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A Crocodile Overcome: Idleness, Busyness, and Mischief in David Copperfield

Adam McCune, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

How skilfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.

In works of labour or of skill,
I would be busy too:
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

In books, or work, or healthful play
Let my first years be past,
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.

— Isaac Watts, “Against Idleness and Mischief”
Readers of Lewis Carroll know that “How doth the little crocodile” is a twist on Isaac Watts’s moralistic poem “Against Idleness and Mischief” (1715), and that Carroll replaces the hard-working “busy bee” of Watts’s poem with a predatory crocodile.@ But long before Alice in Wonderland (1865), Dickens made the same substitution in David Copperfield (1850).@ Dickens plays on Watts’s metaphor to affirm the importance of hard work, but also to show that hard work can make as much trouble as idleness.
Dickens reinforces the model of the busy bee through the negative example of idle parasites: Jack Maldon and Traddles’s sister-in-law, “the Beauty.” Jack Maldon is actually introduced by Doctor Strong with a reference to Watts’s poem:@ “Jack Maldon is needy, and idle; and of those two bad things, worse things sometimes come. What does Doctor Watts say[?]… ‘Satan finds some mischief still, for idle hands to do.’ ”@ Though Doctor Strong believes that Maldon merely needs an opportunity to work, David Copperfield perceives that this young man wants to remain as idle as possible, hoping for employment in “a place where there was not much to do, and which was pretty well paid.”@ Such a sinecure costs Maldon no labor, but comes at someone else’s expense: it is Doctor Strong who pays the fee for Maldon’s “Patent place.”@
Maldon is not the only idle character who depends on others. His female counterpart inverts the busy bee of Watts’s poem into a queen bee. Unlike the drone, the queen bee is an ambiguous metaphor, as is evident from the ways it was applied to Queen Victoria.@ For instance, one 1843 attack on monarchy (published in the United States) made no distinction between the queen bee (Queen Victoria) and the drones (aristrocrats), but used both kinds of bee to represent unearned privilege.@ On the other hand, real queen bees are not idle, but are in fact busy mothers—like Sophy Traddles, or Queen Victoria, mother of the nation. Thus when Queen Victoria visited Scotland in 1842, her people saw no incongruity in comparing her simultaneously to a queen bee and to Watts’s “busy bee.” They suspended a “gilded beehive” from an archway, “with a busy bee with gold body and silver wings,” bearing an inscription adapted from Watts: “How doth our good Queen bee improve each shining hour!”@
In contrast, Traddles’s sister-in-law—the one known as “the Beauty”—is the worst kind of queen bee, neither busy nor maternal. All of his sisters-in-law are described as the “entire mistresses of the place, and Traddles and Sophy waited on them,”@ but the Beauty is set apart by “the deference which both [Sophy] and Traddles showed towards” her.@ Although the Beauty is “rather petted and capricious,” Traddles and Sophy accept that their role is to serve her, as “if she had been born a Queen Bee, and they laboring Bees.”@ The Beauty’s saving grace is that she loves the bees that support her, sharing her sisters’ “great tenderness and respect both for Sophy and Traddles.”@ Her love prevents her from being a true parasite, and in fact she causes trouble only for herself, by marrying a “vagabond.”@ In her love for the hard workers who care for her, the Beauty is not like Maldon, “from his Patent Place, sneering at the hand that gave it him.”@ His idleness is a parasitism with contempt for its host.
Dickens also reinforces Watts’s moral with positive examples, specifically busy bees whose labor leads to domestic happiness. Tom Traddles and his wife Sophy are called “laboring Bees” in the passage already quoted, and their hard work makes possible a warm and loving household. The domestic labors they perform for Sophy’s sisters complement Traddles’s work, which supports the household from the outside. This includes not only his work after he is established as a lawyer, but the long labor it took him to “scrape up the hundred pounds” for his articles of apprenticeship,@ the long labor of studying law, and the long labor of earning money to purchase household furniture “by degrees.”@ Joseph Dobrinsky suggests that Traddles’s “sedulous, prolonged, dedicated toil”@ makes him a kind of hero.@
Traddles’s patient dedication to his work, initially intended to enable him to marry, results in something more than marriage: the full community of a boisterous, jam-packed household—full before they have children of their own—in which Traddles and his wife take pleasure in the very work of serving their family members. Traddles is rewarded with “a shower of kisses,”@ and every request made of Sophy is a celebration of her talents. For instance, “she seemed to be famous for knowing every sort of song that ever was addressed to a child in the English tongue.”@ By the end of the book, Traddles’s household is, in Dobrinsky’s words, the “domestic version of the Celestial City.”@
Thus far, Dickens affirms the value of the busy bee’s hard work. But this is, of course, hardly surprising. What is surprising is that he also inverts Watts’s moral, observing that hard work can be devoted to evil as well as to good. When, as I mentioned earlier, Doctor Strong quotes Watts’s lines about Satan finding mischief for idle hands to do, Mr. Wickfield replies:
“Egad, Doctor… if Doctor Watts knew mankind, he might have written, with as much truth, ‘Satan finds some mischief still, for busy hands to do.’ The busy people achieve their full share of mischief in the world, you may rely upon it. What have the people been about, who have been the busiest in getting money, and in getting power, this century or two? No mischief?”@
Later in the same chapter, we are provided with an example of what he means, in the form of an echo of the opening lines of Watts’s poem:
Mrs. Markleham… used to wear, when she was dressed, an unchangeable cap, ornamented with some artificial flowers, and two artificial butterflies supposed to be hovering above the flowers. …the butterflies had the gift of trembling constantly; and… they improved the shining hours at Doctor Strong’s expense, like busy bees.@
Mrs. Markleham is a fiscal parasite, like her relative Jack Maldon, but she is not idle—instead she works hard at draining someone else’s resources. Taking the hat ornaments to mean by synecdoche Mrs. Markleham herself, we learn that she is as busy as a bee, but at the expense of her son-in-law, Doctor Strong. As Mrs. Markleham tells her daughter, “Doctor Strong will not only be your husband, but he will represent… the means, of our family; and will be, in short, a Boon to it.”@ Annie, speaking to Doctor Strong, puts it differently: “I saw how many importunate claims that were no claims were pressed on you in my name; how you were traded on in my name.”@ Virginia Carmichael goes so far as to say that “Mrs. Markleham thinks she has sold her daughter for profit into this marriage.”@
Mrs. Markleham is more than a fiscal parasite, however; she is a monster of selfishness. David observes that she “pretend[s], in consulting her own inclinations, to be devoting herself to her child.”@ Supposedly speaking on Annie’s behalf, Mrs. Markleham proposes the entertainments she herself desires without considering the impact on either her daughter or her daughter’s husband, to whom she says, “you don’t—now do you?—enter into the same pursuits and fancies as Annie?”@ Her words weigh heavily on Doctor Strong: “she confirmed him in his fear that he was a constraint upon his young wife, and that there was no congeniality of feeling between them.”@ She makes Annie just as unhappy; not only does she make her daughter “weary” of the entertainments Annie herself never wanted, but she manipulates her by saying she is “not making a proper return for the kindness of Doctor Strong.”@ Mrs. Markleham’s pursuit of her own pleasure is positively vampiric in the way it makes those around her miserable.
In the end, Mrs. Markleham’s vampiric nature nearly destroys her daughter’s life. By publicly (and proudly) admitting that she is using her son-in-law as the “means” of her family, Mrs. Markleham makes her daughter appear as mercenary as herself: Annie speaks of “the mercenary shape I was made to wear.”@ In order to pursue entertainment for herself, Mrs. Markleham takes up the attitude that Doctor Strong and Annie have no common interests, further reinforcing the idea that Annie did not marry for love. The perception of Annie’s marriage to Doctor Strong as mercenary and loveless leads to the “dark suspicion”@ that Annie’s affections are placed elsewhere. Thus, Carmichael states that Mrs. Markleham’s mercenary perception of the marriage “enables the destructive speculations about Annie and Jack Maldon”@—speculations which nearly destroy Annie’s marriage.
In finding Mrs. Markleham responsible for the misunderstanding concerning Annie and Maldon, Carmichael echoes Aunt Betsey: “There never would have been anything the matter, if it hadn’t been for that old Animal.”@ When Mr. Dick commiserates with Mrs. Markleham, “She was quite overcome, I’m afraid,” Aunt Betsey retorts, “What! Did you never see a crocodile overcome?”@
Aunt Betsey, who has dismissed Murdstone as a donkey,@ and denounced Heep as a serpent,@ now declares Mrs. Markleham to be a crocodile. Considering the accuracy of Aunt Betsey’s accusations against Murdstone, the bad father, we must take seriously her accusation of the bad mother, Mrs. Markleham.
At first glance, the crocodile metaphor might appear to refer to false emotion, that is, “crocodile tears.”@ After all, when Mr. Dick says, “She was quite overcome,” he clearly means “with emotion.” In that light, Aunt Betsey’s reply would seem to refer to “a crocodile overcome with emotion,” shedding false tears. However, it makes more sense to read Aunt Betsey’s metaphor in connection with her immediately previous statement, “That’s a settler for our military friend, at any rate.”@ Seen in this context, “overcome” takes the meaning of military defeat. Mrs. Markleham’s nickname of “Old Soldier,”@ and the revelation that after this, “the Old Soldier [is]… by no means as influential as in days of yore,”@ bolster the interpretation that Mrs. Markleham is defeated. When Aunt Betsey follows her crocodile metaphor by blaming Mrs. Markleham for the trouble she has caused, it becomes clear that she is not saying Mrs. Markleham’s emotions are false. Instead she is saying that Mrs. Markleham is predatory: she needs and deserves to be defeated because she is preying on the people around her. Feeding her own “inclinations” by harming her daughter and son-in-law, Mrs. Markleham is like the crocodile, which (as Leighton and Surridge have noted) was a symbol of cannibalism, devouring the young of its own kind.@ To survive the attack of such a voracious predator, one had to fight back. Thomas Day’s History of Sandford and Merton, which served as Dickens’s source for David’s “Crocodile Book,”@ makes this point: “The crocodile opens his wide, voracious mouth to devour the man, who takes this opportunity, and thrusts the point of his spear into the creature’s mouth, by which means he is generally killed on the spot.”@ In calling Mrs. Markleham a crocodile, Aunt Betsey expresses Mrs. Markleham’s hunger for money and pleasure and the necessity of her daughter’s self-defense.
The question remains, why would Dickens connect Mrs. Markleham to Watts’s poem, only to transform her from a bee into a crocodile? The answer goes beyond the stated moral of “Against Idleness and Mischief” to the stated purpose of all of Watts’s Divine Songs.
Isaac Watts’s preface to the Divine Songs is addressed “to all that are concerned in the education of children,” presumably including teachers but specifically naming the “parents or governors” who could use the poems within the family.@ He reminds them that children’s “wisdom and welfare… depend much on your conduct,” suggesting both that adults can shape children by their actions, and that their behavior can serve as a model to the children in their care. Watts’s hope, he says, is that the Divine Songs will not only help to teach children but will also delight them, so that the poems would be a desirable and pleasing gift from the parent or teacher to the child:
There is a great delight in the very learning of truths and duties this way. There is something so amusing and entertaining in rhymes and metre that will incline children to make this part of their business a diversion. And you may turn their very duty into a reward, by giving them the privilege of learning one of these songs every week, if they fulfill the business of the week well, and promising them the book itself, when they have learned ten or twenty songs out of it.@
Watts’s imagined reader is an adult who models good character and provides the child with something both desirable and (spiritually) nourishing—the “sweet food” Watts describes the bee making for her hive. For Watts, the parent or teacher is the busy bee, and the child is meant to trust and emulate these authority figures.
Dickens presents a more complicated portrait of parents and children. On the one hand, Dickens’s “busy bees” can also be positive, nurturing authority figures. Tom and Sophy Traddles provide for Sophy’s little sisters as well as their own sons. But we do not meet Traddles as an authority figure, but as a child himself, suffering under a cruel adult—Mr. Creakle. Since the man who is kind to children suffered under one who was not kind to children, we can only conclude that for Dickens, virtue is not necessarily passed from a trustworthy adult to a trusting child.
Jack Maldon and the Beauty are another curious change rung upon Watts—they do not work because they carry the dependence of childhood into adulthood. Rather than make his own way like an adult, Maldon relies economically on Mrs. Markleham and her son-in-law, and the Beauty accepts the same care given to her much younger sisters. The failure of these false children to grow into adult virtue shows that Dickens sometimes associates maturity and morality, as Watts does. However, the moral failure of these Dickens characters is only made possible by the kindness of the virtuous adults who provide for them—the making of “sweet food” does not always instill virtue, as it does for Watts; it can enable vice.
Dickens’s most striking departure from Watts, however, is his portrayal of an evil bee-turned-crocodile. Mrs. Markleham not only perverts the virtue of hard work, but perverts the relationship between adult authorities and children. Mrs. Markleham nearly ruins her daughter’s marriage. She does not provide for her child like the busy bee, but tries to devour her like the crocodile.
In the end, Dickens’s rewriting of Watts’s poem says as much about children and authority as about the virtue of hard work. Where Watts asks children to trust and imitate adult authority figures, Dickens emphasizes that not all adults deserve that trust. Annie Strong is only free to enjoy her marriage because she defies and denounces her calculating mother. For Annie, healthy maturation means not only embracing positive authority, but challenging a predatory parent. While affirming the virtue of hard work that Watts extols, Dickens undercuts the paradigm for which the poem was created.
Adam McCune wrote his MA thesis at the University of Virginia on moralistic poetry and predation in Dickens and Lewis Carroll, and is now pursuing a PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also coauthor with Keith McCune of The Rats of Hamelin: A Piper’s Tale, a novel that develops the theme of parent-child relationships in Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.”

Works Cited

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Day, Thomas. The History of Sandford and Merton. New York: C.S. Francis & Co., [1968].

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Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. Ed. Nina Burgis; notes, Andrew Sanders. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.

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Leighton, Mary Elizabeth and Lisa Surridge. “The Empire Bites Back: The Racialized Crocodile of the Nineteenth Century.” Victorian Animal Dreams: Representations of Animals in Victorian Literature and Culture. Ed. Deborah Denenholz Morse and Martin A. Danahay. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2007. 249-270.

McCune, Adam. “How Doth the Little Crocodile: Moralistic Poetry and Predation in Dickens and Carroll.” MA thesis. U of Virginia, 2011.

“The Order of the Bee: with Something of Orders in General.” The Illustrated London News 19 (13 Dec. 1851): 717.

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Tambling, Jeremy, ed. David Copperfield. Rev. ed. London: Penguin Books, 2004.

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----. Divine and Moral Songs for the Use of Children. London: John Van Voorst, 1848.