Filed under: Book Reviews, Classic Fiction | Tags: book reviews, books, charles dickens, classics, classics club, david copperfield, literature, reading, victorian lit
David Copperfield is not the first book by Charles Dickens that I’ve read, so I’m not sure how I maintained my (wildly incorrect) ideas about Dickens’s writing up to this point. Four or five years ago I read and loved A Tale of Two Cities, but because I was reading an electronic copy (this was before e-readers, kids!) in my spare moments (usually while bored and tired) I held onto the notion that Dickens’s writing was valuable mostly as a sleep aid. I read bits and pieces of something-or-other by Dickens in a high school English class, and while I found the writing over the first pages to be surprisingly energetic and funny and modern, those impressions faded away as I began, hopelessly, to count up the number of pages I had left to read.
Enter, now, David Copperfield, purchased because at the bookstore here in Tirana, the Oxford World’s Classics cost about a third as much as other paperbacks. ($9 vs $25.) David Copperfield follows its titular character from birth to…well, not to old age, but to maturity – to marriage, to children, to career success. Copperfield’s world is populated by people drawn in sometimes hilarious strokes, from villanious characters like Murdstone (the second husband to David’s mother), Uriah Heep, and David’s school friend Steerforth; to the vapid Dora; to the well-meaning but constantly indebted Micawber; to those few characters who are true and constant: Peggotty (his mother’s housekeeper), David’s aunt, and Agnes, daughter of the lawyer to David’s aunt, and always available for advice and commiseration.
Even to someone, like me, who knows only the broad outlines of Dickens’s life, it’s obvious that there are autobiographical elements to David Copperfield. (It helped that this was frequently pointed out in my copy’s footnotes.) David runs through a string of careers. In his youth he goes from being a schoolboy to a child laborer to a vagabond, back to a schoolboy. He embarks on several careers as an adult, seemingly unable to rest once he has mastered and become respected in one arena, eventually ending as (hey!) a writer of fiction.
Because I’m not well-versed in Victorian fiction and don’t want to make a fool of myself, I’m going to skip the traditional review this time out and focus, instead, on how wrong my expectations of the book were. This is always fun!
1. Dickens never knows when to stop writing, and I will die of boredom before finishing the book.
Granted, there are many instances when it is obvious that Dickens was being wordy because the book was serialized – the more he wrote, the more he got paid. (I couldn’t help suspecting that Uriah Heep’s habit of declaring himself “umble” about five times per sentence was meant not only as an amusing quirk, but to pad Dickens’s word count.) I was hesitant to read this novel because it is so long, and I suspected that I would finish David Copperfield with a sense of being tricked into reading a story that could have been told in half as many words.
And, honestly? It probably could have been, but I’m glad now for all the verbosity and introspection and introduction of characters with bizarre quirks worthy of a chapter’s examination. Because it’s so wordy and so driven by its characters, rather than by plot, David Copperfield became a book I could sink into. It is (prepare yourselves for this insight!) a good read for the same reason that serialized TV dramas are so much fun to watch: you’re able to return to the same characters day after day, and follow the sometimes meandering course of their lives. (Most people say that The Wire is Dickensian. I, apparently, say that Dickens is The Wire-ian.)
2. Everyone says Dickens is funny, but he probably isn’t.
No, Dickens is pretty funny. The humor comes largely from the characters – after spending eight hundred pages with them, you can predict how characters will act in certain circumstances, and it’s funny to see how true they hold to the central tenants of their being, even in the most ridiculous moments. (See, for instance, the chapters leading up to the Micawber family’s departure for Australia, and how many times other characters have to pay off Micawber’s debt to prevent him from being shipped off to jail just as he seems about to escape it all.) Dickens even manages to make the death of David’s mother briefly, darkly, funny, as Mrs. Creakle strives to break the news gradually.
“When you came away from home at the end of the vacation,” said Mrs. Creakle, after a pause, “were they all well?” After another pause, “Was your mama well?”
I trembled without distinctly knowing why, and still looked at her earnestly, making no attempt to answer.
“Because,” said she, “I grieve to tell you that I hear this morning your mama is very ill.”
A mist arose between Mrs. Creakle and me, and her figure seemed to move in it for an instant. Then I felt the burning tears run down my face, and it was steady again.
“She is very dangerously ill,” she added.
I knew all now.
“She is dead.” (117-118)
3. Dickens’s work is the airport fiction of the 1800s./900 pages of Dickens will be too hard to read.
These are opposing points, I know, but I mention them both to further illuminate how stupid our ideas about certain authors, genres, periods, whatever, can be. To the first, I now say: yeah, Dickens’s writing is pretty light; David Copperfield is not a novel that leaves me feeling a need to examine and critique its structure, though there were moments when I was surprised to see Dickens playing with things like the question of how David’s memory influenced his writing. There’s one moment, about halfway through the novel, when David’s present knowledge takes physical form in his record of the past:
A dread falls on me here. A cloud is lowering on the distant town, towards which I retrace my solitary steps. I fear to approach it. I cannot bear to think of what did come, upon that memorable night; of what must come again, if I go on. (436)
Moments like this, and the humor and comic timing of other passages, elevate this novel, but it is, at end, a novel that was written for the masses. As someone who believes there is a real art to writing novels that are light and entertaining but still engaging, though, you know that I liked this.
As to the other point: 900 pages of Dickens is hard to read mostly because the book is unwieldly. You can’t really read David Copperfield while you’re laying in bed, and if it weren’t for the fact that I were donating the novel, today, to the library here in Tirana, I am pretty sure I would have ended up pulling the binding apart to make smaller, more manageable sections. But, er, I meant the actual reading of the novel – and, no, this Really Long Novel was not hard to read.
4. Dickens will put me to sleep.
Occasionally, yes. But Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins put me to sleep just last week, so clearly I am an equal opportunity employer when it comes to these things.
This was the first book completed off my unreasonably long list of classics I plan to read over five years. Woo hoo! For a real review of the novel, I recommend reading Adam’s take over at Roof Beam Reader.