. Leavis' assertion that the portrait over Clara's head is herself in younger days, since not only does it fail to resemble her, but the fashion of dress -- both historically and socially -- seems inappropriate (p. 50). The portrait's emphasis on the lady's breasts suggests a connection with motherhood, although in the working drawing the breasts are represented only as blind indentations. To the extent that the portrait has anything to do with Clara, there may be some sense in its juxtaposition with prints of the Prodigal Son and Moses in 'the Bullrusbes. But David is a prodigal son only from the standpoint of the, Murdstones, who consider him to be willfully bad; Clara regards him so only to the extent that they have been able to influence her. The print of Moses, on the other hand, suggests both David's being found again, so to speak, by his mother, and his own unexpected discovery of his baby brother.

"Changes at Home" exemplifies the intermittent heavyhandedness of Phiz's emblematic art in David Copperfield; yet he is truly being responsive to the author, for what is an illustrator to make of such effusions as David's "I wish I had died. I wish I had died then, with that feeling in, my heart! I should have been more fit for Heaven than I ever have been since" (p. 80), other than to use religious imagery? Phiz is most successful [118/119] when his emblems bring out ideas which if stated baldly in the text would strike the reader as mawkish. When both text and etching are so terribly explicit, one feels inundated with sentiment. With no more than one (possible) emblem, "Mrs. Gummidge casts a damp on our departure" (ch. 10) seems more successful artistically in its representation of, the infantile adult couple (Barkis and Peggotty) and the precocious child couple (David and Emily); there is a spirited horse and fine, open handling of the boat house and the sea, and only the chain linked to a broken piling in the left foreground may comment unobtrusively on the perils of marriage, which the rest of the novel is at some pains to elaborate.

Left: I make myself known to my Aunt [Illustration 77].

Right: Two preparatory studies for I make myself known to my Aunt [Illustrations 78 and 79].

Click on images for larger pictures and additional information.

One of the best known of Browne's illustrations is the first of the pair concluding David's childhood tribulations. Browne originally offered a drawing for "I make myself known to my Aunt" (ch. 13) that showed Betsey Trotwood sitting "flat down in the garden-path" with astonishment when David announces who he is. The etching (for which I have not located the final, working drawing, though the other two, as well as a preliminary first version, are in Elkins) combines the figure of Betsey in the second version (Illus. 79) with the more appealing figure of David as he is in the first. It is a good solution, since Betsey's essential dignity is retained without scanting her personal eccentricity. When asked what is Betsey's reaction to David, I would wager that most readers of the illustrated edition would reply in terms of Phiz's etching rather than the text.

The companion plate, "The momentous interview" (ch. 14), shows Betsey bringing David through to his liberation from the Murdstones, and is most interesting in its single emblematic detail. It may tell us something of Dickens' attitude toward his character that between the earliest graphic appearance of Murdstone (when he is not mentioned in the relevant text) and his deflation by Betsey, he and his sister do not appear once in the illustrations; it is as though Murdstone's appearance in the role of chastiser, for example, might jar too painfully with the tone Dickens wanted for the plates. On the other hand, he may have felt that Murdstone portrayed would be Murdstone prematurely deflated by caricature. In this plate Betsey is a buffer between the hirsute stepfather and his oddly attired stepson, and [119/120] even Miss Murdstone shows little fight under Betsey's withering gaze. A picture on the wall portrays Joseph's brothers bringing the bloody coat to their father in order to shift the blame for their presumed murder of Joseph onto a wild animal. The envy of Joseph's brothers for his coat of many colors is probably a humorous allusion to the protective swaddling in which Betsey has had David dressed; but there is a more important parallel between the brothers' envy and the jealousy Murdstone has felt over his wife's love for her son. Beyond this, the attempted murder of Joseph parallels the accusation by Betsey that Murdstone has caused the death of both wife and baby and also attempted to destroy David; the casting of blame upon an animal is also analogous to Murdstone's insistence that it is David who was the source of evil in his family.

As David himself says, what follows the encounter with the Murdstones in Dover is a "new life," with the Wickfields. At this point new, subordinate strands are introduced for the first time, as David's story itself divides between his love for Dora and that for Agnes, while the stories of Annie Strong and David's first love, little Emily, the prostitute Martha, and the ruthlessly am bitious Uriah Heep operate as cautionary parallels. Some of these strands are difficult to separate, but certain sequences can be traced which, through their subjects and iconography, imply thematic parallels not always made explicit in the text.

"Somebody turns up" (ch. 17) finds David in his new, middle-class existence, now a young'gentleman, someone to be deferred to by the Heeps, although actually as much a victim as ever. His pride at being "entertained,as an honoured guest" (p. 181) by the fawning Heeps is indicated in the pleasure with which his prissy little face and figure seem to be enjoying Uriab's obsequiousness; it is understandable why he is not glad of Micawber's interruption, but his annoyance is shown in the door knocker's grimace at that gentleman rather than in his own face. Yet the real nature of the event taking place, the corkscrewing of facts about himself out of David -- the metaphor is Dickens' own -- is indicated by the corkscrew hanging on the wall, the stuffed owl which implies the predatory watchfulness of the Heeps, the mousetrap, and even the ceramic cats, which, together with the real cat next to Mrs. Heep, could represent the [120/121] Heeps' ability alternately to fawn and purr, and to hiss, spit, and scratch, or destroy a "mouse." Similarly, David's pride once more goes before a fall in "My first fall in life" (ch. 19), where the sign, "Trespass," and the geese running away from the horses suggest what is happening to David as he loses his seat to the horsey gentleman, and the ease with which he is routed.

Uriah as the double of David, the other side of his respectable ambition to be a gentleman, is suggested in two 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. If we take this plate with its companion, "I fall into captivity" (ch. 26), a parallel emerges between David and Uriah: each wants to marry the boss's daughter, and the main difference seems to be the social acceptability of the suitor.

This doubling is, I think, carried further in "Mr. Wickfield and his partner wait upon my Aunt" (ch. 35), where Uriah, who is taking over Mr. Wickfield's business, is paired visually with David. In addition, the picture of the sun rising over Dover Castle not only contrasts Betsey's comfortable country home with the smoke of London outside the window, but, because it is directly over Wickfield's head, implies Uriah's rising "sun": his ambition to replace the old man in business, and perhaps to become his "son" by marrying, Agnes (such a pun is suggested clearly in one of the plates for Little Dorrit, and goes back at least to Gillray).

Traddles and I in conference with the Misses Spenlow [Illustration 5]. Click on image for larger picture and additional information.

David's courtship and marriage to Dora is probably the activity to which the hero devotes the most passion in the novel, and it is given a series of important and carefully worked out illustrations, most of which are thick with emblematic details. In the one already mentioned, "I fall into captivity," perhaps the only strictly emblematic detail is the diorama of birds under glass, suggesting [121/122] the exceedingly preserved and sheltered life of Dora. But a piano is also present which in view of the rest of the series may represent Dora's eternal singing of "enchanted ballads ... generally to the effect that, whatever was the matter, we ought always to dance, Ta ra la, Ta ra la!" (ch. 26, p. 277). A piano turns up again in "Traddles and I in conference with the Misses Spenlow" (ch. 41; Illus. 5) where, as I have noted in my first chapter, it is adorned with numerous emblems of Dora and of David's love for her.

The musical emblem becomes a guitar (the actual instrument played by Dora) in "Our Housekeeping" (ch. 44), rather unceremoniously used as a hatrack, and positioned beneath a caged pair of lovebirds who are now apparently quarreling, in contrast to those in an earlier plate. In "My child-wife's old companion". (ch. 53), where Dora's death is announced by Agnes, the guitar, its strings broken, represents Dora herself (the emblem is to be used again by Browne in Bleak House, where it represents Lady Dedlock in her impending flight toward death).

I am Married [Illustration 80]. Click on image for larger picture and additional information.

Of all the Dora illustrations, those depicting the marriage and her death are most elaborate. In "I am Married," marriage is presented as a joyous occasion, a miracle, as the mural of the changing of water into wine at Cana suggests, but a good deal more is conveyed through the miscellaneous crowd. At the far right two women stand with infants behind the font, presumably awaiting their children's christening; in front of the font is a young girl with a small child of two of three years. Next to the large monument at right a pair of young lovers seem oblivious to all but each other, but behind them a woman clearly intended to be a spinster turns her nose up and her mouth down at the proceedings (which include another young man who is looking at her pretty companion). From the gallery above, Peggotty, in widow's weeds, looks down, and beneath the gallery, directly behind the font and the waiting mothers, is a casket covered with a sheet, implying a recent death. The panorama of the stages of man's life choing the cover -- is thus expressed, from birth through childhood, love and marriage, to death. And the inclusion of all these within such a small compass may foreshadow the brevity of David's marriage to Dora. Much as in "Our Pew at Church," the relative moribundity of the Church of England is suggested by the elderly, indifferent clergyman and [122/123] the cobweb decking the right-hand monument. The web has trapped a fly, and since Phiz used this emblem in Pickwick and Martin Chuzzlewit to signify entrapment or entanglement, there is perhaps a somewhat cynical implication that David (or Dora?) is being trapped into an imprisoning and destructive marriage. (The cobweb is a last-minute addition, present on the drawing [Elkins] in blind only.)

Browne's function as a commentator is clear in "My childwife's old companion" both in the composition and the details, which together summarize, but do not specifically repeat, the several thematic notes struck in the related pages of text, from David's agonized and guilty thoughts, with attempted religious self-consolation ("I have remembered Who wept for a parting between the living and the dead" -- p. 543), to the last interview with Dora, Jip's death, and Agnes' simultaneous announcement of Dora's:

He comes very slowly back to me, licks my hand, and lifts his dim eyes to my face. "0, Jip! It may be, never again!" He lies down at my feet, stretches himself out as if to sleep, and with a plaintive cry, is dead. "0 Agnes! Look, look, here!" -- That face, so full of pity and of grief, that rain of tears, that awful mute appeal to me, that solemn hand upraised towards Heaven "Agnes?" It is over. Darkness comes before my eyes; and for a time, all things are blotted out of my remembrance.

We may be thankful that the illustration does not depict that "solemn hand upraised"; the calmer air of the moment just before David becomes aware of Agnes' presence seems more appropriate and less bathetic. The religious element is introduced unobtrusively in the cross of the church steeple and the moon (suggesting Dora's purity?) above it, and the boatman on the Thames may refer to Dora's crossing over to the afterlife. These details also recall Agnes' role as David's good angel, and while the prominence of Dora's portrait of course refers to her as the absent subject of the plate, its position between the two characters recalls that she has stood between David and the so-called "real heroine." The other details allude to David's relationship to [123/124] Dora, and to her death. The eighteenth-century figurines on the mantel suggest the "romantic" love of their courtship, the embracing cherubs on the fireplace surround, the idyllic immaturity of their love. The empty clock case indicates death and loss, while the dog mourning over its master's body is a direct reference to Jip. In the just extinguished candle end we have a traditional image of the end of life; but the most condensed and easily overlooked emblem is a butterfly perched on the inkstand, in one steel (34A) only, and missing in the working drawing. By itself, the butterfly might be merely a symbol of the human soul and its transitoriness; but although it retains this connotation, in conjunction with the inkwell and the attached quill pen it reminds us of the incompatible union of the striving author and the child-wife flitting from one thing to another and unable to help David's work and ambitions.

David's difficult relationship with Dora is explicitly commented on in the text by the situation of Annie Strong, her rakish cousin Jack Maldon, and her elderly husband, Dr. Strong. In the illustrations, the juxtaposition in one monthly part of "Our Housekeeping," which depicts the troubles of David's marriage, with "Mr. Dick fulfils my Aunt's prediction" (ch. 45), in which the solidity of Annie's marriage is affirmed, is undoubtedly intended by Dickens to underline the contrast between David's marriage of "unsuitability of mind and purpose" with Annie's perfect father-daughter marriage. But the first plate which features Annie and the Doctor, "I return to the Doctor's after the party" (ch. 16), presented long before David or the reader has any idea of how this May-December marriage will fare, in context seems to relate more directly to the story of Emily, the fallen woman, whose own prominence in the illustrations is remarkable. Not only does Pbiz stress heavily the insensibility of the Doctor by having him. fail to look down at the lovely creature before him, and his gullibility by including the detail of a brick labeled "Babylon" (which itself may allude to sensuality and loose living), but he stresses the temptation and possible fall of Annie by showing a moth circling a candle's flame.

Apart from this plate, altogether eight illustrations (one-fifth of the total) are devoted to the waywardness and near-destruction of a fallen woman; three of these eight include Martha, the remorseful [124/125] prostitute, whose tale is a cautionary one for Emily and who aids David and Mr. Peggotty in saving her from a terrible fate. It seems to me that by the subjects he thus has chosen (and three more plates, including the title page, portray Emily as a child), Dickens reveals an undercurrent in his own conception of David's life, the importance of Emily and of the fallen-woman topos. Furthermore, of these eight plates two include the seducer, Steerforth, two involve visits of David to Steerforth's mother, and one includes Steerforth's valet, all of which tend to underline the fascination of David with this upper-class Adonis, with his magnetic sexual power and domination over women.

Martha [Illustration 81]. Click on image for larger picture and additional information.

Steerforth and Emily first meet in Part VII, but the pair of illustrations in Part VIII together form Browne's first important graphic interpretation of the tension-charged atmosphere between the upper-class seducer and the fisherman's daughter, betrothed to her cousin, Ham. I have already discussed in my opening chapter " I make the acquaintance of Miss Mowcher" (Illus. 6) as a prime example of Browne's independence as an interpreter; it is also one of the best examples of the use of emblematic detail to anticipate action not yet specified in the text. In it, we see David as both an extreme innocent and an unquestioning admirer of Steerforth. In its companion, "Martha" (ch. 22), David is again a naive, somewhat bemused onlooker, so deeply clothed in shadow as to be easily overlooked at first glance. The arrangement of figures and emblems, however, makes naivtë on the reader's part less likely: we are well aware that Martha's fate may be Emily's. The two girls are connected visually, first of all, by the luster in their dark hair (Harvey makes a similar point about the parallel between Dora and her dog Jip, in "Our Housekeeping" p. 151). Although Martha's kneeling position is specified in the text, Browne takes this further by mirroring it with the pose of Mary Magdalene anointing the feet of Christ, in a picture over the mantel.

This last detail brings out several analogies when one recalls that the sister of Mary Magdalene was named Martha, for this suggests both a link between' the latter two, and a sisterly link between Martha and Emily. Further, Ham Peggotty is closest to imitating the position of Christ in the picture, which reminds us of Ham's charity in not scorning Martha and in adding to the purse of money Emily gives her. As Martha kneels almost directly beneath the picture of the Magdalene, so Emily stands beneath a print of Eve and the serpent. The clear implication is [125/126] that Emily is being tempted to evil, while Martha is on the path to reform through her own remorse and others' forgiveness, although she does not yet recognize the path. Such parallels and foreshadowings again involve Browne in presenting iconographic commentaries which would seem terribly heavy and moralistic in the text; and it is worth considering that such practice is analogous to the marginal commentaries in editions of Pilgrim's Progress or the Bible, which were familiar and would feel natural to readers of Dickens' and Browne's time.

Emily's story is continued in "We are disturbed in our cookery" (ch. 28), in which the slimy Mr. Littimer appears and asks about his master's whereabouts; only the rather comical print of Damocles with his sword about to descend hints at the impending disaster of Emily's flight with Steerforth. The sword has descended already in "Mr. Peggotty and Mrs. Steerforth" (ch. 32) which contains a set of significant details commenting upon the action in general terms: the large portrait of Steerforth as a small child provides (in the innocence of the child and the carefreeness of the butterfly beside him) a contrast to the present situation, while just below the portrait is one of those Father Time clocks common in Browne's etchings. Here the figure most clearly illustrates the transitoriness of human existence by his resolute step. A less hackneyed image is the kitten attempting to get at the caged bird, for although one might think this refers simply to the abduction of Emily, Hogarth's use of similar emblems in The Graham Children suggests that it is also relevant to the theme of time passing. In Hogarth's painting, as Ronald Paulson describes it, "a tiny figure of Cupid with a scythe like Father Time's rests atop the clock at the left, and opposite him a cat eyes the bird in its cage -- these, flanking the happy, smiling children, constitute an admonitory allegory" on the transitory nature of youth, beauty, happiness and innocence, the illusion of a world where birds aren't killed by cats (Hogarth, 1: 459.). Phiz makes the allegory more complex by drawing a kitten which, like the infant Steerforth, will have to grow up in order to do harm to other living creatures. Finally, the male and female busts may simply represent adult sexual life, but Johannsen identifies the male one as Apollo (J, p. 349.), and it does resemble conventional heads of that god. The allusion might either suggest Steerforth's exceptional [126/127] male beauty or the pagan gods' tendency to become enamored of mortal women -- just as Steerforth has stooped from his social height to choose a fisherman's daughter.

Left: The River [Illustration 82].

Right: Working drawing for The River [Illustration 83].

Click on images for larger pictures and additional information.

The other, later illustration with Mrs. Steerforth is less successful, but before the denouement of Emily's story, Martha appears in two illustrations as, so to speak, Emily's cautionary double. "The Wanderer" (ch. 40), in which Browne experiments with effects of light and shade, has mainly the function of underlining the dramatic effect of the text, in which Martha's "haggard, listening face" appears momentarily at the door as David talks to Mr. Peggotty about his lost niece. Much more striking is "The River" (ch. 46), the second dark plate Browne did for Dickens and the only one in David Copperfield (all forty of the etchings for Lever's Roland Cashel, overlapping in time of appearance with Copperfield, were produced by this method). Its uniqueness in this context is among several factors contributing to its success. It gives us the scene of a last-minute prevention of the standard watery fate of prostitutes, a fate which, the accompanying plate makes clear, could also have been Emily's. Phiz's conception of Martha at the river, and the technical differences between the two versions, seem to me more interesting than Dickens' hysterical narrative at this point. Phiz translates a strong and bold drawing in pen and wash into two carefully executed etchings which vary considerably in the handling of light and dark. Dickens rarely provided opportunities for sweeping, panoramic outdoor scenes, and when liberated from the confinement of interiors, narrow streets, or mild country views, Phiz seems to have indulged his propensity for dramatic landscape. (Ainsworth and Lever were to give him freer rein in this regard.)

As is often the case with dark plates, one steel is generally much darker than the other, and the lighter one (31A) depends more on subtle tonal variations in the mechanical tint, achieved by stopping-out, while the darker has a great deal more shading added by the etching needle, apparently over the tint. The effects are quite different, with the first steel subtler and smoother, and the second more strikingly dramatic in its contrasts and strong lines. In both versions the figure of Martha is given an unusual degree of solidity through the use of light and dark and, [128/129] in 31B only, the modeling of her features. Surrounding objects, bits of junk and flotsam, are subordinated to her predominantly bright figure, as are David and Mr. Peggotty. The hazy presence of St. Paul's in the background may suggest -- as it does more emphatically in one of the dark plates to Bleak House -- the distance of official religious institutions from such outcasts. Otherwise, Phiz has followed the text and made good use of the smoking factory chimneys specified by Dickens.

Mr. Peggoty's dream comes true [Illustration 84]. Click on image for larger picture and additional information.

The rescue of Martha from the river is followed in the text by the rescue of Emily from prostitution, and so in the illustrations. "Mr. Peggotty's dream comes true" (ch. 50) was apparently a bit uncertain in the making, as the drawing (Elkins) suggests; in it not only does David wear a hat, but a female figure seated in the chair and slumped over the table is probably intended for Rosa Dartle, who has been haranguing Emily when the two men enter. The drawing (Elkins), which is reproduced in Kitton, Dickens and His Illustrators, fac. p. 84), is an awkward version, but it is understandable that Phiz should have included Rosa, since the text itself fails to indicate whether she managed an exit before the end of the chapter. Parallels to other plates are numerous. First, Emily recalls the main, kneeling figure of "Martha," whose face is similarly hidden. Then there are conventional allusions to Emily's lost innocence in the broken flowerpot, cracked mirror (into which she seems to be looking as her uncle holds her), and broken pitcher; Rosa's remark that Emily must "drop her pretty mask" -- that is, be the prostitute that Rosa considers her, instead of the wronged woman she thinks herself -- is rather awkwardly reflected in the domino mask and masked-ball program, since Emily surely has not come from a party, although perhaps these items are to be taken literally as the leavings of a previous, disreputable occupant.

From another point of view than Rosa's, however, the dropping of the mask might represent Emily's return from her pose as mistress of a grand gentleman to her real self, emblematized in the signs of her cherished past and happier future: the seashells that have fallen from her trunk, mementoes of her beloved home, the picture of a fisherman and a little girl, and that of a ship sailing on fair seas. This last may have its origin in the text's reference to "common pictures of ships on the walls," but recalling that in an earlier illustration Emily's fate has been foreshadowed by a picture of a ship in a storm, it is likely that the [128/129] present one refers to her future, when she is happily reunited with her uncle. That the mask may signify the return to one's true self is suggested by its presence in the first illustration for the next monthly part, "Restoration of mutual confidence between Mr. and Mrs. Micawber" (ch. 52), where it clearly signifies Micawber dropping his role as Uriah's toady, exposing the villain and returning to his own natural expansiveness.

A Stranger calls to see me [Illustration 85]. Click on image for larger picture and additional information.

The relative positions of Emily, Dora, and Agnes in David's life are brought out both in Dickens' choice of the last three subjects for the final, double part (the first is a minor comic plate showing the fates of Littimer and Heep), and in Browne's interpretations of those subjects. Unique in Phiz's work is the inclusion of miniature versions of the frontispiece and title in that last regular plate. "A Stranger calls to see me" (ch. 63) brings Mr. Peggotty back to England from Australia after some years, and David and Agnes have in the meantime been peopling the world with Copperfields; this is the literal and sentimental subject of the plate. But for once the emblematic details, laid out symmetrically against the wall behind David and Agnes, take precedence over the characters. The two angel statuettes on the mantel remind us of Agnes' role for David throughout the novel, and their centrality here suggests her ultimate triumph as the "real heroine," while the rollicking cherubs adorning the clock may imply the number and angelic status of the many children this couple have produced in ten years. But poor Dora, whose inability to give birth has been associated with her child-wife qualities, looks down smilingly upon the married pair; perhaps she is blessing the union as she did with her last earthly breath, and perhaps her picture and those of Blunderstone Rookery and the boat house with a figure on the beach (who must, in view of the title page, be Emily, improbable as this may be) merely represent the past which David has outgrown. But in another sense David and Agnes are permanently haunted by his earlier loves -- including Mrs. Copperfield, whom Dickens has after all made an explicit prototype of Dora.

My interpretation of the plate is offered in all seriousness, although I cannot make a case for Dickens or Phiz having consciously included such meanings. It does. make sense for Dickens to have Phiz illustrate for the frontispiece the moment before [129/130] his hero's birth, when Aunt Betsey is looking in the window of the Rookery, for the novel is written as David's autobiography. The use of Little Emily sitting winsomely on the beach as the subject of the title page is also suggestive: the two in conjunction indicate the extent to which Dickens viewed David's development, and thus the drift of the novel as a whole, as centered in his protagonist's earliest years. Browne's bringing together of the three most prominent strands of David's life-early childhood, Emily, and Dora -- in the details of the final plate helps to reinforce the importance of the past.

The illustrations downplay the notion of Agnes as the dominant female force in a broader way. While no more than half a dozen plates include or clearly refer to Agnes, when we include those containing emblematic allusions or portraits as well as the two Annie Strong plates which have an overt thematic connection, there are ten having to do with Dora; and including all those which allude to her seduction by Steerforth there are no fewer than twelve concerned with Emily, not even counting the two centering on Martha with Emily absent. Surely the prominence of Dora and Emily in the illustrations might cause one to question those interpretations of the novel which identify the apotheosis of David's love for Agnes as the novel's major concern. We may have to search in the text for an ultimate answer, but the illustrations -- a combination of Dickens' choices and Browne's interpretations of them -- should cause us to look back at the novel without preconceptions based on Dickens' rather hasty dismissal of Dora to the world of angels.

Finally, it may seem odd to readers for whom the Phiz illustrations form an inextricable part of their consciousness of Dickens that I have made only two passing references to Mr. Micawber; and I must acknowledge here that Phiz's Micawber is the Micawber of our visual imaginations. Yet it is Browne's depiction of the ladies of David's life, from Clara, Emily, and Betsey through Dora and Agnes, that constitutes his major contribution to the visual progress of David Copperfield.


Chesterton,G. K. Appreciations and Criticisms ofthe Works of Charles Dickens. London: Dent, 1911.

Graves, Robert. The Real David Copperfield. London: Arthur Barker, 1933.

Leavis, Q. D. "Dickens and Tolstoy: The Case for a Serious View of David Copperfield," in Dickens the Novelist.

Miller, J. Hillis. Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Kincaid, James R. "The Darkness of David Copperfield," Dickens Studies, 1 (1965).

Kincaid, James R. "The Structure of David Copperfield," Dickens Studies, 2 (1966).

Needham, Gwendolyn B. "The Undisciplined Heart of David Copperfield," Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 9 (1954).

Paulson, Ronald. Hogarth: His Life, Art and Times. 2 vols. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1971.

Spilka, Mark. Dickens and Kafka. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963.

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Last modified 29 December 2002