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From chapter 52 of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens:

His house was not far off; and as the street-door opened into the sitting-room, and he bolted in with a precipitation quite his own, we found ourselves at once in the bosom of the family. Mr. Micawber exclaiming, “Emma! my life!” rushed into Mrs. Micawber’s arms. Mrs. Micawber shrieked, and folded Mr. Micawber in her embrace. Miss Micawber, nursing the unconscious stranger of Mrs. Micawber’s last letter to me, was sensibly affected. The stranger leaped. The twins testified their joy by several inconvenient but innocent demonstrations. Master Micawber, whose disposition appeared to have been soured by early disappointment, and whose aspect had become morose, yielded to his better feelings, and blubbered.

I am confused about who the stranger is in "nursing the unconscious stranger of Mrs. Micawber’s last letter to me". Could you explain this to me?

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  • Is the letter mentioned previously? It's not obvious from that extract but doesn't seem to be any other character in the scene.
    – Stuart F
    Mar 26 at 14:09
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    Have you gone back to check what "Mrs. Micawber's last letter" said? I suspect it may be a reference to a new baby in the family. idioms.thefreedictionary.com/the+little+stranger
    – Kate Bunting
    Mar 26 at 14:52
  • @Kate Bunting, Don't think it is a new baby in the family. No new member is borne in Micawber's family in the novel.
    – Ethan
    Mar 26 at 21:47
  • @Gareth Rees, if this is the letter which has been delivered to David Copperfield, then why it is returned to Mrs Micawber and now in the hands of her daughter Miss Micawber? Very confusing to me.
    – Ethan
    Mar 26 at 21:53

1 Answer 1

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The letter from Mrs. Micawber is the one quoted in chapter 42, which ends:

With loves from the children, and a smile from the happily-unconscious stranger, I remain, dear Mr. Copperfield, Your afflicted, Emma Micawber.

Charles Dickens (1850). David Copperfield, chapter 42. Project Gutenberg.

To make sense of this, you have to know this meaning of “stranger”:

stranger, n. 4.b. Said playfully of a newborn child. Usually little stranger.

Oxford English Dictionary.

Dickens also used the word in this sense in chapter 1. Here the “little stranger” is the newborn David Copperfield himself:

My mother was sitting by the fire, but poorly in health, and very low in spirits, looking at it through her tears, and desponding heavily about herself and the fatherless little stranger

Dickens, chapter 1.

So the phrase “unconscious stranger” in Mrs Micawber’s letter is a playful way of writing “sleeping baby”, and in chapter 52, the baby is being nursed by Miss Micawber because the Micawbers have five children and so the eldest have to help take care of the youngest.

The 1850 publication contained an illustration of this scene by Hablot K. Browne, captioned “Restoration of mutual confidence between Mr. and Mrs. Micawber”, though the “stranger” seems to have woken up.

A drawing room. From left to right: Master Micawber, standing back shyly: Miss Micawber, holding up a baby who reaches out one hand towards its father; the twins, one jumping for joy, the other holding her father’s leg; then Mr Micawber, waving an arm and embracing Mrs Micawber. Outlined in the open doorway are David Copperfield, his aunt, and the cheerful Mr. Dick. On the floor are a ball, a doll, a bonnet, a shawl, and an overturned basket of needlework.

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  • Rudyard Kipling also used it, for another sample. From The Three-Decker: "We never talked obstetrics when the Little Stranger came:"
    – Mary
    Mar 27 at 0:30

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