Study Guide

David Copperfield Chapter 1

By Charles Dickens

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Chapter 1

I Am Born

  • David Copperfield is born on a Friday at 12:00 AM.
  • The time of his birth makes several local women predict that (a) he'll be unlucky, and (b) he'll be able to see ghosts.
  • David hasn't been able to see ghosts so far, but as to the first part of the prediction (the unlucky bit), the rest of the novel will prove whether or not they were correct.
  • David is also born with a caul (which is a piece of the amniotic sac still attached to some babies' faces during childbirth; see this website for more on cauls and the superstitions they inspire).
  • Continuing with his own birth, David tells us that he is born six months after the death of his father.
  • The one person in David's family with any cash is his father's aunt (so, David's great aunt), Betsey Trotwood.
  • Miss Betsey had been married, to a complete jerk who she finally packed off to the Indian colonies (for a map of the British empire around the time that David Copperfield is published, click here).
  • Her husband dies after ten years in India, at which point Miss Betsey returns to title of "Miss" and takes up a secluded life in a village on the seaside.
  • David's father and Miss Trotwood used to be close, but Miss Betsey doesn't like his father's marriage to David's mother. Miss Betsey calls David's mother a "a wax doll" (1.8), because she's half the age of her husband, Mr. Copperfield.
  • Miss Betsey and David's father don't see each other again before David's father dies.
  • On that March Friday when David is about to be born, his mother sits by the fire feeling miserable, what with being pregnant, young, and alone in the world.
  • David's mother sees a woman coming up to the house, and realizes that it is probably Miss Betsey.
  • David's mother invites Miss Betsey in. His mother is dressed in black (in mourning), very pregnant, and her face is red with weeping. She looks like a child.
  • Miss Betsey comments on her childlike appearance: "Why, bless my heart! [...] you are a very Baby!" (1.26).
  • Miss Betsey then asks David's mother why she has called her house the Rookery? A rookery is a nesting place for rooks, a crow-like black bird. But Miss Trotwood can't see any birds.
  • David's mother, Mrs. Copperfield, answers that the name came from Mr. Copperfield, who saw birds' nests and thought there must be lots of rooks in the neighborhood. In fact, the nests are old, and Mrs. Copperfield has never seen a rook around the Rookery.
  • Miss Betsey thinks this is a perfect illustration of Mr. Copperfield's character: he names a place the Rookery assuming that there will be rooks, without any proof that his house has come stocked with birds.
  • Mrs. Copperfield seems to feel that this observation is an insult to Mr. Copperfield, and stands up, apparently to attack Miss Betsey.
  • But then Mrs. Copperfield faints dead away.
  • When she comes to, Miss Betsey asks what Mrs. Copperfield calls "her girl" (1.44).
  • Mrs. Copperfield replies that she's not sure her kid will be a girl.
  • Miss Betsey says, no, she meant Mrs. Copperfield's servant-girl.
  • Mrs. Copperfield answers: Peggotty.
  • Miss Betsey demands tea from Peggotty for Mrs. Copperfield, who is not looking well.
  • Miss Betsey then tells Mrs. Copperfield she's sure the child will be a girl.
  • Miss Betsey insists that the child will be called Betsey Trotwood Copperfield and that Miss Betsey will be her godmother. She promises to look after Betsey Trotwood Copperfield's education.
  • Miss Betsey then asks Mrs. Copperfield more about her life.
  • Mrs. Copperfield tells Miss Betsey that she was a nursery-governess (a bit like a nanny) for a family Mr. Copperfield visited. He proposed to her and they were married soon after.
  • (All through this conversation, Mrs. Copperfield is bursting into tears over and over again.)
  • Mrs. Copperfield admits that she doesn't know much about keeping house.
  • Mr. Copperfield left his wife and unborn child an income of 105 pounds (about the equivalent of $13,470 U.S. in today's dollars) per year.
  • Miss Betsey agrees that he could have done worse.
  • The servant woman, Peggotty, comes in with Mrs. Copperfield's tea and sees at once that she is not well.
  • Peggotty sends her nephew, Ham Peggotty, for a doctor: the baby's on the way.
  • In the meantime, Miss Betsey sits in the parlor.
  • The doctor (Mr. Chillip) arrives.
  • Mr. Chillip goes upstairs to check on Mrs. Copperfield and then comes down again to sit with Miss Betsey.
  • Miss Betsey is violently nervous, yelling at Mr. Chillip and shaking Ham Peggotty, the servant-woman's nephew, in her agitation.
  • Finally, Mr. Chillip comes to tell Miss Betsey the baby has been born.
  • He also brings her the news that the baby is a boy, not a girl, as Miss Betsey had assumed.
  • At this, Miss Betsey hits Mr. Chillip with her bonnet and walks out the door without a word.

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