Sunday, December 19, 2010

Literary Rant: In Defense of Dora Spenlow (SSSSPOILERS for David Copperfield)

Great Expectations is my favorite Charles Dickens novel, and probably also one of my favorite books, period. Yet strangely enough, it's David Copperfield I find myself thinking of the most, and coming back to time and again–and really, that one is not my favorite, because for some reason I find it lacks the excitement and immediacy I felt while reading Expectations. We finicky lit nerds, amiright?

So, if I don't think David Copperfield is in the same class as Great Expectations, why did I sign up for an account over at The David Copperfield Site at Dickens On-line Resources to shoot my mouth/fingers off about the thing?

The answer wasn't difficult for me to uncover. It's because of Dora Spenlow.

Modern readers hate her. She's called an anachronistic mess, a throwback to the sort of helpless girls detrimental to any momentum to the women's rights movement in London at the time. She's clingy, dependent, and woos the titular character away from the steady and discreet Agnes Wickfield, marrying him and then letting their house fall apart. She's childish, whiny, and prone to hysterics. She's a disgrace to strong female characters everywhere. She's popularly believed to be the original source for the term "Dumb Dora."

She's one of my favorite characters in anything ever.

Because she's also wacky, funny, playful, none too bright, but earnest and loving. She's ecstatically devoted to her dog. She's basically everything I value in a heroine.

Some of–okay, a great deal of what they say above is true. She starts out as the archetypal spoiled princess, daughter to the affluent and slightly crooked businessman, Mr. Spenlow. He in turn is boss of the young, strapping David Copperfield. The young Copperfield falls hopelessly, consumingly in love with Dora at first sight. They marry, but he soon finds out that not only is Dora incapable of looking after the house or the accounts, but that she'd rather sit around playing with her dog and singing along to her guitar all day.

But what, dammit, is so terribly wrong with that?

Now, I know, I know. Dora's behavior is far from good. As I conceded to someone on the IMDb boards of the 1935 movie (I'm everywhere I'm everywhere auuuugh!), no one should have to coddle his spouse the way David does Dora. And BOY, does that girl fly off the handle and whine herself up a storm when she wants to.

But before we cast Dora as anti-feminist, let's reverse the gendered role, here.

 Let's say the man is the one who'd rather play guitar, sing, and hang out with the dog than work for the man and keep house. Would he be labeled as a disgrace to his sex, or would he be touted as a charmingly eccentric free spirit? Hell, look at Micawber, the lazy con-artist who befriends David--he's just as helpless and idiotic as Dora, but he's rewarded with an intensely devoted wife and, ultimately, riches in Australia. True, he stood up to Uriah Heep, but he had plenty of help there, and I didn't notice it stem his dependency any. So, what, when you're Micawber it's all right to BS your way through life and work, as long as you have the proverbial heart of gold? But Dora, who also has a good heart (a great heart), is still a failure of a woman? Because she can't keep house? Double-You Tee Eff, everybody!

A lot of the book's fangirls (yes, even Dickens books have fangirls, thank you) despise Dora for serving as angelic Agnes's inadvertent romantic rival. I, too, like many fangirls, tend to sympathize with misty-eyed girls deeply in unrequited love, but not so much here. This might be the pot calling the kettle black, since I'm dissing everybody who disses Dora, but I'm not that wild about Agnes, or at least not wild about the way she's portrayed and the way people react to her. Here's what I say about her on the David Copperfield site:
I, like VIRGI, have a problem with Agnes, not only Agnes herself, but the way that Dickens so shamelessly gushes over her. It came to a point where I felt such dread whenever she came into events, because I knew a conversation between her and David couldn't occur without David prefacing every comment with something like, "My dear good angel without whom I can't make a single decision, I so cherish the sight of your soft seraphic eyes, o sister of my boyhood...." Blech! Many people consider Dora insipid, but I'm afraid Agnes is more so in my eyes. I tend to enjoy characters with a bit more...I don't know...personality? Character flaws? Temper tantrums? I guess it comes down to "round vs. flat" characters. I know some people argue that Agnes's one big redeeming flaw is supposed to be having hidden her love for David, but even this seems more like just another long-suffering, saintly virtue of hers, waiting patiently in the wings for her true love. It's all too saccharine for me.
I realize preferring Dora to Agnes, or vice-versa, is the result of sheer personal taste. Agnes is basically a Jane Austen heroine, as intelligent and strong as Elizabeth Bennett, and as composed and long-suffering as Elinor Dashwood. Dora is Gracie Allen and Carole Lombard. Really, judging by my previous posts, who do you think I'm going to dig more? After all, even if I wasn't such a fan of the screwball comedienne type, I've never been as crazy about Austen girls as other readers are ('cept Catherine Morland. She's rad).

Agnes isn't real to me. She's everything men are supposed to want: beautiful, wise, motherly, great housekeeper, angelic, and endlessly patient. Pfft, who's like that, really? Dora, for all her many many faults, is at least real and understandable in her imperfections. I truly don't want this post to turn into a diatribe against Agnes, since my secret effort is to get people to stop doing so with Dora. After all, the two girls themselves adore each other. But I just want to point out that if you're going to label Dora as anti-feminist, you can't dis-include Agnes from that label, either. She's the man's idealized woman; she has little function throughout the novel save for serving as David and her father's silent support system.

But to return solely to Dora: she really does have a good heart, and wants what's best for David. She tries to learn how to master the demanding art of being the good little Victorian wife. She really does. But it's just not in her personality's makeup to learn all the ropes involved in housemakerdom. Is she supposed to be permanently barred from marital happiness because of this?  We all have our flaws; as I point out in another thread on that site, better for David to marry someone like Dora than a cruel, heartless dictator like Miss Murdstone. It would be one thing if Dora never made the effort, but she did and only made things worse. She feels terrible about it. Yet she still tries: she wants to hold David's pens while he writes.

'Will you mind it, if I say something very, very silly? - more than usual?' inquired Dora, peeping over my shoulder into my face.
'What wonderful thing is that?' said I.

'Please let me hold the pens,' said Dora. 'I want to have something to do with all those many hours when you are so industrious. May I hold the pens?'

The remembrance of her pretty joy when I said yes, brings tears into my eyes. The next time I sat down to write, and regularly afterwards, she sat in her old place, with a spare bundle of pens at her side. Her triumph in this connexion with my work, and her delight when I wanted a new pen - which I very often feigned to do - suggested to me a new way of pleasing my child-wife. I occasionally made a pretence of wanting a page or two of manuscript copied. Then Dora was in her glory. The preparations she made for this great work, the aprons she put on, the bibs she borrowed from the kitchen to keep off the ink, the time she took, the innumerable stoppages she made to have a laugh with Jip as if he understood it all, her conviction that her work was incomplete unless she signed her name at the end, and the way in which she would bring it to me, like a school-copy, and then, when I praised it, clasp me round the neck, are touching recollections to me, simple as they might appear to other men.

That and her endless, unwavering love for David are what she offers him.

Let's ignore, for the moment, the "correct post-modern reading" of this excerpt-–that David humoring Dora is little more than a condescending ruse, sappy and insulting. I know their dynamic is not exactly what you'd call absolutely healthy. But let's focus instead on what most readers refuse to acknowledge these days: the two truly, purely love one another. Dora keeps trying, in her own way, to help her husband. And he tries to make her happy.

And then Dickens kills her off. The understood belief is that she died from complications delivering a stillborn babe, a death rife with sexist symbolism: she failed the ultimate test of a woman's worth, motherhood. To soften the blow, Dickens has her give Agnes her final blessing, and lalala David goes onto wedded bliss with kids and a homey hearth where he can write as Agnes distracts the kids with stories. Whee, bully for him!

Of course David deserves happiness after Dora. But it's all just too neat and tidy for me. What would have happened had she lived? Most assume he would have stopped loving her entirely, that her quirky charms would have worn thin as she aged and lost her youthful beauty (as it apparently did with Dickens's real-life Dora, Maria Beadnell).

But because I love Dora's ding-a-ling sweetness, I like to think they would have ended up as a law-abiding version of the Micawbers, genders reversed. A perfectly healthy relationship? Hell no. But I'm sorry, no romance is perfectly healthy. And those depicted in fiction are dull and lifeless. I'd much rather read about David and Dora's good-natured bickering in their declining years, coupled with them still occasionally playing the love-sick, soppy teenagers, than contemplate a wise, harmonious couple quietly holding hands before a roaring fire.

Then again, that's just me. And George Orwell.


  1. I can't remember if I ever showed this to you; hell, you may have seen it already.

    Third one down:

  2. HA! So sadly true. Though I have to say, I can picture my dear Dora saying "durr" much more than I can envision Agnes saying it. Then again, I can never picture Agnes saying much of anything, and once more, that's kind of my problem with her.

    Heh, remember when I said I didn't wanna bash her? I'm bad at critical objectivity, bad.

  3. Whole heartedly agree with you. Have been looking my whole life for someone to agree with me on Dora Spenlow. After all a man would rather come home at the end of the day to a pretty wife than a clever one.

  4. While I agree Agnes is a little too good to be true, I'm still not crazy about Dora... I do think she's very sweet and very devoted to David, and it's not the irresponsibility that bothers me, or the apparent lack of intelligence--it's the frequency with which she flies off the handle. David always assumes she's given to hysterics, but I'm reading the book now, and it's getting to the point where I wonder if it's actually manipulation, because she knows if she flies into hysterics enough, he'll leave her alone. (I know real people who do that.) If he makes the slightest suggestion to her, she's like, "Oh, don't! Don't be cross! Oh, Doady, don't be serious!" and I can't fathom how that doesn't drive him crazy. It drives me crazy. Most parents wouldn't even put up with behavior like that from a real child. I think what David really needs is someone in the middle--someone with whom he can have a give and take relationship, rather than all give (Dora) or all take (Agnes).

  5. I'm a woman and not anti-feminist, but boy do feminist arguments get on my nerves sometimes! They have a way of taking every character of every book ever written and finding fault in the way they blink or breathe. "He looked at her this way! He's a chauvenist!" Or "She LIKES doing dishes?? A relic of the dark ages!" I always liked Dora even if her childish ways were a bit of a headache in the book. You're right in saying that she's simply more interesting than Agnes, the flawless angel and nigh-impossible female ideal. In fact, I pretty much agree with everything you said. ;) And to add my two cents, Dora is not even as "dumb" as she's sometimes made out to be. She does mature, in her own way, through her marriage to David, even admitting on her detahbed that she was too young and silly to marry and it's better for him the way it is. That takes some guts. She has a number of serious moments with David (alas, who doesn't always take her seriously), introspective moments you might call them. She isn't brilliant but she has a good heart and honestly wants to improve - she just doesn't have any idea how. Overall, she should be seen by readers exactly for what she is - David's innocent "child wife" -, not a brainless anti-feminist (which is really carrying the situation too far, as the entire story predates our modern feminist notions by a couple hundred years anyway).

  6. If I could believe that Dora was developmentally disabled, I could ... well, not LIKE her, because she's so manipulative, but at least not want to slap her every time she enters a scene.

    1. I have a theory that she has Down's syndrome... super childlike (in attitude and appearance), sweet, short lifespan. Sounds like it fits to me. Other than that the only other possibility for her early death to me would be sepsis from her miscarriage

    2. I'm not so sure about Down's syndrome (she's mentioned as having a normal facial appearance), but it does seem as if she's mentally challenged/developmentally delayed. In fact, it makes her father's objection to the marriage a little more interesting--he's presented through David's eyes as a tyrannical father who objects to David on social grounds, but it's possible to see him as a father who is perfectly aware of his daughter's limitations and knows she's not ready for the realities of a middle-class marriage.

      He does say he has "plans for her advancement," which David reads as his wanting to marry her off to someone rich, but it's possible he could mean that he wants a husband for her who's able to hire a houseful of servants so she won't have to cope with housekeeping. And one who's got the emotional maturity and patience to look after her as she needs to be looked after.
      Francis Spenlow probably knows that his daughter's going to have to marry somebody--he won't be around forever (although he couldn't have foreseen he had only another day to live), and neither will her maiden aunts, so someone's going to need to take care of Dora. And he probably thinks (with good reason, as it turns out) that David Copperfield, for all his fine qualities, is not that person.

      After all, he doesn't fire David on the spot. He speaks reasonably to him the next day, and assures him that he hasn't been at all harsh with his daughter. But he probably knows that David doesn't have the financial or emotional resources to take care of Dora as she really needs to be taken care of. And, as it turns out (or at least Dickens seems to believe) that the tyrannical father was RIGHT. Even Dora, on her deathbed, tells David, "It would have been better if we'd only loved each other as a boy and girl, and forgotten it."

  7. I liked Dora and felt sorry for her. Alright, she's not very bright. She has low self-esteem, and who wouldn't being married to someone as clever as David Copperfield, Charles Dickens' alter ego. She absorbed the criticism David Copperfield made of her, and thought and worried about it while David was off doing other things. It was heart breaking really.