Do You Know a Mrs. Gummidge?

David Copperfield

My plan when I started my blog was to write a review of each of the classic novels I completed. Last December I finished reading David Copperfield by Charles Dickens and felt stumped; I really didn’t know what to write about it. Looking back I can say that the problem is that I’m drawn to novels that explore character and Charles Dickens does this in a unique and unsettling way. That is, his characters are, on first impression, exaggerated.

Consider Dora Spenlow. David Copperfield meets his boss’s daughter and immediately falls in love with her. They enter into a secret engagement and eventually marry. But Dora’s defining characteristic is her childishness. She spends her days as a single woman lavishing attention on her pet dog, Jip, and being coddled by her aunts and therefore is an incompetent manager of her and David’s household once they marry.

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So David tries to delicately correct her domestic deficiencies:

“You know, my love, it is not exactly comfortable to have to go out without one’s dinner. Now is it?”
“N-n-no!” replied Dora, faintly.
“My love, how you tremble!”
“Because I KNOW you’re going to scold me,” exclaimed Dora in a piteous voice.
“My sweet, I am only going to reason.”
“Oh, but reasoning is worse than scolding!” exclaimed Dora in despair. “I didn’t marry to be reasoned with. If you meant to reason with such a poor little thing as I am, you ought to have told me so, you cruel boy!”
I tried to pacify Dora, but she turned away her face, and shook her curls from side to side and said, “You cruel, cruel boy!” so many times, that I really did not exactly know what to do: so I took a few turns up and down the room in my uncertainty, and came back again.
“Dora, my darling!”
“No, I am not your darling. Because you must be sorry that you married me, or else you wouldn’t reason with me!”

Dora is ridiculously childish and irrational, the sort of character I want to roll my eyes at and dismiss. What really helped me understand and appreciate Dickens’ characters was a chapter on Great Expectations in Karen Swallow Prior’s memoir Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me. She writes:

“This magical quality is seen first and most obviously in the characters of the novel. They are, paradoxically, realistic caricatures. Dickens’ characters are fanciful and at the same time just like someone you probably know or might see on the streets of any town. GK Chesterton answered the charge of some critics that the idiosyncrasies of Dickens’ characters are too exaggerated by predicting, ‘It will be proved that he is hardly even a caricaturist; that is something very like a realist. Those comic monstrosities which the critics found incredible will be found to be the majority of citizens of this country.'”

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I found GK Chesterton’s quote accurate and immensely illuminating. I tend to think of Dora as a “comic monstrosity” who is too hyperbolic to have much to do with real life, but really, we can all think of friends and neighbours with a habit of paying more attention to the trivial things of life than is warranted, or an inability to handle even the gentlest of criticism.

And this is true of other ‘exaggerated’ characters in David Copperfield, too, like the gloomy Mrs. Gummidge who is forever moaning about being a “lone, lorn creetur” with whom everything “goes contrary.” (My favourite of her lines is, “If I felt less, I could do more.”) Most of us can quickly number a few acquaintances who let their own sorrows eclipse that of others, whose own suffering is always foremost in their minds.

So, what do you think of Dickens’ characters? Do you find them real or incredible? Do you find the words of GK Chesterton persuasive?

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