In David Copperfield, Charles Dickens employs Rosa Dartle, Mrs. Steerforth's paid female companion, as an agent of his narrative. The companion in Victorian literature is an ambiguous figure whose status as a genteel insider and outsider within the domestic circle makes her a unique vehicle for the disclosure of important information the narrative cannot otherwise convey. Companions in the nineteenth century were hired to provide company, amusement, and, most important, a sympathetic ear for their mistresses' confidences. But, as Dickens and other Victorian writers show, this purchased sympathy-for-hire can be corrupted and distorted to serve the companion's own selfish aims. In David Copperfield, Rosa manipulates the sympathy she is expected to provide her mistress in order to expose and critique the Steerforth family's true history and dysfunction. However, ultimately, Rosa cannot help but to reveal her own dysfunction as well. A precursor of Henry James's ficelle, Rosa's critical work represents an alternative narrative that David must contend with and absorb as the companion provides a specific form of domestic knowledge he himself cannot access. Through Rosa Dartle, Dickens explores a darker side to sympathy as well as the diverse narrative functions the companion's distinctive position allows her to perform.
Published in Dickens Studies Annual, Volume 41, 2010, pages 191-213.
© Dickens Studies Annual 2010, AMS PressHoffer, L. N. (2010). “She brings everything to a grindstone”: Sympathy and the paid female companion's critical work in David Copperfield. Dickens Studies Annual, 41, 191-213.