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7 of Air - Uriah Heep


Mr. Wickfield; Uriah Heep; Mrs. Heep.

Roman à Clef:

Thomas Powell


David Copperfield

    David Copperfield firsts meets Uriah Heep when the former is 11 and the latter 15, yet even at these early ages David can see that Uriah is untrustworthy. Agnes' father Mr. Wickfield, however, is not so clear-sighted. Overcome with grief after his wife's death, he hires the devious Heep. Uriah ingratiates himself with Mr. Wickfield, making himself appear indispensable and plying the addled man with drink. Like a creeping sickness, Heep not only takes over more and more of Wickfield's affairs but begins fabricating false receipts and bogus investments. Eventually, Heep blackmails Wickfield into signing the sinister young man on as a partner in the old man's law firm.


 The truth concerning Heep's devilish machinations remain concealed throughout most of David Copperfield. On the face of it, Uriah Heep comes across as “ever so 'umble.” Uriah assures David: "I am well aware that I am the 'umblest person going... My mother is likewise a very 'umble person." Uriah lives 'umbly with his mother, who is completely devoted to her son and, like him, is obsessed with maintaining the appearance of utter 'umbleness. By grovelling and feigning humility, Heep conspires to insinuate himself into a position of power, affluence, and prestige. Not only that, but his plan is two-fold: he also intends to blackmail and guilt Agnes Wickfield into becoming his lover.


 Heep quite unabashedly tells David of his plans to wed Agnes.  David is blindsided and outraged by the very notion, but he chooses not to say anything to Agnes because he doesn't feel it his place – one of those deficits in character which, in retelling his story, the author deflects and glosses over. In a certain sense, this is Uriah Heep's most unforgivable crime – not his duplicity or financial skulduggery or his plan to extort marriage per se, but his sheer audacity in considering the angelic Agnes Wickfield as a sexual being. The base effrontery of it smacks David to the core, revealing his own self-deception and confronting as it does obliquely David's own assumptions of humility.


 Heep hires the insolvent Wilkins Micawber, believing he can exploit and leverage the man's indebtedness against him. In this, he is mistaken - Micawber chooses probity over self-interest, exposing Heep's ever so 'umble perfidy. Like David, Heep's assumption that everyone at base is like himself causes blindness and error. The last we see of Heep he is up to his old tricks as a model inmate - prisoner #27 - in a jail run by David Copperfield's one-time schoolmaster, the sadistic Mr. Creakle. David, for his part, has learned something from his unsavoury association with Heep, something Agnes helps him see as he himself comes to see Agnes for who she really is. Namely: sometimes the obstacles in one's way teach an invaluable lesson, one not otherwise realized through ideation, but which only through hardship is one made able, finally, to really and truly see.


 Uriah Heep, raised in poverty and schooled at an institution administered by charity, shares some of his DNA with Charley Hexam and Bradley Headstone. He attempts to transcend and instead transgresses the boundaries imposed by the Victorian class system. Instructed all his life to be grateful, Heep uses the guise of 'umbleness as a way to attain those ends where Hexam and Headstone use self-righteous anger. Humiliation has been heaped on Heep by Fate and Society – the powers that be – and their machinations seem to him no more just or honourable than his own. Dickens was an outspoken critic of society's injustices and its warping effect on the human psyche, but his generosity of spirit rarely extended to these depths. Instead, he uses David's boyhood chum Tommy Traddles – himself an orphan like David – to illustrate how honest hard work, patience, and thrift can improve a truly 'umble Victorian boy's station.


 Some people have seen in Uriah Heep's cloying manners an allusion to the Danish author Hans Christian Anderson, whom the Dickens family lodged in their home longer than the English author was comfortable with yet remained unable as a good host to admit. A more precise allusion, however,  is made between Uriah Heep and Thomas Powell - an employee of Dickens' associate Thomas Chapman with whom Dickens developed a fast friendship during the early composition of David Copperfield. Like Anderson, Powell “ingratiated himself in the Dickens' household” but unlike the Dane was discovered to be a forger and a thief, having embezzled £10,000 from Chapman. Adding insult to injury, the treacherous Powell publicly attacked Dickens in print, drawing special attention to the author's humble beginnings.


 A “Uriah Heep” has become an epithet of ridicule, slipping into the language as a term for a sycophantic toady with sinister, self-serving intentions.


 ShorthandUnctuous - bereft of eyebrows - the proverbial snake in the grass - aggrandizing self-abasement - cockney rhyming slang for creep - back-stabber - blind ambition - deceitful - a real cautionary tale - cunning employed - humiliation avoided - the enemy's weaknesses used to great advantage - attempted entrapment - yet courage - even audacity - vile manipulation.


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