“Go upstairs, give my complements to Mr. Dick, and say I wish to speak to him,” declares Betsey Trotwood (Dickens 159) who opens the scene where Charles Dickens first introduces the character of Mr. Dick. Dickens’s most revealing early self-portrait, David Copperfield, lies on a couch, exhausted from his journey, in his Aunt Betsey Trotwood’s front parlor while Janet heads upstairs to gather Dickens’s later self-portrait, Mr. Dick: the memorialist, the mirrored self as traumatized outcast. This scene compounds two sides of Dickens’s personality: the wronged orphan (Forster 126), lost to his parents, and the eccentric “self-mastered” perfectionist author (Shore 27) endeavoring to save himself.
This is the beginning of my final essay “Two Selves of Mr. Dick: A ‘Self-Revealing, Self-Concealing’ Portrait” I just submitted for my Virginia Woolf and the Victorians Class at the University of Denver. We had the pleasure of reading with a critical eye at least eight novels from Victorian England’s authors and made connections not only to their time in society but to how this current moment connects to the turn of the century.
I delved a little too deeply into Dickens. As I researched him, our lives were too parallel. No, I never was turned loose from my family to glue labels on jars, nor did I live in a debtor’s prison with my father. But I did suffer through insufferable jobs, was often scoffed at for being my original, whacky self, and am too sensitive for my own damn good. Also, the whole parents flying by their financial pants thing…well, suffice to say, I get it.
I feel like I should defend the man from all of his attacks of being overly sentimental or a caricaturist.
Here’s one of my favorite passages of all time. I recently posted it on facebook because I dared anyone to write such a caricature.
From Great Expectations:
My sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, was more than twenty years older than I, and had established a great reputation with herself and the neighbors because she had brought me up “by hand.” Having at that time to find out for myself what the expression meant, and knowing her to have a hard and heavy hand, and to be much in the habit of laying it upon her husband as well as upon me, I supposed that Joe Gargery and I were both brought up by hand.
Charles Dickens. Great Expectations (Kindle Locations 130-133).
Isn’t the mark of a great novelist gesture? How about vernacular? We have her saying presented to us, and we also can see her saying being spread around the neighborhood. The hand becomes heavy and denotes cruelty, and we haven’t seen her face yet!
My favorite character from David Copperfield was Mr. Dick because I jolted up in the middle of the night after finishing the novel and realized, “That’s Dickens – that’s how he sees himself!”
Mr. Dick rescues and is dumb; he is wise yet silent; he gardens with relish and flies his kites to connect with a greater knowledge that’s beyond the realm of society. Ideas are better, he seems to say, than words.
“Mr. Dick and I soon became the best of friends, and very often, when his day’s work was done, went out together to fly the great kite [failed attempts of his Memorial fashioned into a kite]. Every day of his life he had a long sitting at the Memorial, which never made the least progress, however hard he labored, for King Charles the First always strayed into it, sooner or later, and then it was thrown aside and another begun. The patience and hope with which he bore these perpetual disappointments, the mild perception he had that there was something wrong about King Charles the First the feeble efforts he made to keep him out, and the certainty with which he came in, and tumbled the Memorial out of all shape, made a deep impression on me. What Mr. Dick supposed would come of the Memorial, if it were completed; where he thought it was to go, or what he thought it was to do he knew no more than anybody else, I believe. Nor was it at all necessary that he should trouble himself with such questions, for if anything were certain under the sun, it was certain that the Memorial never would be finished” (179).
This passage is telling. There are three Dickens’s. All three contribute to the whole. Dickens was writing an “autobiographical fragment” before he began David Copperfield and used Mr. Dick’s character to portray the author within the author, beheading his own efforts and ultimately spending his whole life in pursuit of a dream.
Robert Douglas Fairhurst wrote Becoming Dickens, which I highly recommend and couldn’t put down once I started it. He also felt that Dickens wrote himself as “Dick” into many roles. Some Dickensians professed King Charles the First as a beheaded version of the author himself.
Hands down, Mr. Dick and Betsey Trottwood are the most fun loving characters that seem on the outskirts of the action, but when the real life-changing events go down, they rush in.
I do not believe that Dickens was a caricaturist, “grossly distorting” people from his life. Quite the opposite. He revealed their demeanor in the concrete. If anything, he was a gesturist.