David announces his intention to relate his life story, saying that the narrative itself will ultimately show whether he is the "hero of [his] own life." He begins with his birth, which took place in his family home ("the Rookery") in Blunderstone, Suffolk. David explains that his father (also named David) had died six months before he was born, and that some of his earliest childhood memories are consequently of his father's grave. David's only surviving family members, then, were his mother, Clara, and his father's aunt, Betsey Trotwood.
David's first words as a narrator introduce and encapsulate the novel's interest in agency and independence. At this point, it isn't clear whether David will be the "hero" of his own story—a major player in shaping his own narrative and life. From a nineteenth-century perspective, David's family background throws this even more into doubt. David's father dies before he is even born, so David grows up without a male role model to learn self-reliance and strength of will from.
David briefly describes his great-aunt. Miss Betsey, he says, had at one point been married to an abusive husband, but had separated from him by the time David was born. There was a rift, however, between her and David's father, since Miss Betsey disapproved of his marriage to Clara, whom she describes as a "wax doll."
The revelation that Miss Betsey had a failed marriage confirms that family and household dynamics will be an important theme in the novel. Meanwhile, Miss Betsey’s disapproval of Clara Copperfield hints at the novel's interest in gender—particularly womanhood. Miss Betsey is an unconventional woman by Victorian standards, and she is suspicious of Clara's fragility and passivity (two qualities that were very much expected of women at the time).
David sets the scene for his birth. One Friday afternoon, his mother, Clara, is sitting at home in mourning when she is startled by the appearance of a face pressed up against the window. Clara goes to the door, and the stranger brusquely introduces herself as Miss Betsey Trotwood: Clara recognizes the name as belonging to her husband's aunt. Once the two women are inside, an awkward conversation ensues: Clara, overwhelmed, begins to cry, while Miss Betsey remarks that Mrs. Copperfield is a "very Baby" and questions why her nephew (David's father) named the house the "Rookery," when there are no rooks. Nevertheless, Miss Betsey is not unkind to Clara, and instructs the Copperfield servant, Peggotty, to fetch tea for her when she faints after trying to defend her late husband's actions.
Clara's defense of her husband proves she is a devoted wife, but she is so delicate and sensitive that the mere act of standing up to Miss Betsey causes her to faint, overwhelmed by nerves and emotion. Miss Betsey, meanwhile, is a practical woman who openly scoffs at her late brother. She also finds Clara's youth and naiveté shocking; it will become clear later in the novel that Miss Betsey thinks marriage should be entered into for sober and mature reasons. Nevertheless, her description of Clara as a "very Baby" does hint that Miss Betsey feels some tenderness towards her, and towards the youthful foolishness and romanticism of the Copperfields' marriage.
As Clara recovers, Miss Betsey explains that she has come because she wants to help raise Clara's child, which she assumes will be a girl. The two women then talk about Clara's marriage to the late David Copperfield: Miss Betsey says that the couple were "not equally matched," and Clara admits that she was not a good housekeeper, but that her husband was trying to teach her to keep accounts when he died. Clara further explains that her husband left her with a small annuity to live on, but is then forced to break off the conversation as it becomes clear that she is going into labor.
The conversation about the Copperfields' married life reveals a tension that will appear throughout the novel: the impossibility of being both childlike and innocent and being a competent and helpful wife—all things Victorian women were expected to be. Clara Copperfield is certainly childlike, as well as very conventionally feminine. These very qualities, however, make it difficult for her to fulfill the practical "duties" associated with being a wife and homemaker.
Peggotty sends her nephew, Ham, to fetch a doctor, who arrives to find Clara settled upstairs and Miss Betsey waiting in the parlor. The doctor, Chillip, is slightly unnerved by Miss Betsey's formidable appearance, but keeps her regularly updated on Clara's condition. When Miss Betsey learns that the newborn child (David) is a boy, however, she "[takes] her bonnet by the strings, in the manner of a sling, aim[s] a blow at Mr. Chillip's head with it, put[s] it on bent, walks[s] out, and never [comes] back."
Miss Betsey's disappointment over David's gender is a running joke in the novel; when he reconnects with his aunt later in the novel, she refers repeatedly to his imaginary sister. On the one hand, this is simply an indicator of Miss Betsey's eccentricity and stubbornness. Given her past, however, it's not surprising that Miss Betsey would be suspicious of men, or that she would want a girl to raise to be as self-reliant as possible.