My business here is to offer some thoughts on this year’s Dickensfest selection, which happens to be the 1850 novel David Copperfield.
Even among the multitude of famous novels written by Dickens, David Copperfield stands apart for a number of reasons. First, it represents the midway point in Dickens’ career as a novelist – there were seven major novels that came before it, and seven more followed. Second, it is the first of his novels that Dickens wrote exlusively in the first person, losing himself in the voice of the young Copperfield of Blunderstone Rookery. Thirdly, it has the following distinction, which I will articulate using Dickens’ own words from his preface to the ‘Charles Dickens Edition’, published in 1867: ‘Like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield.’
When you read Dickens, you’re taking on a lot, and commiting a hefty block of your own time. As well you should. There aren’t many other writers whose novels take such a commitment with every outing, which is why their legends don’t endure. Unlike most writers’ work, when you decide to read Charles Dickens, you’re not just experiencing a story – you’re entering a whole world. It’s like traveling to 19th century England for an extended stay every time you open one of his books. You’re going to get the sights, the smells, the noises, and above all else, you’ll get an entire peanut gallery of personalities – not just one or two characters. You’ll enter Victorian chambers for tea with the very rich, gossiping amongst themselves about this scandal or that; but you’ll also take to the cold streets, and experience the poverty and peril of the underworld.
One of the reasons Dickens was so adept at portraying many different aspects of British life was his own experience early on as a court stenographer, where he was exposed to a wide variety of real-life characters ensnarled in an unmitigated maelstrom of legal and moral predicaments. In fact, one aspect of the character of David Copperfield’s life that parallels Dickens’ own is revealed when, late in the novel, Copperfield also becomes a court stenographer, allowing Dickens to deliver this revealing observation: ‘Brittania, that unfortunate female, is always before me, like a trussed fowl, skewered through-and-through with office pens, and bound hand-and-foot with red tape.’
However Dickens’ talents may have come about, it is because of his astonishing range of vision – his close attention to all levels of human society, not just the elevated ones – and the author’s singular gift of imagining and giving voice to so many different characters that his works have become immortal in the annals of world literature. Almost no iteration of the modern novel can be imagined were it not for the influence of his stories.
Hallmarks of that influence can still be seen clearly in much of today’s literature and film; it is something I perceive acutely every time I take on one of these annual adventures. Just as I have been reading David Copperfield, I saw two films that bear his influence: Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, a ghost story (itself a genre which Dickens has also greatly influenced) which depicts disadvantaged, orphaned children banding together to avenge the murder of one of their own; and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, which features a long, complicated plot filled with coincidental collisions that are as unpredictable as they are improbable, and also pays particular attention to the sights, colors and sounds of the world of the poor. Mr. del Toro, the Mexican director who is responsible for such visionary works as Cronos and Pan’s Labyrinth, frequently acknowledges Dickens’ influence on his films and screenplays; in Pan’s Labyrinth, for example, the young female protagonist’s offering of her left hand in introducing herself to a man who will become her abusive stepfather is unabashedly lifted from Chapter II of David Copperfield, where David does the same thing to a figure who will play a similar role in his existence.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the entire phenomenon of Harry Potter would be utterly nonexistent without the long reach of Charles Dickens. J.K. Rowling’s complex plots betray an indisputable debt to the Dickens canon, and her very memorable wizarding world includes dozens of characters of all shapes, sizes and colors (not to mention species). The bumbling elf-like character of Dobby, for example, who is introduced in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, is so comically Dickensian in his mannerisms and frequent lamentations that it feels like he was lifted right out of one of his novels, except for the fact that he is not human! Not to mention the central notion of the boy hero who rises from humble circumstances, which can be traced straight back to Dickens’ Oliver Twist, the first major novel in the English language to feature a child as its protagonist.
In David Copperfield there is little question that we encounter Dickens the novelist at the zenith of his considerable powers. But rather than to try to describe in hyper-literary terms exactly why that is the case, I think what I will do instead, for the duration of this commentary, is attempt to describe some of the things that I have most enjoyed about this particular Dickens novel, and let whatever conclusions or observations that are scattered in the process sprout where they have fallen.
Within our own family, Duke and I are somewhat reputed for our tendency towards hyperbole – and few among us, if I may be so bold, can do it like we can. But NOBODY exaggerates like Dickens does, and when he chooses to lay something on thickly, he doesn’t just cover the subject, he smothers it. His descriptions of David Copperfield falling immediately in love with the childish Dora Spenlow are so over the top, I found myself howling. Probably a lot of critics throughout the different eras since his books appeared have crushed him for this, and there’s no doubt that he can overdo it on certain subjects just like he can overdo it in general (note the size of his novels!). But that’s the nature of the beast when it comes to Dickens, and I suppose if you’re going to wax at length about any particular subject, you can do worse than extolling the virtues and sublime qualities of the person you love.
Dickens’ portrayals of the lives and struggles of the underclass and the poor are always interesting to read, and his sympathy towards their plight resonates profoundly, which can be comforting if one is reading during tough economic times themselves, and is all the more laudable given that shortly after his first novel appeared on the scene, Dickens himself had absolutely zero financial worries of his own. He was the J.K. Rowling of his own time. But his memory was long and sharp, and he never strayed too far away in his own mind from his father’s humiliation by being thrown into debtor’s prison (which is where I probably would find msyelf right now if I lived in those times) or his own personal baptism into the life of the working class via a stint in a blacking factory as a young boy. In this novel, as in most, there are a number of characters who are involved in a mighty struggle to stave off insolvency, David Copperfield himself being not the least among these; but the spirit with which he carries himself in this struggle is laudable and worthy of the reader’s appreciation. He won’t give in. He makes something of himself against all odds. I can relate to that idea.
I also find it interesting to note, which may not be much of a surprise, that David Copperfield himself becomes a writer, and begins to publish stories and such in various magazines. Later, he publishes a novel. It was with a wry turn of the lip, I admit, that I discovered that David Copperfield’s transition from aspiring writer to ‘authorship’, to use his own word, occurs over the course of exactly one brief retrospective sentence in the novel, whereas my journey towards being a published fiction writer began somewhere around 1994, and has yet to find its way to a legitimate conclusion. However, my lack of success is no fault of the fictional Copperfield. Furthermore, I can always reiterate the words that close the previous paragraph here with regard to my own situation: he won’t give in. He makes something of himself against all odds.
Lastly, it’s also interesting that although Copperfield touches on his literary success in the book, he reflects upon it with humility. Dickens doesn’t have him fixate on his own stories or novels: ‘I do not enter on the aspirations, the delights, anxieties, and triumphs of my art,’ he writes, in Copperfield’s voice. ‘That I devoted myself to it with my strongest earnestness, and bestowed upon it every energy of my soul, I have already said. If the books I have written be of any worth, they will supply the rest.’
One of the funniest characters in the book to me was a man called Wilkins Micawber, a side character with whom David works for a period early in his career. Micawber is one of those Dickens characters that is comically dramatic, waxing at length about the plight of his existence and the various challenges he faces. In this case, Micawber is constantly fighting to overcome debt, a struggle for more than one character as I alluded to earlier. He even spends some time in debtor’s prison. This character is based on Charles Dickens’ father, John. Micawber’s circumstances are difficult throughout most of the story, although he eventually finds a way to deal with his problems, thanks to the help of many generous friends. But what makes him funny to me is the numerous letters he writes in the book and the off-the-cuff speeches he gives regularly about his struggles to defeat his creditors. These are filled with flourishes of highly exaggerated language that amply demonstrate both Dickens’ unique flair for drama and his exuberant prose style.
To conclude I would remark that the key to appreciating Dickens’ work, to me, is to simply allow yourself to enter fully into his stories and become swallowed up in them. I believe that this is the way Dickens meant his fiction to be experienced. His efforts seemed to lean towards creating a panoramic reflection of human experience, an invitation to readers from all walks of life to come inside and be entertained and perhaps to learn or re-learn some of the things about ourselves that are worth remembering. For you can say what you want about how his novels are filled with melodrama or unrealistic twists and turns or just too many words, but the fact is that very few novelists across the centuries, in all the history of English literature, had compassion, generosity, and warm-hearted enthusiasm for their fellow man on the same scale as Charles Dickens.
If you, in a dark moment, seek to cut yourself off from mankind and cower in the mirthless, painful corners of our existence – and I admit, sometimes I do myself – then you might do better to curl up with some Hemingway or Nietschze. But if you pine for some instruction from literature on how to be alive and to accept and even embrace your brother, while being simultaneously and copiously entertained, Charles Dickens is still your man. David Copperfield stands forever as one of the greatest examples of what he accomplished.