David Copperfield (1849) is Charles Dickens’ most autobiographical novel. When the ragged boy departs from London for Dover to beg his estranged aunt, Betsy Trotwood, to take him in, it is an echo of the writer’s own flight. His mother dead and his father incarcerated in debtors’ jail, the young Copperfield packs up his belongings in a box and commissions a long-legged boy to cart it to the stage coach office. The ruffian whacks Copper-field on the chin, steals the box and his last half guinea, and disappears into the teaming city. Copperfield then undertakes the journey with mere pennies in his pocket and a vulnerability that attracts trouble, barely surviving on nuts, berries and a desperate hope of future succour.
Copperfield’s walk to Dover is a pivotal narrative moment – a classic case of the reversal of fortune, when optimism turns to wretchedness. By its very nature, Lali Chetwynd’s rendition, on the other hand, could never approach such narrative significance. The Walk To Dover (2005) comprised two very loose reconstructions before an audience – one of the mugging at the Obelisk near Blackfriars Road just over the Thames in South London, and the other, the arrival in Dover a week later. In the meantime, Chetwynd and two other urchins undertook the week’s walk. There was a certain amount of trepidation among the group that they could not sustain themselves by foraging alone. In fact, with a little bit of lawlessness – scrumping apples and stealing bounty from allotments and farmers’ fields – they did sort of live off the land, but with the help of a little shop-bought carbohydrate. This was, understandably, a pale imitation of Copperfield’s journey, with many soft options taken; technologically advanced footwear, for instance, and a friend who drove ahead each day with supplies and camping equipment.
At its denouement, eclipsed by the cliffs, the castle and the behemoth of a port, the art seemed to shrink in deference. The urchins ambled across a picturesque ploughed field to be offered rosehip tea and cakes by a pantomime Betsey Trotwood in a hastily erected house near a lighthouse. Like the mugging scene in London, as a performance it was limp – cursory, even, like a school play with a bad script not adhered to. But it is not the theatrical elements that are important here. The week in between, when Chetwynd and her companions were tramping over fields and camping out, is where the point lies. As seems unavoidable with reconstructions of any sort, foreknowledge imposes a lack of authenticity and eradicates contingency – but then this was not an exercise in mimesis. Chetwynd’s formulation of a socialist position, namely leaving behind the urban combination of grind and comfort for utopian self-sufficiency, remains somewhat foggy, yet hazily noble. As in The Good Life – the British TV sitcom that charted the struggle of a pleasant middle-class couple to opt out from capitalism in suburbia – the project is a personal distillation of a grander ambition, flavoured with the sweet hubris of personal development.