After Disgrace and D’Lacey’s Last Dragon Chronicles, I went back to the nineteenth century with Dickens. David Copperfield was written in serial form, but, unlike D’Lacey’s ‘organic’ plots, the whole story is well planned from start to finish. Several of the characters are cartoonish. Nevertheless, I found the novel engrossing right from the first page where we read that baby David was born in his caul, plus the superstitions held about this event.
Dickens describes the life of the eponymous hero right from his birth to some point in middle age where he is a settled family man. It is no secret that his life goes through many low points including the death of family members, a wicked step-family, boarding school and child labour.
The rollercoaster of David Copperfield’s fortunes allows Dickens to describe a wider section of society than Eliot does in Middlemarch. The book is semi-autobiographical and one section which particularly benefits from Dickens’s own experience is when David is working in a factory and counting his pennies to keep himself alive.
Dickens introduces a menagerie of different characters that pop in and out of David Copperfield’s life. I was amused by and attracted to Copperfield’s aunt Miss Trottwood, a great example of a woman who didn’t seem to care what society thought of her (much like George Eliot appears to have been). I was justifiably suspicious of Steerforth, a fellow pupil at the boarding school who was idolised by David, and I was concerned by the cruelty of David’s stepfather Mr Murdstone and by Mr Peggotty’s pilgrimage to find his niece.
Little Em’ly is described in great detail as a child. Her ‘terrible’ fate is alluded to early on and mentioned in many pages thereafter, but we are disappointed if we want details about her character as a grown woman, or to understand her motives for what she does. In fact the only strong woman character is David’s aunt Miss Trotwood, and she is allowed to be so, largely because she is rather eccentric and has sworn not to give in to foolish love. The women that David admires, for example his mother and his darling Dora, are either doormats or irresponsible or both. The other women are either wicked harridans or comically exaggerated, such as his dear Peggotty (formerly his mother’s housekeeper) and Emma Micawber, initially described as always having one or both of her twins nursing on her breasts.
I do not think that we can forgive Dickens his misogyny simply as a product of the time. According to Miriam Margolyes, Dickens was abusive towards his own wife, describing her as “as near being a donkey as one of her sex can be.”Furthermore, there are plenty of nineteenth century writers who were capable of writing strong women. Dickens was 5 years old when Jane Austen died. George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte were his contemporaries.
I was uncomfortable when Dickens introduces the dwarf Miss Mowcher, Steerforth’s beautician. I had already understood that Dickens tended to write caricatures, or, more favourably, archetypes: the poor orphan; the abusive schoolmaster; the devious lawyer and so on. His description of Miss Mowcher just seemed to be cruel. I couldn’t understand why he had introduced this character into the novel apart from to poke fun at her. Luckily for Dickens, he wrote in serial form. Apparently his wife’s chiropodist recognised herself in the description of Miss Mowcher and threatened him with a lawsuit. He had the opportunity to write her a more edifying part later in the novel.
I also didn’t take to Micawber, the verbose letter writer who always seems at the brink of bankruptcy, based on Dickens’s father. I tired of Micawber’s epistles, although I was happy to see his part in Uriah Heep’s eventual downfall. The determination and organisation Micawber shows in this part of the story serves as an example of a Dickens character who does not necessarily act in predictable ways.
What was Dickens’s main aim? What was he trying to achieve by writing this book? In his preface he describes the book as his favourite ‘child’. He certainly managed to write a page-turner. He brilliantly describes the feelings and experiences of childhood and he acquaints his readers with the variety of suffering that could be experienced in nineteenth century England. I suggest that his moral, if there is one, is of the benefit of hard work and the importance of family. Family relationships, whether good or bad, are key to the development of most of his characters.
Education is important too, in a broad sense rather than limited to a school setting. I liked the descriptions of how the little boy grew up (being forced to do so at an early age) and taught himself how to cope with his limited means. Then later as a young man he was determined to learn shorthand and although he did not take to it at first, he stuck with it and was able to supplement his income by taking notes of Parliamentary speeches. After marriage he keeps trying to teach himself and his young wife to manage the household better, although he does not take to this very kindly and asks him to think of her as a ‘child-wife’ rather than a responsible adult. This links back to the weakness of Dickens’s female characters (in this book at least).
I enjoyed the detailed descriptions of the interior of the various places that David lived, and even more so the references to places in London and the South of England that I actually knew. This aspect of Dickens’s novel was far more satisfying than when I read Middlemarch, supposedly set in my home area (the Midlands) but with no locations recognisable to me. If you have visited or lived in England you appreciate how gruelling a walk from London to Dover would be, for example. Having lived in London I could imagine David Copperfield walking between the different districts he mentions. I see that The Guardian newspaper organised several Dickens walks during their Charles Dickens at 200 series in 2013 . Here is a pdf of the David Copperfield walk, which takes in several of the pubs that Dickens mentions and also the Adelphi theatre on The Strand.
Dickens says hardly anything of his overseas locations. Whether India or Switzerland, the main feature of any of these places is just that they are not England. I was amused to read of Australia as essentially somewhere that people get sent when you don’t know what to do with them.
Again in contrast to Middlemarch, there is little to no information about the date or political climate in which the novel is set. We read about events within the families that Dickens has invented but we know nothing about the Reform Act, the Chimney Sweep Act or building of railroads, and certainly nothing about any international events. Also, despite the references to child labour and bankruptcy, the novel seems to end up reinforcing the class system. David Copperfield keeps himself physically and psychologically apart from the other children in the factory. The good working class people like the Micawbers and Peggottys do well for themselves in the end, but we are given to believe that they will never do as well as David and his aunt.
In summary, I found the book entertaining. I appreciated Dickens’s sympathy for people in unlucky situations, particularly as children. I was cheered to read descriptions of places that I recognised. While Dickens’s attitude to women and lack of politics disappointed me, and I acknowledge that many of his characters are caricatures, he certainly makes them memorable and he tries to flesh them out so that they are not necessarily behaving in predictable ways. David Copperfield is well worth reading.
Finally, from the Guardian series mentioned above, take a look at this tongue-in-cheek guide to the ‘quintessential’ Dickens novel.