Wherein we introduce the seventeenth read of the Dickens Chronological Reading Club 2022-24, David Copperfield; with a reading schedule and a look-ahead to the coming week.
(Banner Image: “I am Hospitably Received by Mr Peggotty,” by Phiz.)
Welcome, ladies and masters! Is it possible to be the hero of one’s own life? How badly can the impulses of an “undisciplined heart” lead one astray? Can a lone, lorn creetur find joy and contentment?
A few quick links:
- General Mems
- David Copperfield: The Greatest Novel of All Time?
- Thematic Considerations
- A Word on Uriah Heep
- Reading Schedule
- Additional References
- A Look-Ahead to Week One of David Copperfield
- Works Cited
If you’re counting, today is Day 463 (and week 67) in our #DickensClub! This week, we’ll be beginning David Copperfield, our seventeenth read of the group.
Please feel free to comment below this post for the first week’s chapters, or use the hashtag #DickensClub if you’re commenting on twitter.
No matter where you’re at in the reading process, a huge “thank you” for reading along with us. Heartfelt thanks to our dear Dickens Fellowship, The Dickens Society, and the Charles Dickens Letters Project for retweets, and to all those liking, sharing, and encouraging our Club, including Gina Dalfonzo, Dr. Christian Lehmann and Dr. Pete Orford. Huge “thank you” also to The Circumlocution Office (on twitter also!) for providing such a marvellous online resource for us.And for any more recent members or for those who might be interested in joining: the revised two-and-a-half year reading schedule can be found here. If you’ve been reading along with us but aren’t yet on the Member List, we would love to add you! Please feel free to message Rach here on the site, or on twitter.
And for any more recent members or for those who might be interested in joining: the revised two-and-a-half year reading schedule can be found here. If you’ve been reading along with us but aren’t yet on the Member List, we would love to add you! Please feel free to message Rach here on the site, or on twitter.
David Copperfield: Greatest Novel of All Time?
If I can speak personally for a moment—David Copperfield is my favorite novel by Dickens, and thus my all-around favorite novel. (Depending on when you ask; tomorrow I may decide that I prefer Pickwick Papers.) I first read it in the sixth grade, in a cramped and dingy trailer just five minutes from the Gulf Coast that reminded me of Mr. Peggotty’s boathouse. Mr. Peggotty and Micawber and Steerforth and Traddles and Uriah Heep and Rosa Dartle felt more real to me than my schoolmates; more real than my family, even. They might have been my first friends. In the twenty-five years since I’ve read it, events in my life have mirrored events from the book in some uncanny ways. I wrote my senior thesis on the book in college. Well into adulthood, I still choose friends based on whether they know the name Wilkins Micawber (and that David Copperfield is a novel, not a magician).
For me, David Copperfield is just about the best book ever written—the apotheosis of the novel, the apex of Dickens’s art. Nor am I alone in holding this opinion: Tolstoy considered it his favorite of Dickens’s books, and Sigmund Freud gave a copy to his fiancé on the occasion of their engagement in 1882. Dickens himself believed it the best of his works—“Like many fond parents,” he wrote in the preface to the 1869 edition, “I have in my heart of hearts of a favorite child. And his name is David Copperfield.” “An author is not always a good judge of his own work,” wrote W. Somerset Maugham, “but in this case Dickens’s judgment was sound. Matthew Arnold and Ruskin considered it his best novel, and I think we may agree with them. If we do, we shall be in pretty good company.”
What strikes me on this latest read through the book is the curious nature of Dickens’s plotting. The plotting in Dombey could occasionally feel over-determined, as if Dickens was obtruding all through the story to ensure that the narrative ran in a certain direction. Here he strikes a more subtle balance between plot and character. There are moments when the plot seems to vanish into the Yorkshire mists; instead of a central through-line we have a series of subplots revolving around various eccentrics in David’s orbit: Uriah and the Micawbers, Agnes and Mr. Wickfield, Dora and her father, Annie and Dr. Strong, Steerforth and Little Emily and the Peggottys. But as those subplots develop and intersect, they strike upon the reader’s imagination with unwonted power. It hardly matters that David is the least interesting, and among the least distinguished characters in the book, because everyone around him is so fascinating. Character for character, David Copperfield arguably has a more memorable cast than any other of Dickens’s books. Reading the book with Rach, I was moved by the tribulations of Martha, a woman who seems to exist in a perpetual shroud of blue mist, and whom I had hardly noticed on previous readings. Whereas other characters—the magnetic and electrifying Rosa Dartle, the tragic and conflicted Steerforth—retain their indelible hold from reading to reading. There is a scene towards the end of the book—you’ll know it when you read it—that for sheer narrative power and catharsis has no equal in Dickens. It rivals Patroclus and Achilles, and Jesus in Gethsemane; aiming for tragedy, it over-leaps itself and vaults into the realm of myth.
Critics have focused much of their attention on the parallels between David’s life and that of his author. The sequence in which David is sent away by the sadistic Mr. Murdstone to work at Murdstone & Grinby’s blacking factory, a mere “laboring hind,” has its origins in an autobiographical fragment that Dickens began writing but never finished, and showed only to John Forster before his death. Even Dickens’s own family was unaware that he had been obliged to leave school for a period of some months as a boy and take up work at a factory, Warren’s, pasting labels on bottles as a result of his father’s financial mismanagement. The memory of those months—of watching his literary aspirations vanish into smoke and being forced to mingle with common boys he considered beneath him—would haunt Dickens for the rest of his life.
In his recent book The Turning Point, about the writing of Bleak House, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst discusses the similarities between Wilkins Micawber and John Dickens, both of them verbally effusive gentlemen with seemingly no practical skills whatsoever:
“In his most recent novel, Dickens had poked gentle fun at his father in the shape of Wilkins Micawber, the middle-aged clerk who scrapes by with a mixture of sunny optimism and a leech-like ability to borrow money from his friends. Despite being incarcerated in the King’s Bench Prison for his debts, he remains resolutely confident that something will ‘turn up,’ which thanks to the loyalty of his wife in sticking by him, and the generosity of Dickens in providing him with narrative solutions, it always does. In John Dickens’s case, the something was also a someone: his son, who for many years had reliably turned up to bail his parents out of their latest financial scrape. Conjuring up Micawber was therefore the perfect way for him to express his exasperation while dissolving it in laughter. ‘The longer I live, the better man I think him,’ Dickens told Forster, and it is probably true to say that his judgment of his father softened considerably when the only demands he could make were on his memory. But Micawber, with his ‘rhetorical exuberance’ and quicksilver changes of mood, was just one of a whole rogue’s gallery of irresponsible fathers through whom, over many years, Dickens had attempted to work out their relationship in his fiction, from Dombey & Son’s chilly Mr. Dombey to David Copperfield’s alcoholic Mr. Wickfield.“
Without getting too far into spoilers, Maugham notes that Dickens has come under fire from critics for giving the Micawbers a happy ending. These critics feel that it was wholly out of character for the feckless Micawber to acquire success and stability. I would argue that the resolution of Mr. Micawber’s story is a pointed indictment of the society in which the story takes place: a man of his considerable gifts needed only the right environment in which to flourish, and Victorian London was ruthless towards even the very gifted. (One recalls with a shudder the story of the aspiring novelist who was found frozen to death in his flat, his skin having been stripped away by rats.) Thus the Micawbers had to escape their situation if they were to attain happiness. In terms of Dickens’s writing lab, what fascinates me about the Murdstone sequence is how Dickens finessed the real events to make them more dramatically compelling, more “Dickensian,” even. Unlike Dickens, David isn’t forced into hard labor by the malfeasance of a well-meaning father but by the cruelty of Mr. Murdstone, a figure out of a fairy-tale, after being effectively orphaned. Murdstone beats David with sadistic relish and imprisons him in his bedroom for hours at a time, isolated from the rest of his family; we have no evidence that John Dickens ever did so. There are some interesting parallels here with another great coming-of-age classic, Jane Eyre, which begins with young Jane being shut up in the Red Room by her aunt and cousins. Together these two novels set the template for how to tell this kind of story; in altering the circumstances of his own life, Dickens (and Charlotte Bronte) are inventing a dramatic shape that would later be borrowed by Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, and countless others.
A Word on Uriah Heep
In 1847 the Danish fairy-tale writer Hans Christian Andersen—effeminate, socially inept, likely on the spectrum—visited England for the first time, where he met Charles Dickens and caused a minor sensation. Dickens’s friend Elizabeth Rigby described him as a reptilian creature, “long, thin, fleshless, boneless … bending and wriggling like a lizard with a lantern-jawed, cadaverous appearance.” If the image of a cadaverous gentleman bending and wriggling seems familiar to you, it’s because poor Hans Christian is thought to have furnished the inspiration for Uriah Heep, the unctuous ne’er-do-well who wriggles and bobs his way through the pages of David Copperfield. Andersen doesn’t seem to have realized that he admired and esteemed Dickens considerably more than Dickens admired and esteemed him; nor did it ever occur to him that the fawning, oozing, grasping, scraping Uriah might have had antecedents somewhat close to home. Dickens mentioned in passing that Andersen was welcome to visit him at Gad’s Hill whenever he liked; Andersen, not recognizing Dickens’s obligatory politeness, took him at his word, and in 1857 returned to England for five of the most awkward weeks in the annals of literature.
|Week One: 11-17 April 2023||1-12||The first twelve chapters constitute the monthly installments I-IV, published between May and August 1849.|
|Week Two: 18-24 April 2023||13-21||Chapters 13-21 constitute the monthly installments V, VI, and VII, published from September to November 1849.|
|Week Three: 25 April to 1 May 2023||22-31||Chapters 22-31 constitute the monthly numbers VIII, IX, and X, published from December 1849 to February 1850.|
|Week Four: 2-8 May 2023||32-40||Chapters 32-40 constitute the monthly numbers XI-XIII, published between March to May 1850.|
|Week Five: 9-15 May 2023||41-50||Chapters 41-50 constitute the monthly numbers XIV-XVI, published between June and August 1850.|
|Week Six: 16-22 May 2023||51-64||Chapters 51-64 constitute the monthly numbers XVII-XX (the final number was a double number), published between September and November 1850.|
Dr Christian Lehmann has done a video series in nineteen parts (based on the novel’s nineteen installments), Reading the Victorian Novel: David Copperfield.
One of the most buzzed-about books of 2022 was Demon Copperhead, by novelist Barbara Kingsolver (author of The Poisonwood Bible). It’s a contemporary retelling of the novel set in an Appalachia peopled with rogues and freaks. Kingsolver’s exuberant grappling with the original text is a joy to behold. Nearly every paragraph is crammed with esoteric in-jokes for the devoted Dickensian, though the novel can be enjoyed on its own merits without having read a word of Dickens. (But who would choose such a fate?)
Of the numerous television and film adaptations, there are four that merit special mention. George Cukor’s David Copperfield (1935) features the curmudgeonly W. C. Fields as Micawber, in what is probably the definitive portrayal of that character. Simon Callow took on the role in the 1986 ten-part miniseries, which I consider the most engaging and faithful portrayal of the book to date; the highlight of this adaptation is Paul Brightwell (Titanic), who makes the daring choice to play Uriah Heep as worldly-wise and pragmatic. This has the effect of making him seem more sensible than anyone else in the story, and indeed he comes across as being rightly exhausted by the perpetual drama of David and his friends. Possibly the best-known recent adaptation is the 1999 TV miniseries starring Daniel Radcliffe, Maggie Smith, Bob Hoskins and Ian McKellen. The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019), directed by Armando Ianucci and starring Dev Patel, Ben Whishaw and Peter Capaldi, makes some inventive alterations to the text but suffers from a truncated ending. (Given the book’s many labyrinthine and intersecting subplots, any medium that attempts to tell the story in under five hours is likely to disappoint.)
As for the audiobooks, Richard Armitage (The Hobbit, North & South) has done a brilliant unabridged recording for Audible, memorable for his decision to portray Uriah as a sort of sexy Australian surfer.
A Look-Ahead to Week One of David Copperfield
This week, we’ll be reading Chapters 1-12, which constitute the monthly installments I-IV, published between May and August 1849. Feel free to comment below for your thoughts this week, or use the hashtag #DickensClub if you’re commenting on twitter.
If you’d like to read it online, you can find it at a number of sites such as The Circumlocution Office, or download it from sites such as Gutenberg.
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.
Douglas-Fairhurst, Robert. The Turning Point: 1851—A Year That Changed Charles Dickens and the World.
Reading this reminded me of a fun bit of ironic trivia. In the 2000 David Copperfield movie, Emily Hamilton played Agnes Wickfield with whom Uriah Heep has a creepy romantic obsession. In the 2003 biopic, Hans Christian Andersen: My Life as a Fairy Tale, she played Jette Collin who (in the movie, not in real life) has an unrequited love for Andersen. Isn’t that kind of hilarious?
If you’re interested in what I think of those movies, My Life as a Fairy Tale is great (and features Simon Callow as Dickens) and while the 2000 David Copperfield isn’t my favorite adaptation (mostly because I don’t like how it portrays Dora Spenlow), it’s certainly not my least favorite either. Emily Hamilton was well cast in both.
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I’ve only read Chapter 1 so far today, but it’s just so great I want to comment about it before I forget anything!
Is the nurse mentioned in the second paragraph, the one who believes that David Copperfield will be unlucky in life and see ghosts and spirits since he was born on Friday at midnight, meant to be Peggotty? I don’t usually think of her character as being particularly superstitious.
Does anyone else almost feel like Dickens is renouncing his Christmas books with the opening of David Copperfield? Most of them involved characters being haunted by, if not ghosts, then goblins or fairies. (As I wrote before, the fairies in The Cricket on the Hearth are likely metaphorical but there’s a chance they might be literal too.) And one of the first things the narrator of David Copperfield tells us is that he’s never seen any spirits and whoever might have his “gift” is welcome to it.
Sometimes I have a hard time with Dickens’s opening chapters. Maybe it’s because his books tend to be really long and when I read the first chapter, I’m trying to figure out what exactly this story is supposed to be about and whether it’s worth a large chunk of my time. But some of Dickens’s opening chapters are just so great that I don’t think about that stuff at all, and David Copperfield has the best of them all! A lot of that is due to the entertainment value of Betsey Trotwood who just might be my favorite Dickens character ever! I remember the first time I read the book I got a kick out of her debut, but I also wondered whether I was supposed to like her, as I was, or not. She’s being a big bully in that scene, barging into the house, bossing everyone around and even physically hurting them, yet there’s something weirdly likeable about her. As the book progressed, I was delighted to find that I had been right to like her, and Dickens had been in perfect control of my reaction all along. Maybe that’s giving away too much but since this intro discussed the controversial ending of Mr. Micawber’s storyline, I feel like I’m allowed to spoil a few things.
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I get into trouble when I write/talk about David Copperfield because every major character in book calls the main character something different in keeping with their personality, social position and relationship to him. This raises the question of what I, the reader, should call him. Calling him David feels the most natural to me, but that’s what the Murdstones call him, and I don’t want to align myself with them. I could make up my own name for him, like DC, but I’d probably keep forgetting it and referring to him as David, so I’ll just do that. (Incidentally, in the 1935 movie, the characters who call him Trotwood or Trot in the book call him David. The 2019 movie depicts the character as being annoyed that people keep getting his name wrong and no one calls him David, which strikes me as odd since, like I said, David is what the Murdstones called him.)
I love the descriptions of the world from young David perspective, especially in Chapter 2. They remind me of my own earliest memories, not so much the details as the feeling of the world as being both bigger and smaller than it feels as an adult. (Bigger because you’re so much smaller yourself and smaller because you see the adults in your life as the most powerful and important people in the universe, not to mention your own experiences as the most important.) I love the character of Peggotty because she reminds me a lot of my paternal grandmother. Not so much her personality (though I don’t know if I’d say her personality is unlike Peggotty’s), as her relationship to me and my brother. She regularly babysat us and would always play ball games with my brother and listen to me read my books despite, I’m sure, having minimal attraction to either of us those pastimes at the most. Just like Peggotty and the “crocodile book.”
I’ve mentioned before that Dickens created a lot of characters you love to hate. Murdstone is unique in that I think you don’t really love to hate him. You just really hate him. I don’t say that as a criticism, and I guess I’m not saying it as praise either. If all the villains in Dickens were that earnestly detestable, they’d probably just make the books unpleasant, but having just one of them works great. There’s more humor to his sister’s characterization and she’s more of a baddie you love to hate. Again, I don’t mean that as criticism or praise, just as observation. Is anyone reading this familiar with the 1950 movie, Cinderella? Disney has kind of an omnipresent marketing machine, so I assume you’ve at least heard of it. Anyway, in the scene where it introduces Cinderella’s stepmother (not counting the prologue), she’s weirdly the best depiction of Mr. Murdstone I’ve seen. (Her cat and her biological daughters are Miss Murdstone.) Here’s a clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEUzJk_94AY
One of the things David notes disdainfully about the Murdstone is that they (initially) won’t let him interact with other children because “the gloomy theology of the Murdstones made all children out to be a swarm of little vipers (though there was a child once set in the midst of the Disciples) and held that they contaminated one another.” But ironically, once David goes to school, it turns out, when you stop to think about it, that the Murdstones aren’t totally wrong. While the other kids don’t make fun of David for his warning sign as much as he fears, they’re not super kind and understanding either. The only one who’s really positively portrayed is Traddles and the one David gravitates toward and admires the most is the contemptible Steerforth. It doesn’t seem like Steerforth is much of a bad influence on David, but he seems to be one on the other boys. I don’t know if Dickens was aware of this irony. Given his contempt for “the Murdstone religion,” I suspect not, but, whether or not it was intentional, it adds to book’s depth and nuance.
It’s interesting that Dickens gave Creakle a tragic backstory of sorts with him being forced to become a schoolmaster after being bankrupt, though the fact that he made away with his wife’s money reflects badly on him. We don’t hear anything like this about Squeers or even the well-intentioned Dr. Blimber. Speaking of Squeers, does anyone else get Nicholas Nickleby vibes from Creakle’s unseen son? (“I heard that Mr. Creakle had a son, who had not been Tungay’s friend, and who, assisting in the school, had once held some remonstrance with his father on an occasion when its discipline was very cruelly exercised, and was supposed, besides, to have protested against his father’s usage of his mother. I heard that Mr. Creakle had turned him out of doors, in consequence; and that Mrs. and Miss Creakle had been in a sad way, ever since.”)
Steerforth is unusual for Dickens in that he’s more like a villain that Jane Austen would create. In each of her novels, or at least most of them, there’s a character who seems really cool and fun but who turns out to be a manipulative cad. Dickens’s writing style didn’t necessarily lend itself to writing this kind of villain. In Dickens, charm is not deceptive; if a character is likeable, they’re good and if they’re unlikeable, they’re bad. It’s far more obvious early on that Steerforth is no good than it is with the average Austen villain, even before the tearjerking scene with Mr. Mell. Dickens had too much of a lust for foreshadowing to really fool the reader into sharing David’s high regard for Steerforth. But that’s not to say I wish Dickens hadn’t written him. Far from it! In fact, I don’t even wish he had made it less obvious that the character was bad news since the dysfunctional relationship between him and young David is so well observed. On this read, I noticed parallels between it and Mr. Murdstone’s relationship with Clara Copperfield, the way she feels like she owes all duty to him, seemingly based on nothing but the man’s charisma, and feels guilty for not doing whatever he says. Actually, that’s kind of how David feels toward the waiter that stole his food too. Like mother, like son, I guess.
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Love your comments here, Stationmaster! I love it that David Copperfield evokes personal recollections, as it has with Boze, and as I think it has done for so many! What is it about this book that has the quality of evoking *memory*, recollection in its readers, even if the readers’ experiences are different in so many ways?
Agreed about the WONDERFUL opening, and Miss Betsey has got to be one of the best characters in all of literature (and one of my personal heroes). Her relationship with Mr Dick, too, is the best!
Interesting that you mention Steerforth as an Austenesque villain, because I’ve been calling him “a Wickham” lately! 🙂 He’s a great character; his charisma and charm have a familiarity to it…we all know those “golden boys” who seem to have all the world at their feet, because they’re so dang *charming*. But the scene with Mr Mell is a check on our enthoosymoosy for him–a “red flag” that all is not well…
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I just finished Chapter 9 and I have to comment on it!
What I remember the most about this part of the story is how sad it is, so I was slightly shocked to be reminded of how David briefly enjoys the celebrity status his mother’s death brings him. It’s in keeping with what I’ve described as this novel’s warts and all approach to its characterization. I’d also forgotten how much humor there is in the clumsy attempts of other characters (Mrs. Creakle, Traddles, Omer, Mr. Chillip) to comfort David.
The description of Mr. Murdstone’s “restlessness” in response to his wife and son’s deaths reminds me of Dombey. I’m not sure if I’d describe Murdstone as an eviler version of Dombey or a less evil one. You could argue that Dombey’s behavior at its worst was worse than Murdstone’s and then again, you could argue it wasn’t, but Dombey’s grief eventually leads him to repentance ala The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain. Murdstone’s doesn’t. Later, Betsey Trotwood suggests that he feels guilt over his treatment of his wife, but if so, this guilt doesn’t make him any kinder to her son.
It’s interesting that on her deathbed, Clara Copperfield seems to realize what a bad parental figure Murdstone is to David. (She says, “God protect and keep my fatherless boy!”) Does this make her ending happier since she at least dies disillusioned? Or does it make it more depressing as we know she died with some idea of what was in store for her firstborn son?
I’ve described this book and the ones Dickens wrote after it as more psychologically nuanced than his previous ones, but that is not to say that there was no psychological nuance in his earlier work. To make that claim would be flat out slanderous! I’d say there was psychological nuance in, say, Walter Bray justifying his treatment of his daughter by telling himself the fact that he feels guilty about it makes him a good person. But with David Copperfield, it became much more prevalent and more of a conscious goal for Dickens.
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I hate to say this, but I’m finding David less sympathetic on this reread than on any of my previous ones. The part where he praises himself for his acute memory is rather self-congratulatory, though he does say he believes children in general have great memories. And his lament that working as a warehouse drudge was a waste of his intelligence is rather diva-esque. Since that part was based on Dickens’s own childhood experiences, I suspect it never occurred to him that it might not come across so well. To be fair though, while David sees the company of Mick Walker and Mealy Potatoes as beneath him, he does credit the former for defending him against the latter. I’d forgotten about that intriguing detail.
OK, controversial opinion time. Mr. Micawber isn’t my favorite character in the book. I mean I do consider him a great character, but there are a lot of memorable figures in David Copperfield. He doesn’t stand out among them to me as he stands out for many readers. Part of that may be because so much of his humor comes from using ridiculous flowery, overelaborate language and since Dickens’s language already seems flowery to modern readers, it can be harder to pick up on and appreciate the comedy than it was for his original audience. Micawber can be seen as similar to some of the comedic supporting characters in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost in that way. (For the record, I love Love’s Labour’s Lost, but I have to admit some of its comedy has aged less well than the rest.) Actually, I love Mr. Micawber more for the character development he receives later in the book. For other readers though, this section of the book where young David is his lodger seems to be the most iconic part.
I’m more of a fan of Mrs. Micawber, though, again, it’s less because of this section of her story and more because of later developments. When I first read her breakdown in Chapter 12, I wonder if Dickens was foreshadowing that she would eventually “desert Mr. Micawber,” since she seemed to be arguing with herself and “protesting too much.” I was gratified to read that she didn’t though. It’s nice when things in a book are a little different from what you’d expect. There are quite a few things in David Copperfield like that. Even though she’s a more humorous character, I’d say that Mrs. Micawber’s loyalty to her undeserving husband actually does come across as noble and heroic whereas that of David’s mother comes across as pathetic at best. I don’t mean that as a criticism BTW. I think it’s exactly the impression that Dickens intended to give.
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What a joy-ride we’re on with “David Copperfield”!
Joy in the sense of remarkable plots, subplots, characters, twists, and turns–a bit like an unnerving roller-coaster.
Boze, thanks so much for the superb introduction and for sharing your personal passion for “David Copperfield” and this novel’s place in his works and in literature generally. I would like to know what you wrote about in your college thesis–the thesis of your thesis, if you will. (And, what a great criterion for choosing your intimate friends!)
And, Stationmaster, it is a joy-ride in itself to read your experience of reading Copperfield! I delight in your fresh, unvarnished reactions.
A few observations and ruminations.
1. Opening lines to the introduction: How wonderful, Boze! “Welcome, ladies and masters! Is it possible to be the hero of one’s own life? How badly can the impulses of an “undisciplined heart” lead one astray? Can a lone, lorn creetur find joy and contentment?”
The joy-ride was on!
2. Rising to the level of myth: “There is a scene towards the end of the book—you’ll know it when you read it—that for sheer narrative power and catharsis has no equal in Dickens. It rivals Patroclus and Achilles, and Jesus in Gethsemane; aiming for tragedy, it over-leaps itself and vaults into the realm of myth.”
That is a gripping description, Boze. I’m eager to experience it afresh! (My wife, who is a writer, responded to this scene in much the same way–jaw-dropping narrative power.)
3. Verbal leitmotifs: I find it so delighting and useful to have these minor refrains regarding characters: “something will turn up”; “lone, lorn creetur,” “‘umble.” It reminds me of fine play productions in which certain pieces of attire alert the audience to the character being portrayed.
4. Dickens’ capacity to “manage” our emotions: Stationmaster, I really appreciated this observation about your gut reaction to Betsey Trotwood. “Dickens had been in perfect control of my reaction all along.”
Isn’t this pervasively true about Dickens’ writing and how people held their breath between the release of installments?
5. Everyone needs a Peggotty: I’m reminded about a proverbial insight in attachment theory and psychology. Every child needs someone to be madly, irrationally in love with her/him. That’s Peggotty vis-a-vis David. A true saving grace.
I’m enthralled by the novel, Armitage’s brilliant rendering of it, and the commentary here.
Let’s continue the joy-ride of “David Copperfield”!
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I just listened to the first installment (of nineteen) by Dr. Christian Lehmann. It is immensely illuminating. Among other things, Dr. Lehmann pointed out the following.
*Onomastics: the study of names, and how vital names are in Dickens
*The two now’s in DC: the “now” of David as a character and the “now” of David as narrator
*Reversal: “David Copperfield,” DC, is a reversal of “Charles Dickens, CD
*Close reading of text: Dr. Lehmann does an exquisite job of unpacking a brief portion of text, illustrating the layers of meaning.
*Text and illustrations/images: Two types of literacy
So very worth learning from Dr. Lehmann as we read Copperfield. Here’s a link to the first installment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yR8joMorWdw&list=PL7EfJHTTECMMbKTEipWSJiZ_m4aQ7KnZH&index=1
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I have been keeping up with these. They are a great companion to the chapters we are working through! 😀
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This is my first-time reading David Copperfield and I’m so enjoying it. I do appreciate those of you adding “spoiler alerts” to your comments, as I want to learn about the plot and characters right from the book itself.
I am struck by the clarity, directness, and simplicity of the first-person narration. Coming after the very flowery and somewhat formal Christmas books, it is refreshing! I like how the story gets interesting immediately and stays that way through all twelve chapters.
At first, I was a disappointed when Mr. Murdstone was introduced – I thought – oh no, another purely evil character dialed up to eleven! It just seemed repetitive and formulaic, and I wondered again, why would Davy’s mother marry someone so awful? I understand women sometimes had little choice in the matter; there are financial concerns, but still…there must have been someone else! Miss Murdstone, the sister, is more interesting somehow, but not much – she seems like a more extreme version of Mrs. Pipchin.
However, I soon recognized that these initial chapters are Dickens way of telling his own family story and revealing his traumatic experience of abandonment at the blacking factory. It became apparent that he needed Davy to go through his own trauma and turmoil with the Murdstones to tell that story. And once he’s there, Dickens tells of his feelings and concerns in a most engaging and vivid way – it’s quite touching when one knows that this is essentially a “true story”.
Peggotty and her family seem very real to me. They “work” as characters more for me than say Captain Cuttle and the other “happy” characters in Dombey. The essential situation, of a loving nurse coming to regard her charges as “family” is more natural and believable. Mrs. Micawber is also great – there is a fullness to her characterization that is very pleasing. And I thought the chapters on the school were very well done too – Steerforth intrigues me – he seems to have the “shades of gray” that sometimes seem missing from Dickens’s characters. I hope that we see more of him and the Micawbers too!
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I definitely don’t think Dickens intended Mrs. Copperfield to marry again for financial reasons. All the stress is on how flattered she is by his interest in her and if she had practical motivation, I’m sure she would bring it up when arguing with Peggotty.
I’ve read DC before, but I think I just wasn’t paying attention. This time, what strikes me is the absolute power and distinctiveness of the voice – the adult voice framing and remembering and re-enacting, unwaveringly, the child David’s point of view. In Bleak House we get Dickens as panoramic social commentator, turning his gaze everywhere and animating and excoriating everything that is awful. Writing from the outside in, as it were. But this is utterly different. It’s writing from the inside out.
Also, the story telling in the hounding of Mr Mell, and the drawing of Steerforth’s character, all thro young David’s point of view but the adult David’s voice, were perfection. I didn’t realise Dickens could do character in that complexity and depth (and horror).
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Is there anyone who has tried to comment but doesn’t see their comments listed yet? I am trying to make sure I’ve appoved everything. Sadly, WordPress makes us “approve” the first 2-3 comments for each person, and then they’ll automatically be approved after that 🖤
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Wonderful comments, everyone! Here are mine:
Clara is not quite like other “young, beautiful, and good” women we have met to date – Rose Maylie, Kate Nickleby, Little Nell, Dolly & Emma, Ruth Pinch, Florence Dombey – in that she is so pliable whereas the others had some backbone. Clara is incapable of standing up for herself or her son, even when she appears to do so with Peggotty. Her dressing-down of Peggotty and assertions of her one behavior (Ch II, Ch VIII) are self-deluding rationalizations for her ineffectiveness in combating or resisting the Murdstone assault. Peggotty, in true sisterhood, gives Clara through these incidents an opportunity to vent pent up feelings which otherwise have no outlet. It is comforting that Clara’s last words, according to Peggotty, are of Mr Copperfield, who “told her, when she doubted herself, that a loving heart was better and stronger than wisdom, and that he was a happy man in hers” (Ch IX) rather than of anything Mr Murdstone might have told her.
Aunt Betsey is a type we have not seen before – an older, independent and independently minded woman. She is abrupt but not unkind, intruding but not intrusive. Her brief appearance in Ch I harkens back to “Dombey and Son” but in reverse in that she wanted a baby girl but got a boy. Her disappointment is more humorously dealt with than is Dombey’s and its effect on the child in question is negligible (at least for now). And do we get a hint of Miss Havisham of “Great Expectations” in terms of Aunt Betsey’s plans for “Betsey Trotwood Copperfield. There must be no mistakes in life with THIS Betsey Trotwood. There must be no trifling with HER affections, poor dear. She must be well brought up, and well guarded from reposing any foolish confidences where they are not deserved. I must make that MY care.” (Ch I)
Dickens takes Mr Dombey and Mrs Chick to the next level in creating Mr Murdstone and Miss Murdstone. Mrs Chick’s mantra of “you must make an effort” has become the Murdstone’s “creed” of “Firmness”:
“Firmness, I may observe, was the grand quality on which both Mr. and Miss Murdstone took their stand. However I might have expressed my comprehension of it at that time, if I had been called upon, I nevertheless did clearly comprehend in my own way, that it was another name for tyranny; and for a certain gloomy, arrogant, devil’s humour, that was in them both. The creed, as I should state it now, was this. Mr. Murdstone was firm; nobody in his world was to be so firm as Mr. Murdstone; nobody else in his world was to be firm at all, for everybody was to be bent to his firmness. Miss Murdstone was an exception. She might be firm, but only by relationship, and in an inferior and tributary degree. My mother was another exception. She might be firm, and must be; but only in bearing their firmness, and firmly believing there was no other firmness upon earth.” (Ch IV)
The Murdstone’s are the Dombey/Chick’s on steroids. Mr Dombey would have envied Murdstone’s ability to make people – especially wives – subservient to his authority, and Mrs Chick would have envied Miss Murdstone’s position as surrogate for her brother.
Mr Murdstone is utterly inflexible, never exhibiting a suppressed heart as Dombey (very) occasionally does (e.g., in the carriage going to the Christening). The one time we see a softer emotion in Murdstone, “weeping silently, and pondering in his elbow-chair” after the death of his wife and child (Ch IX), I am too strongly reminded of Dombey’s sentiment “that if his wife should sicken and decay, he would be very sorry, and that he would find a something gone from among his plate and furniture, and other household possessions, which was well worth the having, and could not be lost without sincere regret.” (D&S Ch 1) Like Dombey, Murstone’s tears seem to be more for the loss of his son than for that of his wife, And again, like Dombey toward Florence, Murstone cannot forgive David for surviving:
‘Peggotty,’ I said in a thoughtful whisper, one evening, when I was warming my hands at the kitchen fire, ‘Mr. Murdstone likes me less than he used to. He never liked me much, Peggotty; but he would rather not even see me now, if he can help it.’
‘Perhaps it’s his sorrow,’ said Peggotty, stroking my hair.
‘I am sure, Peggotty, I am sorry too. If I believed it was his sorrow, I should not think of it at all. But it’s not that; oh, no, it’s not that.’
‘How do you know it’s not that?’ said Peggotty, after a silence.
‘Oh, his sorrow is another and quite a different thing. He is sorry at this moment, sitting by the fireside with Miss Murdstone; but if I was to go in, Peggotty, he would be something besides.’
‘What would he be?’ said Peggotty.
‘Angry,’ I answered, with an involuntary imitation of his dark frown. ‘If he was only sorry, he wouldn’t look at me as he does. I am only sorry, and it makes me feel kinder.’ (DC Ch X)
As for Jane Murdstone, she would never lower herself to shed tears as Mrs Chick does. Whereas Mrs Chick uses her tears as an indication of her superior “feeling”, Miss Murdstone IS SIMPLY superior and indicates as much by her unfeeling behavior. The Murdstone’s rebuff David more actively than Dombey and Mrs Chick do Florence. Dombey, in his heart of hearts, may hate Florence, and Mrs Chick may disparage Florence to Miss Tox, but they do not openly mock her or criticize her for the sheer pleasure of it or to injure others through it (though Dombey does threaten Edith with the prospect of doing so). Florence is simply shunned and allowed to live in the comforts provided by her father’s station (e.g., she continues to be educated and is allowed freedom of movement within & without the house (see D&S Ch 23). And while Florence feels (rightly) that she is (dare I say “simply’) an unwanted daughter, she IS a daughter (after all). David is made to feel like an intruder, an obstacle, a burden from the very beginning. He is not Mr Murdstone’s son, he is “Bewitching Mrs Copperfield’s encumbrance” (Ch II) and Mr Murdstone has no compunction about removing David from his sphere. David’s removal to Salem House is akin Nicholas Nickleby’s being sent to Squeers’ school – get the boy out of the way, as far away and as miserably away as possible. And after his mother’s death, the funding for David’s education is cut off as an unnecessary expense and David is dispatched to a more permanent and degrading exile in the wine warehouse.
David’s hero worship of Steerforth is, to me, always so troubling because Steerforth is not a likable guy. He’s already a cad at age 12 – to David, “You haven’t got a sister, have you? . . . That’s a pity, . . . If you had had one, I should think she would have been a pretty, timid, little, bright-eyed sort of girl. I should have liked to know her.” (Ch VI) – with an over-the-top sense of entitlement – to Mr Mell, ‘I don’t give myself the trouble of thinking at all about you, . . . so I’m not mistaken, as it happens.” (Ch VII). Mr Mell’s & Steerforth’s altercation and its aftermath (which anticipates that of Eugene Wrayburn and Bradley Headstone in “Our Mutual Friend”), underscores not simply class division but the callousness too often associated with it. It is not just that Steerforth believes he is better than Mr Mell, it is that Steerforth respects neither him nor his authority as school master. His friendship for David is, well, I won’t go into this quite yet but will let it play out for the time being.
The Peggotty circle, and I think we can add Mr Barkis here, is a nice retreat for David, giving him a glimpse of loving, caring, salt of the earth people. Their being decidedly opposite of the Murdstones gives David a buoy, to use a seafaring reference, to the “real world” where industrious effort is necessary to sustain one’s life and that of one’s family. The Micawber’s are another such group that works to keep David grounded and from becoming too morose over his situation. Rather, their example coupled with his drudgery at the wine warehouse and the knowledge that he will never return to Blunderstone leads him to the realization that he must actively, well, act if he is to thrive:
“That there was no hope of escape from it, unless the escape was my own act, I knew quite well. I rarely heard from Miss Murdstone, and never from Mr Murdstone . . . not the least hint of my ever being anything else than the common drudge into which I was fast settling down.” (Ch XII)
And so he, like Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby & Smike, Little Nell, Joe Willet, Martin Chuzzlewit, and even Florence Dombey before him, runs away to save his very life.
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I didn’t think to mention it before reading your comment, but the dynamic between Creakle and Mr. Mell is interesting. It’s implied Creakle always knew about Mr. Mell’s mother and took advantage of that, sort of like how Squeers took advantage of Nicholas Nickleby’s desperation for a job, as long as no one explicitly referred to Mr. Mell’s low status-at least not “in public.” Then when Steerforth did just that, Creakle believed he had to fire him to preserve the school’s dignity.
What a jerk!
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Such penetrating insights.
Chris, thanks much for your astute comparisons between various iterations of Dickens’ “core company” in different novels.
I do think that David suffers, in part, from a kind of “absent father syndrome” (his father’s early death) and then an “abusive father syndrome” (Murdstone). It’s no wonder to me that he would have romanticized the charming, handsome, self-possessed Steerforth.
So much that Dickens holds up to us, as a mirror, is our own capacity for vulnerability and self-deception, including projecting our own wishes and experiences on to others.
David’s head-over-heels infatuation with Dora seems to me to be a “case study” in being in love with love . . . not the other person, intrinsically.
P.S. Lenny, I laughed out loud at your observation that we are putty in Dickens’ skillful hands just as David is in Steerforth’s. OUCH!!!!!