WHEREIN WE REVISIT OUR sixth and final week of David Copperfield (WEEKs 72 OF THE DICKENS CHRONOLOGICAL READING CLUB 2022-24); WITH A CHAPTER SUMMARY AND DISCUSSION WRAP-UP; CONTAINING A LOOK-AHEAD TO our break and next read, Bleak House.
(Banner image: “They drew him to my very feet–insensible–dead,” by Fred Barnard. Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham for Victorian Web.)
By the members of the #DickensClub, edited/compiled by Rach
“Long before we saw the sea, its spray was on our lips, and showered salt rain upon us…I put up at the old inn, and went down to look at the sea; staggering along the street, which was strewn with sand and seaweed, and with flying blotches of sea–foam; afraid of falling slates and tiles…”
Friends, we have been through a lot with David this week: two poignant deaths, the exposure of that “Heep” of infamy, the parting with friends, the primeval tempest at Yarmouth. We’ve traveled abroad with him as he grieves for what he has lost, including, he fears, the chance to be with the one woman who had been like a guiding star to him all along.
If you have a chance to read one thing here, check out our final thematic wrap-up, where we try and pull our many themes and spotlights from the readalong together. Let us know in the comments if something is missing!
There is so much to wrap up today, but first, a few quick links:
- General Mems
- David Copperfield, Chs 51-64: A Summary
- Discussion Wrap-Up
- Final Thematic Wrap-Up
- A Look-Ahead to Our Break, and Upcoming Read: Bleak House
First of all, a warm welcome to our newest member, Jacquelyn! She will be reading Bleak House with us, and we’re thrilled to have her aboard!
Friends, Boze will have an introduction to Bleak House on 6 June, and we’ll take a full 2 months* for it with wrap-ups every other week, as a trial run of the longer schedule option that many of our members were interested in.
(*Note: we’re adding in a week to our final quarter of the Bleak House readalong, to accommodate those members who are attending the Dickens Universe in Santa Cruz, whether in person or online. This conference is not affiliated with the Club, but a few of our members will be participating.)
If you’re counting, today is Day 504 (and week 73) in our #DickensClub! Today we’re doing our final wrap-up of David Copperfield, our seventeenth read of the group, followed by a 2-week break between reads before beginning Bleak House. Please feel free to comment below this post for any final comments, questions, impressions, on David Copperfield, or about what you’ll be reading during the break! 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!) and The Charles Dickens Illustrated Gallery for providing such marvelous online resources 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. For Boze’s marvelous intro to the novel we’re wrapping up today, David Copperfield, please click here.
David Copperfield, Chs 51-64: A Summary
(Note: The below illustrations are by “Phiz,” Hablot Knight Browne, from the original edition, and have been downloaded from the marvelous Charles Dickens Illustrated Gallery. Thank you!)
Mr Peggotty visits David, and tells Emily’s whole story; her nighttime flight where she had been expecting Steerforth, only to be abandoned and driven wild with passion, and taken in by a kind woman who nursed her back to health. Emily fled to France and found work there, but also found Steerforth, from whom she found the wherewithal to run away. By the time she got back to England, Martha found and saved her, thanks to the conversation between Martha, David, and Mr Peggotty.
Mr Peggotty thinks of taking Emily to Australia, where she can start a new life and not have harsh words said of her; Mrs Gummidge, who has proven herself a changed woman, begs to go along with them.
The time has come for Mr Micawber’s revelations about Uriah Heep, and Micawber does so in front of a gathered assembly—including David, Traddles, Aunt Betsey, and Mr Dick—at Mr Wickfield’s home. Heep is there too, and only too late does he realise that this is “a conspiracy.”
“‘If there is a scoundrel on this earth,’ Mr. Micawber, suddenly breaking out again with the utmost vehemence, ‘with whom I have already talked too much, that scoundrel’s name is—HEEP!”
Mr Micawber then, in a grand theatrical style, begins to name Heep’s business fraud and villainy—he is “the Forger and the Cheat”—including the loss of Miss Betsey’s property, which was Heep’s doing—telling Heep that evidence is in their possession. Micawber’s services “were constantly called into requisition for the falsification of business, and the mystification of an individual whom I will designate as Mr. W. That Mr. W. was imposed upon, kept in ignorance, and deluded, in every possible way.” They have proofs safe, including a real memoranda book that Heep had thrown away, proving the falsity of the one that is kept as the official record.
Aunt Betsey is in a rage at Heep, and Heep is requested to give over his part of Mr Wickfield’s business, and to allow himself to be held under custody while they contemplate what to do. Aunt Betsey, impressed by the Micawbers and grateful to them, asks if, considering their financial difficulties and the many possibilities that lie in Australia, whether they have considered emigration. Micawber and the family take to the idea at once.
Back at home, David is distressed at Dora’s increased weakness, which appears now irrevocable. Jip, too, is a shadow of his former self, and has lost his spirit. Dora considers that it is “better as it is,” and feels the regret of marrying too young, afraid that David will have come to regret marrying her in time. David feels the sadness and reproach of her words.
“Would it, indeed, have been better if we had loved each other as a boy and a girl, and forgotten it? Undisciplined heart, reply!”
Dora requests to see Agnes. She comes, and while David is waiting downstairs, Jip quietly passes away. By the time Agnes comes down, greatly moved and unable to speak, she can only silently point upward, to where Dora lies. Dora is dead, too.
“That face, so full of pity, and of grief, that rain of tears, that awful mute appeal to me, that solemn hand upraised towards Heaven!”
David is grief-stricken, but knows there are things that need attending to before he can give full vent and time to his grief. Traddles has been able to recover the loss of Miss Betsey’s property, and she is loaning the Micawbers the money to emigrate—she also pays for their release, as Micawber was taken for debt. We hear also that Aunt Betsey’s husband has died.
The day of the journey for the Micawbers and the Peggottys is nearing, and David journeys to Yarmouth after having written Emily a letter of Ham’s love and forgiveness.
“I now approach an event in my life, so indelible, so awful, so bound by an infinite variety of ties to all that has preceded it, in these pages, that, from the beginning of my narrative, I have seen it growing larger and larger as I advanced, like a great tower in a plain, and throwing its fore-cast shadow even on the incidents of my childish days.”
Approaching Yarmouth, however, the sky is dark and the wind is coming in such violent gusts that trees have been uprooted and much damage done. The waves are so high that the whole town seems in danger of them. David secures lodgings for himself, then seeks out Ham who has gone to Lowestoft to help in ship repairs.
“…as the night advanced, the clouds closing in and densely over-spreading the whole sky, then very dark, it came on to blow, harder are harder.”
David is restless that night, until, hearing from a waiter that a ship carrying goods from abroad is wrecked off the nearby shore, and they fear the loss of life and goods on the ship. David goes to the shore, and can see that the distant crew are trying to rid the ship of the mast that is dragging it down. One crewman in particular, with his curling hair, catches his eye.
A rescue boat has been tried, but the storm is raging too much. Ham enters the scene, determined to try and swim out to them, moored to a rope, to see if any lives can be saved. David tries to dissuade him, but Ham is determined. He tries and fails at first, as the waves are so strong; he tries again and is overwhelmed by one monster wave. When he is pulled in by the rope, he is dead. The crewman who David had noticed earlier is dead too, washed ashore: it is Steerforth.
“…he led me to the shore. And on that part of it where she and I had looked for shells, two children – on that part of it where some lighter fragments of the old boat, blown down last night, had been scattered by the wind – among the ruins of the home he had wronged – I saw him lying with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school.”
With the help of Joram, David takes the body of Steerforth in a hearse to the home of his mother in Highgate. Rosa lashes out at the news, saying that no one cared for him as she herself did; Mrs Steerforth is numbed by the shock.
David then parts with the Micawbers and the Peggottys—and Martha too, who is to go with them—as they board the ship, and he watches as Emily waves.
Encouraged by Agnes, David goes abroad where he can finally confront his grief—at the loss of Dora, and of his old friend, Steerforth. Though not intending to stay so long, three years pass before he returns home, by which time he has written a book and sent it to Traddles to assist in its publication. David, in his time away, has confronted not only his grief, but the knowledge that he loves Agnes, and has always loved her and has been unable to recognize it; but also that the time has passed and he is unworthy to consider her in any other light than that which he has always done. He feels he has forfeited that right now.
Upon his return to England, he finds not only a successful man in his friend Traddles, but that Traddles is just married to his beloved Sophy at last—David had missed the letter that he had written to inform him. He finds Traddles in the midst of Sophy’s playful sisters, who brighten the stark business atmosphere of Traddles’ office.
David meets up briefly with Mr Chillip, who gives David knowledge of the Murdstones, and how Murdstone had driven his newest wife to something like madness. David then visits his aunt and Mr Dick—and also his dear Peggotty, who is devoted to his aunt and remains with her now. He also hears of how everyone is faring, and that the Micawbers continue to repay their loan from Miss Betsey faithfully.
David visits Agnes, thinking by a hint from his aunt that she has some attachment. They reunite and David also hears from her father, at last, the story of Agnes’ mother, who had died when Agnes was a baby, partly in distress at her family’s disownment of her, as she had married him against their wishes.
Meanwhile, while David recovers and continues his writing in Dover at his aunt’s home, Traddles has become David’s business manager—somewhat in the nature of a John Forster to Dickens—and on one of his London visits to Traddles, finds that Sophy has been practicing writing out copy to assist in Traddles’ work, and doing it beautifully. They are the happiest of married couples, in spite of having so many others relying on them.
Traddles and David then visit a prison where their old schoolmaster-nemesis Mr Creakle is now the warden, out of sheer curiosity in response to a letter from that gentleman. Creakle shows off the “model” prisoners, who turn out to be none other than Uriah Heep and Mr Littimer. Heep has gone back to his effusive humility, feigning his blissful state, and making prison sound something to envy. (David finds out later that Littimer had nearly gone abroad after his theft of a large sum of money—caught by “a dwarf” that David assumes to have been Miss Mowcher—and Uriah had been trying to cheat the Bank of England.)
Months pass, and David visits Agnes frequently. On one visit, he, still self-denying in his belief that the time where he might have won Agnes’ heart has passed, tries to encourage her to tell him if there is something on her mind or heart. (He believes it might be an attachment to someone and she is afraid to tell him.) The truth then, comes out: she loves David, and always has. They become engaged, greatly to the delight of Miss Betsey and Mr Dick. After their quiet wedding, Agnes reveals to David the reason why Dora wanted to see Agnes near her death: Dora wished that no one but Agnes must occupy the vacant place in his heart.
Ten years pass, and David is a happy husband and father. One night, Mr Peggotty visits unexpectedly, looking older, but hearty. He will be returning to Australia soon, but has come for a visit, and he updates David on the happenings over the years. Martha is married to a farmer, Emily teaches schoolchildren and is a help to all—as is Mrs Gummidge, who has remained such a true and faithful companion. Mr. Micawber is a magistrate, as David reads about in a paper that Peggotty has brought with him—a section of the paper appears to be directly addressed to David, with all of Micawber’s gratitude, and David wonders whether the whole paper were perhaps written by Micawber.
In our final chapter, David touches upon all the lives who have touched his, and ours, during the journey. His aunt is now past eighty, but hale and hearty as ever in her long daily walks, and is attended by the faithful Peggotty. Mr Dick flies his kites as he continues working on his Memorial. Mrs Steerforth only now begins to take in the fact of her son’s death, and has only Rosa Dartle for comfort. Miss Mills is now rich and returned from India with her husband. Dr Strong and Annie are happier than ever—as are Traddles and Sophy, who find their happiness together while caring for everyone else. His final words, however, are reserved for Agnes, his light and guiding star, as he watches her serene face.
“My lamp burns low, and I have written far into the night; but the dear presence, without which I were nothing, bears me company.
O Agnes, O my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed; so may I, when realities are melting from me, like the shadows which I now dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upward!”
Miscellany, and What We Loved
Check out the Stationmaster’s review of the delightfully quirky and vibrant 2019 version of David Copperfield:
Earlier, we’d discussed how Copperfield is simply “about life”–and here Henry rejoices that the overall perspective of it is never “gloomy or misanthropic”:
Dickens’s “Writing Lab”: Characterization and Character Arcs
Here the Stationmaster discusses the things that surprised him that he’d forgotten about; things that worked–and perhaps didn’t, quite–and how Dora and Ham have their moments to really shine:
Dickens’s “Writing Lab” #2: The “Best” of Dickens?–Sea and “Tempest”
I posted about Harry Stone’s wonderful passages on the sublime beauty and perfection of Chapter 55 (“Tempest”). Here is a highlight from Stone:
Rob loves this gorgeously-written chapter, and compares it to passages on the sea in American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit:
Boze challenges us to consider whether this is “his best novel”–I’ll circle back around to this question at the end–and analyzes the “mesmeric effect on the reader” created by his words, particularly in the “Tempest” chapter. “We are in a dream world–more, in a sort of nightmare”:
“Better as it is”: Dickens, Chapter 53, Heroic Resignation, and Characters who Feel Insufficient
Those who know me well know that I’m obsessed with A Tale of Two Cities, a book that haunted and moved me so much in my early twenties, that I’ve read or listened to the whole of it at least twenty times, and I was always haunted by the repetition of our hero there that “it is”–“it” here meaning, circumstances unfavorable to him, even tragic; things not turning out as he would hope–“better as it is.” It is such an ordinary phrase, used to such poignant effect. I’ve heard it elsewhere in Dickens, and was struck to see it used in Chapter 53, from the mouth of Dora.
As I mentioned this phrase on twitter in response to The Dickens’s Society’s tweet about our favorite of Dickens’s “self-plagiarisms,” where he reuses his own words, images, etc, Dr Christian responded by doing a search for this phrase in Dickens, and it resulted in “11 uses across 4 novels”!
Rob discusses this chapter (Chapter 53), and its power to move him every time. “I weep like I will never give up weeping!”
Character Spotlight: Mr Omer
Shout-out to Chris for giving a spotlight on one of our overlooked minor characters, Mr Omer, “such a gentle man” who is “at crucial moments an example to David of generosity and kindliness, stability and encouragement”:
The Ending of Copperfield; Our Various Couples (David/Dora; David/Agnes; Traddles/Sophy; Dickens and Wish-Fulfillment; The Secret of Happiness and the Problem with Wrapping Things Up Too Neatly
Stationmaster discusses some poignant things about our characters here at the end–not forgetting our dear Jip at the last. He also discusses some of the issues alluded to at the beginning, as to whether we will be satisfied by the David-Agnes relationship, which he finds “bland”:
Does Dickens dispense with our problematic characters (e.g. the Micawbers, Emily, Martha) too easily? Is it merely “wish fulfillment”? He finds the final chapters a little too “meandering,” yet the book’s “virtues are so wonderful that its faults don’t matter much”:
Chris circles back to a conversation we’d all had at the beginning–whether we would appreciate Chesterton’s perspective on the relationships of Dora/David vs. Agnes/David; and also, whether Dickens too easily dispenses with problematic characters by having them die or sending them abroad, and whether we wouldn’t prefer the prospect of, for example, a lifetime of David’s loaning money to the Micawbers, because they are so colorful, and problems are simply part of a vibrant life:
Though I’d have liked to put a separate spotlight on Traddles and Sophy, one of the happiest couples in literature, I didn’t want to break up Chris’s above thoughts, and they are one of the examples of the vibrant life that Dickens incorporates into the end. I respond to Chris here on several points, including on our delightful couple:
Do Traddles and Sophy have the “secret of Happiness”–finding joy in imperfection and in life’s chaos?
The “Bildungsroman of the Soul”: Character Arc in Our Hero
Here I consider David in light of Dickens’s earlier “bildungsroman” characters. Perhaps he had further to go, internally, than any except Martin Chuzzlewit:
Comedy, Tragedy, and the Micawbers
Though this could be incorporated in the above discussion about the satisfaction–or otherwise–with the finale, I wanted to highlight our old friends, the Micawbers. Here the Stationmaster discusses their bittersweet finale, the tragic-comic emigration:
“Ghosts,” Memory, The Hero of David’s Life
Here, the Stationmaster challenges us to consider David’s initial proposal to his reader–i.e. whether he turns out to be the hero of his own life. He thinks that David feels that Agnes filled that role, but the Stationmaster considers her “one among many heroes”:
“In consideration of the day and hour of my birth, it was declared by the nurse, and by some sage women in the neighbourhood who had taken a lively interest in me several months before there was any possibility of our becoming personally acquainted, first, that I was destined to be unlucky in life; and secondly, that I was privileged to see ghosts and spirits; both these gifts inevitably attaching, as they believed, to all unlucky infants of either gender, born towards the small hours on a Friday night.”~David Copperfield, Chapter 1
Perhaps we’ll end on this note, as the Stationmaster once again brings us around full circle, to the beginning, noting something that can easily be overlooked: the prediction that, because of the hour of David’s birth, he “was privileged to see ghosts and spirits”–and the Stationmaster argued that, surrounded by his characters always, it “looks like he got his inheritance after all”–just as Dickens did, surrounded always by his characters:
Final Thematic Wrap-Up
- Contrasts: Light & Dark; Comedy & Tragedy; Life and Death (Continuing this theme from the very beginning of our Club. Here, particularly in the tragic nature of Dora’s story; the comic-tragic element to the Micawbers’ journey that Stationmaster referenced. Dickens’s ability to have comedy and tragedy side-by-side, e.g. the quasi-dark-comic scene where the Creakles must tell David of his mother’s death.)
- Self-Definition Through Characterization; Dickens as the “Haunted Man”; “Wish Fulfillment” (Carrying on this theme from previous reads. Here, we’ve written a lot about David’s/Dickens’s sense of “loss” or “something wanting”; of his “wish fulfillment” in the ending with Agnes–the problematic-?-tendency to get rid of the characters who are likely to be burdensome.)
- The Joys of Reading Dickens Aloud (Though we’ve not discussed this in depth here, Boze and I read Copperfield aloud together, interspersed with audio. Check out Rob’s wonderful audio version!)
- Dickens’ Women; Rosa, Emily, Miss Mowcher, Clara Copperfield, Peggotty, Miss Betsey; Miss Betsey as the “Moral Center” (The Stationmaster first brought this up: do we give the place of “moral center” to Agnes? Miss Betsey? I argued for Miss Betsey and Mr Dick–the foundational parental, faithful figures for David. Lenny agrees about Miss Betsey as the novel’s moral center and “unsung hero.” Chris draws our attention to Rosa Dartle, and how the interchanges between her and Steerforth “should put David on the alert.” She also discusses the incomparable “sisterhood” in sense and practicality that forms between Miss Betsey and Peggotty. Lenny and I–here I refer to Dr Christian–discuss the commodification of Little Emily–the emblematic moment is Steerforth’s naming of the boat the “Little Em’ly.”)
- “The Search for the Perfect Parent” (The Stationmaster published a special blog post dedicated to this theme during the first week of our journey with Copperfield.)
- Dickens’ “Writing Lab”: Characterization & Character Arcs; Sympathy for the Villain; Foreshadowing and Deja-Vu; Inaction in the Protagonist; “Writing from the Inside Out”; David Copperfield is Simply “About Life” (Lucy and Jeff discussed the power of the first-person narration; Lucy writes that DC is different because he is writing from the inside out; we’ve all discussed various aspects of the “writing lab” weekly. Chris on foreshadowing and the unique early-?- use of deja-vu; Chris and Stationmaster analyzing Dickens’s characterization, Chris often noting where there are echoes of Dickens’s former characters; Rob, Boze and I touching a lot on the descriptive powers of Dickens which are in full force in the “Tempest” chapter.)
- Dickens, Single Parents, and Fatherless Boys (Stationmaster and Daniel tackled this topic; again, related to “the search for the perfect parent” above. Mr Dick as possible victim of abuse. Steerforth as regretting having had no father to guide him.)
- Sea and “Tempest”: Dickens’s Greatest Chapter and his Fascination with the Sea (Rob wrote of this, as did Rach, citing Harry Stone. Few writers were more effective in writing of the sea, the river, and those who make their living by either. The sea as primordial force, and an echo of eternity; of things coming in full circle; of life and death.)
- Doubling (Several of us commented on this: the doubling of Martha and Emily; of the David/Dora relationship to that of Murstone and Clara.)
- Dickens & Shakespeare; Dickens and the Stage (Continuing this theme. Though we didn’t follow up with the discussion, Stationmaster brought up a fascinating point: is the red ribbon a kind of Desdemona’s handkerchief?)
- A “Pilgrim’s Progress” from One Novel to Another; A “Bildungsroman of the Soul”: Maturing the “Undisciplined Heart” (I brought this up in the final week; with the exception of Martin Chuzzlewit, our heroes, so far–Nicholas, Oliver, Little Nell, Walter, and Floy–all are upright from first to last, only lacking the knowledge that comes from experience and hardship. With David, we have a sense that he had more of a soul-journey to go on, learning how his decisions have sometimes negatively impacted those around him, and himself.)
- Forgiveness and Repentance (Mr Peggotty as father figure in a “prodigal daughter” story; recurring theme in Dickens.)
- Ghosts and Memory; Fidelity (Stationmaster brought this up in the first week, and again at the end. Also, how Dickens does indeed bring to fulfillment the prophecy from the opening–that David will be able to see ghosts–as he sees these characters around him always.)
- Underlings: Power, Subservience, Revenge, Rebellion; Uriah Heep and False Humility (Continuing this theme from earlier characters–e.g. Carker, Gashford, etc. Uriah Heep as one of the great villains. Dana, Chris, the Stationmaster have particularly commented on his unique place in literature; Dana thinks he might be Dickens’s best villain; we’ve all touched on him in some way.)
- The Secret of Happiness: Finding Joy in the Messiness of Life; or, In Praise of Traddles and Sophy (Chris, Rob, Boze and I particularly touched on this in the last week. Chris praises the chaos that the Traddles couple thrives in, brightening others’ lives and finding their joy in it. I wonder whether they have “the secret of Happiness”?)
- Dickens and Romanticism (A continued theme from early on in our readings, carried on by Lenny, and commented on by Rob, who discusses David’s “notions of courtship” and whether Dickens was “poised between Realism and Romanticism.”)
- The “Gray Shades of Steerforth” (We’ve all commented on this fascinating character, Jeff and Dana particularly. Dana discusses Steerforth as a particularly astute psychological portrait. Rob describes him as a Byronic character. Have we all known “a Steerforth”? Stationmaster refers to Steerforth as a particularly Austenesque villain. Lenny and Henry discuss Steerforth as the shadow side of David’s personality.)
- Dickens, Chesterton, and the Problem of Perfection (Chris had shared with us the Forster and Ackroyd supplements, and the Chesterton piece, and she, Lucy, Boze and I have all commented on some of the problems of trying to dispense with all of your problematic characters via emigration or death. The Agnes/Dora conflict as well. Rob contrasted this view with the extended quote from George Gissing.)
- Dickens as “Master Heart-Breaker” (–Particularly Chapters 53 and 55. Chapter 53 breaks our hearts; Rob and Dr. Christian cannot stop crying at Dora’s death. The final image of Steerforth resting upon his arm at the end of Chapter 55 broke Boze’s heart and made him want to become a writer.)
- Jip; The Victorian Spaniel Craze (Boze sheds marvelous light on the “spaniel craze” of the time. The Stationmaster brings up the poignancy of the final reconciliation of David and Jip at the end.)
- From Dr Christian’s Lecture Series: Mr Dick and Disability; the Meaning of Names; the Illustrations; Dora’s Tragedy… (Among others. Daniel and I have especially been referring to these marvelous lectures.)
A Look-Ahead to Our 2-Week Break and Upcoming Read: Bleak House
And here, at the conclusion, I’ll ask Boze’s question again:
“How do we feel, here at the end of our journey through David, about Maugham’s (and Dickens’s) assertion that this was his best novel?”
Perhaps that is something we want to discuss in the comments below, and/or at our next Zoom meething! Our Zoom meeting to discuss David Copperfield will take place on Saturday, 10 June! 11am PT/2pm ET/7pm GMT (London time). Please join us! If you’d like a link, please feel free to message Rach here on the site, or on twitter.
Next up for the Dickens Club is the incomparable Bleak House, spanning a full 9 weeks: 6 June to 7 August, 2023.
Friends, the next two weeks (23 May to 5 June, 2023) are our “break” in-between reads. Have a wonderful break! If you’d like to share what you’ll be reading or doing during the break, it’d be great fun to hear.
See you on 6 June for Boze’s introduction to Bleak House!
As to what I’m reading during the break, I’ll be finishing up Volume III of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (reading each vol. out of order!), Kingsolver’s modern update of Copperfield, Demon Copperhead (which I can only read with some breaks, as I find it a bit of a downer to read too long at a stretch), and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s The Turning Point, in anticipation of Bleak House.
But seeing The Dickens Fellowship’s tweet about Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), I’m finally going to be putting this long-on-the-TBR book at the top of my list: https://twitter.com/DickensFellowHQ/status/1660322311407280130?s=20
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Ooh, I have I Promessi Sposi, but it’s in storage until my house gets fixed from the Great Flood. It’s been on my very long reading list for a while but I intend to move it up to the front once I’m whole again. If you read it before I do, please let me know what you think of it.
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Chris, I absolutely will!!! I am so curious – we’ll have to discuss!
In full disclosure, “David Copperfield” is not my favorite Dickens novel. However, regarding the question of whether it is Dickens’s BEST novel, I offer my humble opinion as follows:
When I talk with people who are unfamiliar with Dickens or whose only experience of Dickens is high school readings of either “A Christmas Carol” or “Great Expectations” (which, by the way, they usually hated, generally because of the way it was taught, but that’s another post), and they ask me which novel they should read, I always suggest “David Copperfield”. I do so because I think it’s the most user friendly Dickens novel, telling the story of a pretty regular person going through pretty regular situations and coming out of them pretty routinely. For the casual reader, David’s story is the most approachable, the characters the most recognizable and relatable, and the plot the most easily understood. It’s a nice coming of age story, with engaging characters, and equal parts humor, pathos, and drama – nothing too taxing. One doesn’t have to work too hard or be familiar with the Victorian era to understand what’s happening and why. For more serious readers there are social issues and themes to stimulate thought. And, for the most serious reader, as we Dickens Club members know, there is plenty to digest and discuss. So, there’s something for everyone.
David’s experiences are a little extreme and may seem to contradict what I said above about this being a regular story. The regularity I’m suggesting comes out of our commiseration with David as an Everyman. Honestly, is there any one of us who didn’t think at one point in time that our parents were unreasonable, or our life was floundering, or who fell hopelessly in love with the wrong person, or who faced a school/work/life situation that appeared to have no clear resolution, or who had a false-friend, or who felt helpless to aid a loved one, or who felt less than content with life? David’s extreme experiences universally translate to evoke the FEELING of them – they are a window into our own life and a comfort – we are not alone. Through the wisdom David gains from his experiences and friends we, too, find a sort of “face . . . pointing upward”, showing us that with patience, persistence, fortitude, [insert any of Agnes’s good qualities], we will find our way.
This achievement is pure genius and for me is what makes “David Copperfield” a great novel and, arguably, the BEST of Dickens.
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I’ve mentioned before that sometimes I get frustrated with how Dickens keeps piling up subplots in his books, many of which don’t connect to the main one until the end-if they ever do. While David Copperfield certainly has its fair share of plotlines, the fact that we only ever see them from David’s perspective keeps them from feeling random or irrelevant. That’s another way, I think, that this book can be considered Dickens’s most accessible.
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Just wanted to say how delighted I am to have found your club. It’s been a few decades since I did a year’s study of Dickens, and David Copperfield was new to me (I think my lit professor assumed we had read the more well known Dickens?). I am still finishing David, which I adore, and I want to thank you all for organizing this, which has motivated me to return to the wonderfulness of Dickens. Excited for Bleak House next!
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Wow, Rachel and Reading Group, what a knockout two weeks of writings and analyses. Rachel, your summary of the new chapters was spot on as usual, and helps me/us to put together more coherently this long and complex narrative. And your inclusion of so many of the groups’ wonderful insights, really helps to get the tone and the meaning of DC. I’ve been largely absent for a while as I’ve got a lot of stuff on my plate and have been going at DC, consequently, at a much slower pace. Just finished it yesterday. In that respect, coming to these interpretative riches, made my recent reading experience so much more meaningful!
IF…I had world enough and time, I’d like to work through all these remarks and add my commentary to each of them, but since my time and resources are somewhat limited, I’ll just make a few remarks here and maybe more later as the opportunity and ideas come to me.
Oh ideas, and there are SO many…!
There is the matter of the first-person narration, through the voice and mind/eye of David. So many times he stops and writes/speaks to us directly, to give his feelings and anxieties about what he’s experienced in the past and his worries about whether he might be addressing in the “proper” manner, something that he’s about to tell us. His discourses about Dora, her foibles, his intimacies with and about her are always qualified with a kind of apologia–as though he’s trying to tell us what happens in just the right manner– the things she cherishes, the things he cherishes IN her, etc.– but realizes his rhetoric is not quite getting to the point as well as he would like. And then, after Dora’s death, and in the midst of his depression (Gethsemane, if you will), he seems to be fighting for words to help us understand the agony he is going through. Are there self-doubts, guilts, misgivings, suicidal thoughts–all these things he seems to be trying to tell us are/were present, so there is a kind of DUAL perspective, here. Such amazing and penetrating and feeling self-disclosure here. But at what cost??!! David the writer is having to reenact these painful events, to reexperience them perhaps as deeply or more so than when he initially lived and agonized through them. So there is a certain anxiety regarding how he must, as a writer, compose these intimacies. In some ways, the memory of these intense episodes seems to add to their intensity, as he brings these past painful events into consciousness and onto paper. Thus, the pain was surely there in the past, but the pain in the present is equally as intense and may well cause him to doubt his ability to render the past effectively. Ah, the complex duality of the first person narrative.
There is also the matter of the novel’s ending. Ultimately, DAVID COPPERFIELD is a romantic comedy. In a Shakespearean sense, we’d term it a dark comedy, a narrative which contains many darker elements and darker characters (a pound of flesh, in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE; Malvolio in TWELTH NIGHT,) but yet is filled with comic characters and comic events, and which satisfies the basic three part structure of romantic comedy. A Love interest between a man and woman, boy and girl; blocking actions which keep them apart for a greater percentage of the narrative; and a finale which ends in their marriage and a consolidation of the major and minor characters in the narrative and a meting out of the various rewards and punishments that are deserving for them. And there are an infinite number of variations on this structural base which we already have witnessed in all our Dickens novels to this point.
In short, this is a genre novel, filled with the expectations that go with it. But It also is a subset of the romantic comedy genre in that it is really a comedy of remarriage–as beautifully defined by Stanley Cavell in his marvelous book titled PURSUITS OF HAPPINESS: THE HOLLYWOOD COMEDY OF REMARRIAGE. Basically, and factually, David remarries–but does so with a woman with who he has been heavily attached to from the beginning of the novel. In fact, one of the defining characteristics of the comedy of remarriage is the end result of the “2nd” marriage which is seen in these various comedies, both written and filmed, as more appropriate and satisfying. The first marriage, then, acts as part of the middle section of the comedy where the “blocking action” takes place. Of course I’m simplifying a much more complex situation–as we all know–but the the bare bones of this restructured comedy are there and make up its central framework.
In this regard, then, I see what happens with all the folks who go to Australia as one of the natural outcomes of the genre, the parceling out of various characters who are more or less supplementary to the main narrative. And there are multiple marriages. Just think of the conclusion of the “problematical” and darker romantic comedy THE MERCHANT OF VENICE which not only ends with the “tragedy” of Shylock as he is virtually exiled, but with the multiple marriages which take place among the main and second tier characters. This kind of glorious conclusion goes back to the the Greek comedy of Aristophanes (think LYSISTRATA) and sets the stage and pattern for the multitude of comedies that follow. Thus, as in DAVID COPPERFIELD, there are many festive occasions at the end of these various comedies, drinking of toasts, eating of fabulous meals, etc. OFTEN, even a gathering of the audience to enjoy with the cast the celebrations….
So much more to say, here, but I’ll quit for now….
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For me what makes this novel so special is the first-person voice and the dual perspective it opens up (YES, Marilenn). Generally, Dickens doesn’t write emotion directly, but sets it up in the situation with a sort of show and tell. Think of that heartbreaking scene where Captain Cuttle says goodbye to Walter in Dombey and Son by reading the burial service over him. No directly voiced anguish there.
But in David Copperfield, Dickens uses the dynamic of the interplay between the two narrative points of view to brilliant effect to voice anguish and pain directly, yet at one remove from the action. There is the described David, the child, who barely has a voice and moves passively, almost as a spectator through the series of tableaux in which he finds himself, almost like a silent movie – and there is the feeling David, but that’s the remembering adult writer, who looks back on and *speaks for* his childhood self. Child David is mute, almost dumb: he hardly has a voice at all. It’s the adult David whose voice expresses all the feeling, all the horror and anguish that animates the child’s life. I think this is a brilliant narration of David’s slow, slow growing from a sweet, biddable, affectionate child to the adult making choices in his own life.
And I think that’s what being the hero of his own life means, for me: having grown from being a spectator to the agent of his own life. At such a cost. It really is a Bildungsroman, and one that almost anyone could relate to. David is almost Everyman. So despite the comedy, I think it’s a very serious novel. That’s what I love it for.
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A wonderful summary and some most wonderful comments about this most wonderful of novels.
As usual my head is still filled with so many thoughts following the reading that I am loath to commit myself to really tough questions like ‘is this Dickens’s best novel?’ – I may opt for the classic get out clause of ‘I won’t know that for sure until I have read them all’ given that there are some heavyweight contenders approaching that I have never yet had the pleasure of reading ( Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend and Edwin Drood)
I think at the moment David Copperfield is still my favourite and probably also my candidate for *best* but the thing I find about Dickens is that the novel currently being read **feels** like IT is the best because the writing is just soooo good!
I have a strong attachment to Copperfield on account of having narrated this novel for a multi cast audiobook version which I also cast and edited. The characters for me have that added layer of reality in that I can hear their voices (as performed by my cast of 15 narrators) – indeed the events of the novel have an ‘echo of reality’ in my memory as if I were actually present in those scenes – it is hard to tell David’s story and not remember what he remembers so vividly; not to feel what he feels so deeply. (Perhaps my bias is further coloured by the fact of my having played Daniel Peggotty too!) First person narratives are great to get to grips with, so I ought to confess that I have a similar strong attachment to Pip>
I am quite excited to discover that Bleak House has a first person narrative in it too! Looking forward to discovering this one indeed… I may even be tempted to get a head start (But bearing in mind what happened when I tried the same with Dombey and Son and couldn’t stop reading it till I had greedily consumed it in 5 days, I should proceed with caution!!)
As for In-between reads… I am still working my way through Forster’s biography. Other than that, I thought I would try to fill in the background of some of Dickens’s favourite reads so I have started with Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (mainly on audiobook – the Anton Lesser version) I am about halfway through Volume 2 and Tristram has yet to arrive at the details of his birth!!
Audiobook wise I have numerous roles that I’m in the middle of or approaching which always, always fill my head with all sorts of literary angles/deviations/comparisons/etc and necessitates the compartmentalization of my memory with regard to where I’ve got to and what is happening in each – no wonder it feels crowded in my thoughts – For the curious these are the current/approaching narration projects (All multi-cast)
Narrator in Wilkie Collins’ The Haunted Hotel
Long John Silver in Treasure Island
Dr Watson in Doyle’s The Valley of Fear
Bertie Wooster in The Inimitable Jeeves
There are others but this gives a good impression of the extent to which ‘I wallow in words’ (To borrow one of my favourite 4 word sentences in the whole of Dickens.
Thanks once more to Rach, Boze and all the rest of you for the wonderful summaries, observations and perspectives… This Club is wonderful!! 😀
Friends, I can’t wait to catch up with these comments…I was already blown away by Lenny’s above. What a marvelous group 🙂
Daniel just emailed that he is having trouble logging in to comment–hopefully he’ll be back on for Bleak Hoise!–so he attached his comment to the email which I’ll share here:
From Daniel M.:
“What a wonderful wallowing in words–those you all have uttered on this master story-teller.
There are several quick points I’ll contribute.
1. Hero of one’s own life: It seems vitally clear to me that Dickens might have offered up this provocative question with his tongue in his cheek. Is any of us the “hero” of his own life? We are fashioned by experiences, relationships, choices, influences. We stand on shoulders galore!
2. Firmness: I am haunted by the insistence of the Murdstones on “firmness,” meaning unrelenting, cruel, and domineering control. Betsey Trotwood, of course, offers us the balanced moral sense of authentic “firmness”–that of character . . . loyalty, truth-telling, fulfilling commitments. She, of course, embodies this mode of “firmness,” just as the Murdstones embody theirs. The contrast couldn’t be more marked.
3. Maturation: I do think as several of your fine readers/commentators have noted that David truly becomes more of his truest self through hard and happy experience–notably, the anguish following Dora’s death. We all know the poignancy of the truism that suffering makes us kinder, gentler, more empathetic. This makes Dickens’ novel a stand-out Bildungsroman–as one of you noted, growth of soul . . . pointing, in the end, upward.
Thank you all for the rich array of thoughts, comments, and observations. This is so very enriching. It is, as I have mentioned before, a veritable graduate seminar!
P.S. I have long cherished “Bleak House” uniquely among the Inimitable’s works. So, like Rob, I’ll have to move along farther in chronological reading journey to be able to answer Boze’s question about the best novel. And, needless to say, there are two categories here: best and favorite. Hmmmmmmmmmmmm.”
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Thank you for the welcome!! Looking forward to joining the fun on Bleak House, a personal favorite!
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