Wednesday 19 September 2012

Book Review: Charles Dickens 9 - "David Copperfield"

Photo of Dickens (38 yrs.) from 1850 daguerrotype
I had to really push myself to get through Dickens’s previous novel, Dombey and Son – which I found rather uninteresting as a story – so it came as a real relief to be reading David Copperfield again. I think this is the third or fourth time that I’ve read it, and it always delights. It's impossible to resist story-telling that is this vigorous and poetic. I raced through its 880 pages in just over a week.

After completing the monthly serialisation of Dombey and Son in April 1848, Charles Dickens took a break of about six months before contemplating a new novel in the last few months of that same year. As always, events in his own life influenced the type of novel he would write and the key theme – or “leading idea” – that would guide the enterprise. William Hall, the man who had published Dickens’s first sketch fourteen years earlier had died in March; Dickens attended the funeral in Highgate Cemetry and spent a good deal of time thinking about the man and the effect that he’d had on his life.  And then his sister Fanny, the oldest of his parents’ eight children, died of tuberculosis on September 2. Her crippled son Henry died a few months later. During the writing of Dombey and Son, Dickens had been much moved by the long account of the decline and death of the young Paul Dombey – especially as he had narrated that section from the lad’s point-of-view. Death and dying must have been on his mind and prompting him to reflect on the course his life had taken. And entering, as writer, into the consciousness of a child may have released further painful memories of his own childhood.

Some time after Fanny’s death, Dickens wrote an extended fragment of autobiography (about 7,000 words), which he then sent to John Forster – his friend, confidant and agent. For the very first time he shared with somebody else the deep humiliation he had experienced as a boy of twelve, when his father had been incarcerated in the Marshalsea Debtors Prison in 1824, and he had been sent to work at the Warren’s Blacking Warehouse at the Hungerford Steps. The whole experience would be included in the upcoming novel. But even though Dickens had finally unburdened his mind, so to speak, about this incident – which had been the most formative event of his life – the public would not be aware that some of the key events described in David Copperfield were autobiographical until Forster revealed it in his biography, published three years after Dickens’s death.

Meanwhile, Dickens was busy writing a new Christmas Book. He hadn’t managed one the previous year, and this one proved to be his last. The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain was about lost time. It is concerned with the power of memory – how memory has the ability to heal psychic wounds. And Dickens even suggests that it is through memories of our own suffering that we are able to empathise with the pain of others.

Dickens (37 yrs.) - daguerrotype by John Mayall
At some point during Dickens’s long consideration of his new novel, John Forster suggested that he use a first-person narrator. Dickens had never used that technique before. He took the recommendation seriously. It’s often said that he was influenced by Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, published in 1847. Undoubtedly he was, but the long section in Dombey and Son narrated from a young lad’s point-of-view would have already demonstrated to him the advantages of the technique, even before Forster made his suggestion.

As Dickens went through his typically tortuous gestation for this new book, other events in his life were being drawn on for the content of the novel. In early January of 1849, Dickens travelled with a couple of friends to Norwich, in order to visit the site of a notorious murder that had been much in the news. On the afternoon of their arrival, they made a side-trip to Yarmouth, and visited the beach, looked out over the North Sea surf, and wandered around the nearby marshes. Dickens said it reminded him of the Medway he had known as a child in Kent. Yarmouth would become the atmospheric home of the Peggotty family in the new book. And on a long walk back to Yarmouth from Lowestoft he passed a signpost pointing to the village of Blundeston. He remembered the name and used it as the location for the young Copperfield’s early life – changed slightly to Blunderstone. On January 15, Catherine Dickens gave birth to another son, their eighth child. Charles named the boy Henry Fielding, after the eighteenth-century author of Tom Jones, whose spirit and style – Forster later recalled – Dickens hoped to emulate in his new work. Finally, Dickens was also busy, at this time, writing a series of articles for the Examiner about the sufferings of abused children. Specifically, he criticised the practice of “baby-farming” – the shipping out of young children from workhouses and orphanages into the care of freelance guardians. They often became victims of abuse that was even worse than they had received in their former institutions. It was a situation that Dickens had described twelve years earlier in Oliver Twist, when the young Oliver is “raised” (neglected) for an extended period by Mrs. Mann.

So, Dickens was toying with all this material – struggling to find a “leading idea”. He constantly took long walks during the day and night through the streets of London pondering his book. He described the process as a “violent restlessness … vague ideas of going I don’t know where …”. Eventually he committed himself to an autobiographical novel written in the first person. As he set to work writing at the end of February, 1849, an announcement was made of the imminent arrival of the novel's first instalment. But the writing did not come easily. He worked at it steadily throughout March. His main problem seemed to be finding the right tone. The content was so personal - often quite painful for him to remember - but he still managed to sustain a convincing and sympathetic tone. He took the utmost care on this book and planned it carefully. There would be no theatricals and foreign-travel during the first year of its careful composition.

Charles Dickens's desk and writing chair

In the book Dickens – his brilliant, comprehensive, and definitive biography of the writer – Peter Ackroyd provides a detailed account of Charles Dickens’s methodical approach to writing. He would rise at seven o’clock; eat breakfast at eight; and be in his study at nine. He would remain at his desk for five hours – until two in the afternoon. Then he would walk until five o’clock around London, or into the nearby countryside. Dinner came at six, often lasting a couple of hours. And then it would be an evening spent with family and friends, before retiring punctually at midnight. Dickens's desk was set in front of a window, so that he could gaze out at the world, but not really focusing on much - his mind being lost in the fictional world of his imagination. He demanded quiet; in his house in Devonshire Terrace, he had a second door added to the entrance into his study, in order to keep out any noise.

Dickens (46 yrs.) photographed by George Watkins in 1858
He wrote with a goose-quill pen, dipping it into blue ink, on blue-grey pieces of paper measuring 8 ¾ inches by 7 ¼ inches. On an ordinary day he would complete about 2,000 words (2 – 2 ½ slips of paper). But when he was all fired up, he might churn out almost 4,000 words in one sitting.  Sometimes, of course, nothing at all would come. But he would not break from his routine; he would remain in his study doodling, dreaming, planning – keeping religiously to his daily five-hour session.
He needed momentum; he didn’t like to write “cold”. He preferred to wait for inspiration – when his mind would be seized by an image, or an idea. He would then write quickly, almost instinctively – adding or amending things as he went along. He used what he called an “incessant process of rejection” – cutting stuff out after weighing carefully its tone and effect. If he accidentally exceeded the limit of a month’s instalment, he would usually cut passages of improvised humour or external description. And when the proofs came back from the publisher for his perusal, he worked very quickly on his corrections.

Cover of monthly issue of David Copperfield
David Copperfield was Dickens’s eighth novel. It was published by Bradbury and Evans – in the usual fashion – as a series of monthly instalments from May 1849 to November 1850. The illustrations, again, were done by Hablot Knight Browne (“Phiz”). The full title of the novel, as shown on the cover wrapper (green, as usual), was very unwieldy: The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account). Is it any wonder, then, that it came to be called simply David Copperfield? The novel was first released in book-form in 1850, shortly after the publication of the final monthly issue (in the familiar two parts).

Surprisingly – given the quality of the writing and its cavalcade of fascinating characters – the monthly issues did not sell as well as previous novels. Sales were down significantly from Dombey and Son. David Copperfield was selling, on average, 20,000 copies. Compare that to the 35,000 copies of its predecessor. When he realised the effect the drop in sales would have on his income, Dickens decided to take on other work to provide a more stable source of funds. He had long wanted to establish a weekly magazine - a literary and journalistic compendium stamped with his personal touch. The political manifesto for his magazine, he said, was “the raising up of those that are down, and the general improvement of our social conditions.” He would pay particular attention to education, housing and sanitation. What he proposed to his publishers, Bradbury and Evans, was that he edit the weekly, and be given full editorial control. Regardless, he needed significant help, and he got it from the experienced journalist and writer W.H. Wills, whom Dickens hired as sub-editor. He was an excellent choice: a meticulous editor, careful with detail, and frugal in running an enterprise. Dickens picked Household Words as the title of his new magazine; it’s a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry V – from the famous feast-of-Crispian speech:
Then shall our names, familiar in his mouth as household words,
be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red. (IV, iii, 54-55)
He set up an office at 16 Wellington Street, just off The Strand.

Charles Dickens signed a contract with Bradbury and Evans that would give him 50% of all the profits from Household Words. In the first two years he earned about £2,000 annually from sales. He also got paid separately for each of his own contributions. He was now set financially. He continued editing the magazine for another twenty years – the rest of his life. And he no longer needed to worry about his fiction paying for the bulk of his ever-growing expenses.

Dickens's magazine Household Words
Dickens was responsible for almost a third of the writing in the first issue of Household Words. He would write a lot less in subsequent issues, but the pattern he set would be maintained: several articles about topical issues, some history, a story, a bit of travel writing, and  a poem. Dickens edited it to be entertainment and instruction. He wanted it to be readable. It wasn’t pitched primarily at a literary audience. He wanted to make it popular and reach the middle class. The first issue came out at the end of March in 1850. It cost twopence. It came out every week, but was also released in a monthly format and sold as a bound volume. Circulation settled in at about 39,000 copies per issue.

So, for nine months – from March to November of 1850 – Charles  Dickens was writing half of David Copperfield, in monthly instalments, and editing a weekly magazine. When he felt inundated with work and obligations, he would find a way to get out of the city, so that he could write in peace – even though it often took him a while to feel comfortable in the new environment. Thus, he did 13 days in Brighton; and then he leased a magnificent country house called Winterbourne, near the town of Ventnor, in the Isle of Wight.
It’s astonishing that David Copperfield did not capture the imagination of his reading public in the same way as some of his earlier books, because it would soon emerge as Dickens’s most popular book. It was his favourite too. Whenever he was asked which of his own books he like best, he always picked this one. In a Preface that Dickens wrote for the 1867 edition, he wrote:
“Of all my books, I like this the best … like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is DAVID COPPERFIELD.”
Most readers seemed to agree with him. Dickens was the favourite English writer of the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy; and he loved David Copperfield the best. Dostoevsky was also captivated by it – he read it first in a Siberian prison camp. James Joyce knew it well, and wrote a parody of it in his modernist masterpiece Ulysses. Even Virginia Woolf – not much of a fan of Dickens’s work, it is true – found this book irresistible. She read it half a dozen times and remarked in a letter to Hugh Walpole that it was magnificent: “it belongs to the memories and myths of life.”

I think the power of the book’s attraction for its readers comes from two main things: its amazing collection of compelling characters; and its status as one of the first truly interesting bildungsromans, telling the story of the coming-of-age and cultivation of a young gentleman.

Uriah Heep, Mrs. Heep (both "very 'umble"), the young David and Wilkins Micawber

In his influential little book about novel-writing – Aspects of the Novel – the Edwardian novelist E.M. Forster distinguished between flat characters and rounded characters. And he identified Dickens as the prime example of a writer whose stories are full of flat characters – often based merely on a physical trait, or a repetitive turn-of-phrase. As such, they ought not to be very interesting, because they show almost no development. When you think about it, David Copperfield is full of these flat characters. Mrs. Gummidge, the widow of Daniel Peggotty’s partner is a “lone, lorn creatur’ [for whom] everythink goes contrairy.” Wilkins Micawber is always waiting “for something to turn up”, and his wife is forever declaring that she “never will desert her Wilkins”. The carrier who drives little David in his horse and cart keeps asking the young lad to tell his nurse Peggotty that “Barkis is a-willin’.” And the odious clerk Uriah Heep is continually telling us that he is “very ‘umble”. But, surprisingly, Dickens does show development in some of these minor, flat characters. After Little Emily elopes with Steerforth, for example, Mrs. Gummidge abandons her whiny negativity and becomes a comfort for Daniel Peggotty. And Mr. Micawber serves as the catalyst for the come-uppance of Uriah Heep. So many fascinating characters crammed into this book – whether they are flat or not!

And the “leading idea” of the book is giving a full account of Copperfield’s rise from a troubled youth to a successful adult – told in a first-person narrative from the boy’s point-of-view. What gives the story its imaginative power is Dickens’s reminiscences of his early life. The book is not straightforward biography; he incorporates several key experiences from his own life, but then finds ways to present correspondences between real experiences and the fictional imaginings he was creating.

The most dramatic parallel with Dickens own life (the subject of the 7,000-word fragment he had sent to John Forster) was the time spent in a blacking factory, sticking labels on bottles. When Dickens got to the beginning of this section of the novel (Chapter XI), he took a very long walk of 14 miles into the country, in order to ponder how he would handle this episode. On the slip of paper that contained his plans, he wrote this poignant and cryptic note: “What I know so well”. The manuscript shows that he went through this chapter with much less revision than elsewhere. He knew what he needed to do; and he was able to control his feelings and maintain the narrative tone he had established.

Other autobiographical details which Dickens inserts into the life of Copperfield, his narrator, were his job as a parliamentary reporter for a “Morning Newspaper”, his laborious effort to learn shorthand (in order to report on those Parliament speeches), and his shift from journalism to fiction-writing. He also writes about the steely ambition and discipline that led to his success as a writer: “I never would have done what I have done, without the habits of punctuality, order, and diligence.”

Daniel Peggotty searching for the fallen Little Emily
In a Preface that he wrote for the first Everyman edition of the book, English author G.K. Chesterton – while conceding that the book was a masterpiece – argued that the first half of the book was a brilliant move in a new direction for Dickens (psychological realism), but that the second half showed a retreat to the styles of the past. Specifically, he thought the use of the emigration-to-Australia theme was a cop-out, and an easy way to wrap-up various loose-ends in the plot. But events in Dickens’s own life, with which Chesterton may not have been familiar, help explain his introduction of this theme. There had been a set-back at Urania Cottage, the home for “fallen-women” that Dickens had established with the help and financial support of Angela Burdett-Coutts. Dickens became aware of the work of Mrs. Elizabeth Herbert and the Family Colonisation Loan Society, an institution which helped organize and fund emigration to the British colonies in Australia. He thought it would be a good idea to encourage some of the women at Urania Cottage to begin a brand new life “down under”. But the first group of young women sent there had taken up with prostitution on the ship itself. So emigration comes into the book. And prostitution too – both Martha Endell and Little Emily fall into that way of life in order to survive destitution in London.

Clara Peggotty, David's nurse and friend

Finally, a few observations about some of the interesting female characters in this book. Clara Peggotty, the infant Copperfield’s nurse and friend is a lovely character – one of Dickens’s quintessential nurturing women. She is completely loyal – first to David’s weak and ineffective mother, and then to the young lad himself. Little Emily, who David falls in love with on his very first visit to the Peggotty clan in Yarmouth, reminds us of Nancy in Oliver Twist – a woman with a heart of gold, who falls victim to circumstances and an exploitative man. Rosa Dartle, who lives as a companion with Mrs. Steerforth, is an astonishingly cold and cruel woman. Dora Spenlow, Copperfield’s “child-wife” is an irritatingly feckless character. Dickens must have modeled her on Maria Beadnell, whom he was infatuated with for several years in his late-teens and who eventually rejected him – probably because of his lower-class origins. He later hooks up with the angelic Agnes Wickfield – another of Dickens’s unreal specimens of perfect womanhood. Parenthetically, G.K. Chesterton writes an interesting critique of Dickens’s alternating attentions to Dora and Agnes in his 1907 introduction to the Everyman Library edition of David Copperfield. He felt the marriage that Dickens describes between David and Dora is wonderfully true and human; whereas the relationship between David and Agnes is entirely false. Dickens was wrong, he thought, to kill off Dora and then engage in a long, drawn-out account of how David is eventually united with Agnes. I take Chesterton’s point – but Dora really is quite annoying.

David's saviour, great-aunt Betsey Trotwood
And then there’s the wonderful Betsey Trotwood, David’s austere great-aunt. She is a good example of one of the apparently “flat” characters introduced very early in this novel, who go on to become fully-rounded, interesting and intensely human. She is a real eccentric, but proves to be genuinely kind and warm-hearted under the brusque exterior. She is the only person willing and able to confront and confound the evil Edward Murdstone, David’s step-father, and his cruel sister Jane. And the way that Aunt Betsey nurtures and champions the simple-minded Mr. Dick is Dickens at his most humane. She is one of the most sublime figures in this intensely compelling book.

If you were to choose to read only one of Dickens’s books, this would have to be it. The sheer power of his story-telling is at its height, here, and the novel is full of memorable characters – whether flat, round, pointed or square. If you want to know what all the fuss is about Charles Dickens, read this and all will be revealed.
[2012 is the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Lots of special events and activities are planned in England this year. Back in 2009, my good friend Tony Grant (in Wimbledon, UK) and I did a pilgrimage to three key Charles Dickens destinations - his birthplace in Portsmouth (the house is a Museum), the house he lived at on Doughty Street in London (now the chief Dickens' museum), and the town he lived in as a child on the north-coast of Kent (Rochester). 

These visits inspired me to begin reading through all Dickens's novels. By last summer I had done six, but stalled in the middle of Dombey and Son. I thought what I could do to mark this special year of Charles Dickens was to start again, read through all 14 of his novels inside the year, and blog about them. I'll give it a try, anyway! So this is the ninth of a series.]

Next: Bleak House

[Resources used: "Introduction" to Dombey and Son by Lucy Michael Slater (1991); Dickens by Peter Ackroyd (1990); "Portraits of Charles Dickens (1812-1870)", an excellent web-page collection of Dickens pictures.  Dickens Portraits ]

David Copperfield meets the Micawber family


  1. Great review Clive.I love your analysis of characters and plot. As you say ,"If you were to choose to read only one of Dickens’s books, this would have to be it. " I think this is one of your best reviews and, "if you were to choose to read only one of,(your reviews) this would have to be it."

    All the best

  2. Thanks, Tony. I appreciate the regular feedback you provide.