Work in Progress: On Tearing Up Dickens’s David Copperfield

Kathy Rees completed her PhD on Edmund Gosse in 2015.  She is continuing with her research, pursuing her interest in allusion and intertextuality, currently in relation to the Heinemann International Library (1890-97).  Two of the books mentioned in this blog by Bjørnsterne Bjørnson were translated into English for this library. 

On Tearing up Dickens’s David Copperfield

This blog post offers some thoughts on the relationship between the work of Charles Dickens and that of Bjørnsterne Bjørnson (1832-1910), the Norwegian writer who gave his country the nucleus of its modern literature in terms of stories, dramas, novels, poems and songs.  Heralded as “Norway’s beating heart” and “Norway’s uncrowned king”, Bjørnson profoundly influenced Norway’s political direction and initiated educational change.  Bjørnson’s work attracted notice within Scandinavia from the late 1850s, gaining a more international reputation from 1870 onwards. Like Dickens, Bjørnson had a strong social conscience, and his work often challenged private and public morals.

Because Bjørnson alludes to Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield in two different novels, commentators have assumed that such references signal ‘his admiration for Dickens’ (Brown 72; Rem 415). I suggest however that these allusions are very ambiguous, and can be read more as a critique than as a celebration of Dickens’s work.  Due to space constraints I will focus only on Bjørnson’s reference to David Copperfield, which is mentioned in The Heritage of the Kurts (first published in 1884 as Flags are Flying in Town and Harbour but given its new title on being translated into English in 1892).  The scene is a strange one: two-year-old Tomas discovers the joy of tearing pages out of a book.  And what better volume to choose than David Copperfield, the book that had recently preoccupied his mother, distracting her attention from him? ‘After the first one or two [pages], he took them out several at a time, twenty in all before his mother returned’ (1: 98).

The context for this mother-toddler battle is this: Tomas is the last child of five generations of Kurts. Each son inherited his father’s flaws: a predisposition to violence, infidelity, drunkenness, and insanity.  Tomas’s father, John, had died of apoplexy before he was born.  His mother, Tomasine, was so desperate to terminate the Kurt dynasty that she had considered suicide on first discovering her pregnancy, but finally decided to terminate the vicious bloodline by other means.  Her first act relates to genealogy: she gives the baby her maiden name of Rendalen to banish the patronym of Kurt, and his christian name is the male version of her own, ‘Tomasine’.  Her second act concerns Tomas’s upbringing: over many years, she educates him about the dangers of inheriting parental patterns of behaviour.  His mother’s indoctrination is bolstered by the presence in the town of many illegitimate lower-class Kurt offspring, who have descended into insanity or criminality. Lombroso would have a field-day.

Bjornson’s allusion to David Copperfield highlights the issue of biological inheritance, the transmission of physical but also moral qualities.  The tension between voluntarism and determinism was ubiquitous in the nineteenth century. David Copperfield could be read as an example of one destined to repeat the negative behaviour of his parents.  His mother, Clara, is irresponsibly girlish, making a virtue out of her immaturity.  David’s childlike adoration of her translates later into his infatuation with Dora, his “child-wife” (liii,769), who is as inept and frivolous as Clara had been. Thus he duplicates his father’s gullibility in marrying a wax-doll:  ‘He would be as like his father as it’s possible to be, if he was not so like his mother too’ snorts Betsey Trotwood (xiii, 203). But David doesn’t have to live with the consequences of all this: Dora conveniently dies young, freeing him to marry the angelic Agnes Wickfield.  Agnes is especially angelic because she has bucked the trend of her genetic inheritance, resisting the nature/nurture of her alcoholic father. With her, David can achieve a fulfilled existence as a successful family man, and successful novelist.  Sorted.

No such happy ending is available to Tomas. By adulthood, Tomas seems to have accepted the scientific, moral, and cultural arguments that humanity will benefit from his resolve never to have children. He throws his energy into a school, the vision for which he explicitly bases on the words of Herbert Spencer: ‘The most important form of knowledge which a man can acquire, is the knowledge how to regulate his own life; the next, how to regulate the lives of those who come after him’ (1: 170). Tomas has turned his genetic misfortune into his raison d’être. Thus ends the novel, but Bjørnson seems haunted by his own creation. In In God’s Way (1889), a novel written five years later, and in no other way related to The Heritage of the Kurts, this character, Tomas Rendalen briefly reappears, confessing to a friend: “I am not at liberty to love anyone . . . There is madness in our family  . . .  you know how ungovernable I am . . . my father was exactly the same” (111). He has no clear role in this story; it is as though, over five years of real time between the novels, Tomas Rendalen has lost his way and descended into depression and despair.  Bjørnson wants to remind his readers that there are no fairy-tale answers to the problem of biological inheritance.   Tomas’s suffering recalls us to that early act of tearing up David Copperfield.  No simple toddler mischief. It symbolises Tomas’s rage at being forced to sacrifice a Copperfield-style ‘happy ending’ as a ‘family man’, and to mark Bjørnson’s challenge to Dickens’s optimistic resolutions of his novels, his apparent side-stepping of the complex issues related to genetic inheritance.

Works Cited:

Bjørnson, Bjørnsterne. The Heritage of the Kurts, Vols. 1-2. Translated from the Norwegian by Cecil Fairfax.  New York: Macmillan, 1908.

Bjørnson, Bjørnsterne. In God’s Way. Translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Carmichael.  New York, 1890.

Brown, James Wesley.”Charles Dickens and Norwegian Belles-Lettres in the Nineteenth Century.” Edda: Scandinavian Journal of Literary Research 2 (1970):65-84.

Dickens, Charles.  David Copperfield. London: Penguin 2014.

Rem, Tore. “Dickens in Norway.”  In Michael Hollington ed. The Reception of Charles Dickens in Europe, Vol.2. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. pp.409-29.


Work in Progress is a regular feature on our blog where members contribute short articles about their current research. If you’d like to contribute a piece, please get in touch!

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One thought on “Work in Progress: On Tearing Up Dickens’s David Copperfield

  1. Pingback: Monthly Roundup: October – Nineteenth-Century Studies at Anglia Ruskin

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