#34. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
#34 on the BBC Top 100 Books of 2011 List and #32 on the BBC Top 100 Books of 2012 List
David Copperfield is the common name of the eighth novel by Charles Dickens, first published as a novel in 1850. Its full title is The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account). Like most of his works, it originally appeared in serial form during the two preceding years. Unlike most of his work, it is written from the point of view of its titular character, seemingly looking back on the ups and downs of his long life. The novel was written for a wide audience in the nineteenth century, so the language, while old-fashioned, is pretty straightforward and a relatively easy read in comparison to his other books. I feel that, along with the rich characters and scenery, is what made the read so pleasurable. The book could be read from first page to the last without much reference to the Dickens Dictionary.
Many elements of the novel follow events in Dickens’ own life, and it is probably the most autobiographical of his novels. In the preface to the 1867 edition, Dickens wrote, “…like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favorite child. And his name is David Copperfield.” In remembering that it is virtually a picture of his own boyhood, it is an excellent and realistic picture of the life of a struggling English youth in the middle of the last century. How can one not love David when they see him with such a mild manner and natural dignity throughout his trials and tribulations, wading through his lows, and cresting over his highs?
Throughout the book, the reader witnesses the powerful abuse of the weak and helpless. Dickens focuses on orphans, women, and the mentally disabled to show that exploitation, not pity or compassion, is the rule in an industrial society. Dickens draws on his own experience as a child to describe the inhumanity of child labor and debtors’ prison. His characters suffer punishment at the hands of forces larger than themselves, even though they are morally good people. The arbitrary suffering of innocents makes for the most vividly affecting scenes of the novel. From David starving in a wine-bottling factory at the exploitation of his guardian, Mr. Murdstone, to the boys having little to no recourse against Mr. Creakle at Salem House shows how the children, deprived of the care of their natural parents, suffer at the hands of their own supposed protectors.
Through his novels, Dickens was always political and focused on problems of his time that needed addressing He contrasted the devastating marriage of Copperfield’s mother and Murdstone with the complimentary marriage of Dr. Strong with Annie to show that Dickens did not challenge his society’s constrictive views about the roles of women. However, by depicting a marriage in which a man and wife share some balance of power, Dickens does point toward an age of empowered women. Wealth and class as a measure of a person’s value has always been a thorn in his side. Through the example of Steerforth, who is wealthy, powerful, and noble, he shows that these traits hold more potential to corrupt a person’s character rather than improve it. Many people in Dickens’s time believed that poverty was a symptom of moral degeneracy and that people who were poor deserved to suffer because of inherent deficiencies. Dickens, on the other hand, sympathizes with the poor and implies that their woes result from society’s unfairness, not their own failings. Dickens does not go so far as to suggest that all poor people are absolutely noble and that all rich people are utterly evil. He uses characters from all walks of life and assigns them their nature based on their deeds and qualities, not on the hand that the cruel world deals them.
This is a long novel, with about a hundred (I’m not kidding) named characters. And out of those hundred characters, at least twenty of them have major, multi-chapter plot arcs. Being the midpoint in Dickens’ oeuvre, and most reflective of his quality of work, it contains subplots to the plots, subplots to the subplots, a concentration on the moral and social worlds, and some of Dickens’ most wonderful comic creations. A flowchart is almost required to keep all the timelines and subplots straight. I don’t feel that the 1999 two-part BBC television drama adaptation of the novel (adapted by Adrian Hodges) did much justice to the book, eliminating characters and subplots all together. The drama just scraped the surface of most of the characters.
The pictures that Dickens creates in the mind’s eye of Canterbury and London are true pictures and through these pages walk one of Dickens’ wonderful processions of characters, quaint and humorous, villainous and tragic. Dickens’s interest in fallen women (women like Emily and Martha, who were social outcasts for being sexually active outside of marriage) wasn’t just academic or fictional. Together with his good buddy, Angela Georgina Burdett Coutts, Dickens set up a rehab facility for such women called Urania Cottage. Dickens wasn’t just an armchair social activist. He was willing to put his money where his mouth was. He also had a passion for the dramatic and beautiful women. As loved as all the characters are, I rated dramatic Dora, the beautiful, down with Uriah Heep of being one of the most irritating and self-absorbed creatures! The collapsing and being “frightened” at every discomfort or moment of seriousness was beyond frustrating and tested my endurance!