Unsure of what he wishes to do in the world, David is encouraged by Aunt Betsey to visit Peggotty so that he may have "a little change" and "thereby form a cooler judgment." His aunt gives him a "handsome purse of money, and a portmanteau" (a suitcase), and he sets out.
David first stops at Canterbury to say goodbye to Agnes and Mr. Wickfield. While he is there, Agnes tells David that she is worried about her father's condition. David says that he has become concerned over Mr. Wickfield's increased drinking, that whenever Mr. Wickfield "is least like himself," he is most certain to be wanted on "some business" by Uriah Heep.
Later at Dr. Strong's, David observes another domestic problem. A letter has arrived from Jack Maldon in which he states that he is ill and wants to return. Mrs. Markleham succeeds in getting Dr. Strong to let Maldon come over while Annie "never once spoke or lifted up her eyes." David senses trouble ahead.
Arriving in London, David registers at a hotel and is given a small room over a stable. After a dinner during which he tries to give an impression of worldly maturity, he attends a performance of Julius Caesar at Covent Garden. When he returns to the hotel, he is overjoyed to run into James Steerforth, now an Oxford student; he is on his way home to visit his mother. Steerforth admonishes one of the hotel's employees for giving David such a poor room, and David is immediately given a much better room.
The next morning at breakfast, Steerforth invites David to come home with him and meet his mother. David accepts the invitation, and at dusk they arrive by stagecoach at an old brick house in Highgate, a suburb of London. Steerforth's mother is elderly and rather formal. Her companion is Rosa Dartle, a thin, black-haired lady of about thirty. Miss Dartle has a scar on her lip, which Steerforth tells David he caused. "I was a young boy, and she exasperated me, and I threw a hammer at her."
David invites Steerforth to go with him to visit the Peggotty family, and Steerforth is interested but condescending. He expresses pleasure at the chance "to see that sort of people"; he tells Miss Dartle that "there's a pretty wide separation between them and us . . . They are wonderfully virtuous, I dare say . . . But they have not very fine natures, and they may be thankful that, like their coarse rough skins, they are not easily wounded."
Throughout Chapter 19, we see David trying to find his place in a mature world — adopting manners which he associates with maturity but which seem rather amusing to the reader. David is finding it hard to assert himself, and it is easier for him to stand by quietly rather than risk taking a stand that might expose his immaturity. In contrast, Steerforth is a man of the world. He demands what he wants when he wants it. And he is imperious enough to get it.
Jack Maldon's imminent return from India suggests that an interesting subplot is building up in the Strong household. As yet it is not clear just what feelings may remain from childhood days, when Annie was Maldon's sweetheart.
In Chapter 20, during the time that David spends with the Steerforth family, Dickens' main emphasis is on the intense love that Mrs. Steerforth feels for her son. He is the very center of her existence, and she no doubt values anything if it has a relationship to her son. For example, it is obvious to us that her only interest in David is the fact that he, too, is devoted to Steerforth.
Of interest in this chapter, also, is Rosa Dartle; she has a peculiar, indirect way of seeking information from others, hinting rather than speaking outright. Steerforth sums her up nicely: "She brings everything to a grindstone and sharpens it, as she has sharpened her own face and figure these years past . . . She is all edge."