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....

  3. Yes there is the wet Dora (with the mannerisms of a child of six), and the saintly Agnes, but what about Miss Trotwood, and Rosa Dartle - both to start with examples of another Dickens type - the woman permanently incandescent with rage or annoyance? (Note punctuation borrowed from Mr Jingle.) Mrs Steerforth is pretty "strong", but she's upheld by snobbery and devotion to her son. Mrs Strong is impassioned and misunderstood. Minnie Joram is normal and kind-hearted. I'd forgotten Mr Joram - an everyman who feels for everybody. And Peggotty – a rock! Even Mrs Gummidge comes good. You hope for the best for Martha and Little Em'ly. (Yes, I've just been bed-ridden for three weeks.)

    1. You do a great job of defending his women characters Lucy! I think I was annoyed with Dora at the time, and I can name others that I don't like... but there are some good ones, and when they worked, they really worked.


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