Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
—The opening sentence of Dickens’ David Copperfield
I love David Copperfield, and by the way, the Inimitable Boz group at Yahoo is reading it. Every time I read the opening sentence, I muse on the question: Am I the heroine of my own life? What if I am the narrator, but not the heroine? Since I am a former governess/teacher, do I qualify as a Dickensian heroine? Isn’t that Bronte territory?
Well, yes, it is.
The semi-autobiographical world of David Copperfield is comic, tragic, both real and surreal, and ultimately cozy. Like Dickens, David knows he is the hero of his own life: the indirect question is rhetorical. David Copperfield is a comedy. And though he suffered as an orphan, banished as young child by his evil stepfather, Mr. Murdstone, to labor in a blacking factory, and live like a little adult in London, he is never far from fragile and outlandish friends who model the virtues of loyalty and charity. His eccentric friend and landlord, Mr. Micawber, is always in debt, but treats David as one of the family and kindly gives him good advice about not going into debt. And even when Mr. Micawber is in debtors’ prison, the depressed but loyal Mrs. Micawber pays homage with the cry, “I never will desert you, Micawber!”
Like most women, I feel more at home with the Brontes, because I understand all too well the work open to penniless educated women of the 19th century. (We still do that work today.) I identify with despairing and desperate Lucy Snowe in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette: she must teach in a school in Brussels (called Villette in the book) because she is destitute, not because she loves the work. She proves to be a talented English teacher and good disciplinarian, so her unruly students cooperate and at least learn a little. Alas, she is plain, so the doctor she falls in love values her friendship but does not think of her as a woman. Lucy does find another boyfriend but the relationship is, well, second-best, if that. T
In Anne Bronte’s underrated Agnes Grey, Agnes, a minister’s daughter, is a governess to a family of rich children who can only be described as ruffians, dominated by a sadistic boy who tortures animals. Their mother forbids Agnes to punish them, but their tantrums are so frequent that she is blamed for lack of discipline. Later she becomes the governess to two manipulative teenage girls whose morals leave much to be desired. Rosalie, with the collusion of her sister, mischievously attempts to win the affection of the curate. Why? Because he is interested in Agnes. Rosalie already knows she will marry a rich man.
I AM the heroine of my own life. I am a resister, a rebel, thoroughly in the camp of the Brontes.
I love Dickens, but there’s just not a part for me there! I mean am I supposed to be Peggotty?