Fathers’ Day present? Don’t hold your breath

Move over evil stepmothers, you’ve got company. We all know that in the world of fiction, there’s no parent worse than a step-mother. Fairy tales are the main culprits for purveying such gender stereotypes, but it’s far more pervasive than that, if my childhood reading was anything to go by. Thankfully, Dickens decided to mix things up a bit.

It’s certainly no fairy tale, but ‘David Copperfield’ has a step-parent to rival the most demonic of them all, and that is Mr Murdstone. If ever a name fitted, that one does (especially if you consider the French spelling for ‘Murd’). He is hard, unfeeling, ruthless and merciless.

Mr Murdstone, charles Dickens, david Copperfield

Young David’s mother – a widow, and an easily-led, weak-willed soul – is easy prey for Murdstone’s charms. She capitulates to his control despite Pegotty’s warnings, and his cool treatment of her only son. Even as a reader, I can feel the temperature drop a few degrees whenever he enters the room. It’s clear for the world to see that he is a cold, calculating control freak, but Mrs Copperfield is either too stupid or too feeble to stand against him. It’s interesting that Dickens makes him a handsome man. It gives him dual layers, the sleek power of attractiveness covering the darker self-centred evil beneath.

We know from the start that this will end badly, and it’s not long before David finds out the mournful truth of his mother’s wedding, but not before he spends time with a man who is the shining sun to Murdstone’s dark night, Mr Peggotty. He may not have much in the way of social niceties or looks but he has collected up the waifs and strays of those lost at sea and has loved and cherished them as his own children. As a character, his kind nature, generosity and big heart more than make up for his lack of refinement, not to mention the all-pervasive smell of fish.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, Mr Peggotty

After the glowing warmth and friendly ease of his trip to Yarmouth, David returns to Blunderstone Rookery, a place transformed from haven to cold storage, the only emotion in evidence being the constant undercurrent of threatened violence from Mr Murdstone and his equally malevolent sister. I don’t often say this, but thank goodness for boarding schools!

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