Review: David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

Described various as the novel which Dickens held as his ‘favourite child’ or his most ‘likable’ work, I have been meaning to get to it since I first saw the 1999 television adaptation which shot Daniel Radcliffe to fame.  I have explained my issues with Dickens at length in previous posts – he can’t write women, he was a ghastly husband and a fairly awful human being … but … but … he is a phenomenal story-teller.  From the very first pages, I was gripped by this whether I was reading the physical book or listening to it on Audible.  I read it before bed, at breakfast and lunch and on my daily commutes on the bus.  What surprised me was how many people stopped me to say that this was one of their favourite books, or that they had loved it as a child – it does seem as if falling in love with David Copperfield is one of those wonderful unifying literary experiences and against all my prejudices, I fell in love with the book too.

Purporting to be the personal memoirs of one David Copperfield the younger, Dickens admitted in his letters afterwards that he was pleased at how well he had woven together the facts of his own life with his fiction, so that the reader should scarcely be able to tell the two apart.  It is no coincidence That Mr David Copperfield and Mr Charles Dickens share a set of initials.  Yet, as well as offering Dickens a chance to make elements of his past public in a private manner, from the very first line, it becomes clear that David Copperfield is also revolutionary piece of work, examining the notion of identity and the self.  “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” – with these words, we are introduced to David and so he guides us through the various stages of his life, allowing us to make our own judgments, draw our own conclusions and also to understand how he came to be the man now telling us his story.

I was truly impressed by the Audible narration of the story.  Like so much of eighteenth and nineteenth century fiction, David Copperfield is well-suited to being read aloud, with plenty of description and dialogue.  Richard Armitage was an excellent choice for the narrator too.  His voice is has an incredible timbre; it felt like a real treat to settle down and listen to.  He brought such energy to the performance, taking on the whole cast of characters but more than anything, inhabiting the persona of David Copperfield so that it became truly believable that this was a man telling us his life story.

Beginning at the very moment of his birth, born some months after his father’s death, David comes into the world as a disappointment to his aunt Betsey Trotwood, who had eagerly anticipated a girl.  Still, he spends his early years adored by his mother, the young and pretty Clara Copperfield and their nurse and maid, Peggotty.  There is a strong sense of nostalgia as David looks back on his younger self with a kind of mocking affection – he is amused as he reminisces about reading from his crocodile book to Peggotty, but due to his manner of reading, that lady got the impression that they were a type of vegetable.  Later, having visited Peggotty’s family, he remembers how delighted he was by their home formed out of a boat, not recognising the poverty of its inhabitants.  Forming a childish passion for Peggotty’s niece little Em’ly, the narrator also laughs at how the boy David remained true to her by writing to her after his visit with huge letters.  The childhood days were sunny and joyous and despite the dark clouds that come after, they are remembered fondly.  Still, it is this sense of disconnect between adult and boy Davids, that sense that the one does not quite understand the other, that again underlines the central message of this novel – what is the self? How is it governed?

Mr and Miss Murdstone with David and his mother

Of course, a significant theme within the novel is how other institutions or forces can intervene and remove one’s control over one’s fate.  For David, the day comes early, following on from his mother’s disastrous remarriage to Mr Murdstone.  As a twenty-first century reader, it is astonishing how modern a description of gas-lighting and psychological abuse that Dickens has lain down on the pages.  Astonishing too that he can recognise so clearly that this behaviour is wrong but that we know that he will soon play out an equally wicked war against his own wife.  The recognition that Mr Murdstone and his sister are bullies is fairly clear amongst David’s circle, with Betsey Trotwood making a Freudian slip of her own in consistently muddling their last name up with ‘murder’.

But the Murdstones are not the only institutions of imprisonment – there is Salem House, the ghastly school to which David is sent after he bites his new stepfather.  Later, after his mother’s untimely death, the child is forced still lower after Mr Murdstone sets him to work in a blacking factory, something that really did happen to Dickens as a child.  The boy David lodges with the Micawber family, who are constantly in straitened and near dire circumstances due to their mismanagement of their finances.  They are frequently on the brink of debtors prison, another place familiar to Dickens from his own father’s imprisonments there during his boyhood.

Class is another restrictive factor; David visits Peggotty’s family in Yarmouth because his mother wants him out of the house while she remarries, but yet despite his age and marginalised situation, the Peggottys treat him as an honoured guest.  There seems to be a tacit acknowledgment that even as a child, he is their better because he is a gentleman.  Although they are adults and he a child, allowances are made for him.  Later, he is heartbroken to work in a blacking factory because he knows that this way he will end up ignorant and below his station.  Still further on, when he is finally rescued, he is revolted by Uriah Heep, who David seems to feel has risen above his appropriate station.  Despite his affection for those below him socially, it is clear that Mr Copperfield is entirely happy with the status quo and has no desire to unduly rock the boat.

It is strange perhaps then that the character who steps in to save David from a life spent forever in the blacking factory should be one of the more marginalised members of Victorian society.  Betsey Trotwood is a supposed widow, has no male protector, is introduced as a figure of ridicule, but yet she has the warmest heart in the entire novel.  She has already given shelter to Mr Dick, a man suffering from mental illness who has been cast off from his family and her brisk assumption of responsibility for David is lovely.  There is a wry note to David’s observation to the reader that he believes that in time, she came to love him almost as much as the imaginary sister she believed his birth displaced.  Throughout the novel, in moments of high emotion, Betsey Trotwood would refer to how David’s mother would have responded but never admits maternal feelings as her own, however clearly she feels them.  It is she who finds David a good school and arranges for him to stay with Mr Wickfield during term time, allowing David to form a brotherly bond with Mr Wickfield’s daughter Agnes.  However, this does also introduce him to Wickfield’s clerk Uriah Heep.

Betsey Trotwood is the novel’s emotional core and often her asides and interjections speak for the reader.  During Anna’s speech to her husband, Betsey Trotwoods’ furious utterances telling ‘the old soldier’ (Anna’s mother) to be quiet just about drag the episode back down to earth. Betsey Trotwood (calling her Betsey or Miss Trotwood never does sound quite right) is the one who tells David to be kind to Dora and that she refuses to be set up as a scarecrow to frighten the little creature.  Even her wry agreement to Mrs Micawber that yes, relatives may indeed have been in fear of the Micawbers borrowing in the name of others reflects the reader’s affectionate impatience.

David and Steerforth in Salem House

It is a strange thing though that despite being the most fleshed-out female character, she is also the least sexualised.  That was one thing I really hadn’t expected – David Copperfield is a novel that is absolutely obsessed with sex, in a way that only a repressed Victorian gentleman could be.  It’s no accident that Freud gave a copy of this book to his wife before their marriage.  It’s there from the very beginning.  Mr Murdstone clearly views the young David as a rival for the affections of his mother Clara.  David even bears his late father’s name.  Upon his arrival at his first school Salem House, David becomes friends with Steerforth and there is an obvious homo-erotic subtext to their relationship, with Steerforth calling him ‘Daisy’ and remarking that it was a shame that David had no sister, since she would have been as sweet as him.  The bond deepens further as Steerforth seduces little Em’ly, using David’s friendship with the family to get at her.

Throughout the novel, David reflects on the females for whom he formed passions.  Agnes even remarks that she might recite their names and period of influence like a chronology of kings and queens.  There is Rosa Dartle, the dark lady who lives as an impoverished relation with Steerforth’s mother and who David euphemistically describes as ‘ready to be married’.  Her thwarted and tormented desire for Steerforth has turned inwards, making her almost vampirish in her search for vengeance.  David seems equal parts attracted and afraid of her and I was amazed that Dickens was able to craft a female character of such complexity although I remain convinced that he was as nonplussed by her nature as his fictional proxy.  The virulence of her anger, driven by her pathological jealousy of little Em’ly’s sexual relationship with Steerforth, makes her a deeply unsettling character – there is something almost occult about the whole story-line.

Little Em’ly is the first of all David’s sweethearts, and the crossover between these adult and child viewpoints make Dickens’ attitude towards her sexuality both fascinating and deeply troubling.  Her fallen state is heavily foreshadowed even in her childhood, with her passion and fear of the waves.  The adult David opines that it would have been better if she had been swept away by the sea as she was then than lived on to her later fate.  The contrast is striking between how affectionate David is to his own younger self’s failings and how iron-clad his thoughts are on that of his childhood playfellow.  Little Em’ly has chosen sex, travel and fine clothes over a life of hard work amongst those she grew up with.  We later hear that she has learnt languages and generally been made a fuss of – she has been a lady.  But all of these gains have been ill-gotten, their value hollow and she cannot keep any of them if she is to be saved.

Her uncle Mr Peggotty refuses the ‘blood money’ offered by Mrs Steerforth in recompense and he states firmly that he will not leave the child he loved as a daughter to a dishonest fate.  He spends years scouring the streets, towns, countryside in search of the sheep that is lost.  I was caught by the detail of how he even keeps a set of clothes to put on her when he finds her again – little Em’ly will have to be reborn as naked as when she came into the world if she is to return to honest folk.  When she finally does, she is strangely invisible to men; David hears her voice in another room but is careful to not lay eyes on her, catching only a glimpse as she boards a boat and then he never sees her again.  It was almost like the Lady of Shalott – Dickens does not want his hero to catch sight of a fallen woman, as if even looking on her face would contaminate him with her sin.

David meets Dora Spenlow

Sex seems something to be avoided at all costs in David Copperfield.  David falls in love with Dora Spenlow, who has been brought up to be decorative.  Having won her, David is forced to explain to Dora that he is poor, after he learns that his aunt has lost most of her money.  Dora is horrified as she is unable to understand what this means and she repeatedly tells him that she can only ever be his ‘child-wife’.  David marries Dora because he desires her sexually and then he tries in vain to mold her to be a competent wife.

By contrast, David’s old headmaster Dr Strong has married a woman markedly younger than himself and their marriage seems to be sexless.  When Anna comes to be suspected of being unfaithful, she protests in a lengthy (and ever so very slightly melodramatic) speech, where she commends her husband as having been as a ‘father’ to her and while admitting that she had had feelings for her supposed lover in childhood, she was grateful to him for rescuing her from ‘the first mistaken impulses of my undisciplined heart’ because there can be ‘no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose’.  Anna becomes angelic in her denouncement of desire and these words linger in David’s mind as he recognises the disparity within his own marriage.

Another sexual bogey-man is Uriah Heep.  During their first encounter, Heep is still a teenager and Dickens notes repeatedly how wet his palms are and that he is continually wiping them.  I remember an English lecturer at university referring to Heep as the manifestation of masturbation in Victorian fiction and finally reading the book, I could completely see what they were getting at.  He hovers, draining all that is good out of the Wickfield household.  His habit of referring to Agnes as ‘my Agnes’ places him firmly in the sexual predator category, even though David is adamant that he will not see his ‘sister’ brought so low.  Heep is determined to take Mr Wickfield’s business, his home and his daughter.  His desire will devour them all.

For Dickens it seems, the most successful relationship is one freed from desire.  Mr and Miss Murdstone appear to get along together as a capital partnership, with a wife added in only to be trodden into the dirt.  Dr Strong and Anna also seem to be held up as an ideal pair.  David’s desire for Dora is not destined for fair tides as she falls ill following a miscarriage and ultimately dies of causes unexplained – essentially dying of sex.  The reader has seen, just as David did not, that his ideal partner is the seraphic Agnes.  Even Dora, discovering during her engagement to David that Agnes was not in fact a blood relative, seemed surprised that David had passed her over.  Heep had always viewed David as a competitor for Agnes’ hand.  She is essentially his sister and he has longed for her not a jot, meaning that their marriage is marked for success.

David and Agnes reflect on his life

The question asked within the opening lines of the novel – is David the hero of his own life story – is one that did keep me thinking as the novel progressed.  Betsey Trotwood had clearly been his saviour and Agnes had often held David up to a higher standard, admonishing him for drunkenness or lack of patience with Dora.  The most dramatic set piece of the novel, namely the downfall of Uriah Heep, was not solely of David’s maneuvering.  Yet, I also found myself wondering how far Dickens intended me to trust David as narrator.  There is evidence that Dickens once began his autobiography and that there are fragments of this document which he reused in David Copperfield.  As David himself becomes a successful author, I was fascinated when there were passages where one almost felt that one was hearing from Dickens himself rather than David.

Observations such as ‘I have been very fortunate in worldly matters; many men have worked harder and not succeeded half so well; but I never could have done what I have done, without the habits of punctuality, order and diligence [the passage continues] – these seem like a man honestly attempting to explain his way of working, not an author imagining a character.  The passage is far too long to quote in full, but in a page or so, I felt I had a better understanding of Dickens’ life philosophy than I ever had before and despite my long-held dislike of the man, I strangely held a better opinion of him afterwards.  A later observation, as David observes Micawber’s pontifications of ‘the tyranny of words’ and his thoughts on how we too like to tyrannise over words – again, it felt like Dickens himself.  I had not expected such a vivid encounter.

What interests me perhaps most about David Copperfield however is how Dickens appears willing to let his hero mold his own identity.  The concept of memory or willful forgetting is a recurring theme.  David claims to be proud of his memory and as his audience, we have to put our faith in him.  Yet, he acknowledges that he is not sure how long he spent in the blacking factory, that it could have been any length of time from a few months to over a year.  The period of time was so painful that he tried to put it out of his mind – it is no longer within his memory.  The disconnect between David’s childhood and adult selves also cast a suspicion – how far do any of us remember our childhoods accurately or with appropriate understanding?

Then there are characters such as Mr Dick, who is alternately a comic clown character and then at other moments a mental counsellor.  It is Mr Dick who sets right the marriage of Dr Strong and Anna, knowing that his status as mentally ill grants him allowances that other characters do not have – but this very recognition casts doubt on whether he is as mad as David believes.  We know that David has been unaware of Agnes’ long-held love for him.  How far can we really trust in his judgment?  David has regarded Mr Murdstone as heartless and cruel, but he acknowledges that he has been similarly unkind to Dora in attempting to force her to mend her behaviour.  As we hear Uriah Heep’s list of complaints, how he has forever been squashed down, forced into humility, I found myself wondering at the enmity between the two.  In cases of hatred such as this, is it not generally because someone recognises something from their own self?  Does David loathe Heep because he recognises that he himself is also an upstart risen above his station?

There have been so many different readings and interpretations of David – as well as innumerable film and television adaptations.  I recall Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series where Thursday discovered that David had murdered Dora – this seems to be a pet theory of the author and indeed David’s disillusionment and regret over his first marriage might give a detective pause.  With so many parallels from Dickens’ own life, I found myself wondering if Dora represented Catherine Dickens, particularly having read Girl in a Blue Dress.  Certainly Dickens seems to have struggled to find his ideal partner in life which David finds in Agnes.  Not so strange is that Agnes’ very perfection renders her slightly difficult as a reader to relate to.

As with any Dickens novel, the appeal comes from the cast of cantankerous and colourful characters.  The perpetually impoverished Micawbers and all their florid missives, David’s friend Traddles and his beloved ‘dearest girl in the world’, Barkis and his old clothes – there is so much here that I have not been able to mention and all of it combined to make the book the joy that it is.  It is altogether a more subtle a creature than A Christmas Carol, yet its strong central character makes it easier to connect with than the more enigmatic Bleak House.  Rather than a mystery or drama, we have a personal exploration, one man considering the winding journey that has led him to himself.

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David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Published by Penguin Classics on June 24th 2004
Pages: 974
ISBN: 0140439447

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2 thoughts on “Review: David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

  1. This is a fantastic review, and *so* detailed! Thank you so much for sharing it 🙂 I recently read David Copperfield for the first time, my first Dickens, and I loved it just as much. Dickens is truly – if nothing else – masterful.

    I know you mention in the initial paragraph that Dickens struggled with writing women, and I don’t think that was an uncommon issue for male authors at the time (or today, ahem! ;)), but honestly I thought that Betsey Trotwood was one of the most well-crafted female characters of the Victorian era. She was strong, decisive, influential, without relying on her “feminine wiles”. She fulfilled a caretaker role to an extent (for both David and Mr Dick), but she was certainly not angelic – all of this is to say she played into neither the Madonna nor the whore trope.

    I also love your dissection of Uriah Heep here. Dickens had a true talent (for many things of course, but especially) for creating truly hideous villains. Every time Uriah Heep entered the story, I would involuntarily shudder. It was so, so gratifying to see his downfall.

    Thank you so much, again, for sharing! This was a great read 🙂

    1. Oh thank you! I completely agree about Betsey Trotwood but I think the distinction here is that he wasn’t trying to engage with her on a sexual level. I love Betsey Trotwood’s relationship with Dora and how she refuses to scold her – I completely imagine her as Maggie Smith after the BBC adaptation. I think she’s fantastic, particularly her pride in Mr Dick and the way she cuts to the truth of all matters, seeing the Murdstones for what they are. I remember being so surprised when I got into the middle of David Copperfield and realised that it really was just all about sex – I hadn’t expected that at all!

      Thank you for commenting 🙂

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