David Copperfield, like Pip in Great Expectations, shares the difficult story of what it means to become involuntarily fascinated, even obsessed: with grotesque figures, with landscapes, with the secrets of one’s own past. From the moment of meeting the chilling Mr Murdstone the child David finds it hard to take his eyes off him, and he will later find himself compelled to watch the slumbers of Uriah Heep, as he succumbs to what Dickens memorably termed ‘the fascination of repulsion’. In both cases David emphasises the way in which his home is invaded by these unwelcome figures. But just what home means – and where it is – proves elusive throughout the novel.
Unlike Pip the blacksmith’s boy, who must learn to challenge what it really means to be a ‘gentleman’, David is born into and then expelled from a secure middle class family. While Pip’s aspirations are bound up with escaping the Kent marshes and reaching London, David is packed off to the metropolis to work in a warehouse after his mother’s death. During this time he will become acquainted with ‘the meanest phases’ of London life, including pawn brokers, cheap lodgings and the debtors’ prison – his enduring sense of shame may even imply a precocious sexual awareness derived from what he sees on his way to and from work. Both boys feel tainted by association and both are desperate to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the place of their humiliation. But David’s escape plan works in reverse as he makes his way down the Dover Road to the coast.
Neither David nor Pip ever quite gets the hang of making journeys without being ripped off at every stage. Young as he is, David has already learned how to budget on the six or seven shillings a week he is paid by his stepfather’s firm of wine merchants. But at the outset of his journey he trusts himself to a boy with a donkey cart who promptly steals his luggage and most of his money. Having pawned his waistcoat for ninepence somewhere near Greenwich, he makes his way on foot to Blackheath and sleeps under a haystack near his old school Salem House. The next morning he ‘crept away from the wall as Mr. Creakle’s boys were getting up, and struck into the long dusty track which I had first known to be the Dover Road when I was one of them, and when I little expected that any eyes would ever see me the wayfarer I was now, upon it.’
Great Expectations_ would not be written until 1861, but it is set at around the same period as David Copperfield, roughly the time of Dickens’s own move from Chatham to London. The reader is therefore free to imagine David crossing the path taken by both Pip and Dickens, as he leaves Salem House behind him and walks another twenty three miles, ‘coming over the bridge at Rochester, footsore and tired, and eating bread that I had bought for supper.’ With a few pence left and in fear of the tramps he has met on the road (possibly discharged veterans of the Napoleonic Wars), he decides not to risk the cheap lodging houses, but instead elects to sleep rough, ‘toiling into Chatham, - which, in that night’s aspect, is a mere dream of chalk, and drawbridges, and mastless ships in a muddy river, roofed like Noah’s arks’, and lying down near a cannon in the vicinity of an oblivious sentry.
It is in a Chatham slop shop that David falls foul of ‘a dreadful old man to look at, in a filthy flannel waistcoat, and smelling terribly of rum’, who beats him down from half a guinea to eigteenpence for his jacket. Worse, when David asks for his money the proprietor utters a series of imprecations mainly consisting of ‘Oh, my lungs and liver’ and ‘goroo’, finally wearing him down and giving only fourpence by the end of the day. The hapless boy spends threepence on refreshment and then limps on for a further seven miles. The message is clear: David must sacrifice caste in order to feed himself, but every time he does he further jeopardises his chance of recovering his lost position by making an impression on his formidable aunt. On the following day he is threatened by a tinker, who steals his neckerchief and gives him nothing in exchange. In another threat to his own innocence, David is forced to witness the tinker’s female companion being knocked down for trying to intervene.
After further delays as he hides from ‘any of these people’ coming towards him, David’s first sight of Canterbury with its ‘sunny street’ and ‘stately, grey Cathedral shows a city that is at once peaceful and notably at odds with his own state. Where the city is ‘dozing’ in the heat, David himself is both dusty and quite possibly dehydrated. He cannot stay here – or not yet – and makes his way through the main street and down the Dover Road (now the Old Dover Road) that leads directly on for another eighteen miles.
On his arrival in Dover on the sixth day of his journey, David is immediately reminded of the obstacles that his unkempt condition has placed between himself and the sanctuary he is trying to attain. His appearance is not prepossessing and he struggles to be taken seriously by the townspeople:
‘I inquired about my aunt among the boatmen first, and received various answers. One said she lived in the South Foreland Light, and had singed her whiskers by doing so; another, that she was made fast to the great buoy outside the harbour, and could only be visited at half-tide; a third, that she was locked up in Maidstone jail for child-stealing; a fourth, that she was seen to mount a broom in the last high wind, and make direct for Calais. The fly-drivers, among whom I inquired next, were equally jocose and equally disrespectful; and the shopkeepers, not liking my appearance, generally replied, without hearing what I had to say, that they had got nothing for me’.
Symbolically David is sitting on the doorstep of an empty shop at the corner of the marketplace when a fly driver finally takes pity on him and directs him to ‘the heights’ where his aunt lives. It is the driver’s charitable offering of a penny that allows David to make his last meal of a loaf of bread1.
Even when he finally finds the cottage his aunt’s servant, assuming that he is a vagrant, is half inclined to send him away unannounced. But when the Murdstones are once again invited into what he hopes will become ‘home’, it is only to be summarily dismissed in a symbolic re-enactment of what they once did to the child2.
At this point David is assimilated into the Kent landscape, moving between Dover and Canterbury, where he is put to school with Dr Strong and develops romantic attachments to a succession of young woman like the eldest Miss Larkins.
As a young man David will return triumphantly to London, where he duly engages in other rites of passage such as getting drunk with social superiors, failing to keep his lodgings in order and falling in love with his employer’s daughter. Like Pip he takes the coach on his visits to Canterbury to visit Agnes Wickfield, for whose sake he will triumphantly denounce Uriah Heep with the aid of Traddles and Mr Micawber.
Towards the end of the novel the Micawbers will anticipate Pip’s journey downriver to Gravesend. The night before Mr Micawber is inevitably arrested for debt and has to be baled out by David. But unlike Magwitch he is able to leave openly on the steamer from Hungerford Steps on his way to make his fortune in Australia.
Only once, in a desperate bid to avoid a tête á tête with Uriah, does David strike out in a new direction on the Ramsgate road. His failure to reference Thanet seems peculiar given its accessibility from Canterbury and Dickens’s own love of the sea – indeed parts of the novel were written in Fort House in Broadstairs. But beyond the pages of the novel itself David is keeping another secret – while his donkey-loathing aunt ostensibly lives in Dover, the inspiration for her cottage is to be found in 2 Nuckell’s Place (now the Dickens House Museum) in Broadstairs. If David ultimately succeeds in working out where home is, this is not a secret he is prepared to share with the reader.