Thursday, 11 October 2012

1001 Books review: David Copperfield

My experience with David Copperfield is a pretty excellent example of my theory that there is no such thing as an objectively good book. I picked it up for the first time when I was thirteen, as part of my efforts to be a Serious, Grown-Up Reader.

Internet, I hated it. As I remember, I got about three chapters in and gave up in impotent fury.

I started David Copperfield again last week. I am absolutely certain not a single word of it has changed (I know this because I was reading the exact same copy that I had when I was thirteen), but somehow this time I wasn't offended by them at all. Just like capers and things that taste like marzipan, it turns out that the adult version of me really likes David Copperfield.

I always try to be a bit sulky hipster about Dickens. He's so famous, and so beloved, that I feel like there must be a catch somewhere. But every time I stop whining and actually read a Dickens novel, I realise why he's lasted so well. Yes, he's mawkishly sentimental, yes, he has a thing for golden-haired angels and crossing-sweepers dying tragically in debtors' prisons, but he's also an excellent plotter with a total genius for creating instantly memorable and entirely unforgettable characters.  

David Copperfield is obviously just one novel, but it's given the world sickening snake-villain Uriah Heep, exuberant and permanently insolvent Mr Micawber, and secretly good-hearted donkey-hater Betsey Trotwood. And then there's Peggotty, who bursts all the buttons off her dresses whenever she gets emotional, and Mr Murdstone, so evil that he can kill his wives with just the power of his mind. And so on, and so on....

Dickens's heroes and heroines tend to be his weakest creations, dull and dinkily foolish respectively, but everyone else is stellar, and everyone else is the reason why Dickens is still so beloved. He is quite simply the best ever at creating his bit-parts.

Having said that thing about Dickens making up boring heroes, I actually found David Copperfield's hero quite interesting. This is largely because I can now appreciate that he is essentially just Dickens in disguise. David Copperfield is Dickens's autobiography. Consider the facts: like Dickens, David spends time as a child labourer in a London warehouse, he has a really bumptious small-time fraudster father figure in Mr Micawber, he grows up to become a famous writer and he has a very youthful marriage to a woman so helpless and daft that she is functionally a child. I'd say that was all pretty conclusive.

This woman. How I hate her.
That fictionalised portrait of his marriage, of course, interested me the most of all. I've somehow managed to get really involved in the Dickens relationship, but until now what I've read about it has been from the point of view of Mrs. I was all ready to blame Mr for everything - until I heard his views on the matter.

David's wife (the Catherine Dickens substitute) is called Dora, and on the strength of his description of her character, MAN do I now feel for Charles. I am a pathetically non-violent person. I can't even kill zombies in video games because I worry about their feelings. And yet while I was reading David Copperfield I had to struggle with vivid fantasties about taking Dora out and just SHOOTING HER IN HER STUPID CHILDISH FACE.

Lord have mercy, that idiot woman. She weeps because David points out that all their servants cheat him and he hasn't actually eaten dinner in weeks. She begs him to call her, and I quote, Child-wife, so that he will never forget how stupid and useless she is. (I am not kidding. She SERIOUSLY SAYS THIS.) I hate her. Yes, Dickens gives us an over-dramatic, highly biased version of events, but I can imagine that it would be pretty awful to be as smart and worldly as he was and married to someone with not an ounce of practicality in her fleecy little brain. Even Dickens/Copperfield has fantasies about her 'becoming an angel' (ie DYING). Beautifully, of course. So then she could be a hot fantasy object in his mind AND he could finally get the servants to bring his dinner on time. Dickens really was quite emotionally weird.

I do think Dickens has some serious issues about women and sexual relationships. I'd love to believe that the 'Child-wife' concept is presented as a bad thing and he understands the values of equal parnership in a marriage ... and yet. Quite aside from Dora, another character's beautiful emotional conclusion comes when she calls the man she married 'my husband and father'. Oh, and a lot of characters who are siblings (though admittedly not genetic ones) fall in love. We are meant to find this adorable. My brother and sister are adopted. I don't.

This kind of thing is so widespread in all Dickens novels, though, that protesting against it feels like trying to throw Boris Johnson over the Eiffel Tower. I've pretty much decided to ignore it and focus on the stuff that Dickens does do well. Like death. Dickens gives great death, doesn't he? I know all that Victorian hyper-emotionalism is a bit past its best, but you can't beat a good bit of tragedy, especially when everyone weeps and reconciles with their enemies just before they breathe their last. Without giving away the end of David Copperfield, I will say that the bodies mount up in a satisfying heap. And then everyone who doesn't die gets hitched. In fact, it all rounds up in a distinctly satisfactory (although totally not postmodern) way.

Second time round, I ended up having a great time following the ridiculous trials and tribulations of young David Copperfield. I found David Copperfield charming, silly and fun, if a bit morally dodgy in places. You know what? I've given up fighting Dickens. I've realised that if you want a big blockbuster Victorian novel with lots of charming, slightly crazy characters and a fat serendipitous plot, you just can't do better than him. I hate to admit it, but Dickens is great.

4 stars.


  1. Interesting - I also have been resistant to Dickens, which is embarrassing as I teach 19th century literature - but have just reread A Tale of Two Cities as I'm writing a lecture on it, and loved it. You make some very good points - I might read David Copperfield next!

    1. Oh, I love A Tale of Two Cities! Sydney Carton was my teen self's spiritual husband. Dickens bothers me because I feel like people ignore other great writers (Wilkie Collins!) so they can obsess over him. He's like the Victorian Shakespeare. But I always forget that Shakespeare is still pretty awesome, and so is Dickens.