Dickens: David Copperfield

January 24, 2016

I recently finished reading Dickens’ Dombey and Son, and while writing up some thoughts I was surprised to realize that my brief notes on David Copperfield never made the transition from my old web log to this one. So, for no very good reason, here they are. These were written ten years ago, when I was just getting to know Dickens. (David Copperfield was the second of his books I had read.) They sound a little naive to me now, but they are a faithful record of what I thought at the time.

**

David Copperfield
Charles Dickens
(Duckworth & Co., 2005) [1850]

871 p.

I am always charmed by the Victorian habit of granting long, flowery names to books. A novel that is known to us only as David Copperfield was published then under the elaborate title The Personal History, Adventures, Experience & Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He never meant to be Published on any Account). This title, both in its length, and in its poised but unhurried manner, is a remarkably faithful model of the novel itself. But to profess admiration of Victorian eloquence in a book’s title is very different from professing enthusiasm for an entire book in the same style. Some beauties are best enjoyed at a distance. And it is this wariness, I think, that had led me to avoid the novels of Charles Dickens in the past. I knew too that Dickens published his books serially, and I suspected that a certain pecuniary interest must have inflated his books beyond an appropriate size. And, in a sense, I was right: David Copperfield is long, much too long, meanders, strolls with hands in pockets, whistling, quite unconcerned about getting to the point. Yet it is a splendid book.

Written as an autobiography — and apparently sections are based rather closely on Dickens’ own life — the novel recounts the life of David Copperfield, beginning just prior to his birth, and finishing in his old age. David is a wonderful narrator. He’s a sensitive man, generous with others, and even in recounting his own follies he brings a warm, compassionate understanding to bear. He is not drawn as sharply as other characters in the novel, and we never see him as clearly delineated as we do them, but the entire story is suffused with and filtered through his gentle, perceptive sensibility.

Dickens seems to have excelled at creating memorable personalities out of just a few light touches: his mother, so kind and loving, but tragically timid; his aunt, imposing and proper, but leavened by an enduring rage at trespassing donkeys; Mr. Dick, a happy simpleton whose mind is continually in danger of tending to that of Charles I; the magnificent Mr. Micawber, an eloquent giant of a man whose constant financial desperation finds voice only in his hilarious valedictory letters; Mrs. Micawber, his tenacious and argumentative wife; Mr. Peggotty, a weathered, poor, and good man who wanders the world to find and forgive little Em’ly, his lost sheep; Dora, David’s ‘child-wife’, whom he loves in her silly simplicity; Agnes, his second wife, whom he loves with all of his mind and heart; the wicked Uriah Heep, who masks his cunning and malice behind false humility; and others. I admired the way Dickens was able to plausibly reverse our understanding of some characters simply by re-presenting them from another perspective. This happens, for instance, with David’s aunt, whom he desperately fears in his childhood, but whom he later discovers to be a truly loving, motherly figure to him. Another example is his school friend Steerforth, a dashing, brave boy, but a reckless, foolish man.

There were a few things that surprised me about this book. I was certainly not expecting it to be as funny as it was. Having read The Pickwick Papers, I should have known that Dickens had a ready wit, but I admit the comedy took me very pleasantly by surprise. And I was also impressed by the sheer craft of his writing. I expected to encounter serviceable but unremarkable prose — something like a 19th century John Grisham — but I was badly mistaken. He’s an excellent writer, very articulate, conveying complex scenes and feelings with economy. And on the large scale, too, despite its length and serial production, the story exhibits a pleasing shape and structure.

The copy I bought was produced by Duckworth & Co., and it is a beauty. It is a facsimile edition of The Nonesuch Dickens, a limited edition originally published in 1937. The book is large, hardback, illustrated, includes Dickens’ own marginal notes, has quality pages, a ribbon, and a classy spine. Duckworth is planning to issue a twenty-three volume set of Dickens’ works in this same handsome format. It looks like I’ll be reading Dickens from now to eternity.

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