What David Copperfield Reveals About Marriage in the 19th Century

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Editor's Note:

Follow along with Lorraine as she reads through Charles Dickens’s works here.

Of all his novels, Charles Dickens was said to have liked David Copperfield the best. It is the most autobiographical of his works, beginning with David’s birth – an event that takes place after his father has died. David is raised by his mother, Clara, a woman who David’s great-aunt Betsey dismisses as a “wax doll.” In addition to his mother, David lives with a servant, also named Clara, who is named “Peggotty” by David’s father in order to avoid confusion. Despite the loss of his father, David, Clara, and Peggotty live a blissful existence for the first several years of the boy’s life. The widow has been left well cared for by her husband’s will, and their house, the Rookery, is a comfortable place to live.

Betsey’s bad-tempered assessment of Clara Copperfield as a wax doll turns out to be prescient: As events unfold in Clara and David’s lives, Clara’s inability to advocate for David — and for herself — will have tragic results. Clara is courted by Mr. Murdstone, who dazzles her with his kindness and generosity, and his immediate love for David. But when Clara marries Murdstone, he reveals himself to be a controlling husband, one who is determined to mold Clara’s pliable character into his idea of a perfect wife. But he also extends his need to be master by trying to change David. He blames Clara for the boy’s behavior, telling her that she has been too loving and gentle with her son, and that he now needs the strong hand of a father to turn him into a little man. That “strong hand” is abusive, but Clara does nothing to intercede when her husband is cruel toward the boy.

Matters are made worse when Murdstone invites his awful sister to join the household. Life becomes unbearably tense. David escapes by reading the books in the small library left behind by his father. His description of burrowing down into novels such as Tom Jones, Don Quixote, and Robinson Crusoe, among others, will resonate with other book lovers. For David, it’s not just that reading these books helps him to forget his new terrible reality, it’s that he is able to “impersonate my favorite characters in them — as I did — and by put Mr. and Mrs. Murdstone into all the bad ones —which I did too.” Fiction is the means by which he imagines revenge against the pair who have wrecked his happy home.

When the inevitable happens, and David strikes back against his step-father during a beating, Mr. Murdstone removes him from the house, sending David away to a boarding school. And soon thereafter, David’s mother gives birth, and both she and the baby die.

But the lessons that the young boy learned while observing his mother’s second marriage infuse the rest of the novel. Marriage as an institution and the rights of married women will come to the surface of the narrative several times. In Oliver Twist, Dickens created a novel that demonstrated to readers that Britain’s system of taking care of orphans was grossly inadequate, and children were left vulnerable to those who profited from orphans’ misery. In David Copperfield, Dickens draws readers’ attention to how the institution of marriage in nineteenth-century Britain was built upon the powerlessness of women.

Once a woman entered into matrimony, she became the property of her husband, and he was free to control her — and their children — with little interference from the state. Even though I found reading of David’s abuse difficult, it’s clear that he never blames his mother for her not interceding on his behalf. In Dickens’s formulation, Clara is imprisoned within her marriage, and as a captive, she has no power over her husband and his treatment of her son. When Aunt Agnes calls Clara a wax doll, she refers to Clara’s young age — she is much younger than her David’s father — but also Clara’s naïveté about household and worldly matters. She has been raised to be a wife and mother, not a whole person, and her education has comprised learning only the skills she will need to make her future husband happy.

David Copperfield was written in 1849-1850, first serialized in weekly installments, but then published as a single novel in 1850. Two decades later, John Stuart Mill wrote his treatise, “The Subjection of Women,” in which he spelled out the ways in which women in Britain were wholly without any rights. Mill was recognized as one of the pre-eminent thinkers of his day, and while his earliest writings had carried on the tradition of Utilitarianism, in his later years, Mill became a strong proponent of the individual’s right to liberty, that is, to conduct one’s life with as little interference from government as possible. (Although Mill was adamant that individual rights ended when they engendered harm toward others.)

When I re-read Mill’s essay on women this past weekend, it felt timely. Many of Mill’s arguments still have to be advocated, evidence that when it comes to women, culture still privileges the rights of men over those of women. And Mill begins his essay by acknowledging just how difficult these arguments are. In one of the first paragraphs, Mill may have been speaking of what we all just witnessed with the debate over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. He argues that the reason it is difficult to prove his point of view is not because of lack of evidence, but rather, because it contradicts the feelings of those who oppose him. For me, it was a moment of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. He writes:

Just because the opposing view is strongly rooted in feelings, it is … strengthened rather than weakened by having the weight of argument go against it. If it were accepted as a result of argument, counter-arguments might shake the solidity of the conviction; but when it rests solely on feeling … the worse it fares in the clash of arguments, the more convinced its adherents are that their feeling must have some deeper basis that the arguments don’t reach! And while the feeling remains, it keeps erecting fresh walls of argument to repair the gaps that have been made in the old ones.

Because those who argue that women are inferior beings to men are reliant on emotional arguments that shore up their feelings about the matter, Mill argues, convincing them of the facts is made much more difficult. And as the facts mount against their views, the holders will become convinced that there are “deeper” truths that make their views evidence of a higher intelligence. If it was God who established that women are to be men’s servants, than no human facts can overturn that truth.

But Mill marshals his arguments nonetheless. And he approaches the issue from a variety of perspectives. His initial approach is on the subject of marriage. He writes that within marriage, a woman has less legal status than an enslaved person. And while Mill’s views of slavery are willfully naïve (at one point, writing that an enslaved woman has the right to refuse her master’s sexual advances), his point is that women are traded by men seeking to increase their social capital. Thus a father will offer his daughter to a potential son-in-law on the basis of the benefits that will accrue to both men by such a deal. The daughter has no say in such an arrangement, and on her wedding night, Mill writes, even if her husband is a tyrant who only wants to degrade her, she must submit to being made “the instrument of an animal function contrary to her inclinations.” In other words, she is subject to legal rape and has no recourse against her attacker.

After detailing the various ways that married women are stripped of all of their rights, Mill then turns his attention to the cost to society when women are not allowed to develop their intellects. Mill is critical of men who mock women for being “silly” or “stupid” creatures. If women are that way, it is because men want them to be that way. An uneducated woman who is praised for her beauty and her kindness is thought to make the best wife. A wife who knows nothing of her own rights will ever trouble her husband. She will not have the education to formulate an argument, and she can be easily overpowered. To criticize women for a condition that is inflicted upon them is the height of hypocrisy. But what’s worse for Mill is that the benefit that could accrue to society from intelligent women is lost. At a time when nations were competing to develop new products and invent new modes of production, deliberately removing half the brains from those competitions is an act that runs contra to national interests. The lack of competent people to carry out necessary tasks is a self-inflicted shortage. And Mill also argues that women as political actors may also offer to their countries wisdom that has not been forthcoming from male politicians.

Mill also looks at the personal aspects of marriage to argue against the creation of “wax dolls.” If a man marries a woman who doesn’t have an education, and whose intellectual curiosity was killed off during her girlhood because she would never be able to get married if she were too smart, what kind of companion will that wife be? In his own life, Mill conducted a lifelong relationship with Harriet Taylor and he found great joy in having a companion who was as smart and well-read as he was. The two exchanged hundreds of letters in which they interspersed ideas with their emotional dedication to one another. After Taylor’s death, Mill would write:

Were I [but] capable of interpreting to the world one half the great thoughts and noble feelings which are buried in her grave, I should be the medium of a greater benefit to it, than is ever likely to arise from anything that I can write, unprompted and unassisted by her all but unrivalled wisdom.

Mill argued that marriage should not be a financial arrangement between two men in which the woman served as the object of exchange. In such a figuration of matrimony, a wife’s only purpose would be to provide sexual release and to bear children to carry on the father’s line. But how lonely such a marriage must have been if husband and wife had little that connected them. He argued for the companionate marriage, in which equal partners worked together on all things to create a life for themselves and their children. Mill was interested in increasing the possibility for happiness for all people. In so doing, he was also arguing for a domestic sphere that could act as a sanctuary, a retreat from the public life of work, commerce, and politics. He wanted a home life in which man and woman could come to at the end of the day, and look forward to spending the evening and night with the person who increased their joy. Children raised in such environments would prosper too, rather than witnessing a system in which powerless women were stripped of everything in order to shore up the egos of the men to whom they were married.

That sense of marriage — that it should be a companionate enterprise between loving equals — is advocated for in David Copperfield. Dickens even puts this viewpoint into the mouths of his characters. In a scene late in the novel, a wife speaks to her husband about how fortunate she feels to have married him. (I’ll not reveal the names of these characters in order to avoid any spoilers.) She refers to her first suitor, whom she did not marry.

“If circumstances had not happened otherwise, I might have come to persuade myself that I really loved him, and might have married him, and been most wretched. There can be no disparity in marriage like the unsuitability of mind and purpose.”

This phrase, “no disparity in marriage like the unsuitability of mind and purpose,” is repeated several times in the last chapters of the book, as David Copperfield reflects on marriages in which the individuals are unequal and how those marriages turn out to be unhappy and lonely places for both spouses. Throughout the novel, readers are made privy to the interior life of several marriages, and one of the lessons that is repeated throughout is how isolating it is to find oneself married to someone with whom you are unequal or unsuited. This point of view is illustrative of Dickens being a proponent of equal marriage, one in which women are not only provided with an education as girls that will make them into good citizens of the state and companions, but one in which women are not objects to be controlled by their husbands. David’s experience as a boy, of watching his mother being destroyed by her marriage to a cruel man against whom she had no recourse, is seared into his memory. He carries it with him, and choices he will make will come to reflect what he learned.

David Copperfield may be the most intimate of Dickens’ novels. Rather than concern itself with the huge social and historical issues he had tackled in books such as A Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist and Hard Times, Dickens took readers into the domestic sphere and asked them to witness how men such as Mr. Murdstone —revered in his community for being a gentleman — behaved with cruelty and greediness behind closed doors. These past weeks have demonstrated that we still live in a time when people will insist that they can know how a man behaves in private based on his public persona. In 1850, Dickens showed that great disparities between public and private could exist. We forget that fact at the expense of women and children abused behind closed doors.