- ‘Betsy of Yarmouth with a firm formality of bosom and her knobby eyes starting two inches out of her head‘ is a quotation from Great Expectations (Chapter 54).
This humourous quotation describes the figurehead of a boat as observed by the narrator, Pip, on the River Thames. A figurehead is a carved wooden decoration found at the bow of ships. The design of the figurehead generally reflects the name or role of a ship, in this case the figure of a woman reflecting the name of the boat (Betsy) that Pip has seen.
The figurehead of the Betsy is seen by Pip on the River Thames during a cold March day in which he, along with Herbert and Startop, pick up Provis (the codename for Abel Magwitch) in order to aid his escape from the country. They have planned for him to flee by boat, setting out from London’s Temple and sailing through a crowded River Thames to pick up Magwitch at Mill Pond stairs, just east of the Tower, and thereon to the Kent estuary, where boats for the continent depart.
Figureheads of woman with a firm formality of bosom were not unusual for that time. An example that survives today is the Grade II-listed figurehead from the HMS Arethusa, a ship that went into battle in the Crimean War in 1854. The figurehead is located at Lower Upnor, Rochester in the English county of Kent.
Again among the tiers of shipping, in and out, avoiding rusty chain-cables frayed hempen hawsers and bobbing buoys, sinking for the moment floating broken baskets, scattering floating chips of wood and shaving, cleaving floating scum of coal, in and out, under the figure-head of the John of Sunderland making a speech to the winds (as is done by many Johns), and the Betsy of Yarmouth with a firm formality of bosom and her knobby eyes starting two inches out of her head; in and out, hammers going in ship-builders’ yards, saws going at timber, clashing engines going at things unknown, pumps going in leaky ships, capstans going, ships going out to sea, and unintelligible sea-creatures roaring curses over the bulwarks at respondent lightermen, in and out,—out at last upon the clearer river, where the ships’ boys might take their fenders in, no longer fishing in troubled waters with them over the side, and where the festooned sails might fly out to the wind.
By giving the boat the name Betsy of Yarmouth, Charles Dickens is using the technique of literary allusion to refer to one of his earlier works, David Copperfield. David Copperfield was originally published ten years previously and, like Great Expectations, was also a semi-autobiographical work. In the story, the character Betsey Trotwood is David Copperfield’s eccentric and temperamental yet kind-hearted great-aunt. Part of the story is set in the East Anglian town of Yarmouth where the Peggotty‘s live in a house that is a converted an upturned boat on Yarmouth beach. By calling the boat Betsy of Yarmouth, Dickens is playfully combining two elements from David Copperfield that readers of the work will understand.
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