I’ve been doing Susan Hill’s free online writing course (which is fantastic) and her latest task is to study how famous authors introduce and reintroduce their characters. I chose to do Dickens’ David Copperfield (why? it’s so long!) and to look at the character of Miss Betsey, Copperfield’s aunt, below are my notes ↓.
I never managed to finish David Copperfield though, I got to page 300, that’s less than half way through the book! I’d got to the point where David Copperfield had finished school and was embarking on more adventures in London and Yarmouth, it seemed an appropriate place to stop, I’m not saying I’m never going to continue on with it, I did enjoy what I read so far, particularly the earlier stuff with Copperfield’s mother and the Murdstones but you can so tell this was written originally as a serialisation and I think actually would be better read as one, rather than trying to rush it as soon as possible, but at the moment there are other writers I want to read, other writers I want to learn from. Funnily enough I’ve got two Susan Hill books lined up next.
Character analysis for Miss Betsey from Dickens’ David Copperfield
David Copperfield’s great aunt, Miss Betsey is introduced early on in the story, even though he does not personally meet her for some time after. Therefore, at first his only knowledge of her is through anecdotes from others.
An aunt of my father’s, and consequently a great aunt of mine, of whom I shall have more to relate by and by, was the principal magnate of our family. Miss Trotwood, or Miss Betsey, as my poor mother always called her, when she sufficiently overcome her dread of this formidable personage to mention her at all (which was seldom), had been married to a husband younger than herself, who was very handsome, except in the sense of the homely adage, ‘handsome is, that handsome does’ – for he was strongly suspected of having beaten Miss Betsey, and even of having once, on a disputed question of supplies, made some hasty but determined arrangements to throw her out of a two pair of stairs’ window. These evidences of incompatibility of temper induced Miss Betsey to pay him off, and effect a separation by mutual consent . . . . Anyhow, from India tidings of his death reached home, within ten years. How this affected my aunt, nobody knew, for immediately upon the separation, she took her maiden name again, bought a cottage in a hamlet on the sea-coast a long way off, established herself there as a single woman with one servant, and was understood to live secluded, ever afterwards, in an inflexible retirement.
These initial family stories give the impression that Miss Betsey is a formidable, scary, unpopular, independently financed old lady. Somebody so argumentative, inflexible and difficult to get round you would make hasty arrangements to murder her, just to get your own way in an argument.
By placing her in a secluded hamlet on the coast, Dickens has also made Miss Betsey appear distant both geographically and emotionally.
The following lines make her appear even more opinionated and stubborn, to a point where she is even prepared to cut off contact with a much-loved relative.
. . . . she was mortally affronted by his marriage on the ground that my mother was ‘a wax doll’. She had never seen my mother, but she knew her to be not yet twenty. My father and Miss Betsey never met again.
The following sections of text, with Copperfield narrating what would have been his mother’s first meeting with Miss Betsey and therefore relaying on second hand impressions, brings Miss Betsey across as a strange lady.
. . . . she saw a strange lady coming up the garden
Someone who seemed unique, stiff and upright.
My mother had a sure foreboding at second glance, that it was Miss Betsey . . . . she came walking up to the door with a full rigidity of figure and composure or countenance that could have belonged to nobody else.
Miss Betsey is also made to sound like a nosy, old biddy, as she peers into Copperfield’s mother’s house.
My father had often hinted that she seldom conducted herself like any ordinary Christian; and now instead of ringing, she came and looked in at that identical window, pressing the end of her nose against the glass to that extent, that my poor dear mother used to say it became perfectly flat and white in a moment.
She is then made to appear bossy and imperious.
. . . . she made a frown and a gesture to my mother, like one who was accustomed to be obeyed, to come and open the door. My mother went.
Miss Betsey is then made to appear bossy and haughty, as she introduces herself.
‘Miss Trotwood,’ said the visitor. ‘You have heard of her, I dare say?’ . . . . ‘Now you see her,’ said Miss Betsey.
Therefore, through family anecdotes of Miss Betsey’s actions and their responses to her, a picture of her character is built up. This is a far more entertaining and interesting way of providing the reader detail about Miss Betsey than the narrator writing something like ‘My mother sat me down and told me that Miss Betsey was a scary, strange old lady, who you would not want to cross in an argument’. In addition, as you progress further into the book after initially reading the family’s impressions of Miss Betsey, you realise when reader eventually gets to meet her properly when the narrator, David Copperfield, finally meets her, that some of those earlier impressions were wrong.
David Copperfield finally meets his aunt after running away from London to find her; the text below describes his first impressions and provides more of a physical description compared to what he would have gleaned from family tales.
. . . .there came out of the house a lady with a handerkerchief tied over her cap, and a pair of gardening gloves on her hands, wearing a gardening pocket like a tollman’s apron and carrying a great knife.
This description emphasises her practicality, the apron and the ‘great knife’ in particularly emphasising that she is not overly delicate or ladylike and she appears quite capable of looking after herself. Further description emphasises certain masculine features such as her manner of dress but shows how Copperfield realises that his aunt is actually softer than he had imagined.
My aunt was a tall, hard-featured lady, but by no means ill-looking. There was an inflexibility in her face, in her voice, in her gait and carriage, amply sufficient to account for the effect she had made upon a gentle creature like my mother; but her features were rather handsome than otherwise, though unbending and austere. I particularly noticed that she had a very quick, bright eye. Her hair, which was grey, was arranged in two plain divisions, under what I believe would be called a mob-cap: I mean a cap, much more common then than now, with side-pieces fastening under the chin. Her dress was of a lavender color and perfectly neat; but scantily made, as if she desired to be as little encumbered as possible. I remember that I thought it, in form, more like a riding-habit with the superfluous skirt off, than anything else. She wore at her side a gentleman’s gold watch, if I might judge from its size and make, with an appropriate chain and seals; she had some linen at her throat not unlike a shirt-collar, and things at her wrists like little shirt wristbands.
Later as Copperfield gets to know his aunt further he sees her real self more clearly, particularly when she defends him face to face against the awful Murdstones and she is written of in a more tender way, as the narrator’s opinion of her grows.
Looking at how Dickens describes Miss Betsey, first through negative family anecdotes and then through more realistic and favourable first person impressions is an interesting study in how to describe a person when working in the first person narrative. It would have seemed wrong if Copperfield, whilst narrating, would have opened with a detailed physical description of Miss Betsey, as he had never met her when the story opened. Dickens is not afraid to use physical description but shows a lot more through the character’s actions.