Dickens and the Daughter of the House

By Hilary M. Schor | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities
The social inheritance of adultery

The early Dickens novel depends upon stories of identity: Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and Martin Chuzzlewit all concentrate on the young hero's assumption of his patrimony and his personality — a process that comes to the fore in the autobiographical “favourite child, ” David Copperfield. In that light, “a daughter after all” seems a mere distraction _ the literary equivalent of the “base coin” Florence Dombey's father thought her. How much more ephemeral seems the plot of the daughter's adulterous mother, or the daughter's own progress through the meanderings of the adultery plot. And yet, as Dickens moved from these novels of identity toward the wider screen of the social novel, it was the adultery plot that served him in better stead - that allowed him to move from stories of identity to those of social position; to question the connections between individuals and the forces of historical transformation.

One example from David Copperfield might suggest why this is so. Midnovel, David meets Annie Strong, the young and beautiful wife of his teacher, Doctor Strong. While Doctor Strong adores Annie, calling her “the dear lady” and his “contract-bargain, ” 1 Annie is flighty and nervous, and seemingly infatuated with her cousin, the bounder Jack Maldon. The young David is incapable of recognizing her wandering ways; the older, narrator David seems more cognizant:

she was looking up at [her husband]. But with such a face as I never saw. It was so beautiful in its form, it was so ashy pale, it was so fixed in its abstraction, it was so full of a wild, sleep-walking, dreamy horror of I don't know what. The eyes were wide open, and her brown hair fell in two rich clusters on her shoulders, and on her white dress, disordered by the want of the lost ribbon. Distinctly as I recollect her look, I cannot say of what it was expressive, I cannot even say of what it is expressive to me now, rising again before my older judgement. Penitence, humiliation, shame, pride, love and trustfulness — I see them all; and in them all, I see that horror of I don't know what. (304)

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