by Charles Dickens
David Copperfield Gender Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Chapter.Paragraph)
My aunt was a tall, hard-featured lady, but by no means ill-looking. There was an inflexibility in her face, in her voice, in her gait and carriage, amply sufficient to account for the effect she had made upon a gentle creature like my mother; but her features were rather handsome than otherwise, though unbending and austere. I particularly noticed that she had a very quick, bright eye. Her hair, which was grey, was arranged in two plain divisions, under what I believe would be called a mob-cap; I mean a cap, much more common then than now, with side-pieces fastening under the chin. Her dress was of a lavender colour, and perfectly neat; but scantily made, as if she desired to be as little encumbered as possible. I remember that I thought it, in form, more like a riding-habit with the superfluous skirt cut off, than anything else. She wore at her side a gentleman's gold watch, if I might judge from its size and make, with an appropriate chain and seals; she had some linen at her throat not unlike a shirt-collar, and things at her wrists like little shirt-wristbands. (13.109)
This first extended description of Miss Betsey fascinates us. Why? Well: look how different Miss Betsey's physical appearance is compared to soft, fair Mrs. Copperfield or Dora. Miss Betsey is the only woman in the novel who successfully raises a family (well, David) by herself (as opposed to Mrs. Steerforth, Mrs. Copperfield, and Mrs. Heep). What distinguishes her from these other women is that she keeps getting marked as masculine: she is "hard-featured," with "unbending and austere" features. Her dress is plain and "more like a riding-habit with the superfluous skirt cut off, than anything else." In other words, she is remarkably plainly dressed, to be "as little encumbered as possible." She even wears "a gentleman's gold watch." Miss Betsey's power in the household seems to be the result of her unusually independent, firm ways – and this independence demonstrates itself in her masculine appearance. So, there's a subtle equation here: feminine = weak; masculine = strong.
Janet was a pretty blooming girl, of about nineteen or twenty, and a perfect picture of neatness. Though I made no further observation of her at the moment, I may mention here what I did not discover until afterwards, namely, that she was one of a series of protegees whom my aunt had taken into her service expressly to educate in a renouncement of mankind, and who had generally completed their abjuration by marrying the baker. (13.111)
Miss Betsey hires Janet as a helper and seems to be encouraging her to turn her back on all men. But Miss Betsey's attitude towards marriage seems to soften considerably as David grows up and starts a household. Miss Betsey is one of the few characters in the novel (the others being David and Traddles) who really shows that she can learn from experience. For more on this point, check out our "Character Analysis" of Miss Betsey.
Mrs. Joram tossed her head, endeavouring to be very stern and cross; but she could not command her softer self, and began to cry. I was young, to be sure; but I thought much the better of her for this sympathy, and fancied it became her, as a virtuous wife and mother, very well indeed.
"What will she ever do!" sobbed Minnie. "Where will she go! What will become of her! Oh, how could she be so cruel, to herself and him!" (32.38-9)
When David visits Mr. Omer's shop after Emily runs away, he finds Minnie initially willing to say terrible things about Emily. But her natural sympathy soon overcomes her, and she starts to cry on Emily's behalf. This bit about Minnie as a "virtuous wife and mother" is particularly interesting, though – it seems to be a moment when David is addressing the audience directly, to reassure us that, even if we are virtuous wives and mothers, we can still sympathize with fallen women without compromising ourselves. Obviously, this possibility is serious business, because we see how much Ham and Mr. Peggotty disapprove of Emily meeting Martha Endell before Emily runs away – as though Martha Endell could infect Emily with sexual desire.