Barkis is Willing

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The good thing about being self-employed is that I have a lot of flexibility; I can schedule things so that I can do what I want, when I want. The down side is that I always feel like I should be doing something else. When I’m working around the house, I feel like I should be working for pay, and when I’m doing paid work, I think of all the things that need to be done that I’m not doing right now because I’m stuck at my computer. The biggest casualty of this has been reading for pleasure. Unfortunately, there never seems to be any time when I think, “Gosh, I really should be reading a good book right now.”

I try to make up for this on vacations by scheduling trips with extensive, crazily inconvenient travel: I take the bus when I could get a ride; I schedule connections with really long layovers; I make one trip and then schedule a side trip to somewhere else. (Last year I took the train from Washington, DC to Princeton, NJ for lunch.) Because then I get to sit and read and not feel like I should be doing something else.

I recently got back from a trip that involved hours and hours of basically every form of transportation — car, plane, light rail, train, bicycle, ferry, city bus, subway, inter-city bus. I wasn’t sure what I was going to feel like reading (I’m old school, I don’t have an e-reader, I have to decide what I might want to have with me ahead of time) so I took three things that I had on my shelf that I had never read and that seemed like would give me a range of options: A Separate Peace by John Knowles, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, and David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.

On the plane out, I started Gilead, which won a Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and which many people had told me they liked. I got about a third of the way through before calling it. It was not hitting the spot. I switched to David Copperfield.

David Copperfield is awesome.

David Copperfield is 900 pages long.

I got through about 500 pages of it on the trip and I’m really going to try to make it to the end in a reasonable time frame. It was written in serial form, designed to be read one chapter each month, so if I can just keep things moving at that pace maybe I’ll be okay.

To that end, I took the bus to Chapel Hill on Friday instead of driving for my lunch meeting.

I’m at the part where (spoiler alert!) Barkis dies and little Em’ly runs off with Steerforth.

I love Barkis.

Barkis is the carrier who drives young Davy to Yarmouth when he is sent away to school by his cruel stepfather. As they ride out of town, his nurse Peggotty intercepts the cart so she can say goodbye to Davy and to give him some cakes to eat on the trip. Davy shares the cakes with Mr. Barkis:

I offered him a cake as a mark of attention, which he ate at one gulp, exactly like an elephant, and which made no more impression on his big face than it would have done on an elephant’s.

Barkis is a man of few words but he’s mightily impressed by the cake.

‘Did she make ’em, now?” said Mr Barkis, always leaning forward, in his slouching way, on the footboard of the cart with an arm on each knee.

‘Peggotty, do you mean, sir?’

‘Ah!’ said Mr Barkis. ‘Her.’

‘Yes. She makes all our pastry, and does all our cooking.’

‘Do she though?’ said Mr Barkis.

He made his mouth as if to whistle, but he didn’t whistle. He sat looking at the horse’s ears, as if he saw something new there; and sat so, for a considerable time.

One cake is enough for Mr Barkis to know a good thing when he sees it. But he wants to make sure he understands the situation properly.

‘No sweethearts, I b’lieve?’

‘Sweetmeats did you say, Mr. Barkis?’ For I thought he wanted something else to eat, and had pointedly alluded to that description of refreshment.

‘Hearts,’ said Mr. Barkis. ‘Sweet hearts; no person walks with her!’

‘With Peggotty?’

‘Ah!’ he said. ‘Her.’

‘Oh, no. She never had a sweetheart.’

‘Didn’t she, though!’ said Mr. Barkis.

Again he made up his mouth to whistle, and again he didn’t whistle, but sat looking at the horse’s ears.

And Barkis wants to confirm what he thought he had heard earlier.

‘So she makes,’ said Mr. Barkis, after a long interval of reflection, ‘all the apple parsties, and doos all the cooking, do she?’

I replied that such was the fact.

He then makes his offer:

‘Well. I’ll tell you what,’ said Mr. Barkis. ‘P’raps you might be writin’ to her?’

‘I shall certainly write to her,’ I rejoined.

‘Ah!’ he said, slowly turning his eyes towards me. ‘Well! If you was writin’ to her, p’raps you’d recollect to say that Barkis was willin’; would you?’

‘That Barkis is willing,’ I repeated, innocently. ‘Is that all the message?’

‘Ye-es,’ he said, considering. ‘Ye-es. Barkis is willin’.’

‘But you will be at Blunderstone again tomorrow, Mr. Barkis,’ I said, faltering a little at the idea of my being far away from it then, and could give your own message so much better.’

As he repudiated this suggestion, however, with a jerk of his head, and once more confirmed his previous request by saying, with profound gravity, ‘Barkis is willin’. That’s the message,’ I readily undertook its transmission. While I was waiting for the coach in the hotel at Yarmouth that very afternoon, I procured a sheet of paper and an inkstand, and wrote a note to Peggotty, which ran thus: ‘My dear Peggotty. I have come here safe. Barkis is willing. My love to mama. Yours affectionately. P.S. He says he particularly wants you to know – BARKIS IS WILLING.’

Peggotty laughs off the proposal when it is first made, but accepts after Davy’s mother dies and she is left without a station. She and Barkis live happily together for many years, and it turns out that Mr. Barkis has more money than anyone would have imagined, but he refuses to let on to it. He keeps it hidden in a box under the bed, and is always sure to tell everyone how hardscrabble his life is. He becomes more and more attached to the box as he nears the end of his life, but still won’t admit that it contains anything of value:

He was lying with his head and shoulders out of bed, in an uncomfortable attitude, half resting on the box which had cost him so much pain and trouble. I learned, that, when he was past creeping out of bed to open it, and past assuring himself of its safety by means of the divining rod I had seen him use, he had required to have it placed on the chair at the bed-side, where he had ever since embraced it, night and day. His arm lay on it now. Time and the world were slipping from beneath him, but the box was there; and the last words he had uttered were (in an explanatory tone) ‘Old clothes!’

At the time of Barkis’ death, David has finished school and is working in London in the legal profession, and is able to help settle the estate.

I may claim the merit of having originated the suggestion that the will should be looked for in the box. After some search, it was found in the box, at the bottom of a horse’s nose-bag; wherein (besides hay) there was discovered an old gold watch, with chain and seals, which Mr. Barkis had worn on his wedding-day, and which had never been seen before or since; a silver tobacco-stopper, in the form of a leg; an imitation lemon, full of minute cups and saucers, which I have some idea Mr. Barkis must have purchased to present to me when I was a child, and afterwards found himself unable to part with; eighty-seven guineas and a half, in guineas and half-guineas; two hundred and ten pounds, in perfectly clean Bank notes; certain receipts for Bank of England stock; an old horseshoe, a bad shilling, a piece of camphor, and an oyster-shell. From the circumstance of the latter article having been much polished, and displaying prismatic colours on the inside, I conclude that Mr. Barkis had some general ideas about pearls, which never resolved themselves into anything definite.

For years and years, Mr. Barkis had carried this box, on all his journeys, every day. That it might the better escape notice, he had invented a fiction that it belonged to ‘Mr. Blackboy’, and was ‘to be left with Barkis till called for’; a fable he had elaborately written on the lid, in characters now scarcely legible.

He had hoarded, all these years, I found, to good purpose. His property in money amounted to nearly three thousand pounds. Of this he bequeathed the interest of one thousand to Mr. Peggotty for his life; on his decease, the principal to be equally divided between Peggotty, little Emily, and me, or the survivor or survivors of us, share and share alike. All the rest he died possessed of, he bequeathed to Peggotty; whom he left residuary legatee, and sole executrix of that his last will and testament.

I love everything about this.

I love that Barkis proposed to Peggotty after eating one of her cakes. I love that he proposed by sending a cryptic message with an eight-year-old boy who had no idea what he was talking about. I love that he patiently waited for a response, and after receiving none, sent a second message with David, who still had no idea what he was talking about, the next time he drove him. He actually has to coach David in the follow-up trip on how to proceed:

‘Well!’ he resumed at length. ‘Says you, “Peggotty! Barkis is waitin’ for a answer.” Says she, perhaps, “Answer to what?” Says you, “To what I told you.” “What is that?” says she. “Barkis is willin’,” says you.’

This extremely artful suggestion Mr. Barkis accompanied with a nudge of his elbow that gave me quite a stitch in my side. After that, he slouched over his horse in his usual manner; and made no other reference to the subject except, half an hour afterwards, taking a piece of chalk from his pocket, and writing up, inside the tilt of the cart, ‘Clara Peggotty’ – apparently as a private memorandum.

It reminds me of the hint hint nudge nudge wink wink sketch in Monty Python. Ah! Say no more!

I love that Barkis keeps his stash in a horse’s nose bag, complete with hay. I love that he created an elaborate story to explain the box and why he has it with him at all times. I love the list of items he carried around in the box. (It reminded me of another of my favorite lists, from Ali the Persian). I love that he was wealthy but pretended he wasn’t.

I love it.

And it seems to me that the moral of the story is … you never know what a good cake might get you.

And that Charles Dickens was a good writer.

In case we didn’t know that already.

12 Responses to “Barkis is Willing”

  1. Pat Says:

    Me, too. All of it.

  2. Robin Says:

    This totally inspired me to run straight to the library and check out David Copperfield. I read it in high school and don’t remember a thing about it except the length. I expect to have greater appreciation of its charms, which you so persuasively demonstrate, this time around.

    When you’re finished, if you haven’t had enough Dickens, I recommend Nicholas Nickleby. I don’t remember anything about it, either, except that I was enthralled by it and it was made into a great miniseries on PBS in the ’80s.

    I couldn’t get into Gilead either. I tried to like it, since it’s Serious Literature, but I gave up after 15 or 20 pages. I did like Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson.

  3. I remember liking all of the above, except that I apparently never read David Copperfield. I must get it, after I finish the history of the world and the spiritual nature of architecture I’m in the middle of now.

  4. lessisenough Says:


    I thought Gilead was lyrical and well written, but the story just wasn’t resonating with me. I think it was just a timing thing — just not what I was interested in at the moment — not an inherent flaw with the book. I actually want to read Housekeeping again, because I remember reading it, but don’t remember anything about it other than I read a lot of books in a row that seemed very similar (domestic novel/dysfunctional family type books), and it’s associated in my mind with those, but I’m not sure if it actually was one of those.

    I guess we’ll see how I do with the one-chapter-a-month strategy and if I can keep my momentum with David Copperfield. If that works, I’d definitely be up for more, and will definitely look at Nicholas Nickelby. I think there’s also a PBS version of David Copperfield, which might be interesting.

  5. fernando Says:

    this has no relation whatsoever… but I think you would like to see it.

  6. lessisenough Says:

    Wow, thanks for that link. I just skimmed it but it looks really interesting — especially the controversy about her not being able to take pictures of her lunches anymore! Can’t wait to get caught up on that…

  7. Robin Says:

    Book report: I finished David Copperfield (took two months) and really enjoyed it. Loved Mr. and Mrs. Micawber, hated dumb Dora. Thanks for the inspiration. I’ll definitely be checking out more Dickens in the future.

    Anecdote: At one point I said to my husband, “I’m going to go read my book now. David Copperfield has just met Uriah Heep.”

    He thought I was talking about the magician and the musician.

  8. lessisenough Says:

    Yay! I finally finished it too. Did really well for a while then hit a lull then got back to it and powered through. Was going to write more but then got sidetracked.

    I loved the Micawbers too, especially Mr. Micawber’s letters. Dora was SO annoying and I have to say I felt like Dickens cheated a little by having her conveniently die, so David got to marry his true love in the end.

    I loved, loved, loved Betsy Trotwood. Everything about her — the thing with the donkeys on the lawn and Mr. Dick and especially how she referred to herself in the third person (Besty Trotwood) and every time she did, she would have to clarify to David that it was not his sister Betsy Trotwood that she was referring to — his sister who never actually existed — but herself. Just brilliant.

    Uriah Heep gave me the heebie-jeebies. And all I could think was that I bet the people who named their band Uriah Heep had never actually read David Copperfield.

    I wasn’t so keen on the whole Ham dying in the storm trying to save Steerforth but it was a long book, not everything is going to work exactly right.

    I will be reading more Dickens as well. I read Great Expectations in college and liked it. I’ll have to check and see what’s on my shelf.

  9. N B Murthi MD Says:

    I remembered three words from my reading of David Copperfield when I was fourteen years old- “Barkis is willing”. I googled them and it brought me to this wonderful article! Thank you for rekindling my interest in Dickens, and David Copperfield in particular! I am going to read this book all over again.
    N B Murthi

  10. lessisenough Says:

    Glad you found this and enjoyed the post! Sometimes I write things because they are big and important and I think a lot about them but sometimes I write things just because. This was one of the second kind and sometimes those are the best.

  11. Judith R. Nakken Says:

    Same as NB Murthi above: Googled Barkis is Willing to see why I remembered it and was directed to this great article. Thanks! I am going to the library for Gilead, since I can’t remember ever reading it. jrn

  12. lessisenough Says:

    Thanks for stopping by!

    Apparently the secret to increasing blog readership is to pick a random but memorable phrase from a book that people are forced to read in their high school English classes, and then use that phrase as the title of a rambling post that you write when you get back from vacation, so that when people google that phrase they end up reading your random vacation story from 2012.

    Sometimes I feel like an SEO savant.

    I still have Gilead on my shelf and may give it another try. I recently re-read Mona Simpson’s Anywhere But Here, which is kind of in the same category in my mind as Marilynne Robinson (possibly because the books are near each other on my bookshelf). Also a friend recently talkied to me about how much she loves Marilynne Robinson’s first book Housekeeping, which I feel like I should read again because I read it 20+ years ago and cannot remember a single thing about it. Other than that I read it in the middle of a spate of domestic novel/dysfunctional family memoirs (Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison — oh, and I think Anywhere But Here! … there’s the connection) and they all started to blur together. By the end I needed to take a break from dysfunctional family books. When I was at that point a friend who is a fellow college English major told me I should read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. I said, “Is it a dysfunctional family book?” She said, “No. It’s Indian.” So I read it and it involves incest.

    Thanks, that was just what I was looking for.

    Anyway, I hope Gilead works better for you than it did for me.

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