- UnctuousResentment in David Copperfield
“That’ll do very well,” said Alice. “And ‘slithy’?”
“Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy.’”Humpty Dumpty explaining “Jabberwocky” to Alice in Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
Near the end of David Copperfield, when David has become almost as successful an author as the one who wrote this novel, his aunt Betsey says to him: “I never thought, when I used to read books, what work it was to write them!” David replies: “It’s work enough to read them, sometimes.”1 Betsey misses her cue here, but Mr. Omer, the merry undertaker, has earlier paid David the compliment for which his humble “sometimes” fishes:
“And since I’ve took to general reading, you’ve took to general writing, eh, sir?” said Mr. Omer, surveying me admiringly. “What a lovely work that was of yours! What expressions in it! I read it every word—every word. And as to feeling sleepy! Not at all!”(674)
Nothing like a reader who doesn’t feel sleepy at all to betray a novelist’s fear of overstaying his welcome—except, perhaps, the novelist’s fretting, like Dickens’s in his preface to David Copperfield, [End Page 127] about the “danger of wearying the reader whom I love” (9). Nor do you have to be the reader whom Dickens doesn’t love to discern in yourself, as you make your way through David Copperfield, the signs of a certain novel fatigue: the somatic index of the obvious fact that novel-reading, like novel-writing, is work. How many naps did I take with David Copperfield sitting in my lap? As that image suggests, my fatigue wasn’t necessarily the same thing as boredom, and my sleep didn’t necessarily mean the absence of arousal: novel fatigue may well bespeak a labor of love, by the reader as much as by the writer. Yet it is labor nonetheless, and labor of an especially repetitive kind—so repetitive, in fact, as to make you wonder how there can be any novelty in the novel at all.2
For the novelty that is the overt promise of the novel as a genre is what the Dickens novel in particular would seem to deliver in abundance. To say “Dickens,” in other words, is to evoke the Novel as the literary apotheosis of life’s teeming richness and multiplicity—which, admittedly, can be wearying enough in themselves. But to say “Dickens” is also to evoke the demonically insistent antilife of compulsion and automatism, the mechanical specter haunting exuberant novelness: not just a thematics but a virtual technology of repetition that, putting the work into the work of art, makes novelistic vitality, like the news that’s always old, seem merely a gimmick in the service of an incipient culture industry. Not that the work of Dickensian writing and reading, however industrious, ever looks or feels particularly industrial—like the work, that is, of the industrial working class in the nineteenth century. As critics since George Orwell have observed, the imaginaire of Dickensian work, at the level of character, centers on the semi-anachronistic figure of the servant.3 At the level of authorship, work is the prerogative of the Master: when a rising David Copperfield speaks of the “Ordeal of Servants” (590), he means, of course, the ordeal of having servants, not the ordeal of being one. And yet, the possibility of slippage from having to being, to say nothing of an even more traumatic déclassement like that suffered by the young Dickens, or by his fictional surrogate David, produces in Dickens’s work the aggressive “humility,” the manic eagerness to please, the [End Page 128] sullenly conservative class-consciousness, the murderous, transparently disguised ambition, and the tendency to bite the hand that feeds him (when he isn’t licking it) that make Dickens, majordomo in a literary genre dominated by governesses, cockneys, and over-achieving provincials, a veritable servant’s servant, the servant par excellence.4 “Who can tell,” asked Walter Benjamin, “how much servant curiosity became part of Proust’s flattery, how much servant flattery became mixed with his curiosity?”5 The same question could be...