Subtitled “The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account)”
Originally published in nineteen monthly instalments, ‘David Copperfield’ takes the form of a personal narrative, with this evocative introduction:
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.”
The largely autobiographical plot follows the young David as he is orphaned, sent to school, and slowly makes his way in the world, eventually becoming a prosperous author.
As with all Dickens novels, the text is peopled by a large cast of wonderfully well realised characters, several of whom – Mr Micawber, Uriah Heep, Steerforth, and others – remain well-known to this day. Micawber in particular is a fascinating character. He is best known for his saying “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery” – but he is living proof of the redundancy of this phrase, rarely happier than when he is spending his (or someone else’s) last shilling. Many of the other characters transcend their caricatures in this way. Steerforth is so much more than a dashing cad – David still admires him despite his seduciton of Emily; Uriah Heep is more than a Machiavellian schemer or a cardboard villian – the scene when David strikes him in the face, and he instantly forgives him, reminded me of Shylock’s “cut me, do I not bleed” speech, where we are caused to question the assumptions we have been making about a character.
One of the great achievements of Dickens not just here but as a novelist as a whole is his ability to bring to life minor characters – he seems to genuinely care for people like Ham, the tragic boat-builder from David’s Yarmouth childhood; Miss Mowcher, the dwarf who dresses Steerforth’s hair, and who is shown not simply as a comic figure (which would have been so easy to do), but as a real, feeling person – “Trust me no more, but trust me no less, than you would a full-sized woman”; or Mr Mell, a teacher at David’s first school, Salem House, who appears only briefly, but has his own personal happy ending at the novel’s conclusion.
What struck me about this novel is that apart from the fact that Dickens’s creations are all brilliantly realised, he was an equal opportunities novelist. He creates characters from across the age, class and gender spectrum. This novel in particular has a cast of older female characters, including David’s aunt, Betsey Trotwood, the widow Mrs Gammidge, who overcomes her disabling grief to play an active and important part in the lives of her family, or Steerforth’s mother and her companion, Rosa Dartle. Equally poignant is the sympathetic characterisation of Mr Dick, who has a mental illness but who is never treated with anything other than respect, and again comes to play a loving and useful part in the lives of his family and friends.
There are unfortunately one or two exceptions to this approach. Some of the key younger female characters – Emily, Agnes Wickfield, Annie Strong and Sophy Crewler (Tommy Traddles’s wife) are all weakly drawn, and remain pencil sketches. Dickens seems to have had issues with creating young women characters in this novel, the worst example being David’s extraordinarily irritating wife, Dora.
“Oh, but reasoning is so much worse than scolding!… I didn’t marry to be reasoned with. If you meant to reason with such a poor little thing as I am, you ought to have told me so, you cruel boy!”
David quickly realises his marriage to Dora has been a youthful mistake – “there can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose” and from this point her days are numbered. She is killed off ruthlessly, dying from one of those mysterious wasting diseases to which characters in Victorian novels are so prone. Dickens cares so little for this character that her death happens off-stage, and is portrayed in the symbolic death of her equally irritating lapdog.
I noticed, incidentally, that David changes his name several times in the course of the novel, taking his step-father’s name Murdstone briefly, being re-christened Trotwood or Trot Copperfield by his great Aunt Betsey, Copperfull by his landlady, Daisy by Steerforth, and Master Copperfield by Uriah Heep. Heep perpetually mistakes ‘Mister’ for ‘Master’ Copperfield in a vain attempt to gain some superiority over him. I think Dickens is saying that in the course of our lives we assume or are given lots of different roles and personalities.
I wanted to take a closer look at some of the techniques Dickens uses to build his narrative. His approach to characterisation is simple, but incredibly effective. Many of the characters he created in his work remain in the public consciousness, even the language itself, to this day. (If you were to say to someone that you were very ‘umble, for example, many would know to whom you were referring). Most (but not all) characters are given a single, simple physical or verbal characteristic, which is then repeated exhaustively. Sometimes this works – we know what Mr Micawber is going to say each time he appears – but the repetition of the joke works, much like a comedian repeating a catchphrase. For other characters the repetition is more grating, but easily passed over. Time has sifted these characterisations to tell us which ones work, and which are less successful, and the fact that so many are still well known is testament to Dickens’ extraordinary ability to create characters.
A second technique Dickens uses in his plot development is ‘the dark secret’. Many characters have unexplained events in their stories, which usually the reader can only guess at, but is rarely tempted to do so, knowing that the resolution will come sooner or later (this was my experience anyway – I don’t think many readers will be tempted to approach Dickens as a mystery writer – this is just a way he builds his stories). Mr Wickfield is under the spell of Uriah Heep – for reasons unknown; Annie Strong has a relationship with her childhood friend Jack Maldon, which may or may not be more than just a friendship; Aunt Trotwood gives money to a man who comes and goes mysteriously; Steerforth conducts his courtship of Emily under David’s nose, but while doing so says enigmatic and puzzling things, the import of which are only revealed when the narrator chooses to tell us about the affair. And so on. The process of creating and resolving these mysteries is woven throughout the novel – there is no big ‘reveal’ scene, rather a whole series of them. Sometimes David comes to a gradual understanding, for example about Martha’s situation, which is only hinted at rather than made explicit. (Martha is a childhood friend of the Peggotty’s who is seems is disgraced and becomes a prostitute, and is finally redeemed by being taken to Australia, in an act of charity and understanding when society as a whole would presumably have expected her to have been condemned). Dickens uses the first person narrative to allow the reader to remain slightly ahead of David – for example, we know Uriah Heep is up to no good before the penny finally drops with David – but because we only see what he sees there are limits on how much is revealed, and when.
The third distinctive feature of the narrative technique Dickens uses is the scale of his writing. He weaves a large number of different plotlines around his central characters. These plots fade in and out of the narrative across the course of the novel. What is distinctive about Dickens is not that he does this – most novelists do – but his scope and range, and his masterful control of the narrative. Dickens juggles a huge spectrum of plotlines, characters, locations and mysteries and never drops the ball. He gets himself out of awkward situations by deployment of that novelist’s failsafe, the uncanny coincidence. These are used so frequently – people bump into one another at just the right time, time after time – such that after a while they are normalised and become almost routine; it is for example no surprise to David that he meets the globe-trotting Mr Peggotty, who has been searching for his poor Em’ly, in St Martin’s Lane. They resume their conversation as if they had last met a few days ago. This allows Dickens to progress Peggotty’s story without departing from David’s single point of view.
I returned to Dickens with a sense of nervousness, worried if he would be just another dead white man with nothing to say about our world. But I can honestly say I found this novel hugely rewarding, easy to read despite its more than 900 pages, and full of interest and thoughtfulness. If you were force-fed Dickens at school and have been put off him ever since, I can’t recommend him as an author worth revisiting more strongly.