It was perfectly delightful

Category: Class | Type: Discussion | Title: David Copperfield (in Context) | Author: Charles Dickens | Ch: My 'First Half' at Salem House

The paragraph celebrates the natural expressions of emotion, loyalty, and hospitality in working-class people. Despite their physical strength, Daniel and Hame are far closer to Traddles' feminine ways of feeling than to others in the novel. They contradict the middle-class prejudice that the working classes are brutish. Still, when confronted with their "betters." They become close to inarticulate (and some like Barkis are generally inarticulate). Dickens's working-, artisan-, and lower middle-class readers cherished him for an understanding of them that was unique among Victorian novelists.

Against the Yarmouth folk Dickens sets the pinched, ungenerous, and often psychologically twisted relations of the middle classes. Despite their relative affluence, it is the middle class that is unhealthy, for their notions of Respectability imprison them. Their strongest emotions are often negative, and they deploy power to subjugate and deny. Creakle has banished his son and  tyrannizes over his wife and daughter, whereas Daniel protects Mrs. Gummidge, who is not even a relative. Murdstone has exiled his stepson and cruelly dominates his wife, who then allows her son to be beaten (contrast Clara Peggoty's maternalism); the Murdstone brother-sister relationship is cold, asymmetrical, and a matter of mutually reinforcing mean-spiritedness. 

The Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown's Work (1852-3) revolves about a similar contrast. He foregrounds the ruddy health, appetites, and family feeling of the navvies (originally short for navigators, as canal-diggers were called). Against this appears on the canvas's left side, shaded, a graduated sociological parade, at whose head is the shoeless flower seller. Following him are pale, respectable middle-class women, one carrying a bundle of religious tracts that she'll distribute to the poor and working classes. Bringing up the rear, on horseback on the high ground, are the well-outfitted gentry, None of these people observes the work at the painting's center. The social differences are reflected in the purebred dachshund, with its luxurious and, given the weather, unnecessary sweater. The breed was once working dogs, now reduced to lap-dogs, contrasted with the mutts, one probably a ratter, that belong to the navvies. 

On the right stands the age's exponent of honest work, Dickens's friend and at the time the most venerated of the so-called Victorian sages, Thomas Carlyle (Search). He is standing with his friend and future biographer, James Anthony Froude, a novelist (The Nemesis of Faith, which described his religious doubts and eventual loss of faith), the editor of Fraser's Magazine, and one of the age's distinguished historians.

The two men represent a skeptical view of organized Christianity and both mount inclusive critiques of Victorian society. For Carlyle the best demonstration of faith and virtue appears in one's conscientious, useful work, a view captured in his injunction Laborare est orare, To work is to pray. (There are other details in the painting, such as election posters, not visible at this size, that refer to Carlyle's view of contemporary politics.) The two men are spatially close to the navvies and, observing, much closer to them than to the middle-class people, who are self-absorbed. Babies, food, drink, ruddy health, strength, and camaraderie characterize the central group. The arms of the men, as David says of Daniel's, are like a "sledge-hammer." Here is physical force used in behalf of something constructive as opposed to Creakle's exhausting himself with beating the children in his care or to Steerforth's languor. 


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