Today’s Joanna Page: David Copperfield

Dickensian femme fatales

Joanna Page in David Copperfield
Joanna Page in David Copperfield

Today’s Joanna Page is David Copperfield, in which she played Dickensian femme fatale Dora Spenlow – her first big role if you ignore the important part of “Servant” (not to be confused with “Servant” or indeed “Servant”) in Mike Figgis’ somewhat dry and empty yet sexed-up Strindberg adaptation Miss Julie. David Copperfield and Miss Julie mark the beginning of her costume drama period, which includes The Cazalets, To The Ends of the World, The Lost World and, of course, Aladdin at the Old Vic with Sir Ian McKellen, where she played ‘Panky’.

Dickens and I never used to get on together. Sure, everyone loves A Christmas Carol: that’s a truism. But after struggling manfully with Bleak House at school and my mother’s copy of Pickwick Papers at home, I decided I didn’t like him – too florid, the characters too grotesque and the Kingsley-esque character naming a major irritant.

But David Copperfield changed all that and we’ve never looked back. I’m going to rabbit on more about it after the break, to save you from spoilers, although the book’s 160 years old now – is that the longest ‘spoiler warning’ I’ve given so far?

David Copperfield


David Copperfield is Dickens’ most autobiographical piece and you pretty much have to be dead inside not to to have your tears jerked by it at one point or another.

David Copperfield, despite being born just after his father’s death, has a wonderful childhood with his widowed mother, Clara (Emilia Fox in this BBC adaptation), and her friend and servant (Pauline Quirke) – who’s also called Clara but referred to by everyone as Peggotty to avoid confusion.

However, Clara marries a man called Edward Murdstone (Trevor Eve), a harsh disciplinarian who eventually decides the previously happy child needs to be sent away to school to be taught how not to enjoy himself. After Clara dies, Murdstone decides to top this by sending David away to work in a factory.

Slowly, David picks his life up. He runs away to Dover to stay with his aunt, who finds him a place with a solicitor called Wickfield; there he meets his childhood friend Agnes. As an adult, he becomes a clerk – and aspiring writer – and meets Dora Spenlow, with whom he falls in love instantly and eventually marries.

Tragedy befalls the couple when Dora miscarries and becomes an ill, never recovering and finally dying. David travels, achieves success as a writer, before eventually returning after realising that he loves Agnes. And they live happily ever after.

Was it any good?

Ooh. Tricky question. Many argue that David Copperfield is a strong enough story that it transcends any failings in the adaptation. And there are quite a few failings in the acting department.

A very young Daniel Radcliffe turns in a great performance (better than his later appearance in Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone, in fact), as do Emilia Fox, Joanna Page and the rest of the then-minor names. But they’re in a bit of a minority here. Armed with a full range of ‘characters’ to ham up, Maggie Smith (David’s Aunt), Bob Hoskins (Mr Micawber) and even the normally reliable Trevor Eve (Murdstone) reach for the luncheon meat with alacrity.

For the most part though, roles are handed over to comic actors like Pauline Quirke (Peggotty), Dawn French (David’s landlady) and Nicholas Lyndhurst (Uriah Heap). Appropriate in some instances, it does still feel like a set of caricatures rather than proper performances. And if it were a particularly comic story, that might have worked. But it’s not.

All the same, the script is fine and Dickensian and the source material is strong enough to transcend the failings. I blubbered anyway – Dora and Jib dying at the same time, with Dora gallantly wishing her husband a better wife than she? Way harsh.

Femme fatale?

Now I did describe Dora as Dickensian femme fatale, which needs a certain degree of justification. Certainly, if you go by the traditional definition of a woman who seduces the hero with her sexuality, you’re on to a loser with Dickens. Sexuality just ain’t there: men fall for women’s great beauty while they sit asexually on their pedestals, the dominant portrayal in (respectable) literature of the time.

Probably the closest to a true femme fatale is Estella in Great Expectations, but she spends the whole time saying she can’t fall in love or have feelings because of the way Miss Faversham has raised her. Not exactly luring, is it?

But if you’re a Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ kind of a person – and then weld that on to the ‘Bildungsroman’ that is David Copperfield – then it’s clear that on David’s path to the true end prize of happiness and Agnes, Dora is the woman who leads him off the right path, making her a femme fatale. Agnes, who embodies Dickens’ answer to the Victorian dilemma over marrying for money versus marrying for love (it should be for love), is David’s equal, whereas Dora is more childlike and, worst of all in Dickens’ eyes, a poor housekeeper.

Nevertheless, since it is semi-autobiographical, this isn’t a clear black and white differentiation. Dora was based on a woman Dickens fell for but whose father forbade him from marrying – something Dickens obviously would have liked in his heart, even if his mind says otherwise. While it’s clear Agnes is the correct choice for David, Dora is by no means a bad choice and the two are relatively content, once David adjusts some of his notions. It’s eventually only death that separates them.

Anyway, enough of my rabbiting on. Time for some pictures of lovely Joanna Page as the lovely Dora, a behind-the-scenes video of the adaptation, and best of all, her entrance as Dora – which is enough to make Copperfield fall in love with her at first sight.

BTW, you’ve got to give some degree of kudos to a Welsh actress who has to sing French songs with an English accent, at the very least.

Next time: A very brief “Joanna Page” in which ITV tries to mess with our heads by putting her in naval uniform and making her a boxer for Making Waves.


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.