Dickens’s dangerous friend

In David Copperfield, wine both entices and endangers and its dubious charms weren't lost on Dickens himself


David Copperfield is full of bravura writing, and some of the best is to be found in chapter 24, “My First Dissipation”. Copperfield has just entered into possession of “a singularly desirable, and compact set of chambers” in the Adelphi. No matter that, on inspection, the set consisted of “a little half-blind entry where you could see hardly anything, a little stone-blind pantry where you could see nothing at all, a sitting-room, and a bedroom.” Copperfield is delighted with these rooms, even being undeterred when his landlady, Mrs Crupp, tells him that the previous tenant had died “of drink . . . and smoke”.

 A chance meeting with Steerforth, a friend idolised since schooldays, encourages Copperfield to have a dinner party: “I really ought to have a little house-warming. I had a new pride in my rooms after his approval of them, and burned with a desire to develop their utmost resources.”

 Copperfield consults Mrs Crupp, who suggests “a handy young man” to wait and “a young gal” to do the dishes. Although Mrs Crupp is supposed to cook for Copperfield, she has little trouble in side-stepping that responsibility:

It was a remarkable instance of want of forethought on the part of the ironmonger who had made Mrs. Crupp’s kitchen fireplace, that it was capable of cooking nothing but chops and mashed potatoes. As to a fish kittle, Mrs. Crupp said, well! would I only come and look at the range? She couldn’t say fairer than that. Would I come and look at it? As I should not have been much the wiser if I had looked at it, I declined, and said, “Never mind fish.” But Mrs. Crupp said, Don’t say that; oysters was in, why not them?  So that was settled. Mrs. Crupp then said what she would recommend would be this. A pair of hot roast fowls-from the pastrycook’s; a dish of stewed beef, with vegetables-from the pastrycook’s; two little corner things, as a raised pie and a dish of kidneys-from the pastrycook’s; a tart, and (if I liked) a shape of jelly-from the pastrycook’s. This, Mrs. Crupp said, would leave her at full liberty to concentrate her mind on the potatoes, and to serve up the cheese and celery as she could wish it done.

Copperfield then takes care of the drink.  He goes to Covent Garden and places “a rather extensive order at a retail wine-merchant’s in that vicinity”. Coming home later that afternoon, he sees the wine “drawn up in a square on the pantry floor” and “was absolutely frightened of them”. The military metaphor (“square” here being not just a shape but an infantry formation) introduces a hint of harm which will be amplified later, and which is immediately reinforced by a note of betrayal. Two of the bottles are missing; a fact which makes Mrs Crupp “very uncomfortable” when it is pointed out.

Steerforth and his Oxford friends arrive and the party begins. Steerforth is in sparkling form: “Everything was very good; we did not spare the wine; and he exerted himself so brilliantly to make the thing pass off well, that there was no pause in our festivity.” Gradually, however, not sparing the wine produces its natural consequences. Joviality yields to absurdity, and still Copperfield presses on, “passing the wine faster and faster yet, and continually starting up with a corkscrew to open more wine, long before any was needed.” Meanwhile, the handy young man who “went out of the room very often”, and whose “shadow always presented itself, immediately afterwards, on the wall of the entry, with a bottle at its mouth”, has passed out, and the “young gal” has broken all the dishes.  

Eventually Copperfield is thoroughly drunk, and Dickens renders the sense of baffled self-estrangement which accompanies complete intoxication with wonderful vividness: “Somebody was smoking. We were all smoking. I was smoking. . . . Somebody was leaning out of my bedroom window, refreshing his forehead against the cool stone of the parapet, and feeling the air upon his face. It was myself.” Drink and smoke seem to be about to do for the new tenant what they had done for his predecessor.

With the spontaneity of the addled, the party decides to go to the theatre. There Copperfield is unlucky enough to meet Agnes Wickfield, the good and wise woman whom he will eventually marry. Agnes shows her benevolence and wisdom by not being affronted at his drunkenness, but by telling him to “Go away now, Trotwood, for my sake, and ask your friends to take you home.” Steerforth puts Copperfield to bed, while Copperfield pesters him to “bring the corkscrew, that I might open another bottle of wine.”

The next morning is passed in an agony of crapulousness and remorse. When Copperfield calls on Agnes to apologise, she dismisses his drunkenness as already forgotten. However, she warns him against Steerforth as a “dangerous friend”. In this she is of course right-Steerforth will prove to be a dangerous friend to Copperfield, although not altogether a false one. It is with Steerforth rather as it is with the wine at Copperfield’s dinner: the problem lies not so much with the thing itself, as with how it is used. Steerforth’s great betrayal is the seduction and abandonment of Little Em’ly; but it is a betrayal made possible by Copperfield’s unguarded introduction of Steerforth into the simple Yarmouth world of Ham and Peggotty.

It is easy to think of Dickens’s great serialised novels as triumphs of improvisation. In part they were. But as he became more experienced in the form, so Dickens realised that improvisation required a settled narrative framework. In the case of David Copperfield (as Dickens wrote to James White) the story had been “carefully planned out . . . to the end” and constructed “with immense pains”. The fruits of Dickens’s painful care are visible in Copperfield’s party, which gathers up and focuses the various references to wine both earlier and later in the novel. From first to last, Steerforth has been associated with wine: to begin with, at school the two bottles of cowslip wine which Copperfield is sent by Peggotty which Steerforth guards “to wet your whistle when you are story-telling”; and at the end, the ship which breaks up off Yarmouth, in which Steerforth drowns, and which is “laden with fruit and wine” from Spain or Portugal.

Wine, which both entices and endangers, is a metaphor for the dangerous attraction which Steerforth embodies. Nor was Dickens himself proof against its charm. With the novel almost complete, he wrote to John Forster and announced that “I am within three pages of the shore; and am strangely divided.” No better token of that strange division than the metaphor Dickens chose to evoke the near-completion of his novel, “within three pages of the shore”, recalling as it does the circumstances of Steerforth’s near-rescue from the tempestuous wreck, and therefore confessing, as it must, the muffled affinity between the novelist and his protagonist’s “dangerous friend”-both Steerforth and wine.

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