Friday, 3 March 2000

Charles Dickens: David Copperfield (1850)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 446

David Copperfield is a novel which is often declared to be autobiographical, and almost as often declared to be nothing of the sort. It is easy to see why it seems to be about Dickens' own early life. Several scenes echo actual events, such as the way that David is sent to work as a child, though in each of the obvious instances there are differences (in the case mentioned, it is a different kind of work and for motives other than the poverty of Dickens' own childhood). Copperfield's career path as an adult (law, journalism, novel writing) is a particularly strong similarity. But these parallels are not the real reason why the assumption is made. David Copperfield is written as though it is an autobiography, a successful author telling the story of his early life. The persistence of the theory is a tribute to how convincing the first person narrator is made. The intimacy of the first person is another reason in itself, and is possibly also one reason why this was Dickens' own favourite amongst his novels.

Occasionally a little sentimental for my tastes (particularly in the sections dealing with Copperfield's childhood), David Copperfield also displays some infelicities in plotting. Several unmotivated coincidences occur, particularly in relationship to the Steerforth subplot. The most annoying character is Copperfield's "childwife" Dora, but she is at least intended to be annoying. (She is also part of the social commentary side of the novel. She is brought up spoilt and silly, and has a childish air which Copperfield finds charming in a lover. But the personality captivating in a fiancée is frustrating in a wife - she has neither the skills nor the aptitude to act as a housekeeper, the principal role of the mid-Victorian middle class wife without children. She has been brought up to be a toy, but expected to be able to instantly take on another role following her wedding day, and to point this out is a way that Dickens criticises the then contemporary attitude to women's education.) Re-reading this novel, a few years later, I wish to modify what I say here a little. Although Dora's faults are obvious, both to the reader and to Copperfield himself, his tenderness and genuine love for her come through strongly. Not only that, but others around her respond to her warmly. There is more to her than a pretty girl in a sickly-sweet Victorian painting, and the other characters' regard for her is tenderly depicted by Dickens in a way which tends to ameliorate the irritation that a reader would otherwise feel with someone so childish. The main reason for being irritated is more because of David Copperfield's action in falling for her - he is so clearly better suited for Agnes Wickfield, who adores him.

In general, though, the minor characters are among the best in all of Dickens' novels. Mr Micawber is the most famous, of course, but Uriah Heep, David's aunt, the Peggotty family, and Tommy Traddles among many others are amusing and vivid in the same manner without threatening to overpower the rest of the narrative.

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