At the Peggotty’s

The Peggotty Boat House in Yarmouth

Some months ago, I made a stab at re-reading Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield but gave up. Somehow, I was just not in the mood. (That happens, but fairly rarely.) Today, I made another attempt, with vastly improved results.

What got to me before was the character of Edward Murdstone and his sister Jane. Murdstone marries David’s mother, Clara, but begins raising David in an abusive even sadistic manner. But before the grim scenes of marriage, with Clara being forced to suppress her love for Davy, there intervenes the magical Chapter III, “I Have a Change.”

Magic is rare in fiction, but not with Dickens at his best. Davy goes with his mother’s maid Clara Peggotty to visit her family in Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight. There, he stays in an odd beach house built from an old boat, with Peggotty’s brother Daniel as head of household. In the boat house live Ham Peggotty, an orphaned nephew; Little Em’ly, an orphaned niece; and the morose Mrs Gummidge, widow of a fishing partner of Daniel’s. It is an odd mixed-up family that somehow seems to work.

It all starts with the first view of the boat house on the sands:

Ham carrying me on his back and a small box of ours under his arm, and Peggotty carrying another small box of ours, we turned down lanes bestrewn with bits of chips and little hillocks of sand and went past gas-works, rope-walks, boat-builders’ yards, shipwrights’ yards, caulkers’ yards, riggers’ lofts, smiths’ forges, and a great litter of such places, until we came out upon the dull waste I had already seen at a distance; when Ham said,

‘Yon’s our house, Mas’r Davy!’

I looked in all directions, as far as I could stare over the wilderness, and away at the sea, and away at the river, but no house could I make out. There was a black barge, or some other kind of superannuated boat, not far off, high and dry on the ground, with an iron funnel sticking out of it for a chimney and smoking very cosily; but nothing else in the way of a habitation that was visible to me.

‘That’s not it?’ said I. ‘That ship-looking thing?’

‘That’s it, Mas’r Davy,’ returned Ham.

If it had been Aladdin’s palace, roc’s egg and all, I suppose I could not have been more charmed with the romantic idea of living in it. There was a delightful door cut in the side, and it was roofed in, and there were little windows in it; but the wonderful charm of it was, that it was a real boat which had no doubt been upon the water hundreds of times, and which had never been intended to be lived in, on dry land. That was the captivation of it to me. If it had ever been meant to be lived in, I might have thought it small, or inconvenient, or lonely; but never having been designed for any such use, it became a perfect abode.

Davy stays in the boat house for a couple of weeks, allowing his mother to be married to the grim Murdstone and provide an unhappy surprise when Davy returns to The Rookery at Blunderstone, only to find Murdstone in charge as paterfamilias.

Until then, there are a couple of weeks of grace, during which little Davy falls in love with Little Em’ly, and is showered with kindnesses he was no longer able to receive at home.

I remember the chapter vividly from my own childhood, when I read an abridged edition of David Copperfield. Even in its mutilated form, it was magical then; and now, it’s still magical.