I want to focus this first post on the girls and women of David Copperfield: Clara Copperfield,, Agnes Wickfield, Dora Spendlow, and Aunt Betsy Trotwood.
Let me start by just admitting that I absolutely despised both Clara Copperfield and Dora Spendlow. They are very similar characters – both extremely childlike and, to my mind, incredibly annoying. Their childishness exceeded all possible bounds of reality, and, certainly, Clara Copperfield’s inability to stand up to Mr. Murdstone and his horrible sister caused great pain to David.
After having such an utterly useless mother, one would have expected that David would avoid marrying someone with the same deficiencies, and yet, nonetheless, he marries a girl who is so utterly incompetent that all she really seems to do is play with her dog. Dora is the most extreme result of a culture in which women are valued only for their appearance. She is pure decoration, without use. I kept wanting someone to hand her a broom and tell her to make herself useful. I am well aware that it is uncharitable, but I was rooting for her to kick the bucket so that David could find a wife who was a woman and not a child.
Spoiler alert: she did.
As much as I disliked Clara and Dora, though, I loved Aunt Betsey and Agnes Wickfield. Aunt Betsey is eccentric and good-hearted, and she becomes David’s guardian after he flees from Mr. Murdstone’s warehouse where he has essentially been enslaved. Aunt Betsey is no fan of men, having been ill-used and abandoned by a worthless husband as a young wife. In fact, the reader first meets Aunt Betsey in the very first chapter, when she arrives at the birth of David and leaves in disgust when he is born a boy and not a girl. Nonetheless, when David arrives on her doorstep, abused and unloved, she takes him in, educates him, and becomes a true friend and advocate to him. Her character is complex and interesting.
Agnes Wickfield is a bit too good to be true, but is likeable nonetheless. She is the daughter of one of David’s schoolmasters, and is a friend of his youth. She is everything that Dora is not: competent, capable and housewifely. She is also a good friend to Dora, though, and is such a kind person that she is careful never to make Dora feel inferior.
Spoiler alert: she marries David after Dora’s death, they have children, and live happily ever after.
In my next Dickens post, I’ll talk about the four villains of David Copperfield: Edward & Jane Murdstone, James Steerforth, and Uriah Heep.