What does the bolded string (in David Copperfield) mean?

Why do I secretly give Miss Shepherd twelve Brazil nuts for a present, I wonder? They are not expressive of affection, they are difficult to pack into a parcel of any regular shape, they are hard to crack, even in room doors, and they are oily when cracked; yet I feel that they are appropriate to Miss Shepherd. Soft, seedy biscuits, also, I bestow upon Miss Shepherd; and oranges innumerable. Once, I kiss Miss Shepherd in the cloak–room. Ecstasy! What are my agony and indignation next day, when I hear a flying rumour that the Misses Nettingall have stood Miss Shepherd in the stocks for turning in her toes!

(The rest is quoted for context)

  • 3
    My crush may have been punished once for unladylike behavior. Jun 19, 2023 at 21:42
  • 1
    Which part? The 'flying rumour', the 'stood [her] in the stocks', or 'turning in her toes'? The last one may be ambiguous – I take it to mean pigeon-toed. Jun 19, 2023 at 22:43
  • 2
    Stocks are an instrument of punishment. Being "Stood in the stocks" would mean being punished by the use of stocks. You may be correct about "turning in her toes" as an element of improper posture that she got punished for.
    – Hellion
    Jun 19, 2023 at 22:58
  • "Stood in the stocks" might be metaphorical for "punished" more generally; you'd need to know the range of punishments in the institution.
    – Stuart F
    Jun 20, 2023 at 15:20

1 Answer 1


The OED offers:

stock, n.1 and adj.
8. e. transferred (b) Applied to certain callisthenic contrivances formerly used in girls’ schools.
Source: Oxford English Dictionary (login required)

It appears that the Misses Nettingalls’ establishment is a boarding school, and such a school might have had stocks. This is from Reading Book for the Use of Female Schools (1839):

Tight stays, tight shoes, back-boards, braces, and stocks, those inhuman inventions of a barbarous age . . . are supposed to give elegance of carriage and perfection of form, while in fact they only produce deformity.

It seems the protagonist and Miss Shepherd meet in a dance class. Following that angle we find clues in this article from The Philadelphia Dance History Journal:

Some teachers and dancing schools even employed stocks, called tourne hanche or “hip turners” on their pupils. These machines were boxes with wooden rails that forced the student’s legs to turn out until the ideal 180 degree angle was reached. The poor anguished girl on the right in the picture, below, is standing in one of these boxes.

Here’s the picture referenced, along with this description from the Harvard Magazine article Dancing School — Minuet in progress and an aide-mémoire on quadrilles:

The Dancing Lesson, Pt. 2 lithograph

The children in The Dancing Lesson, Pt. 2 are learning the minuet. The dancing master plays a pochette, a pocket violin. The girl at back stands in a narrow box called a tourne hanche–or, in English, a hip turner, turn-out boards, or the torture box–to train her feet to point at a wide angle, in genteel fashion, as do those of the dancers and the master himself. The hand-colored etching is by famed caricaturist George Cruikshank and depicts a moment from London’s social-dancing scene in 1824.

Here’s a little more from Oxford New College’s article Taking Stock of the Tourne Hanche: Training or Torture?:

One defining characteristic of present day classical ballet technique, namely outward rotation of the legs, was a technical accomplishment as important for the 18th and early 19th century social dancer to acquire... [D]ancing masters employed a training device called the tourne hanche, or stocks. . . The presence of this training device in many images of late 18th and early 19th century dancing lessons reveals its popular and widespread use both in France and England.

It seems like Miss Shepherd’s dance with David revealed that her formal social dance technique needed a little work.

  • The mini violin was also called a kit, mentioned by Dickens in other dancing-class scenes. Jun 20, 2023 at 8:06
  • Apparently related to stockings (OE; tree trunk ···> box, and tree trunk / log ···> sleeve). Jun 20, 2023 at 10:53
  • So it's not quite as bad as those stocks they'd put in the town square, where you stand, bent over, with your wrists and neck bound between two pieces of wood, and everyone can kick you in the backside and throw produce at you or whatnot, but the "public humiliation" aspect is still there. Jun 21, 2023 at 13:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.