By Clover Carroll
What better way for the Crozet Library Monday Night Book Group to kick off its new reading year, in the meeting room of our beautiful new library, than with a discussion of Charles Dickens’ timeless classic, David Copperfield, at 7 p.m. on Sept. 9?
Arguably the pre-eminent writer of the Victorian Age (defined as roughly coinciding with Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837-1901), Charles Dickens (1812-1870) wrote 15 novels (plus numerous short stories, essays, and travel books) that were enormously popular both in his own time and right up to the present day.
“It has been estimated that one out of every 10 persons in Victorian England was a Dickens reader,” proclaims the foreword of the Bantam edition, and his novels have never gone out of print. Dickens’ writing has been extremely influential; I could even hear echoes of his prose in J.K. Rowling’s imaginative passages. While I can only scratch the surface of such a gigantic and complex work here and very little can be added that has not already been said, here goes!
Of Dickens’ many well-known novels, including A Tale of Two Cities, Little Dorrit, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, and—my personal favorite—Bleak House, David Copperfield, published in 1850, is the favorite not only of many Dickens fans but of Charles Dickens himself (he named one of his daughters Dora). In this rollicking, joyful, and ultimately hopeful novel, Dickens rises to his reputation as the King of Character. It is said that Dickens created 989 named characters—each made vivid and memorable by a distinctive voice and style. In this bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, the adult narrator looks back with a mixture of nostalgia and horror as the innocent, naïve, and trusting young David is taken advantage of by a series of corrupt and amoral characters—from his cruel stepfather Murdstone, to the charming and callous Steerforth, to the groveling and scheming Uriah Heep—augmented by a kaleidoscope of greedy innkeepers, schoolmasters, cart drivers, and even waiters. Although David may not see how he is being manipulated by these selfish opportunists, the reader does. The insightful dwarf Mrs. Mowcher points out this contrast between innocence and experience when she refers to Copperfield and Steerforth as “Young Innocence and Old Guilt” (ch. 32).
As he moves through this cold and dangerous world, young David slowly learns to recognize and align himself with kind, sensitive, like-minded characters such as his faithful nurse Peggotty, his true-blue school friend Traddles, the child-like Mr. Dick, and his eccentric benefactor aunt Betsey Trotwood—who is so vain she changes his name to Trotwood upon adopting him. Agnes Wickfield’s devoted, angelic nature inspires him throughout his life. Most of these characters are so one-dimensional as to be almost caricatures—from the purely good (Peggoty and Agnes) to the purely evil (Murdstone and Heep), reminding me of the “Saints and Sinners” punch bowls featured at my (Victorian) mother’s parties to designate alcoholic and non-alcoholic offerings. Fewer of the characters boast a more realistic, three-dimensional mixture of good and bad; yet even Mr. Micawber, Miss Trotwood, Mr. Wickfield, and David himself are only temporarily misguided. Throughout the course of David’s moral and spiritual development, we see his mistakes long before he recognizes them, which leads to satisfying resolutions when he finally arrives at the same conclusion. In spite of many temptations, David matures without being corrupted and retains his pure, honest, and loyal character to the end.
This novel incorporates autobiographical elements—note that our hero’s initials are the same as his creator’s, in reverse‚—but also contains a good deal of fiction and romanticizes Dickens’ life. Charles’ idyllic childhood, living in various seacoast towns as one of eight children, was interrupted when his father John—like the penniless but affectionate blowhard Wilkins Micawber‚—ended up moving his family to debtor’s prison. At the age of 11, Charles was taken out of school and sent to London to work as a common laborer, surviving on his own in the London slums. Paralleling David’s treatment by his ruthless stepfather, this experience developed Dickens’ sympathies for the lower classes as well as child laborers, and provided fodder for many of the seamier characters and scenes in his books. His life got back on track at age 15, when a family inheritance allowed his father to pay off his debts, and the novel traces the trajectory of Charles’ writing career, from wide-ranging childhood reading to apprenticeship in legal offices to freelance reporting to world-renowned author.
Dickens reveals his sympathies regarding the rigid British class system—which, though beginning to break down, still held sway at this time—when he portrays the Peggotty family as more honest and good-natured than many of the upper-class characters. When Little Em’ly runs away with wealthy, charismatic Steerforth in hopes of “returning as a lady,” she is disappointed by his refusal to marry beneath his class. Emily’s plight uncovers another favorite Victorian theme: the fallen woman. As in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), once a woman has relations out of wedlock, even if not by choice, her reputation is irrevocably ruined, and her hopes of making a respectable marriage forever dashed—while the equally guilty man proceeds with his life untarnished. Through David’s and her uncle’s forgiveness and Emily’s sincere atonement, Dickens reveals his disdain for this ridiculous double standard.
The further theme of choosing, or recognizing, the appropriate partner to marry—also explored in E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View (1908)—may be traced to Dickens’ unhappy marriage to Catherine Hogarth; he ultimately caused a public scandal by setting his wife up in a separate London residence and living and travelling with another woman. “Blind, blind!” his aunt observes, and the reader long recognizes, as David pursues his infatuation with the lovely but lightweight Dora—only much later realizing that “there can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose” (ch. 45). David’s redemption from this error occupies the last section of the book and allows for a distinctly satisfying and romantic ending. Last but not least, during David’s sojourn as a proctor in the Commons, Dickens satirizes Britain’s irrational legal system, a theme that he more fully develops in several later novels.
David Copperfield, like many of Dickens’ novels, was issued in 20 monthly installments from May 1849 to November 1850. Each installment of three chapters was sold for one shilling. This serialization led him to establish the episodic form so familiar to us now in TV sitcoms, but also encouraged him to develop stories within stories like a set of nesting boxes. Juggling at least six separate but interwoven plots, Dickens shifts directions every two or three chapters to tantalize the reader with an unending series of cliffhangers. The myriad plots do, ultimately, come together in a crescendo of loose-end tying, with no plot line left unresolved. By the book’s end, all of the major characters have been disposed of, either through marriage, death, prison, or emigration to Australia. This resolution was a duty Dickens felt he owed the reader—a convention against which modern authors have rebelled. “There is yet an incident…,” he admits in the last chapter, “without which one thread in the web I have spun would have a raveled end”— that he quickly ties up in a neat bow.
The serial form also allowed—even encouraged—him to luxuriate in language, spinning out long, convoluted sentences that only arrive at their elegantly clear meaning after many enjoyable detours. I believe Dickens is aware of this trait, and that Mr. Micawber, a consummate windbag who invariably uses ten words where one word would do, is a self-parody of Dickens’ own writing style. All of Dickens’ fiction is a gold mine of high styled, SAT-worthy vocabulary. How often, in today’s everyday communications, do we encounter words such as vicissitude, sagacity, vacillation, pecuniary, emolument, and comestible? Dickens makes one of many brilliant plays on words when the writhing, servile Uriah Heep announces that “I ate umble pie with an appetite” (ch. 39). As a fellow CMNBG member brought to my attention, “umble” originally meant “the edible inward parts of an animal, usually of a deer” (OED), so that umble pie might in fact have served as a poor person’s dinner—suggesting that the absence of the apostrophe was intentional!
In spite of its occasional sentimental scenes—the primary criticism of Dickens’ work—I have seldom read a more enjoyable book. The overall tone is both anachronistic and refreshing, as it celebrates the traditional moral virtues of generosity, mercy, and self-sacrifice as well as the personal traits of gentleness, emotional sensitivity, and compassion that are so often overlooked today.
For a list of future Crozet Library Monday Night Book Group reading selections, visit www.jmrl.org/br-crozet.htm (scroll down).