The Gospel in Dickens
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September 02, 2010


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Ah...this was longer than I expected. XD

Quite all right, though I suppose I should have used a jump cut. :-) Thanks for a terrific piece.

Thank you for providing this insight into Agnes Wickfield's character, Nina. Agnes has been so roundly lambasted by the critics that it's easy to forget how complex her situation with her father really is.

Dickens undoubtedly had a "thing" for virtuous, self-denying heroines. Agnes was just the most exemplary in a long line of similar characters. But I think she a lot of the criticism is unfair. She simply has the misfortune to be the female lead in the novel where Dickens came to grips with his youthful passion for Maria Beadnell. So she was fated to spend practically the entire book waiting in the wings for Dickens's alter-ego David to come to his senses.

I would also be willing to debate whether Agnes is really so selfless as she appears. Because the entire novel is supposedly written by a mature David looking back at his life, we see Agnes only as she looked through David's eyes. David appears sincere in his belief that Agnes never acted other than sisterly to him, but I doubt that Agnes would agree. When David finally asks her to share the secret of her love, Agnes responds "with an appealing, almost a reproachful, glance" and bursts into tears. I interpret the reproachful glance as evidence that Agnes felt she had given David plenty of clues over the years, but David just wasn't paying attention.

THANK YOU, David! (Now we know some Davids are more perceptive than the Dickens brand. ;) ) Yes, I also tend to wonder if Agnes is as good as she seems, and if Uriah is as evil. In fact, I rambled a bit about that here:

(and in other posts there), but got sort of shut down by the site admin.

Though if Agnes is, as the critics say, perfect, I still think she has her reasons (as is obvious in this paper). I just don't think modern audiences can read such subtle references as well as they can take a clearly outgoing female lead.

AND, I agree that there are a lot of the same kind of heroines in Dickens' works. I think that's where people start to get a little irritated - it would be like having the hero of all of your novels being a drunk. It gets old after a while, even if the character is valid.

Wow. Truly fascinating, Nina! I love a good psychological analysis of Dickens' works, and this was truly excellent.

Thanks, Christy! I was really excited to learn about this disorder - it made me think of the Dickens girls as soon as I read it!

I've missed you around Wickfield - where've you been lately? :P

Busy! Very busy! I haven't even had time to respond to my own reviews on! But I'll be back soon.

Oh, I did use a jump cut, apparently! Weird. Somehow I couldn't see it before.

Honestly, I don't know how anyone can read David Copperfield and not fall in love with Agnes. I reject any notion that she is bland and flat and lacks any personality. If anything she is arguably one of the strongest women Dickens has written. She tends to her drunk father, creates her own teaching post, helps her father get back his fortune, encourages her lover to improve himself. Does she have flaws? Of course she does. The fact that we don't see them laid out in the book is not her fault, but the narrator. David is very gushy in how he describes her, but I think the problem is his not hers. He is "Blind Blind Blind" and fails to see the whole picture with regards to the others around him. He fails to see Steerforth for what he is; I'd even question whether Uriah's depiction is completely fair.

The one thing to remember is that David is writing as an older man now married to Agnes and looking back on his life. He is coloring everything to suit his current bliss. Would he really trash his current wife and the bearer of his kids in his autobiography?

From the opening lines he hints that he is not the hero of his life; the fact that he states that the "station will be held by anybody else" for me indicates that he already feels that somebody else is the hero; why even make the statement unless you have doubts about your own heroics? So naturally he loves Agnes deeply and would not say anything negative about her.

Virginia Woolf once stated that Dickens makes "creators of us and not merely readers and spectators." I think in this novel, and especially in regards to its characters (including Agnes), Dickens invites us to do precisely this.

I love this whole psychological analysis on Agnes and parentification because I think it cracks her code and really emphasizes just how complex she really is.

One common criticism is that she does not act on her love for David. BUt my question is whether that was accepted in Victorian society? Were women expected to propose their feelings or was this onus exclusively on men? This seems to be the case in the entire novel where it is the men making that first move. You see it with Steerforth and Emily, David and Dora, Traddles and Sophy, Murdstone with Clara, Dr. Strong with his wife, etc. If anything, Agnes' decision to keep writing to David during his absence and persist in waiting for him shows a character not willing to give up on her own desires. I don't know the norms, but was just wondering about whether this holds any salt?

Also worthy of note; there is a 1995 article published by Peter Gay on the subject. I could not find the complete article until the NY Times sent it to me. Here it is.

The Legless Angel of 'David Copperfield': There's More to Her Than Victorian Piety
By Peter Gay
The sex life of the Victorians, for many decades the target of amused contempt and bad jokes, is again on the agenda of scholars and critics. Feminists intent on enlisting the past for present-day politics, literary historians analyzing the role of women in fiction, novelists playing with pastiches of 19th-century authors, all testify to this interest. And for the last decade or more, historians have joined in -- not a moment too soon.
It is high time to free "Victorian" from its unfortunate and undeserved associations. We all think we know what the term stands for: bourgeis husbands sexually frustrated at home and compelled to gratify their lusts with mistresses and in bordelios; bourgeois wives sadly ignorant of (and indifferent to) the pleasures of the erotic life; bourgeois culture awash in prudery and hypocrisy. For too long, the condescension of Bloomsbury to its ancestors has been treated as gospel.
But recently, researchers have been raising questions and suggesting answers about the true place of Eros in the Vistorian's lives; their work is likely to force drastic revisions of accepted verities. In his "Eminent Victorians" of 1918, Lytton Strachey, perhaps the most feline and most effective enemy the Vistorians ever had, wrote, "The history of the Victorian Age will never be written: we know too much about it." He was wrong. We still know too little about that age. I have written this essay in an effort to know more.

Almost from the time that Charles Dickens invented Agnes Wickfield for "David Copperfield," she has had a bad press. In his lifetime, critics accused him of failing to endow her with individuality. She seemed a cipher, a puppet, a typical Dickens virgin, little else. In his authoritative three-volume "Life of Charles Dickens," published from 1872 to 1874, even the adoring John Forster, Dickens's closest friend and best-informed apologist, preferred Dora, David Copperfield's first "Loving little child-wife," to his second, the "angel wife, Agnes," with her "too unfailing wisdom and self-sacrificing goodness." And in an interesting appraisal, Mr. Dickens's Moral Services to Literature," published in 1869, R. H. Hutton, a highly respected editor, critic and theologian, brusquely placed Agnes in the company of other saintly Dickensian heroines and denounced her as a "detestable" female who "insists on pointing upward." Now, almost a century and a half after "David Copperfield" first appeared in 1849, it continues to hold its classic stature, even at a time when we are rethinking the nature of Victorian women, notably their sexuality. It is time for another book.

Agnes's monitory gesture, point upward, on which Dickens's readers have seized to the point of monotony, must be the most awkward moment in "David Copperfield," the one hardest to explain, let alone explain away. Dickens plainly liked it, for he returned to it twice. As Dora lies dying in an upstairs bedroom, she begs to see her beloved friend Agnes Wickfield once again, alone. She wishes, we learn only later, to "will" her husband to the one woman who really deserves him. When Agnes rejoins David, who is waiting downstairs prepared for the worst, all is over, and she solemnly raises her hand toward heaven. A year later, when

David Copperfield returns from a long Continental voyage of mourning and renewal, he reminds his "sister" Agnes of that gesture, which to him, obtuse as he is, embodies her inestimable gift of "ever leading me to something better; ever directing me to higher things."
Not enough: on the last page of the novel, as David Copperfield, now a successful writer, happy husband and father, looks back at his life and old faces fade away, only one remains, "shining on me like a Heavenly light." You have guessed it: it is Agnes. "Oh Agnes, Oh my soul" -- and on this apostrophe the novel ends -- "so many thy face be by me when I close my life indeed! So may I, when realities are melting from me like the shadows which I now dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upward!" Being Agnes,it seems, she is bound to survive him. The burden such adoration places on the poor woman, and on the reader's forbearance, is formidable. One can imagine what Jane Austen would have made of the scene.

Dickens's critics have if anything grown more severe about Agnes since his death than his contemporaries had been. George Orwell's scathing dismissal is perhaps the best known. Agnes, he wrote in this long, admiring essay "Charles Dickens," published in 1939, is "the most disagreeable of his heroines, the real legless angel of Victorian romance," In substantial study. "Dickens and Women" (1983), Michael Slater, an English expert on Dickens, necessarily refers to her many times, but never with approval. "The disastrously voulu nature of the presentation of Agnes remains a rock ahead, even for the most ardent Dickensian." Agnes, he writes with sneer, "could not be allowed to play at Puss in the Corner with David at any point in the book -- it is not easy to play any game, after all, when you are obliged to keep 'pointing upward."' Clearly that gesture arouses fierce resistance in the reader. Among recent critics I have found only two who take her seriously at all: in "The City of Dickens" (1971) Alexander Welsh, professor of English at Yale, proposes her as an angelof death; her invitation to David, summed up in that by now inescapable gesture, is to dies and go to heaven -- an imaginative, if to me excessively chilling, reading. And in a reversal of almost unanimous opinion, in "The Violent Effigy" (1973), John Carey, a critic known for his sharp reappraisals of Victorian novelists, argues that David is too obtuse to see what she means: "For Agnes has perfectly normal instincts, in fact, and is pointing not upward but toward the bedrooms."

This reversal of the consensus is intriguing but hardly borne out by what we are allowed to know about Agnes. Yet it encourages us to ask, was Agnes really a legless angel? The evidence provided about her life history by the narrator David Copperfield himself invites a far more nuanced verdict. The question that is interesting is: How did she get that way? To David, Agnes (whom he has known since his childhood) is an icon, a superhuman superego forever enjoining him to eschew the base and embrace the noble. He certainly calls her an angel often enough, a sister-angel who serves him as confessor and guardian. But that, after all, is his problem, not hers. From all we are allowed to know about her, she has shown herself competent in her domestic and her professional roles, busy and efficient as she keeps house for her lonely father and, later, as she runs a small school.

There is more to know about Agnes than this. Ever since she was a little girl, she has mothered her widowed father, who loved her, as he confesses years later, with a 'diseased love." The modern reader of "David

Copperfield," filled to the brim with the appalling contemporary record of child abuse, notices and wonders. And it is true: Agnes was an abused child, though not a victim of sexual assault. Her father's infatuation with her was even more diseased than he recognized; it was a species of sadism, masquerading as a consuming paternal fondness. As he makes his only child too aware, her mother had died just after childbirth, and the girl's very presence persistently reminds her father of the adored wife he had so quickly lost. It is true enough that Agnes had an ally in her murder: her mother's father had broken his daughter's heart by disapproving of her marriage to Wickfield. But to a small child, forever told of her misdeed, this is a far too subtle, downright meaningless distinction. Agnes could not help reading her father's affection for her as the severest of reproaches: was he not accusing his daughter of having killed his paragon of a wife simply by being born?
When Rousseau's father, we learn from the "Confessions," proposed to speak to his son about the boy's mother, who had died in the same manner, Rousseau would say, "Now we're going to weep." And Wickfield gave his daughter much to weep about. For Agnes, as children will, had internalized the indictment taken her mother's death, and her father's insatiable grief, on her shoulders. If she weeps, she weeps within, invisibly, so as not to worry her father. Her exemplary serenity, her patience and fortitude, are symptoms; they add up to an extreme passivity in the erotic sphere, including her more than sisterly feelings for David Copperfield.

Such passivity, of course, would have been deemed appropriate conduct for a young woman of Agnes's time and station. Respectable 19th-century society like to decry as forward a female who took the initiative in courtship; the code prescribed that David should have been the one to make the first move. But this purposeful inactivity was not an invariable rule for Victorian women, whether in life or in fiction, even the fiction of Dickens: he has Florence Dombey, in "Dombey and Son," the novel that just preceded "David Copperfield," ask Walter Gay to marry her. "If you will take me for your wife, Walter," declares this irreproachable Dickensian heroine, "I will love you dearly." In short, Dickens must have known -- or, rather, sensed -- that Agnes's character is shot through with inhibitions.

Not that she fails to struggle with her conflicts. Just before David finally makes his declaration to Agnes, he asks her whether she is attached to anyone, and in a brilliantly observed scene, Dickens has her lose control. She breaks down and cries; she begs him to let her go away; she tells him that she is unwell and will write to him. But precisely as she labors to keep her secret inviolable, she gives him clues enough to understand at last that David is the man for her and has always been. "I have loved you," she confesses, "all my life."

Well, I have loved Agnes Wickfield all my life. My passion for her goes back almost half a century. I first encountered her around 1936, when I was 13, in German. There she was, pointing with her hand toward heaven -- mit der Hand gen Himmel deutend. Growing up in Berlin, I had become friendly with the son of a banker, a Dr. Schreiber, who as a Jew had been forcibly retired from his post as a executive in a bank and who lived in our apartment house. He was a civilized, generous man, who lent me volume after volume of the German Dickens he had in his library, complete with the illustrations by Phiz, Cruikshank and the others. That is how I discovered "David Copperfield" and elected it my favorite novel, with Agnes my favorite character. Since then I have read "David Copperfield" many times in English, but my feeling for Agnes has never faded, no matter how much critical denigration of her I have had to endure. She was so handsome, so brave, so discreet, so lovable. George Orwell could never talk me out of her.

Dr. Schreiber was picked up during the pogrom in November 1938, and when I next saw him, some six weeks later, he looked much battered by his experience in a concentration camp and told me that he and his family were emigrating to Shanghai, then the only place in the world that would accept German Jews without elaborate procedures and guaranteed income. I do not know what has become of the Schreibers, but while I cannot recall what he looked like, I sometimes think of him, the man who gave me Agnes.

But it is one thing to love Agnes Wickfield, quite another to understand her. I have come to see that her rectitude, her reserve, far from being angelic, were defenses against an ever-renewed inner hurt. Being very good, almost beyond realistic human possibilities, was her way of denying that she was very bad. In a long, self-lacerating tirade, an uncharacteristic outburst she visits on David while she is still his "sister" and her father is descending into alcoholism, she cries out: "I almost feel as if I had been pap's enemy, instead of his loving child." She professes herself grimly informed just how much he has given up for her sake, "and how his anxious thoughts of me have shadowed his life, and weakened his strength and energy." Weeping bitterly, she wishes she could make restitution. "If I could ever set this right! If I could ever work out his restoration, as I have so innocently been the cause of his decline." That her almost hysterical self-reproaches suggest an unacknowledged basking in the monopoly she enjoys over her father's affections only makes her situation all the more poignant. Half a century before Freud, Dickens knew that the innocent are never wholly innocent, and that the most innocent can damn themselves as the most guilty. "David Copperfield" is full of such insights, and character of Agnes is one of the greatest.

In that novel, Dickens's vitality, observant eye and remarkable intuitions worked overtime, and deserve to be taken seriously. The claim of "David Copperfield" as a key test in the Dickens canon is undisputed. It is well known that in 1869, half a dozen novels and 20 years after its first serialization, Dickens singled it out as his "Favorite child." Early and late, readers on many levels of cultivation have agreed that it was hs masterpiece. "If you sift the world's prose literature," Tolstoy remarked, "Dickens will remain. Sift Dickens, 'David Copperfield' will remain; sift 'David Copperfield,' the description of the storm will remain." And more remains than the storm in which David's friend Steerforth is killed before his eyes, for there are other memorable storms in the novel, all of them internal, and the most tempestuous ones involving, and inhabiting, Agnes.

The unique stature of the novel whose heroine she is has been supported by nonliterary reasons, reasons that have lent it a certain gratuitous, gossipy interest: its autobiographical revelations both real and imagined. But however intimately enmeshed Dickens's past in the making of this favorite child, the stress on biographical traces at the expense of its literary felicities and psychological shrewdness slights Dickens's ability to transform raw facts and buried fantasies into imaginative prose and convincing fictional portraits.

John Forster, better informed than anyone else about the parallels between this novel and its author's life, energentically warned against wholly identifying David Copperfield with Charles Dickens. So did the author himself. "I really think I have done it ingeniously." he wrote Forster in July 1849. as publication was in its early stages, "and with a complicated interweaving of truth and fiction."

Certainly Dickens's emotional engagement did not preclude him from roustering the kind of distance authors need to see their creation not just passionately but clearly. Just as Goethe's Faust was not Goethe, though there was much Goethe in him, Dickens's David Copperfield was not Charles Dickens. Still, one may find traces in Agnes of Dickens's inhibited (and in the law of England in force at the time, illicit) love for his wife's younger sister Mary Hogarth, who lived with the Dickens family, suddenly died at 17, and became a cult figure for him who haunted Dickens for years.

Whatever the precise share of Mary Hogarth in Agnes Wickfield, her role in "David Copperfield" is that of the Oedipal child growing up, with virtually all the others acting as her satellites, mirroring her situation, if not precisely her fate. Agnes's family constellation is typical of virtually all the other families in the novel. She is alone with her father, with her mother conveniently out of the way, as was little David Copperfield

with his beloved mother, Dora with her equally beloved father -- and soon across the cast of characters. "David Copperfield," then, is an Oedipal Bildungsroman, pre-eminent among Dickens's tales of a young man making his way in the world and, after he has traversed mine fields of error and blindness, disciplining his heart and finding his vocation and his happiness. "Great Expectations" is its only rival. Like other mature adults, to be sure, Agnes benefits only from the overcoming of her own Oedipal attachment, just as David benefits from loosening his attachment to his mother and to mother-substitutes. Dic kens made his favorite child, then, not out of books but out of himself, and Agnes is splindid evidence of how well he understood the process of maturation, even if he never commented on that central aspect of her history. It is no doubt a relief to discover that Agnes was a normal neurotic like the rest of humanity rather than an emotional bank, a mere idealization that Dickens had constructed to sanitize his sick dreams about women he wanted and could not get. Yet I am trying to rehabilitate her not just for personal reasons, not simply to rescue an early love. A reconsideration of Agnes draws wider circles than this, and can assist the salutary revision of the Victorians' inner lives now under way.
To begin with, it is interesting to note that in calling Agnes bad names, the Victorians themselves hinted at their appreciation of women, respectable women, who are erotically alive. They were unlikely to pronounce the word "orgasm' in company, and probably not even at home. But they knew and relished the experience and thought it salutary not only for men but for women no less. Their powerful attachment to privacy, their reticence in discussing the sexual passions in forthright language, was not simply a sign of hypocrisy or prudery. Many Victorians built a fence around their intimate lives not to stifle their passions but to enjoy them, in legitimate unions, all the more. Yet they did misinterpret Agnes, a failure to which Dickens no doubt contributed with his obsessive portrayal of her pointing upward. But perhaps they also misread Agnes because they lacked the psychological instruments to diagnose the traumas that were necessarily slow to heal.

Agnes's conduct has even wider social implications. Plainly she was entitled to reflect that a man who could become besotted with so flighty and immature a creature as Dora -- the mirror image of David's beloved and affectionate mother -- was not yet ready for her. Waiting for David to grow up seems like a sound strategy. To put this into the terms I have introduced, Agnes was right to postpone abandoning the role of sister for that of wife until David had lived enought to shed the belated manifestations of his Oedipus complex. Only then was he ready for Agnes and she for him. From this perspective, Agnes's passivity is a form of activity, a way of making the most serious choice of her life. And this reading of Agnes fits into what we are discovering in our hunt for private letters, secret diaries and neglected medical texts of the period. Like many other women in the Victorian era, Agnes was no slave to the dictates of a masculine world. She helped to shape her own fate -- all the more reason to love her.

Copyright 1995 The New York Times Company

An editorial note on the comment above: Ordinarily I would not allow an entire article to be reprinted in the comment section, but David told me privately that the complete article isn't available online and that it was sent to him by the art section of the Times.

Thanks for posting the article, David Salazar, and thanks for allowing it, Gina. I've just read the book for the first time, and loved it AND Agnes.

When we first meet her in the book, she has a little basket of keys. These the novel mentions again twice (I think) at different points. If I'm not mistaken, Dora took to carrying about a little basket of keys, "like Agnes", after David decided to stop trying to change her - although she did nothing effectual with them.

The keys really stood out for me, as a significant part of her portrait when she was first introduced. I have a sense that Agnes holds the keys to this novel in a very real sense...

English is my second language. So bear with me.

The scene where Agnes points upward, although I think she was really saying "Your wife is gone to heaven" and not "rely on heaven for your instructions" is as awkward and embarrassing as hearing Esther from "Bleak House" move her lips. That girl makes me wanna slap her so often I have tried reading the book without the chapters she narrates.

However, I do not believe Agnes was as subtle/sly or clever at hiding her feeling as some have appeared to suggest. If Agnes was so good at hiding her feelings, neither her father [who touches upon a trial she has born in secret] nor Aunt Betsy would have known she was in love with David.

What is more, when David tried to talk to her in the theater while drunk, Agnes was neither accepting nor loving blindly. She told him to shut up and then go home; that she would write him or talk to him tomorrow.

Third, her attitude towards Mrs. Heep was far from "angelic". She tolerated them; because her father needed her to and because she was good. But she emotionally drained from the role as shown when the old woman complained about boredom when David asked if Agnes liked to walk out with him.

As to her silent devotion to her dad/her friendship to Dora/her never taking the opportunity to show David she loved him: you guys obviously have not lived among Ethiopian mothers/sisters and seen how they sacrifice their future/happiness/health for their loved ones.

So, really, the only thing that was imperfect about Agnes is that awkward gesture I'd like to have re-written if possible. But who among us is perfect?

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