Study Guide

David Copperfield Chapter 20

By Charles Dickens

Chapter 20

Steerforth's Home

  • The next morning, a chamber-maid knocks on David's door to tell him there's water for shaving outside his door.
  • David blushes: he doesn't need to shave yet, and he's sure the chamber-maid knows it and is laughing at him.
  • Steerforth is waiting for David in a private dining room.
  • David feels rather shy in front of Steerforth, who is so much grander than David is.
  • Steerforth asks David all about him.
  • David is pleased that Steerforth is so interested. He tells Steerforth his plans to visit Yarmouth.
  • Steerforth hears that David is not in a hurry and invites David to his mother's house in Highgate to stay for a few days.
  • David is delighted to accept.
  • He's so excited: he writes to his aunt to tell her of his change of plans, and then David and Steerforth see some of the sights of London.
  • They go to a museum, and David is impressed with Steerforth's knowledge of everything.
  • David comments that Steerforth will certainly get a graduate degree out of his higher education.
  • Steerforth laughs yet again and says that he has no intention of pursuing further education.
  • (By the way, Steerforth has now decided to call David "Daisy" as a nickname.)
  • Steerforth wonders why he should bother with fame or acclaim when he's satisfied with what he has?
  • David is embarrassed at his misstep and changes the subject.
  • Finally, they travel out to Mrs. Steerforth's house, where Steerforth's mother greets them.
  • The house is old-fashioned, quiet, and neat.
  • There is a second lady in the dining room: she is thin and sharp looking, about 30, with a scar on her mouth that slightly changes the shape of her upper lip. This is Miss Rosa Dartle.
  • Miss Dartle has an odd way of speaking: she never comes out and says anything straight, but she hints quite broadly.
  • For example, she hints that Steerforth is living a wild life at college and not learning anything.
  • This happens a second time when David mentions that he plans to visit the Peggottys, whom Steerforth has met.
  • David explains the Mr. Peggotty has adopted Ham and little Emily, so his house is full of people who Mr. Peggotty has been kind to.
  • Steerforth comments that they seem worth his attention.
  • Miss Dartle chimes in to ask if they really seem worth his notice, as though they were animals or beings of another order?
  • Steerforth clarifies that he thinks there is a difference between them (i.e., the lower orders) and us (i.e., rich people) – they may be very good people, but they can't be expected to be as sensitive or fine as people with better breeding.
  • Miss Dartle thanks him for making her feel better: she had been worried that poor people suffer, but now she knows that they don't really feel things the way better people do.
  • David thinks that Steerforth can't mean what he says, and that he must have made his comments about poor people to draw Miss Dartle out.
  • Once they are alone, Steerforth asks David what he thinks of Miss Dartle.
  • David comments that she seems very clever, and Steerforth agrees: she is so sharp that she seems all edge to Steerforth.
  • David remarks on Miss Dartle's scar.
  • Steerforth admits that he gave it to her: when he was a little boy, she irritated him and he threw a hammer at her.
  • David is sorry to have brought it up, since it must be painful for Steerforth.
  • Steerforth continues: Miss Dartle is an orphan of a cousin of Steerforth's father's who Mrs. Steerforth brought to live with her as a companion once Mr. Steerforth died.
  • David comments (incredibly naively, if we may say!) that Miss Dartle must love Steerforth like a brother.
  • Steerforth hems and haws a bit, and then changes the subject.
  • The next day, David keeps glancing at Miss Dartle's scar. He notices that, when she gets angry, it flushes dark and stands out clearly on her face.
  • Mrs. Steerforth shows David all of Steerforth's old letters to her, his baby pictures, and a lock of his hair.
  • David tells Mrs. Steerforth that Steerforth practically saved his life at Mr. Creakle's school, and that he has always been generous and noble to David.
  • Mrs. Steerforth agrees that Salem House was not good enough for her son, but Steerforth needed to go there because they had trouble finding a teacher who would "be content to bow himself" (20.59) before Steerforth's superior character.
  • Steerforth's mother adds that her son had to go to a school where he could be the acknowledged king of the place.
  • Mrs. Steerforth is delighted that David is so devoted to her son, but she also finds it only natural that her son should inspire such feelings in his fellow men.
  • During this conversation, Miss Dartle is busy playing backgammon with Steerforth, but David is certain that she doesn't miss a word of any of this.
  • Later on, Steerforth calls David Daisy again, and Miss Dartle jumps on it.
  • She asks if it means that David is young and innocent.
  • She comments that Steerforth thinks David is innocent, and so he is willing to be friends with him.
  • Miss Dartle goes to bed soon after, and Steerforth and David stay up late and talk about old school times.
  • When David goes to bed, he notices that there is a portrait of Miss Dartle on his wall.
  • He finds it disturbing, and starts having uneasy dreams filled with doubts about the people around him.

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