Mr Micawber, Letter-Writing Manuals, and Charles Dickens’s Literary Professionals

  • Laura Rotunno
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture book series (PNWC)


Describing the class structure of mid-to-late nineteenth-century Britain, historian K. Theodore Hoppen asserts:

Just as the astronomer’s eyes are damaged by looking directly at the sun, so, by looking only at the strictly economic side of things (wages, salaries, property-ownership, and the like) it is easy to become persuaded by the nearer vision’s brightness into seeing only a continuous blur. A more contextual and tangential glance, however, can reveal distinctions as well as continuities, barriers as well as bridges, reveal, indeed, a world in which the recognition and maintenance of hierarchy were woven into the very fabric of daily life.1


Literary World Social Injustice Liberal Ideal Literary Professional Class Division 
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  1. 2.
    George Gissing, Collected Works of George Gissing on Charles Dickens, ed. Simon J. James, vol. 2 (Grayswood, Surrey: Grayswood Press, 2004), 62.Google Scholar
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    Jennifer Ruth also acknowledges the importance of the division between invention and copying. She explains that ‘David’s power of invention, the richness of his soil qualifies him for a higher professional sphere than might be attainable otherwise’, whereas copying is ‘a manual form of mental labor’, in Dickens’s novel; Jennifer Ruth, Novel Professions: Interested Disinterest and the Making of the Professional in the Victorian Novel (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006), 67.Google Scholar
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    Mary Poovey asserts that the lack of detail concerning David’s writing conveys ‘the twin impressions that some kinds of work are less “degrading” and less alienating than others and that some laborers are so selfless and skilled that to them work is simultaneously an expression of self and a gift to others’; Poovey, Uneven Developments, 101. Similarly, Alexander Welsh reads David’s silence concerning his novels as ‘confidence’ and ‘the confusion and redundancy of nearly every other producer of writing [in the novel]’ as characteristic of their inadequacies; Alexander Welsh, From Copyright to Copperfield: The Identity of Dickens (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Rachel Ablow’s provocative reading of David’s exaltation of Agnes argues that ‘Agnes’s upward-pointing finger indicates a narrative of endless progress and self-improvement’; Rachel Ablow, The Marriage of the Minds: Reading Sympathy in the Victorian Marriage Plot (Stanford University Press, 2007), 44. David’s and Dickens’s readers are cast as those who will follow Agnes’s and the novel’s example. I am convinced by Ablow’s reading of Agnes as an ideal that spurs David to self-improvement as a person, but I do not see this improvement as necessarily translating into an enhancement of his talents as a professional writer. I tend instead to follow Lynn Cain’s psychoanalytic approach that reads David’s emphasis on mortality here as stressing authorship’s capacity to transcend death; see Lynn Cain, Dickens, Family, Authorship: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Kinship and Creativity (Burlington: Ashgate, 2008), 117Google Scholar
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    Alan P. Barr identifies similar hesitancy in David Copperfield’s presentation of middle-class ideals as a whole. His article’s conclusion focuses that argument through the lens of David’s authorial career: Dickens ‘is tentatively hopeful that from David’s artistic achievements and modest, orderly domicile progress may be made toward greater civility and emotional expansiveness. Granted, the balance is left tilted toward the side of skepticism’; Alan P. Barr, ‘Matters of Class and the Middle-Class Artist in David Copperfield’, Dickens Studies Annual 38 (2007): 55–67Google Scholar

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© Laura Rotunno 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Laura Rotunno
    • 1
  1. 1.Penn State AltoonaUSA

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