The year was 2012. I was cloistered in a cabin in the rural hills of Rostrevor, Northern Ireland with four women at two months into my semester abroad. With about ten books and a flighty internet connection at my disposal, it was time to delve into criticism surrounding the monstrous women in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield.
Now, you may find yourself wondering what Northern Ireland had to do with it. Well, despite a wireless connection that worked only in the Ceili House (one of the ten cottages nestled in the foothills of the Mourne Mountains) and only if less than ten people used it, 24 undergraduate students were to do the bulk of their research for the semester’s term paper on a topic not yet decided. As I read through a wealth of Dickensian literature, I found myself perpetually pulled toward “the most unearthly I ever heard in my life, or can imagine” (1) – women seen only as monstrous, brittle, and unforgiving.
As I wrestled with Jane Murdstone and Rosa Dartle’s rejection of the idyllic angel, the expected and accepted trajectory of a woman’s life in Victorian England, I also wrestled with David’s perception of Jane and Rosa “whose stories are told only elliptically” (2). As I developed a paper that focuses on David’s view of Jane and Rosa, I simultaneously questioned why these characters are not offered redemption. Because David is the narrator, the reader understands Jane and Rosa as offensive and unforgiving. Because this is fiction, we are not meant to care for these dark, angry women… And yet I did. I wanted, more than anything else, to find a space to forgive them, to relieve them of their anger, and to see them for more than what our narrator allows.
As I ruminated on David’s perceptions of Jane and Rosa, I realized how I had few resources with which to engage in the scholarly conversation. Understanding the concepts of ideal Victorian femininity was simple enough and even finding criticism to support that was like melting chocolate in a fondue pot. But finding the appropriate articles on a dwindling wifi connection while the nearest (religious) library was at the Catholic monastery two miles away by foot? When it felt impossible (which was often), I would fix a cup of hot tea, stare out the cabin windows at the mountains above me, and consider my place in the story.
Despite, or perhaps in spite of, my limited resources, I was able to piece together a compelling paper that accomplished my two primary objectives. First, it considered how Jane Murdstone and Rosa Dartle become demonically domestic, perhaps to spite that angel-wife syndrome. And second, it questioned how these women “enter into unaccommodating structures of patriarchal language only through the painful marking and scarring of the female body” (3). David Copperfield chooses his language as carefully as Charles Dickens does and David’s descriptions of the physical disfiguring of both Jane and Rosa mirror his views of their ruptured femininity. Jane and Rosa become David’s monsters, the nightmares that a Victorian man must fear when a Victorian woman rejects her lot in life.
What then were my monsters, as a millenial woman in a foreign country with only 26 other Americans to keep me grounded? At the time, it seemed that no amount of reading or hard work would conquer either this term paper or the pages upon pages I had yet to finish reading for my courses. At the time, I vacillated between focusing on my academic work when the sun was up and shifting gears to interpersonal relationships as the sun went down. At the time, I wondered if I too would end up like Rosa Dartle, a little dilapidated and with a fire wasting away inside me (4).
Somehow, whether through hard work or an inability to bend when pressured, I made it through that semester of transient life, the weather of Ireland, an unstable internet connection, and a term paper that called into question not merely Jane Murdstone and Rosa Dartle but also my understanding of my own path in life. Literature has a way of revealing our innermost fears and desires. It is what we decide to do with those fears that marks our futures. No, I would not be left with rage that would catch fire; instead, I would choose to take back my power in the way that I secretly wished for Rosa. A faulty internet connection and scarce resources could not rupture analytical study, nor would my own literary id lead me to carry unencumbered indignation.
To struggle with our text is the first step in knowing that we are asking the right questions. I am not the first student who has lacked access to resources in the midst of a term paper, nor will I be the last student to struggle with an unreliable internet connection. But I am one student who faced it and survived. Often when we feel there is no way for us to overcome the challenges ahead, there is a new idea around the corner. While I do not advocate ignoring the critical conversation, lacking a way to access the vast wealth of scholarship on Charles Dickens’ work allowed me the ability to think clearly about the questions I wanted to ask of the text and, in turn, of myself. Each time we comment on a literary work, we also ask questions about our understanding of that text. In my case, I wondered how to ethically understand characters who are only given a whisper of life. In the many cases of my peers (and future students), they will find other questions that bring their biases and nightmares into the forefront. This is the story that I will tell.
(1) Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. Electronic edition.
(2) Schor, Hilary M. Introduction. Dickens and the Daughter of the House. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.
(3) Michie, Helena. “‘Who Is This in Pain?’ Scarring, Disfigurement, and Female Identity in ‘Bleak House’ and ‘Our Mutual Friend.’” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 22, No. 2 (1989): 199-212. JSTOR. 10/31/12.
(4) This refers to David’s original description of Rosa in David Copperfield.
This post was originally written as a response to the following prompt:
Consider a piece of writing you have completed for a class, and discuss the challenges and satisfactions you gained from completing that particular project. Are there elements in your experience that other student writers would find valuable?