Yes, that IS David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. A bit off the beaten track of my usual genre ramblings here, I know, but I do like to read the odd classic or literary fiction standout. I’d previously read A Christmas Carol (probably unnecessary given its utter absorption into the general cultural consciousness), Hard Times, and Great Expectations, but I knew that this one was pretty essential.
Dicken’s called this his favourite novel, probably at least in part because of its autobiographical elements. Written in the first person, it tells the story of David Copperfield from birth to success and maturity. Its full of pure Dickensness. To whit:
A host of colourful characters with bizarrely appropriate names. Mr Murdstone, for example, whose name is a portmanteau of murder and stone, is a thoroughly unpleasant character. As the name would suggest, he is harsh, unyielding, and violent. Unfortunately, he is also young David’s stepfather. Uriah Heap, the primary antagonist, is another character doomed to villainy by his ill-starred name. Heap is a great villain: weaselly, fawning, and false (and ever so ‘umble). Dickens does not go easy on him. Well before he actually does anything wrong, we are left in no doubt that it’s only a matter of time until he does. This ‘despicable Rufus’ (apparently once a common insult – Rufus means red head) has a great collection of grotesque physical features and mannerisms. I actually felt a bit sorry for him at times — I’d like to see someone write a book called ‘Uriah Heap’, in which he receives the same kind of treatment as Dorothy’s witch in Wicked. David’s aunt gives him a blistering tongue-lashing at one point:
‘Deuce take the man!’ said my aunt, sternly, ‘what’s he about? Don’t be galvanic, sir!’ […]’If you’re an eel, sir, conduct yourself like one. If you’re a man, control your limbs, sir! Good God!’ said my aunt, with great indignation, ‘I am not going to be serpentined and corkscrewed out of my senses!’
Ludicrously unlikely coincidences that allow characters last seen on opposite sides of the country to bump into each other as though they all lived on the main street of a small village. They do a great job of moving the narrative forward efficiently, but sometimes they’re a little on the outrageous side – for example, Mikawber turning up out of nowhere after randomly spotting David eating his dinner through the window of a house. Another instance, near the end, involves David being invited to visit a jail, within which, unbeknownst to him, two of the novel’s antagonists have independently being imprisoned. In a further turn of fate, the jail happens to be run by yet another character from David’s past.
Sentimentalism. There’s a particularly heinous example in this novel that I would have to call cynical if it were written today. David finds himself a girlfriend (Dora), daughter of his boss. She has an annoying yappy dog, and it’s clear to us (and pretty much every other character in the book) that she’s a complete airhead and really not a great prospect. Nonetheless, they end up together and their household is a complete mess. There are two sources of tension here. First, we know David should be with Agnes (who is a tediously flawless character and at risk from the villainous Uriah Heap to boot), not Dora. Second, how is David going to work with Dora to fix their domestic predicament? Dickens basically can’t be bothered dealing with either of these so he just kills her off (the how of it is a bit vague, but she basically wastes away from some womanly weakness). Sorted. It’s all a bit mawkish and soft-focus and I could just see Dickens cackling at the thought of his weeping readers.
Crazy 19th century legalism. Dickens writes wonderful prose and has a great sense for soap operatic sensationalism, but he’s also a ‘serious’ writer who likes to write about ‘serious’ things. The exemplar of this is probably Hard Times, where he tackles dehumanising industrialism. Here he decides to spend a fair bit of time going through the ins-and-outs of Proctoring, which is, as far as I could make out, some manner of lawyering. Dickens clearly finds the whole system corrupt, needlessly complex, and generally in need of a big shake up. I’m sure the satirical stuff here was enormously appreciated by his contemporaneous audience, but it was a bit obscure for me. It reminded me a little of the whaling minutiae in Moby Dick. Its presence is part of the charm of the book, but nobody really wants to read that much of it.
Paternalistic conservatism. Where Dickens sees ills in the world, he’s very good at getting outraged and drawing people’s attention to them. What I was struck by again and again, though, were all of the ills that Dickens was blind to. He can write excellent women characters (David’s aunt, Betsey Trotwood, is particularly strong in this novel) and okay working class characters, but their portrayal is still entirely constrained by the limits of their gender or class. Dickens never questions the status quo, or the fundamental inequalities in power and status that underlie it. One can’t really complain about this, but it is worth remembering. The mores prescribing appropriate behaviour for those of a particular class and a particular gender are transgressed in one of the central conflicts of the novel – the love affair between Emily and Steerforth. It evokes much wailing, gnashing of teeth, beating of breast, etc. in the characters, but, with my 21st century eyes, I had a hard time seeing what the big deal was.
The fantasy connection (if you need one): There’s a character who appears briefly (a companion of the charming narcissist, Steerforth) who has the exact verbal mannerism as A Song of Fire and Ice’s Jaqen H’ghar, which I found hugely amusing:
I observed that the latter always spoke of himself indefinitely, as ‘a man’, and seldom or never in the first person singular.
‘A man might get on very well here, Mr. Copperfield,’ said Markham – meaning himself.
‘It’s not a bad situation,’ said I, ‘and the rooms are really commodious.’
‘I hope you have both brought appetites with you?’ said Steerforth.
‘Upon my honour,’ returned Markham, ‘town seems to sharpen a man’s appetite. A man is hungry all day long. A man is perpetually eating.’
…and a man owes three names.
Anyway. Great stuff. There’s a reason they’re called classics.