A common criticism of Dickens is that his female characters never rise above being two-dimensional. However amongst the demure angels and the grotesque caricatures, Betsey Trotwood of David Copperfield is a magnificent exception. At the start of the novel we may think that she falls into the category of caricature, storming out of the house in the opening chapter when her hoped-for niece turns out, in fact, to be a nephew, and aiming a blow at the doctor with her bonnet on the way. However, as the novel progresses and we get to know her properly, she turns out to be a wonderfully complex, strong, and compassionate woman who nonetheless never loses her power to make us laugh.
After her initial brief but memorable appearance at his birth, she doesn’t appear again for twelve chapters until the young David runs away to her as his last resort to save him from his sufferings at the blacking factory. From that encounter onwards, his life trajectory changes from the depressing decline that has been going on ever since the first chapter to a new rise; thanks to her, he re-takes his proper place in society, is well-educated, and meets all the people who are to have the greatest influence on his future life. She is then by his side throughout the rest of the novel, and things come full circle in the final pages when he is finally able to present her with the little girl (his own daughter) named after her, for whom she was longing at the very beginning of the book. Her role in the narrative arc is clear and crucial. However, her appeal to the reader goes far beyond the structural. Long after you have closed the pages of David Copperfield you remember Betsey Trotwood sitting down flat on the garden path when she first meets David, chasing trespassing donkeys off her beloved green, driving her own pony through Canterbury ‘perfectly indifferent to public opinion’ and, in what is one of the best scenes of the novel, magnificently besting the evil Murdstones when they try to take David back to the blacking factory. Any reader worth his salt will be tempted to erupt into cheers at her final put-down to Miss Murdstone: ‘Let me see you ride a donkey over my green again and as sure as you have a head upon your shoulders I’ll tear your bonnet off, and tread upon it!’ These are her great, character-defining moments. However, there is another side to Betsey Trotwood, a far more nuanced and sensitive side, and it is the combination of this with her larger-than-life comic moments which makes her one of the best characters in English literature. The clearest way to illustrate this is to contrast her with that (in my opinion, unjustly) better-known Dickensian character, Miss Havisham. They share a similar back-story: both, we discover, have been cruelly treated and abandoned by their lovers, both respond to this initially by abhorring all men and retiring to a female-only seclusion: Miss Havisham to the Gothic gloom of Satis House and Betsy Trotwood, more prosaically, to the little cottage in Dover. In both cases their subsequent encounter with the young hero is enormously influential in setting the direction for the rest of his life. However, it is at this moment of encounter that the two characters go off on opposing tangents. Miss Havisham decides to use Pip to revenge herself against all men, humiliating him and teaching Estella how to break his heart, thus cutting him off from the natural fulfilment of a wife and family. Her response to rejection has been to turn in on herself and become thoroughly embittered: her only remaining desire is to make the rest of the world suffer as much as she has suffered. Betsey Trotwood on the other hand, who arguably suffered more than Miss Havisham (she was actually married to the man and abused by him throughout their marriage), has not become embittered by suffering. It has made her somewhat eccentric, and she does take the line that men are not to be trusted; however, this only goes skin-deep. When faced with actual men in need of help, Betsey’s heart is still able to be touched and her compassion is translated into immediate and energetic action. When she encounters the little travel-stained David in her garden, she takes him in, washes and feeds him and finally adopts him as her own son (he even takes her name). We soon discover that this kind-heartedness did not just start when she met David but has been a constant in her life. Years before meeting David, she took in Mr Dick, a simpleton who has been abandoned by his own family. Throughout the novel she protects Mr Dick, keeping up the fantasy that he is a great sage and asking his advice whenever possible. Her suffering has made her compassionate, and has also given her wisdom. When David falls in love with Dora, she knows that they are not best suited, and she sees, as David does not, who he should really marry. However, she also knows that she must not interfere and so she makes the best of it, providing unfailing support through their courtship and beyond. When David and Dora’s marriage starts to run into trouble, she gives David the best (and perhaps only) marriage advice you will find in Dickens, telling him to judge his wife by the qualities she has, and not by the qualities she may not have and refusing to get involved in their disputes saying, ‘…your future is between you two. No one can assist you; you are to work it out for yourselves.’
Towards the end of the novel we realise just how committed she is to the marriage vows when David discovers that she has been supporting her estranged and dissolute husband at a distance for years and that, despite all the wrong he has done her, she was even by his side at his death-bed. She has not stayed to be abused: she has separated herself from him for her own protection, but she has never abandoned her own marital responsibilities and has never ceased to love the man that he could have been.
As another generation of women grapple with the legacy and future of feminism, we could do worse than to look to the (albeit fictional) example of Betsey Trotwood for how to live a compassionate and courageous life, rising above victimhood to become protectors of the weak, never apologetic for our own personal quirks, and always willing to fly in the face of public opinion for a good cause. As Betsey herself says to David when he is venturing out into the world by himself: “Never be mean in anything, never be false, never be cruel. Avoid these three vices and I can always be hopeful of you…The pony is at the door and I am off!”
Lucy Wells is an English Literature graduate from Durham University and now an editor in higher education publishing based in Oxford.