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Knights of the Napkin: Waiters as Class-Enforcers in David Copperfield

Joe Oestreich, Coastal Carolina University

My title appropriates a nickname for waiters that appears in Charles Booth’s 1896 study of Victorian occupations, Life and Labour of the People in London (233). Booth puts quotations around “knights of the napkin,” suggesting that this phrase is not one he coined but one he had heard often in his survey of London labor. The irony is clear: linking bowing-and-scraping waiters with chivalric knights—the elite cadre that epitomizes honor, bravery, and heroism—allows us to understand that waiters are regarded as anything but honorable, brave, and heroic. Waiters are trivialized, and, because of the nature of their jobs, feminized as well. Booth, for instance, places his discussion of waiters in a chapter entitled “Household Service, etc.” (v. 8, 231-235), which paints them with the brush of domesticity, a category clearly coded as feminine. But waiters aren’t exclusive to the home, locked behind manor gates or working invisibly under the stairs. Waiters work in public. They are players in the marketplace. They sell their service (as well as their food) to customers, while simultaneously selling their labor to their employers. And because most of what they sell is themselves (not manufactured goods, not their own production), they perform a feminine/domestic task in a masculine/public zone. This places the seemingly trivial waiter at the intersection of three important issues that frame analyses of Victorian literature and culture: class, gender, and the corruption of the marketplace.
Examining the three extended waiter-scenes in David Copperfield, I argue that this uneasy blending of masculine/feminine, lower class/middle class, and public/private makes waiters both objects of ridicule and representatives of the ills of Victorian society writ large. Dickensian waiters are either sneaky conmen—conniving like thieves, self-selling like prostitutes—or snooty moneygrubbers who ape the manners of the higher classes they aspire to join but never will. They are victims of surface-level class assumptions even as they turn these same assumptions on their customers, looking for class markers, targeting both the moneyed and the not-quite-rich-but-naïve—anyone who might be conned. Waiters, therefore, enforce and reinforce the same class system that keeps them stagnate. In this portrayal, Dickens is not only critiquing waiters, he is using them to highlight the shallow class-consciousness inherent in the culture that produces them.
We learn much about the world of David Copperfield by how David relates to waiters, and we get evidence of the nature of David’s eventual maturation in how waiters react to him. The three waiter-scenes occur at major points of transition in David’s life: when he is first tossed into society as a young boy, when he reconnects with Steerforth as a young man, and when he returns to England as a man seeking to capture a love he assumes is lost. Beginning, middle, and end. David’s dealings with waiters serve as milestones in his bildungsroman, and they encapsulate issues of class, power relations, and the Victorian political economy. But despite all the grist for the critical mill David Copperfield’s waiters would possess, they have mostly been overlooked by scholars and historians. Indeed, there are very few mentions of waiters in nineteenth-century historical and socio-political texts. Booth’s multi-volume Life and Labour commits barely five pages to waiters, and for all Henry Mayhew’s cataloging brilliance in London Labour and the London Poor, he makes no mention of waiters as a distinct population. Modern scholars have essentially written about every element of the text but these server scenes. When it comes to the topic of Dickens and industry, recent scholarship tends to focus on factory labor, thieves and prostitutes, the rise of the man-of-letters, or the moral superiority of domestic women (“The Angel in the House”).
So what do we do with waiters? Jennifer Ruth and others have tracked the development of a professional class of doctors, lawyers, wealthy shopkeepers, and other service-oriented types, but waiting tables seems too menial to be called “professional.” Arlene Young, David Thiele, and Matthew Titolo have studied how the class between professionals and common laborers—the petit bourgeoisie—is evidenced in Dickens, and Young has argued that Dickens portrays this lower middle-class, “in order to expose the hypocrisy and venality of the Victorian bourgeoisie” (484). I submit that the waiter should be included in this notion of the petit bourgeoisie. Waiters were between classes and therefore classless, looked upon with mockery and suspicion. Like other males who didn’t toil in factories, they were “welcomed into the bosom of the Victorian social family with the same enthusiasm as most other parvenus—[they were] despised” (Young 484). Dickens depicts waiters as similar to the sniveling clerk, Uriah Heep, in that they appear “a manifestation of condescending and even downright hostile suspicions directed toward the lower middle class by a Victorian bourgeoisie” (Thiele 209). This portrayal of waiters reinforces the condescension and hostility toward the lower middle-class even as it criticizes upper-crust Victorians for their shallow, class-based perceptions. What’s more, Dickens uses the class biases of the waiters themselves to reinforce the very system that keeps them in a mode of servility.
The first waiter scene is a telling introduction to the crafty mechanizations of Dickensian society, where class is king and individuals bank on class assumptions for personal financial gain. While waiting in Yarmouth for the London coach, David is led to an inn where he is shown the coffee room by William, the waiter who, as David narrates, “came running out of a kitchen on the opposite side of the yard to show it, and seemed a good deal surprised when he was only to show it to me” (76). Victorian waiters, like servers today, were paid both in daily wages and in tips, and these tips accounted for approximately half their income (Booth 231). William the waiter bounds from the kitchen because he expects to be met by a customer whom he might impress with this hustle, thereby earning a larger gratuity. Instead he finds David, a relatively advantaged middle-class boy, but a boy nonetheless. So William must resort to a more cunning way of extracting money from David: telling a string of lies that results in David “giving” most of his meal to him.
The waiter preys upon David’s fear, naiveté, and good nature by conning him under the guise of looking out for his health and safety. He begins the gambit by holding up to the light a half-pint of ale, making it look beautiful, and then, in an act David perceives as generosity, William volunteers to drink it himself, saying the ale is too old for David to drink safely. As expected when a child is met with a crafty salesman, David falls victim to this verbal slight of hand, admitting that he is “delighted to find the waiter so pleasant” (78).
Here we see William successfully selling both the ale (by making it “look beautiful”) and himself, for he has David believing him to be “pleasant.” We are appalled and entertained as William proceeds to bilk David out of his chops, vegetables, and most of his pudding, but although the game is clear to us, neither young David (the participant) nor older, wiser David (the narrator) acknowledges it. Instead David admits to feeling pride in being able to come to the aid of an “unfortunate friend” (80). We know that David’s trust in William is misplaced, but in this tension between our knowing and David’s unknowing lies Dickens’s critique of the corrupt waiter and the hypocritical Victorian society he inhabits.
Dickens is banking on his readers’ recognition of the con, even as David remains unaware. To a contemporary audience this would have been successful, precisely because of Victorian Society’s common distrust of waiters. Jones finds that oftentimes nineteenth-century waiters, like waiters today, were only sporadically employed, working on a part-time or seasonal basis (35). But whereas the modern reader (many of whom have surely waited tables themselves) seems to consider food service workers as “hard working” if not exactly working-class, Jones argues that Victorian era seasonal workers were seen as threatening to polite society (35, emphasis mine). Part of this threat must have stemmed from the fact that waiters’ days were not measured like the workday of a factory laborer, nor were they insulated from society by ornate doors and tall hedgerows like proper male domestic servants. Waiters weren’t tied to the machine or the household. Like coachmen and cart-drivers who (with the exception of Mr. Barkis) are also depicted as conniving in David Copperfield, waiters operate in public, but outside of “industrial time.” This makes them threatening because it allows them to work sporadically and mostly unchecked by clock or supervisor. This creates an environment where waiters have the leeway to cheat their customers and the industrial/economic system. Indeed, Booth notes that publicans and victuallers had “opportunities of illegitimate gain of which they not unfrequently avail[ed] themselves” (v. 7, 234). Seizing these opportunities allows waiters to attain a modicum of financial gain without suffering through labor-intensive work and/or long hours. So as Jennifer Ruth argues in the case of another “unsuccessful” male domestic in David Copperfield (David and Dora’s boy servant), William’s bilking of David, in its “attempt to reach ends (‘produce’) without means (work), is itself an insult to measurable time. If one expects to get anywhere, Dickens remonstrates, one must submit to time, obey its rules” (303).
Perhaps the Dickensian critique of the waiter figure can best be understood in the portrayal he chose not to write. Dickens could have made William a sympathetic character that eases David’s transition into society, warning him of legitimate threats, like, for instance, two-faced friends. In some ways one might expect Dickens to sympathize with William, a boy who, like David, seems to have suffered from bad luck and trouble. Despite William’s lies and cons, we are to understand that his is a life of struggle. He belongs to one of what Scheckner calls, “the three most vulnerable groups in Dickens: women, children, and the poor” (241), and yet he takes advantage of David, one of his own number. Here William is both victim and predator. But Dickens can’t write William as victim, at least not yet. First Dickens needs to give us an example of how not to advance through society (conniving, scheming, and playing on class assumptions), so that we will recognize these traits in other characters, such as Heep and Micawber, who, like William, lack the ability or determination to get ahead through hard work and discipline and instead look for shortcuts. This scene also teaches us how to read David’s fortunate friend, Steerforth. Because Dickens allows us see the corruption in William that young David can’t see, we are able to spot the tendency for betrayal within Steerforth long before David does.
Steerforth’s presence in the second waiter scene shows us how unscrupulous servers attempt to get ahead not only by stealing from their “marks” but also by selling different levels of service to different classes of customers. These waiters make the same superficial value judgments evident in all of society, even though these very class distinctions will keep the waiters themselves locked in the petit bourgeoisie. While staying at London’s Golden Cross, David, now a young man who has lived through enough hardships for several lifetimes, confronts a waiter who belittles him and causes him to feel ashamed of his youth and callowness. When David orders a half pint of sherry, the waiter doesn’t pour from a fresh bottle; he instead serves David bottom-of-the-glass backwash. David watches the waiter do this, but he is “bashful enough to drink it, and say nothing” (295). This pitiful service ends when David runs into Steerforth, an encounter that the waiter very much notices. Steerforth hails the waiter, “who came forward deferentially” (297, emphasis mine), and then demands that David be moved from his shabby quarters to a more accommodating room. While apologizing profusely, the waiter says to Steerforth, “Why, you see we wasn’t aware, sir […] as Mr. Copperfield was anyways particular” (298), implying, but not saying, like you are Mr. Steerforth.
By offering two levels of service—the Steerforth-class and the Not anyways particular-classthis waiter is solidifying the socio-economic distinctions that privilege the upper classes, a lofty height he has no chance of reaching. And, in doing so, he is risking being ridiculed by the upper classes. This is typical of the lower-middle-class who, according to Thompson, was the “most imitative in its standards, the least capable of generating its own culture, and the most despised by those from whom its moral clothes are borrowed [i.e., the well-to-do middle classes]” (qtd. in Thiele 210, brackets in original). Surely Dickens wants to leave room for individuals to work their way up in society, but in order to do so, David Copperfield tells us, one should, in fact, work. Dickens is critiquing a society where the Steerforths of the world are allowed to cash in on class privilege to inevitably “win” again and again, but he is also critiquing those, like this Golden Cross waiter, who try to align themselves with elites such as Steerforth by aping their mannerisms and adopting their biases, wanting to be lifted into the upper classes without the expenditure of labor or the production of anything.
David, of course, will eventually rise to prominence because of the novels he produces, but at this point Steerforth has emasculated him so completely (just before Steerforth calls to the waiter, he dubs David, “Daisy”), David has no hope of succeeding in the market-driven world of power brokers, conmen, and social climbers. The fact that David can’t negotiate the masculine marketplace without über-man Steerforth’s help shows just how feminized and out of place David is. He is ignorant of the politics of public space, a narrator who in unable to see how the world works. In fact, the earliest definitions for “waiter” all involve the notion of watching, be it “someone who is on the lookout,” a “watchman”, or a “secret observer or spy” (OED). In these scenes, the waiters are the ones who are using expressions like “Oh! My eye!” (79). It is the waiters who are “staring so hard” at David, who are “good enough to look over” him, and who are “attentive” to what is happening around them (78, 79, 297). David is the naïve, feminized (i.e. watched) character who repeatedly admits to being bashful, and who blushes three different times in these first two scenes. The waiters, meanwhile, become the eyes of the social class system, imitating the style and manners of the upper class. But this dual role of watchdog and mime fails to help them advance socially, and, like most scams, seems profitable only in the short run.
By the third waiter scene, David has matured into one who “sees,” and this maturation has given him a greater understanding of the marketplace and the role of class in it. After he returns to London, he seeks out his old friend Traddles at the Gray’s Inn, and the first waiter to approach David addresses him as “sir.” Despite this show of respect, the Gray’s Inn waiters, like their earlier counterparts, still enforce class divisions. When David inquires about Traddles’ rising reputation among the lawyers, the waiter says: “Well, sir, probably he has, sir; but I am not aware of it myself” (826). Traddles has lived at the Gray’s Inn for three years, of late with his fiancée and her gaggle of sisters, and yet this waiter is only minimally aware of him. This is surely because Traddles doesn’t have the expendable income needed to dine in the coffee house. His poverty makes him invisible, someone not worth knowing (let alone serving). Clearly the waiters—who are so adept at quickly identifying one’s class—have never considered him a potential mark. Traddles is even more invisible to the chief waiter who has “never heard his name” (826). The fact that Traddles is an intelligent man and a tireless worker holds no value for these waiters. David (and by extension, Dickens) seems to confirm that Traddles’s virtues are unappreciated in class-conscious Victorian society. As soon as the chief waiter makes clear that he could not be bothered to “pursue such an insignificant subject,” David tells us, “I felt I was in England again, and really was quite cast down on Traddles’s account. There seemed to be no hope for him […] I had seen nothing like this since I went away” (827). David equates the opinions of two coffee house waiters with the judgments of the whole of English society. And yet again, we see waiters enforcing the values set by the bourgeoisie.
However, instead of sympathizing solely with Traddles, we see David’s maturity evidenced in his newly found sympathy for waiters, particularly for the chief waiter who has, David surmises, worked hard for forty years (i.e., followed the formula of the Dickensian work ethic) only to be stuck in the Gray’s Inn. David would certainly be justified in feeling contemptuous toward the chief waiter, but David, now wiser and more sophisticated, turns his contempt toward England itself, telling us that “…both England, and the law, appeared to me to be very difficult indeed to be taken by storm” (827).
Although David draws a sympathetic comparison between Traddles and the chief waiter, the waiter—as enforcer of the class distinctions that make England so difficult to “take by storm”—must ultimately remain in his lowly station. He soon leaves David to tend to a customer he perceives to be wealthier:
The chief waiter […] came near me no more; but devoted himself to an old gentleman in long gaiters, to […] whom a pint of special port seemed to come out of the cellar of its own accord, for he gave no order. The second waiter informed me, in a whisper, that this old gentleman was a retired conveyancer living in the Square, and worth a mint of money, which it was expected he would leave to his laundress's daughter. (827)
The chief waiter may have toiled at the Gray’s Inn for four decades, but we must assume that he spent those years working angles like the one above, looking for self-interested shortcuts instead of actually producing. Mary Poovey argues that “hypocrisy is built into the individualist rhetoric of class society” and that this hypocrisy is reflected in David Copperfield, because in some ways self-interest is valued in the text (120). But it is valued in characters like David, who, over a long time, produce—as opposed to characters like the chief waiter who simply connive. As Poovey mentions of Uriah (another self-interested, lower-class character looking for shortcuts), “The same society that rewards the self-made David Copperfield punishes the self-made Uriah Heep” (120). The novel may be hypocritical, but it is consistent in its hypocrisy. Characters who are honest and productive succeed; characters who aren’t, don’t. Traddles, therefore, with his good natured tenacity and ability to be of use, surely will overcome class biases and find success. David ultimately acknowledges this, “I began to think (Traddles) would get on, in spite of all the many orders of chief waiters in England” (835).
David’s movement from a position of victimization to one of sympathy is evidence of his “industrial” maturation—his ability to transcend class divisions in an attempt to recognize and legitimize hard work. The waiters, however, fail to live up to the standard the novel has set for upward mobility and financial success. They work long hours and for many years, but they spend this time looking for quick and easy routes to wealth. They sell themselves and con the clientele, and by evaluating their customers with outward, class-based judgments, they enforce the same social strata that keep them from upward mobility. As adept as they are in recognizing class markers on others, Dickensian waiters are unable to discern their own status. They will never be “knights.” They will never make the move to the upper classes. They will not be invited to the table, unless it is to serve.

Joe Oestreich is an Assistant Professor of English at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC. His creative nonfiction has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Ninth Letter, Fourth Genre, and elsewhere. He has been awarded a fellowship from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, honored by The Atlantic Monthly, and shortlisted in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007, The Best American Essays 2008 and 2009, and The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses 2010. His memoir, Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll, will be published by Lyons Press in June 2012.

Works Cited

Booth, Charles. Life and Labour of the People in London. Vol. 7. London: Macmillian, 1896.

-----. Life and Labour of the People in London. Vol. 8. London: Macmillian, 1896.

Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. London: Penguin, 2004.

Jones, Gareth Stedman. Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship Between Classes in Victorian Society. New York: Pantheon, 1984.

Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor: Volumes 1-3. 1851. Tufts University Bolles Collection. 10 Mar. 2006.

Poovey, Mary. Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

Ruth, Jennifer. “Mental Capital, Industrial Time, and the Professional in David Copperfield.Novel: A Forum on Fiction. 32:3 (1999): 303-330.

Scheckner, Peter. “Gender and Class in Dickens: Making Connections.” Midwest Quarterly: A Journal of Contemporary Thought. 41:3 (2000): 236-250.

Thiele, David. “The ‘transcendent and immortal…HEEP!’: Class Consciousness, Narrative Authority, and the Gothic in David Copperfield.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 42:3 (2000): 201-222.

Titolo, Matthew. “The Clerks Tale: Liberalism, Accountability, and Mimesis in David Copperfield.” ELH. 70:1 (2003): 171-195.

Young, Arlene. “Virtue Domesticated: Dickens and the Lower Middle Class.” Victorian Studies. 39:4 (1996): 483-511.