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  • Estranging David Copperfield: Reading the Novel of Divorce
  • Kelly Hager

Halfway through David Copperfield (1849–1850), in the chapter in which David becomes engaged to Dora (in fact, just a week before he proposes), David observes a divorce case at Doctors’ Commons. One Thomas Benjamin appears before the Court and successfully sues for a divorce under what David calls “an ingenious little statute.” 1 This statute is the loophole created by the sloppy wording of the Marriage Act of 1753—an act which put an end to clandestine marriages by requiring a parent’s consent for a minor to marry. The act also, as Lawrence Stone points out in Road to Divorce, “made null and void any marriage in which there was the slightest mistake, however trivial or accidental, in the wording of the banns or licence with respect to age” and thus “accidentally opened up a new avenue for self-divorce . . . pushed up the number of nullities in the London Consistory Court and created scandal by giving the appearance of being the equivalent of divorces.” 2 Thomas Benjamin’s “divorce” has nothing to do with age but rather rests on the fact that his name on the marriage license appears simply as “Thomas.” As David puts the matter, Thomas Benjamin conveniently leaves off his last name “in case he should not find himself as comfortable as he expected. Not finding himself as comfortable as he expected, or being a little fatigued with his wife, poor fellow, he now came forward by a friend, after being married a year or two, and declared that his name was Thomas Benjamin, and therefore he was not married at all. Which the Court confirmed, to his great satisfaction” (33:391).

That Dickens twists the law which David—in a moment of ironic foreshadowing, given that soon he will “not find himself as comfortable as he expected”—calls “an ingenious little statute” is more than a little interesting given my argument in this essay, but even more significant is the fact that while this process is, strictly speaking, an annulment, David calls Benjamin’s case a “divorce-suit,” thus echoing that panic which Stone identifies on the part of Londoners who perceived—correctly—that men and women were divorcing despite the fact that divorce would not begin to be made legal until 1857.That panic shapes and informs the many plots of David Copperfield, giving [End Page 989] rise to the despairing depictions of marriage that permeate the novel—marriages fraught with anxiety and lacking in trust, marriages between people who apparently could not be more incompatible. From the foolishness of Dora and David and the improvidence of Wilkins and Emma Micawber to the suspicion which characterizes the marriage of Annie and Dr. Strong and the heartache which marks both the union of Clara and Murdstone and the strange separation of Betsey Trotwood and her husband, Dickens’s most autobiographical novel is concerned in a multiplicity of ways with the institution of marriage and the miseries it causes. Appearing in the year that saw the formation of a Royal Commission to study the state of marriage and divorce law—a commission formed in large part because so many people were managing to obtain divorces despite the fact that they were, strictly speaking, illegal—David Copperfield both participates in and reacts against the general unrest which resulted in the passage of the act which began to legalize divorce seven years later.

Thus my claim: David Copperfield is a novel of adultery, of second marriages, and of what Hard Times’s Stephen Blackpool will, four years later, call “th’ supposed unpossibility o’ ever getting unchained from one another.” 3 David Copperfield is, in fact, a novel of divorce. This is a surprising claim, to be sure, but if it is true that no one can remember reading David Copperfield for the first time, if the novel is so very familiar, then perhaps it is our familiarity with it that makes this claim seem so surprising, that numbs us to the suggestions of desire and the stories of divorce that it inadvertently tells. Alexander Welsh maintains that “the main action of David Copperfield might be described as...

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