Am I the Heroine of My Own Life?

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

David Copperfield and Mr. Mawber (illustration by Fred Barnard)

David Copperfield and Mr. Micawber (illustration by Fred Barnard)

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

Lucy knocking on the door of the school in Villette.

Lucy knocking on the door of the school in Villette.

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?

15 thoughts on “Am I the Heroine of My Own Life?

  1. I read all of Dickens once when I was on my early 20s. I can’t say I ever really loved him though. I definitely found more to love in the Brontes though I didn’t care for Wuthering Heights. I have been meaning to re-read Agnes Grey for ages.

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  2. When I played tapes of Villette read aloud in my car with my daughter, Isobel, next to me, she’d become riveted. I remember especially the whole sequence when Lucy fights so hard and so alone to get a job, then comes to Belgium and has to navigate the streets alone (and feels there are men following her), the first interview. She was just on the edge of her car seat. Much else In it she just bonded passionately and the first time through so did I. I feel I am Agnes Grey at moments; I’ve a beautiful read aloud of The tenant of Wildfell Hall with David Case using a rural accent for Gabriel and Nadia May as the Helen narratives.

    We are not there in most of Dickens. Ever since Andrew Davies made films of Bleak House and Little Dorrit I’ve been able to interpret the two books as having a genuinely feminine perspective, but the contours and emphases remain those of a man. In Dickens’s text Amy Dorrit (as Davies calls her) is impossibly saint-like. Esther Summerson is the one character in Dickens where there is real gravitas and interest given a woman (the only one in all the work I can identify with as well as see that I could with her mother were she presented differently) but there is a kind of neutered feel to her presence. Quite a number of the Victorian male novelists have female characters who are male-centered creations. You can to read the woman novelists of the period: Margaret Oliphant, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Geraldine Jewsbury (The Half-Sisters).

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    • I agree: The Brontes didn’t back down from their realistic portraits of women. I am a fan of Dickens, but his characters are often caricatures, and by the way Esther Summerson is my favorite.

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  3. Perhaps thats my problem with Dickens, I have always found him difficult to enjoy. Although i did like Lady Dedlock, but how much was due to Diana Rigg’s performance? I always found the depiction of David’s mother very troublesome, a victim of vicious spousal abuse, and also Betsey Trotwood. There’s a lot of fear there. Shudders. Perhaps I should give Copperfield anothe try, but I like Thackeray better.

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    • Oh, Diana Riggs! Isn’t she the greatest? I do love Dickens, and Bleak House is my favorite, but I should get back to Thackeray. You’re right, there are disturbing elements in David Copperfield. Poor David’s mother! And, weirdly, I think there’s more to Dora than Dickens admits, that she is not just a dumb blonde.

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  4. I love Dickens. Wonderfully tart female characters inhabit his books. Having just reread Great Expectations, I would never call Estella, Miss Havisham, or Mrs. Gargery saccharine. Esther Summerson is my favorite Dickens heroine, too. Which brings to mind Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Snagsby; minor characters in Bleak House but far from sugary.

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