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So: yesterday’s Nineteenth-century novel class on David Copperfield and the ‘Autobiographical Fragment‘ (reprinted by Forster in his posthumous Life of Dickens) threw up some contentious readings of the novel. I’ll run through one of the areas of our discussion, and you–whether you’re taking this particular option or not–can click on ‘comments’ to contribute your ha’pennorth to the debate.
We talked about various things linking Dickens’s autobiographical fragment and his fictionalised version of the same material in David Copperfield, including food, externalisation, his mother and other stuff. But we also discussed the MOOR EEFFOC:
The coffee shops to which I most resorted were, one in Maiden Lane; one in a court (non-existent now) close to Hungerford Market; and one in St Martin’s Lane, of which I only recollect that it stood near the church, and that in the door there was an oval glass plate with ‘COFFEE ROOM’ painted on it, addressed towards the street. If I ever find myself in a very different kind of coffee-room now, but where there is an inscription on glass, and read it backwards on the wrong side, MOOR EEFFOC (as I often used to do then in a dismal reverie), a shock goes through my blood. [Forster, Life of Dickens, I:ii, ‘Hard Experiences in Boyhood 1822-4‘]
We talked about the ‘principle of inversion’ that Dickens often uses in converting life to art; the life of CD becoming the life of DC; pleasant helpful young Bob Fagin from the Blacking Factory becoming the evil elderly Fagin in Oliver Twist, the great number of children who are compelled to act as adults in Dickens’s novels, and the equally large number of adults who, in various ways, are nothing more than superannuated children. Then we talked about the way some women, like Betsey Trotwood, act as men, and the way some male characters–David himself, say–are feminised (Betsey acting out upon him her fantasy of having a girl child by renaming him, for instance). This is where the group became less minded to follow my suggested reading: which is to say, a queer reading of the novel as, in a buried, secret way, being the love story of David and Steerforth, or perhaps even more counter-intuitively the love of David and Uriah Heep: the weirdly unsettling and strangely (repulsively) sensual quality of Heep— that wriggle he has. We discussed the not-so-buried violence against women that sees the major female characters in the novel either killed-off or packed away to Australia. I tried to link this in with a reading of the notions of ‘secrecy’ and ‘shame’ in the novel, specifically the hyperbolic rather unaccountable shame that CD felt about the blacking factory incident and that prompted him to keep it secret throughout his life from everybody except Forster. Why was he so ashamed? Was it a (social, class-based) shame? Or was it a more complicated, buried or repressed guilt? If so, of what? What is it, precisely, that sends the ‘shock’ through the blood of the adult man? I then, tentatively, floated the idea that Moor-eeffoc, in addition to being a rebus of reversal and inversion, connects in CD’s punning method with a repressed homosexual yearning for ‘more he-fuck’. The group as a whole was, shall we say, unconvinced of this reading. Does it go too far? Is there a buried narrative in which eros and thanatos are intertwined running through the novel? Or does it import a post-Freudian, 21st-century perspective to read the novel in these terms? What do you think? [AR]