Young, vain and foolish: all that money on a flower?

the book:

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

published 1850   chapter 18

What other changes have come upon me, besides the changes in my growth and looks, and in the knowledge I have garnered all this while? I wear a gold watch and chain, a ring upon my little finger, and a long-tailed coat; and I use a great deal of bear's grease - which, taken in conjunction with the ring, looks bad. Am I in love again? I am. I worship the eldest Miss Larkins…

The raging agonies I suffer on the night of the Race Ball, where I know the eldest Miss Larkins will be dancing with the military, ought to have some compensation, if there be even-handed justice in the world. My passion takes away my appetite, and makes me wear my newest silk neckerchief continually. I have no relief but in putting on my best clothes, and having my boots cleaned over and over again. I seem, then, to be worthier of the eldest Miss Larkins. Everything that belongs to her, or is connected with her, is precious to me…

When I dress (the occupation of two hours), for a great ball given at the Larkins's (the anticipation of three weeks), I indulge my fancy with pleasing images

observations: This is from a chapter called A Retrospect, which is a tour de force – bridging a period in young David’s life in a rueful and self-deprecating way, totally convincing as the older man looking back, and as Dickens writing about his hero. Some details tie it to the early nineteenth century, but it has a very modern feel, is done in quite an adventurous style, and with suitable changes could appear in a modern novel and seem just as fresh and real. David is keen on his clothes, something of a dandy, and later will tell us of his sumptuous waistcoats and toe-pinching shoes. Bear's grease is the 1830s equivalent of hair gel. (This is generally supposed to be a very autobiographical novel, and Dickens too always took care to be well-dressed.)
David wears a buttonhole to the Ball – a pink camellia japonica, priced at half-a-crown. Using our favourite new toy, the National Archives Currency Converter we find that means about £6 ($9) in modern terms – a lot to spend on a single flower, especially if you are just going to give it away to the woman you fancy.

The reader is helpless before David Copperfield. Of course the women characters are a weakness, of course the famous bits (the likes of Mr Micawber and Aunt Betsey) are so familiar as to seem meaningless – but it’s a book that creates its own world to live with you forever, a book that can be read over and over, and a book that never fails to entertain and amuse and grip the happy reader.

Links up with: Nicholas Nickelby has a lady friend in
this entry, and Holden Caulfield famously compared himself with David Copperfield in the opening lines of Catcher in the Rye.

The image of male costume from 1825-30 was made available by the
LA County Museum of Art.


  1. Moira - Oh, this is an absolute classic in many ways. Yes, as you point out so well, it does have its faults. But overall, it's a book with real personality, if I can put it that way.

  2. I can just imagine David Copperfield in that outfit. I quite fancy the shoes....


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