David Copperfield, Charles Dickens, 1849
Dickens does it again. I truly, honestly enjoyed all 814 pages of David Copperfield. Before I started this reading project, the only Dickens I had read was A Christmas Carol. I tried to read A Tale of Two Cities two or three times and only made a few pages on each attempt. I thought Dickens was too wordy and boring for me. Now I have read three Dickens novels amounting to a whopping ~2,000 pages.
I have learned to love Dickens and here’s why:
- He’s funny. Very funny, actually. I have burst out laughing just from the memory of funny moments in David Copperfield.
- His reputation for using too many words is unfairly earned, in my opinion. Yes, his books are long. However, I hold that a 200 page novel can seem too long and a 1,000 page novel can seem just right, as long as the ratio of words to ideas is sufficiently low. Hawthorne, for example, can make 230 pages terminally boring by revisiting the same stale ideas over and over. Dickens, on the other hand, uses a lot of words, because he has a lot of characters to describe and a lot of plot to cover.
- The length of Dickens novels is kind of great. You really get to know the characters and spend some time with them. Nothing is abrupt. The reader isn’t plunged headlong into a complex world only to be suddenly yanked out of it at the end of the book.
- Dickens has been accused, by Virginia Woolf among others, of sentimentality. That accusation is accurate, but he earns the right to include sentiment. As my creative writing advisor told me, sentimentality is one of the hardest, scariest moods for a writer to attempt. Contemporary authors rarely even try it. I knew so much about David Copperfield’s life and I was rooting for him so hard, that I was perfectly content to spend some time ruminating on his happiness in the early days of his marriage or the satisfying relationship he built with his aunt.
- In fact, I found myself so invested in Copperfield’s happiness that whenever Dickens paused the narrative for some sentimental reflection, I started feeling anxious about the inevitable ruin of his happy situation. Frequently, when reading Dickens I find myself thinking “No, you’re going to take this all away from them, aren’t you? Don’t do it, Dickens. Please!” But, of course he does. You can’t fill 814 pages with joy, there has to be some conflict.
- Every novel has a character that I just love and who will stay in my mind forever. In Pickwick Papers it was Samuel Weller, the practical valet. In Oliver Twist it was Nancy, the hooker with a heart of gold. In David Copperfield it was Betsey Trotwood, the “maiden” aunt who enters the novel as an inflexible and unloving sort, but develops into an affectionate, caring woman who is still eccentric and self-willed.
David Copperfield is Dickens’ most autobiographical novel. DC survives childhood hardships to become a famous author. As a semi-autobiographical piece, David Copperfield shows Dickens self-perception, which is quite interesting. He tries to be humble, but he doesn’t quite pull it off.
I’ll say this for Dickens, just as I was thinking “Ugh, it’s so boring to be good at understanding foreshadowing; I can see how he’s going to end this book from 400 pages away,” he went and surprised me with the plot. I was thinking “Really? No. This is going to turn out to be a dream.” But it didn’t. He got me.
I can see the direct influence of David Copperfield on Anne of Green Gables, one of my favorite books of all time. Some of the minor characters are very similar. Both books center on the plight of a sweet orphan child attempting who must find their way into the hearts of dour adults in order to make a place for themselves in the world. Both Anne and David improve the character of their respective dour adults by their youthful, refreshing outlook on life.
I can’t end this post without mentioning Uriah Heep, Copperfield’s arch nemesis. As with Fagin in Oliver Twist, Dickens presents Uriah Heep as so loathsome that he’s more animal than man. Comic book villains aren’t nearly so unlikeable as Uriah Heep. While it does take skill to make a character so detestable that the reader’s stomach turns whenever said character speaks, I am not comfortable with Dickens’ treatment of antagonists. I don’t want to revile anyone, even a character on the page. Heep and Fagin are flat and wearisome. I prefer villains who are charming or dignified or, at the very least, complex.
Final Thoughts: We both know you’re not going to read David Copperfield, but you should. You would enjoy accompanying the endearing protagonist on his long road through the joys and miseries of Victorian England. Really, you would.