by Charles Dickens
Miss Betsey Trotwood
We. Love. Miss. Betsey. Like, if there is a fan club for Miss Betsey out there, then we want to (a) know about it, and (b) be its president. (Sadly, we just Googled "Betsey Trotwood fan club," and no luck. There is a pub in London called "The Betsey," but that doesn't do us much good.)
Miss Betsey is David Copperfield's great-aunt. She takes David in to her home when he runs away from his evil stepfather's factory; she also educates David at a good school and then pays for his "articles" (basically, an internship) at a law office in the legal district of London.
Miss Betsey is one of the most generous characters in this novel: she looks after Mr. Dick, a mentally ill man who has been mistreated by his brother. And she also hides her suspicions that it is Mr. Wickfield, her business manager, who has squandered all of her money and left her poor. She decides to save Mr. Wickfield's reputation for his own sake and for the sake of his daughter, Agnes. Miss Betsey's generosity gets repaid by the respect and love that all of the (good) people of the novel have for her, most particularly, David himself.
Here's what is awesome about Miss Betsey: she is the only woman character in this novel who really runs her own household. Think about it – there's weak-willed Dora Spenlow and Mrs. Copperfield, totally subject to their husbands, and there's long-suffering Agnes Wickfield, who completely sacrifices herself for her father and David.
But Miss Betsey is independent enough that, even though she has an awful husband, she is able to leave him, take back her maiden name, and live on her own. What's more, she is so independent that she is capable of taking in other people who are down on their luck, notably Mr. Dick and David himself. She is really an inspiration to all of us.
Lovelorn Miss Betsey
Let's think about what makes Miss Betsey into the self-reliant, eccentric figure that David meets in Dover after running away from London. We know that she has been unlucky in love. Many years before this novel takes place, she marries a handsome man younger than herself who treats her badly. After a time, the two separate, and Miss Betsey pays him some kind of settlement to get him to leave her alone.
The husband goes to India, and everyone assumes he dies there. But it's not so! He's still alive (at least, until Chapter 54, when we get the first hint that he has finally died), but he's really mucked up his life: he's a gambler and a cheat. And every now and again, he reappears at Miss Betsey's doorstep to ask for cash. She gives him money, sometimes more than she can afford, in the memory of the feelings she once had for him. But she knows that she can never love a man like that again.
Miss Betsey has become so disappointed with men and with the whole institution of marriage that she breaks off relations with her beloved nephew, David Copperfield, Sr., when he marries a young nanny half his age. And she refuses to become the godmother of David Copperfield, Jr. because he is not the girl Miss Betsey was expecting. Of course, this heart-broken stubbornness shows itself in other, less dire ways. For example, she's immensely protective of a patch of lawn near her house. She watches it all day and half the night to make sure that no local donkeys are chowing down on her fine grass.
Miss Betsey, Champion of Justice
All of these examples of Miss Betsey's stubborn character – her refusal to speak to her nephew Mr. Copperfield after he marries unwisely, her initial rejection of David, and her chasing off of the donkeys – show that she is the total opposite of Mrs. Copperfield. And she may have her flaws, but as David's new surrogate mother (after he runs away from the London wine bottling factory), Miss Betsey is perfect.
She has the firmness of character that a childlike woman like Mrs. Copperfield lacks. Indeed, this firmness is apparent even in her appearance: unlike the blue-eyed baby face of Mrs. Copperfield, Miss Betsey is good-looking (though elderly), but her face has an "inflexibility" (13.109) about it that makes her intimidating.
Best of all, Miss Betsey's misfortunes with love make her strong enough to stand up for David against the Murdstones when David is too young and vulnerable to do so himself. After he has run away from London, when he winds up in Dover, Mr. and Miss Murdstone arrive at Miss Betsey's doorstep to take him away. And Miss Betsey reads them the riot act, accusing Mr. Murdstone of "[breaking Mrs. Copperfield], like a poor caged bird, and [wearing] her deluded life away" (14.132).
Miss Betsey sums up what we, the readers, think of the Murdstones when she calls Mr. Murdstone a "tyrant" who "broke [Mrs. Copperfield's] heart" (14.135). Miss Betsey gives us an outlet within the novel against the injustice of David's early life, soothing his wounds and raging against his oppressors. It's all very emotionally satisfying for the reader.
Miss Betsey, Learning Tool
Miss Betsey is one of the only characters (besides David) who learns from her mistakes. When David is having troubles with Dora, Miss Betsey refuses to get involved. She acknowledges that she has made errors in the past, "[judging] harshly of other people's mistakes in marriage" (44.59). (She must be referring to her disowning of David Copperfield, Sr.) She doesn't want to fall out with David, so she decides to avoid getting involved in his marital troubles – wisely, we think! Miss Betsey's warning to David shakes him up and makes him realize that he can't ask anyone else to step in and solve his issues with Dora.
David learns from Miss Betsey in other ways. When Miss Betsey arrives at his London apartment with all of her luggage and Mr. Dick in tow, she asks David to help support her now that she has lost all of her money. She turns this terrible experience into a kind of test for David, asking him if he has learned to be "firm and self-reliant" (34.74), as she had hoped.
Later, when all of the fallout from Uriah Heep's thieving starts to settle, Miss Betsey reveals that she was not quite as broke as she told David. She kept some money back in secret so that she could see how well David would rise to the challenge of supporting a family.
In this novel tracking David's education and development as a character, Miss Betsey becomes one of David's most important teachers. She demonstrates to David the importance of growing and learning from experience, and she also tests David's character in her own moment of need.
Miss Betsey's loving authority provides an essential counterpoint to Mrs. Copperfield's ineffective parenting. After years of isolation and neglect from his mother and stepfather, Miss Betsey saves David's life even more decisively with her kindly instruction than she does with her financial support.