Angels and Slatterns: The Power of the Domestic in David Copperfield

In its consideration of the power of domesticity in David Copperfield, this paper will engage with an existing, and as yet unresolved debate in scholarship that questions which gender wielded the most power with regard to the control of the diet and the household tasks. I will be engaging with two conflicting pieces of research: Deirdre David’s perception that cookery books were ‘written by women for the instruction of women in filling male orders’ (“Rewriting the Male Plot in Wilkie Collins’s No Name” 1998)  and Elizabeth Langland’s counter argument that middle class women exerted a far greater control than previously thought because through the control of their household the wife performed a more ‘significant and extensive economic and political function than is usually perceived’ (“Nobody’s Angels: Domestic Ideology and Middle-Class Women in the Victorian Novel” 1992). Using Dickens’s Agnes Wickfield and Dora Spenlow, as well as contemporary sources such as cookery books, etiquette manuals and household guides, I wish to explore this argument of power further and interrogate how much control, if any, women exerted over men through the female management, or miss-management, of the domestic sphere.


David Copperfield’s two wives are placed in binary domestic opposition as his second wife Agnes Wickfield fulfils the strict specifications of the ideal Victorian notion of the ‘angel in the house’, and is therefore able to calm the disorder that Dora Spenlow has created in her inability to manage even simple household tasks. The religious language that is used to describe Agnes and the contrasting language of visions that surrounds Dora polarises both these characters and the nature of their relationship with David Copperfield, as well as suggesting a more significant symbolic moral and religious meaning that encompasses Victorian domestic performance. Therefore, I want to not only interrogate how these two very different characters engage with the contemporary ideas that surround women’s domestic responsibilities but, in doing so, also open up discussion of the symbolic function of domestic achievement in my re-examination of gender power dynamics in the Victorian home.

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