Charles Dickens, David Copperfield: Ch. 1

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An aunt of my father's, and consequently a great-aunt of mine, of whom I shall have more to relate by and by, was the principal magnatew of our family. Miss Trotwood, or Miss Betsey, as my poor mother always called her, when she sufficiently overcame her dread of this formidable personage to mention her at all (which was seldom), had been married to a husband younger than herself, who was very handsome, except in the sense of the homely adage, 'handsome is, that handsome does'—dfor he was strongly suspected of having beaten Miss Betsey, and even of having once, on a disputed question of supplies, made some hasty but determined arrangements to throw her out of a two pair of stairs' window.w These evidences of an incompatibility of temper induced Miss Betsey to pay him off, and effect a separation by mutual consent. He went to India with his capital, and there, according to a wild legend in our family, he was once seen riding on an elephant, in company with a Baboon; but I think it must have been a Baboo—or a Begum.w Anyhow, from India tidings of his death reached home, within ten years. How they affected my aunt, nobody knew; for immediately upon the separation, she took her maiden name again, bought a cottage in a hamlet on the sea-coast a long way off, established herself there as a single woman with one servant, and was understood to live secluded, ever afterwards, in an inflexible retirement.

My father had once been a favourite of hers, I believe; but she was mortally affronted by his marriage, on the ground that my mother was 'a wax doll'. She had never seen my mother, but she knew her to be not yet twenty. My father and Miss Betsey never met again. He was double my mother's age when he married, and of but a delicate constitution. He died a year afterwards, and, as I have said, six months before I came into the world.

This was the state of matters, on the afternoon of, what I may be excused for calling, that eventful and important Friday. I can make no claim therefore to have known, at that time, how matters stood; or to have any remembrance, founded on the evidence of my own senses, of what follows.d

My mother was sitting by the fire, but poorly in health, and very low in spirits, looking at it through her tears, and desponding heavily about herself and the fatherless little stranger, who was already welcomed by some grosses of prophetic pins,h in a drawer upstairs, to a world not at all excited on the subject of his arrival; my mother, I say, was sitting by the fire, that bright, windy March afternoon, very timid and sad, and very doubtful of ever coming alive out of the trial that was before her,d when, lifting her eyes as she dried them, to the window opposite, she saw a strange lady coming up the garden.

MY mother had a sure foreboding at the second glance, that it was Miss Betsey. The setting sun was glowing on the strange lady, over the garden-fence, and she came walking up to the door with a fellw rigidity of figure and composure of countenance that could have belonged to nobody else.

When she reached the house, she gave another proof of her identity. My father had often hinted that she seldom conducted herself like any ordinary Christian; and now, instead of ringing the bell, she came and looked in at that identical window, pressing the end of her nose against the glass to that extent, that my poor dear mother used to say it became perfectly flat and white in a moment.

She gave my mother such a turn, that I have always been convinced I am indebted to Miss Betsey for having been born on a Friday.

My mother had left her chair in her agitation, and gone behind it in the corner. Miss Betsey, looking round the room, slowly and inquiringly, began on the other side, and carried her eyes on, like a Saracen's Head in a Dutch clock,h until they reached my mother. Then she made a frown and a gesture to my mother, like one who was accustomed to be obeyed, to come and open the door. My mother went.

'Mrs. David Copperfield, I think,' said Miss Betsey; the emphasis referring, perhaps, to my mother's mourning weeds,h and her condition.

'Yes,' said my mother, faintly.d

'Miss Trotwood,' said the visitor. 'You have heard of her, I dare say?'

X [w] magnate

Business leader

X [d] had been married to a husband younger than he…

Writing & Reading

People fall in love and marry for different reasons in the novel, some poor ones, a powerful physical attraction heading the list. This passing vignette offers a sorrowful pattern.

X [w] two pair of stairs' window.

Second story. 

X [w] but I think it must have been a Baboo—or a Be…


"Baboo" is a variant of "babu," a title of respect in Hindi applied to a man; "begum" is a lady of rank. "Baboon" dicates little David's confused association. 

X [d] or to have any remembrance, founded on the ev…

Writing & Reading

So, how then does he know what to write. He invents retrospectively—how much of memory is in any case fiction?—founded on what he subsequently was told, on his conscious knowledge of the house itself and its furnishings, on his insight into the people involved, and finally upon his  imagination, which realizes the world more vividly and accurately than any photograph or historical document can begin to do.

X [h] some grosses of prophetic pins,

Nursery supplies.

X [d] and very doubtful of ever coming alive out of…

Writing & Reading

Her fear is justified. Some one in five births at this period ended in the mother's death. 

Death is omnipresent in the chapter. His nurse and some other local women believe that the day and time of David's birth, Friday at midnight, indicates that he will be able to see ghosts and spirits; the caul protects the possessor against drowning; David is a posthumous child, already shadowed by death, who derives an impression of his father from his white grave-stone, "lying out alone there in the dark night." 

X [w] fell

"...fierce, savage, cruel, ruthless, dreadful, terrible...Now only poet. or rhetorical" (OED).

X [h] a Saracen's Head in a Dutch clock,


The Saracen's head may be Arab (Muslim) or Turkish; a Dutch clock is in fact a German-made, wooden-housed clock, Dutch here being a misnomer for Deutsch. 

X [h] mourning weeds,


Mourning weeds, so-called because of the straggling ribbons of black crepe attached to the dress.  A year was the customary mourning period for a spouse. (Search mourning).

X [d] 'Yes,' said my mother, faintly.

Writing & Reading

The only word David's mother says in this extended interchange.  Everything else is conveyed indirectly, while Miss Betsey's part is always in tersely direct speech. Thus Dickens underscores hers vigor and Clara Copperfield's passivity.