Charles Dickens' 1850 classic epic, David Copperfield, unfolds the story of David, an optimistic and hard-working lad who's orphaned in his youth. Raised initially by his brutal stepfather, who halts David's schooling and sends him to work in a factory, David eventually finds a home with his eccentric, but kind aunt, Betsey. Later in life, David trains for a career in law, but eventually becomes a writer.
By turns absorbingly comic, dramatic, ironic and tender, the novel brings into energetic life the society and preoccupations of the mid-Victorian world
The thing is this novel I so enjoyed is guilty of every sin that so often drove me batty in Dickens: the rambling plot riddled with unlikely coincidences, the long, long length, the at times mawkish sentimentality, the phrases repeated again and again, the characterizations that often seemed more caricatures, and above all, the women characters that convince me Dickens thinks of the female gender as not quite human--or at least I felt so at first. David's mother Clara in particular drove me up the wall--I wanted to reach into the book and throttle her. It seemed to me in my reading of several of Dickens novels that his women run to four types or combinations and at first David Copperfield seemed no exception. There is the angelic creature who is often a victim, such as Clara, Little Em'ly, Agnes and Dora. There is the evil harridan such as Miss Murdstone or Rosa Dartle. There is the sacrificing Earth mother such as Peggoty. And finally, there is the (often rich) eccentric such as Betsy Trotwood. But ah, often the eccentric characters are so richly comic--and in the case of Trotwood there is more than initially met the eye--in fact I wasn't a third way through the novel before I loved her. And Agnes grew on me too. Not everyone's reaction--George Orwell, among others, despised the character. But she was the first female character who struck me as being a rational creature. But they're memorable--and not just the women. I don't think I'm ever going to forget Mr Micawber. I know I'll never forget Uriah Heep, the most odious, shudder-worthy villain I've met in literature.
So yes, after this book I got more of a sense of Dickens' charms. A Christmas Carol has been a favorite since childhood. And I did love Great Expectations--till the end, which I found a bit of a cheat. But I hated Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities. It's David Copperfield that's convinced me I should try more of Dickens. It was worth traversing its long and winding length.
It would require a
An epic and semi-autobigraphical story of young David Copperfield, born six months after his father's passing, who suffered a miserable childhood during which he was abused by his mother's tyrannical new husband Edward Murdstone and his sister, who sent him to a school were punishments were handed out routinely and frequently. When his mother passes away, Edward Murdstone puts nine-year-old David to work in London, where he is left to fend for himself. David makes his escape and makes a long difficult journey on the road to seek out his great aunt Betsey Trottwood. This wonderful character takes David under her wing and gives him a loving home and an education until he is ready to pursue his studies toward a respectable career. As a young man, David falls in love repeatedly and eventually becomes obsessed with Dora Spenlow, a young lady he is determined to marry one day. The novel takes us through many twists and turns and introduces a great number of fascinating characters, some likeable, some absolutely revolting with many plots which are only resolved toward the end of the novel, when David, now a well-known writer, has gained in maturity and found his heart's desire. We all know that Dickens is verbose and he did not disappoint in that respect with this novel, which he considered to be his favourite child. I found much to like and was delighted with the light tone and David's good nature even as he went through incredible difficulties. The audio version wonderfully performed by Martin Jarvis is strongly recommended.
Charles Dickens in the Preface to the 1867 Edition of David Copperfield
Sentimental, full of tears and elation, oddball characters, prolixity, villains and heroes, angelic women and sinning men, oppressors and oppressed, con men and their victims, the steadfast and the persevering, the eloquent, the grandiloquent and the tongue-tied, all abetted by a multitude of monumental coincidences - David Copperfield is a sprawling wonder, pure addictive reading. We meet Dickens' favorite character as a baby, when his aunt Betsey Trotford is so annoyed he isn't a girl that she takes a swing at the doctor, and follow him as a young boy as he outlasts an abusive stepfather, a school where he is subjected to mockery and mistreatment, "cold neglect", a grinding warehouse job at age 10, and much more. There are periods of happiness, particularly idyllic days in Yarmouth by the sea with his mother's maid Pegotty and her earthy family, but his life turns in the right direction only when he manages to change the mind of aunt Betsey and she begins to see his redeeming qualities.
Our narrator, David C. makes fun of his propensity to desperately fall in love, and recounts wonderful tales like the warm rapprochement between a cart-driver and Peggoty initiated by David, at the cart-driver's request, who informs Peggotty that "Barkis is willing". We meet the impassioned, voluble, good-hearted but perpetually destitute Mr. Micawber and his equally impassioned wife, sincere but always put upon Traddles, heartbroken Mr. Whitfield and his angelic daughter Agnes, the Achilles-like but misguided Steerforth, and many others, including of course the poker-stab-inviting Uriah Heep. (Throughout the story is enhanced by the old-fashioned illustrations by Hablot Browne). Repulsed by unctuous Uriah, Betsey Trotwood, in one of her many on-the-money comments, says, "If you're an eel, sir, conduct yourself like one. If you're a man, control your limbs, sir! I am not going to be serpentined and corkscrewed out of my senses!"
David eventually falls for pretty little Dora, who adores her dog Jip: "if we were not all three in fairyland, certainly I was." The scent of a geranium reminds him of an early meeting with her: "I see a straw hat and blue ribbons, and a quantity of curls, and a little black dog being held up, in two slender arms, against a bank of blossoms and bright leaves." There are sore trials ahead, and nefarious doings, with romance gone awry for some and delayed for others, while our favorite continues to doggedly press ahead and maintain his well-balanced outlook. If his good sense ever begins to fail him, Agnes and Aunt Betsey come to his aid. When one relationship falters because David seeks too hard to "improve" his paramour, Aunt Betsey reminds him, "You have chosen freely for yourself, and have chosen a very pretty and very affectionate creature. It will be your duty, and it will be your pleasure, too . . . to estimate her (as you chose her) by the qualities she has, and not by the qualities she may not have." Sound advice for a healthy relationship. I'd give a lot to have an Aunt Betsey come visit our family. She's a wonderful character.
Does everything come right in the end? Not everything, and there are tears throughout, but also triumphant successes. David's character has often been viewed as autobiographical, and we know some of what he endures matches Dickens' own early travails. Some of Dickens' success also comes to David. While the breadth of the story and the number of memorable characters is staggering, in the end there is an almost fairytale-like quality to the book and its paths that all lead to one another. Not just David, but the reader, is happily drawn into that fairyland.
But then ... the novel inexplicably turns away from David and he is merely witness to various drama. There's a good assortment of the usual wonderful characters here that Dickens can always muster: Pegotty and her brother are earthy and loving; Mr. Dick is a hoot; Uriah is plenty conniving, albeit not the nastiest villain Dickens has shown me (that's still Pecksniff); Emily and Agnes are only dull angels but Rosa Dartle is under a darker cast, tremendous in her vindictiveness but justified in her heart. Even so, it wasn't enough to make this portion of the story interesting, while David remained a non-player and the novel transmitted no sense of direction.
But then ... David stands up to a villain, finds romance, and the novel blooms once more. Its momentum is again largely driven by his actions and choices, and from there to the end I enjoyed all the rest. It has a neat and tidy ending that's full of charm, if unlikely in some details, and it all concludes on a high note. If only it weren't for that middle portion.
I loved reading this, although I must say not so well as I loved "Great Expectations" and "A Tale of Two Cities."
Things to bear in mind when you read this book:
1) Be patient with Dora. She's doing her best.
2) It is appropriate to want to run certain characters over with a mail-coach at important points of the story.
3) Uriah Heep. That's all.
Originally published in serial form, each chapter felt like a complete story into itself. Although he tends to be overly descriptive and slightly long-winded, the story of David’s life holds the readers’ attention throughout. The many supporting characters are fully developed and are so strongly presented that they become unforgettable. Of course, it is hard not to have favorites and I certainly fell in love with Aunt Betsy Trotwood, and although exasperating, I also grew very fond of David’s child-wife, Dora. The villains were appropriately nasty and slimy. The name Uriah Heep brings an immediate picture of what unctuous looks like.
My attention was captured immediately at the beginning of the story, but I did find the middle part of the book dragged at little, but, as Dickens started concluding the narrative over the last twenty chapters my attention was again riveted to the story. This is a book that will take you through all the emotions; I was happy, sad, tearful and angry at various times throughout the book. I believe David Copperfield is a fine example of 19th century literature at its best.
In what I think of as classic Dickens (and later, Alger) fashion, David as a young boy finds himself at the mercy of adults who should care for him but do not, and after a miserable childhood is eager to make his own way in the world, and this is when his life truly begins. Along the way he meets some of the most memorable of the many unforgettable characters with whom Dickens has populated his novels: David’s loathsome stepfather and step-aunt, the Murdstones, the hysterically loquacious Micawber, David’s dear nurse Peggotty, the frivolous Dora and her fiercely silly dog, the sensible, understanding Agnes, and the detestable Uriah Heep, among many others – Steerforth, Emily, Tommy Traddles, Ham, Mr. Peggotty, Mrs. Gummidge…the list goes on, each character more delightful than the next. Amidst the minutiae are the very real dramas of every day life – a young woman’s ruined reputation, a mismatched marriage made and endured, the ever-hovering threat of poverty and disgrace in a tenuous world, betrayals in both love and commerce, and every small experience of love, struggle, and redemption are played out here.
For me David Copperfield will always be a treasure of a story, one that spotlights how each of our lives, no matter how seemingly small or unremarkable, are truly enormous oceans of experiences unique to each one of us.
This is one of those books I've been meaning to read for years, those classics that I enjoy but only seem to get a chance to read over the summer. The length is daunting and the story starts slowly, which was much of the reason the book took me so long to finish. It was well worth it, however, as I was introduced to some of the most memorable characters - Mr. and Mrs. Micawber, Mr. Dick, Uriah Heep, and my personal favorite Miss Betsey Trotwood - that I have ever encountered. I'm sure I will read it again.
David is a posthumous child - born after his father's death. That's a pretty fair preparation for the rest of his life. Nothing in life
But David is not one to sit and moan about his fate. He does something. As I was reading this, his naivety in the beginning of the book was kind of annoying. It seemed like a lot of rough things happened, and he just reacted. But once he started taking charge of his own life, I started to like David Copperfield, and I was hoping things worked out for him.
One of Dickens' strengths is his ability to create interesting and sympathetic characters. This book was full of people I would love to know - Peggoty, Mr. Dick, Aunt Betsey Trotwood (she is a riot!), Doctor Strong, Traddles, and my very favorite, Mr. Peggoty.
The theme of family was big in this one - the questions of who is my family and how should I treat them. I loved that David went straight from Mr. Peggoty's house, with his large, mostly adopted, affectionate household to David's home with his new stepfather and aunt, with nothing but "firmness" and mistreatment. The two men were perfect foils for one another.
If you haven't read this one, I recommend it. It is a long book, but it is a much easier read than you might expect. Much better, IMO, than Dickens' other supposed masterpiece, Great Expectations.
This novel is a great example of what Dickens does best. He writes about a young man, orphaned and surrounded by dozens of colorful characters as he tries to
There’s the eccentric aunt, Betsey Trotwood, who is convinced Copperfield’s mother is going to have a girl. Then David is born and she’s so disappointed she leaves the house immediately and never talks to her again. There’s Mr. and Mrs. Macawber, a curious pair who are devoted to each other, despite the mister’s tendency to get them into debt.
Copperfield’s step-father, Mr. Murdstone and his sister are an obviously sinister pair, while Steerforth, David’s schoolmate, just makes you a bit uneasy at first. Peggotty is David’s servant and dear friend and her courtship is hilarious.
Without giving anything away, I would add that I didn’t love the character of Dora. You meet her about half way through the book and she’s the equivalent of a dizzy blonde. No offense to blondes out there, but you know what I mean. I just found her incredibly annoying. On the flip side we have Agnes, Copperfield’s close friend. She’s clever and kind and I loved her.
This book feels a bit light-hearted at first, but it takes a darker turn as the characters are forced to deal with some horrible things. Apparently Leo Tolstoy once said that chapter 55, The Tempest, “is the standard by which the world's great fiction should be judged,” high praise from Mr. War and Peace himself.
There are also some wonderfully funny parts in the books, with lines like…
“He was always doing something or another to annoy me, or I felt as if he were, which is the same thing.”
One section gives a detailed account of David Copperfield getting wasted with his friends. It’s not something you ever think you’ll stumble upon while reading classic literature and because of that it’s even more delightful when you do.
After a few rocky years, I think I can officially say I’m a big fan of Dickens’ work. I haven’t loved everything he’s written, but the deeper I go into his lesser known works, the more I enjoy them. I think the key, for me at least, is to pace myself. His books are too similar to each other to read in a binge. If I read only one a year instead, I find myself eagerly anticipating the next one.
“Ah, what a strange feeling it was to be going home when it was not home, and to find that every object I looked at, reminded me of the happy old home, which was like a dream I could never dream again!"
“The old unhappy feeling pervaded my life. It was deepened, if it were changed at all; but it was as undefined as ever, and addressed me like a strain of sorrowful music faintly heard in the night. I loved my wife dearly, and I was happy; but the happiness I had vaguely anticipated, once, was not the happiness I enjoyed, and there was always something wanting. ... What I missed, I still regarded – I always regarded – as something that had been a dream of my youthful fancy; that was incapable of realisation: that I was now discovering to be so, with some natural pain, as all men did. But that it would have been better for me if my wife could have helped me more, and shared the many thoughts in which I had no partner...”
On the transience of life:
”The rooks were sailing about the cathedral towers; and the towers themselves, overlooking many a long unaltered mile of the rich country and its pleasant streams, were cutting the bright morning air, as if there were no such thing as change on earth. Yet the bells, when they sounded, told me sorrowfully of change in everything; told me of their own age, and my pretty Dora’s youth; and of the many, never old, who had lived and loved and died, while the reverberations of the bells had hummed through the rusty armour of the Black Prince hanging up within, and, motes upon the deep of Time, had lost themselves in air, as circles do in water.”
“Dear me!” said Mr. Omer, “when a man is drawing on to a time of life, where the two ends of life meet; when he finds himself, however hearty he is, being wheeled about for the second time, in a speeches of go-cart; he should be over-rejoiced to do a kindness if he can. He wants plenty. And I don’t speak of myself, particular,” said Mr. Omer, “because, sir, the way I look at it is, that we are all drawing on to the bottom of the hill, whatever age we are, on account of time never standing still for a single moment. So let us always do a kindness, and be over-rejoiced. To be sure!"
“From babies who had but a week or two of life behind them, to crooked old men and women who seemed to have but a week or two of life before them; and from the ploughmen bodily carrying out soil of England on their boots, to smiths taking away samples of its soot and smoke upon their skins; every age and occupation appeared to be crammed into the narrow compass of the ‘tween decks.”
On living an examined life:
“The man who reviews his own life, as I do mine, in going on here, from page to page, had need to have been a good man indeed, if he would be spared the sharp consciousness of many talents neglected, many opportunities wasted, many erratic and perverted feelings constantly at war within his breast, and defeating him. I do not hold one natural gift, I dare say, that I have not abused. My meaning simply is, that whatever I have tried to do in life, I have tried with all my heart to do well; that whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself to completely, that in great aims and in small, I have always been thoroughly in earnest. ... Never to put one hand to anything on which I could throw my whole self; and never to affect depreciation of my work, whatever it was; I find, now, to have been my golden rules.”
“...I am not delivering a lecture – to estimate her (as you chose her) by the qualities she has, and not by the qualities she may not have. The latter you must develop in her, if you can. And if you cannot, child,” here my aunt rubbed her nose, “you must just accustom yourself to do without ‘em. But remember, my dear, your future is between you two. No one can assist you; you are to work it out for yourselves. This is marriage, Trot: and Heaven bless you both in it, for a pair of babes in the wood as you are!”
Lastly this one on Déjà vu:
“We have all some experience of a feeling, that comes over us occasionally, of what we are saying and doing having been said and done before, in a remote time – of our having been surrounded, dim ages ago, by the same faces, objects, and circumstances – of our knowing perfectly what will be said next, as if we suddenly remembered it! I never had this mysterious impression more strongly in my life, than before he uttered those words.”
Young David Copperfield is raised by his widowed mother Clara and their devoted servant Peggotty, both of whom care for and love him very much. His life rapidly changes however, with the marriage of his mother to the loathsome Mr. Murdstone and his sister Miss Murdstone, who move in and take over the household, including the care and instruction of young Davey.
From this point, we are introduced to a wide variety of richly drawn characters as Davey makes his way in the world. This novel is quite simply one of the greatest works of literature ever penned, widely acclaimed to be Dickens’s finest. I found it to be fascinating, both with respect to the characters, the story and the historical underpinnings.
There is really no “story” here, as the book simply follows young David from his earliest years, through adolescence and into young adulthood. Along the way, he experiences great joy, heartbreaking loss and countless adventures set against the rich and detailed backdrop of Victorian England. Such characters as Uriah Heep, Mr. and Mrs. Micawber, Steerforth, Emily, Ham, Agnes Wickfield, Dr. and Annie Strong, Dora Spenlow, Thomas Traddles, Mr. Peggotty, Miss Dartle and countless others create an indelible impression on the reader as they drift into and out of the tale.
One thing I never appreciated was how skillful Dickens is with the timing of the actions in the novel - modern editions rarely mark the serialization breaks. The edition I read had the original layout of the serialization (including the advertisements) and having to stop at the end of each installment (to either look at the ads or leaf through them to get to the next part) made me see the novel in a somewhat new light. It was always a novel of redemption for anyone even remotely good - even the incorrigible rascal Mr. Micawber manages to find his niche. It was always a novel of contrasts - Dora to Agnes, Mr. Murdstone to Mr. Peggotty, Uriah to Mrs. Micawber (in some things anyway - they both kept repeating what they are but only one of them meant it), Betsey Trotwood to Mrs. Steerforth - the more you look, the more pairs you will find. But reading the novel in its original installments added another layer to it - with contrasts (good/bad) between different installments and sometimes in the actions inside of the same one; with the choice of which characters to revisit in the same installment - some of those chapters which may sound almost as fill-in and removable in the novel, suddenly appear a lot more logical - they are fill-ins but they are necessary so that the installments work the way they were designed.
It was also interesting to see all the advertisements from those days - from books to alpaca umbrellas (what's with that?), from snake oil medicines to clothes (one of these even had a poem written in almost every installment). The world had changed a lot since then but some of the ads could be written for something today and still work... most of them around the "fast cure" and "solve your problems" variety and I am not entirely sure what that says about humanity.
You just have to love this book! It brimming with life, love, sadness, treachery, honesty ... a cocktail of emotions that will leave you fully satisfied and a trifle sad after you turned the last page. The can be only one remedy, start over right away!
As usual, Dickens manages to get in some house-trained but still quite fierce social criticism, most of all in defence of his idea that childhood should be about fun and discovery, not being "firm" and "earnest" and prematurely taking on adult responsibilities. He also takes time off along the way to bash familiar targets like unregulated private schools, imprisonment for debt, and the continued existence of obsolete parasitic branches of the legal system (Doctors' Commons).
It's harder to get involved with what should be the main channel of the novel, the marriage plot. We know that there's only one way David's story can end, and it's hard not to find his wrong turnings along the way contrived and artificial, and to feel sorry for poor Dora who is so obviously only there in the story on condition that she can be eliminated when no longer convenient. I find myself dreaming up silly alternative endings in which Dora goes off to join Miss Mills in India where she learns to play the sitar in an ashram (David would meet her, many years later, lecturing on Eastern religions). Or Agnes gently refuses to marry David until she's finished her legal studies and taken control of her father's old firm. And it goes without saying that Em'ly really ought to return in triumph to Yarmouth with her Neapolitan husband and horde of bambini, to set up East Anglia's first pizzeria ("La piccola Emilia")...