David Copperfield

By Charles Dickens


"No one can ever believe this Narrative, in the reading, more than I have believed it in the writing" avers Dickens in the preface to David Copperfield, going on to admit that "of all my books, I like this the best… like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is DAVID COPPERFIELD". The quintessential Dickens masterpiece and the most overtly autobiographical of his works, it occasioned him great pain to write, and even greater to finish, a parting that he saw as "dismissing some portion of [myself] into the shadowy world". As the comparison of the biography and synopsis above will confirm, the plot contains all too visible parallels with its author's life, and the writing of it can be interpreted as a form of catharsis. The book differs in several important ways from Dickens's previous novels: it has no systematic social reform agenda, far fewer grotesques and a markedly different plot structure, lacking the customary 'flight and capture' denouement, for example. Lastly and most significantly, however, it is written entirely in the first person, a device that, whilst occasionally stretching the plot's credibility, allows a much more personal note to be struck.

Dickens wrote a fragment of autobiography shortly before starting work on David Copperfield and much of it seems to have been incorporated into the novel's manuscript. Raking over his most painful childhood memories- perceived neglect, being put to work, his parents' insolvency, his lack of education - Dickens embellished fact with fancy (making David an orphan, for example) to create his most resonant and lastingly popular book. It is a work of richly linked symbol and image, and a powerful testament to the vitality of human memory. The trademark Dickens mixture of sentimentality, coincidence and the grotesque is toned down in favour of a heightened sense of psychology and the first acutely convincing portrait of a child in his work. The childhood passages contain a precision unprecedented in Dickens's earlier works and are the book's most consistently revealing sections, consistently rated as the finest passages in Dickens's oeuvre. David writes that "I believe the power of observation in numbers of very young children to be quite wonderful for closeness and accuracy", and it is in the common (not the intensely dramatic) experiences of David's childhood that we see what Peter Ackroyd calls "the very life blood of [Dickens's] genius".

David's childhood is a catalogue of misery and neglect that would surely turn another man into a bitter wreck. Yet he is born with the talent common to Dickens's heroes of assimilating childhood misery into subsequent happiness. "David, I wish to God I had had a judicious father these last twenty years!" exclaims Steerforth at one point, an unique moment of self-revelation with which David does not appear particularly to sympathise. Dickens is, of course, much disposed towards presenting David's young character favourably, as it is in many ways a reflection of his own. Thus for the most part David is a child oddly immune to the temptations of childhood. Exceptions to this rule are rare but immediately resonant - for example, when news of his mother's death reaches him at school, he is able to admit to a streak of theatricality in his grief. "I stood upon a chair when I was left alone, and looked into the glass to see how red my eyes were, and how sorrowful my face" he writes, unflinchingly identifying both his sorrow and the understandable urge common to schoolboys to be centre of attention at a time of tragedy. This admission recalls an earlier memory, when David looks at himself in the mirror after Murdstone's beating, "so swollen, red and ugly that it almost frightened me". It is a highly sensory world that young David inhabits. For example, he lists amongst his earliest reminiscences Peggotty's forefinger, "roughened by needlework, like a pocket nutmeg-grater", "the smell of soap, pickles, pepper, candles and coffee, all in one whiff" and "my mother with her pretty hair and youthful shape and Peggotty with no shape at all". These are perhaps the most intensely credible passages that the so-often fanciful Dickens ever wrote.

Despite the privations of his childhood, emotional and physical, David remains largely untouched by his brutal experiences, for all that he professes "the secret agony of my soul". He suggests that "but for the mercy of God, I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or vagabond". This is an unusual admission for Dickens to make, as he rarely concedes the unusual good fortune of his protagonists. Even those who are "robbers or vagabonds" (Oliver Twist, for example) are eventually rescued by a benevolent fate. Thus even at his lowest ebb (in the warehouse) David seems contentedly predestined. He is oddly unsympathetic towards his fellow "little labouring hinds", who lack the fairy godmother (Betsey Trotwood) that David has. The horrors of his own situation are vividly recollected - "the dirt and rottenness of the place are things, not of many years ago, in my mind, but of the present instant" - but it is the practice of working there, and not the principle, that aggrieves him. He is, as Dickens was, "a child of excellent abilities, and with strong powers of observation, quick, eager, delicate and soon hurt bodily or mentally", and these are the factors which determine the injustice of his position, not the blanket wickedness of child labour. It does not seem to bother David that as he writes there are still children in the same position.

Commensurate with David's coming to maturity is a lessening of the book's early focus and drive. It is as if Dickens has expelled a great weight from his mind, and is therefore able to resume business as usual. As G K Chesterton writes, David Copperfield "begins in a new style and then slips back into an old one". The precision and unity of the earlier chapters give way to frequently less subtle episodes as David assumes greater control of his destiny. The arbitrariness of his early fortunes is what gives then their poignancy and immediacy, and as he progresses towards affluence the novel loses a good deal of its early impact. Coincidence, grotesque and farce play increasingly important roles in the plot, and the writing never regains the absolute confidence of tone that it has for the first twelve chapters.

Of course, David Copperfield is ostensibly autobiographical, and we must allow for the resultant solipsism; but this does not explain the almost total absence of general conclusions concerning howling abuses such as child labour, prison-schools, etc. The closest we come to sustained social satire is, curiously enough, the character of Uriah Heep. An uneasy parallel exists between David and Heep, which David seems to acknowledge in his immediate and profound loathing of him, and which is hinted at throughout the novel (for example, Uriah's sleeping on David's floor [chapter XXV] and his subsequent inhabitation of David's old room at the Wickfields'). For the duration of the book David is as powerfully attracted to Steerforth as he is repelled by Heep, perhaps because they represent opposing social poles, to either of which he could have belonged but for fate. Indeed, at the end Heep reminds him that "[you were] the very scum of society… before anyone had charity on you". Heep is a product of the charitable schools system, thereby supposedly equipped to better himself. His briefcase, "vomiting papers" [at home in chapter XVII], amply attests to his willingness to work hard. However, he is also expected to maintain a constant sense of the impossibility of his actually achieving much, and an attitude of fawning gratitude towards the philanthropy of the system. This bitterly ironic duality is articulated when David upbraids him for professing humility so often. Heep replies that "…they used to teach at school (the same school where I picked up so much umbleness), from nine to eleven, that labour was a curse; and from eleven o'clock to one, that it was a blessing… You preach about as consistent as they did". Thus Uriah, the unchallenged villain of the novel, is a product of muddle-headed institutional philanthropy. When David visits him in prison at the end, his earlier rage at being unmasked as a criminal (in front of the massed ranks of 'good' characters) has lapsed into the humility of old- the only real method of communication that he knows.

Largely faultless though the young David may be, as he grows it becomes increasingly apparent what a poor judge of character he is, for all his purity of principle. The worst result of this failing is that he becomes an inadvertent agent of harm, mainly through his attachment to Steerforth; the best of it that through his attachment to Dora he comes to acknowledge his love for Agnes. At the novel's opening we are told that David is to be "unlucky", a forecast whose truth at times seems to apply more to those who encounter him than to himself- especially the Peggottys. Steerforth, the novel's most credible villain, is almost magical. We are told that "there was an ease in his manner… which I still believe to have borne a kind of enchantment with it". David adds that he suspects him "to have carried a spell with him to which it was a natural weakness to yield". The spell cannot be broken for David. That the overgrown, overbearing Steerforth is altogether larger than the naïve, small David can be seen in the early illustration 'Steerforth and Mr. Mell' (chapter VII). It is the influence of Steerforth that proves decisively negative on those around David.

We first encounter him through his name, "carved very deep and very often" into a door in the playground at Salem House, an appropriately domineering image. There is a sense of unspoken social superiority permeating Steerforth's attitude to David. Steerforth consistently patronises him, thus keeping the interesting question of David's social position before us. Agnes, the novel's most angelic character, is also the only one to identify the latent evil in Steerforth, calling him a "bad angel". The scenario is symbolised when David encounters Agnes whilst carousing drunkenly with Steerforth in the chapter entitled "My first Dissipation": she spurns him whilst David acclaims him as "theguidingstarofmyexistence". Steerforth's elopement, however, spells the sad end of the novel's most psychologically revealing relationship. David is left free to participate in the more conventional plot developments and Steerforth assumes a more unambiguous role as villain.

At this point much of the novel becomes more predictable and less interestingly diverse (although the storm scene in chapter LV is widely regarded as one of the highlights of Dickens's writing career). The autobiographical candour steadily recedes (although David does become a writer) as he marries his "child-wife" Dora (an oddly unpleasant phrase) and sinks into the domesticity that is the usual fate of a Dickens hero. Instead of developing the theme of unsuited spouses, and analysing the effects of so dysfunctional a childhood on an adult, Dickens presents us with a series of bittersweet vignettes of married life that do not add up to anything like the punch of, say, the Lydgates' marriage in George Eliot's Middlemarch. In fact, to most intents and purposes, David persists in his bachelor life after the wedding. Instead of developing Dora as a selfish, foot-stamping imp Dickens chooses to present her as a terminally ill doll, symptomatic of the book's rather too neat conclusion. Micawber is transformed into an agent of moral justice, violently denouncing Heep for his peculation and thereby completely losing touch with his own fecklessness, the very characteristic that made him so likeable earlier. The neatness with which the various plot strands are resolved is disappointing after the focus of the earlier parts of the novel. A sense is left of the integrity and credibility of David's recollections having been compromised for the sake of Dickens's insistence on cosy moral order at his book's end.