Dickens Champions: Mitchell Classics Book Group on David Copperfield
24 September 2012 / 0 Comments
Our Dickens Champions, the Mitchell Classics Book Group, have been reading David Copperfield. Five members of the group decided to write their own reviews, all focusing on different aspects of the book. Here's what they thought:
Anne Marie rediscovers David Copperfield
Of the five novels we have been given to read this year, David Copperfield is the only one which I had read before - albeit very reluctantly, in my first, or perhaps second, year of high school. At that time, its sheer bulk would probably have been the first thing to put me off and I had vague, lingering memories of an inordinately long cast list of confusing and oddly connected characters too many of whom seemed too sentimental.
Reading this again several decades later, the many characters seem so much more captivating and colourful - no longer fitting into the stark black and white, "goodie"/"baddie" scheme of the first reading. An adult reader is more attentive to the nuances in the individual characters and their relationships to each other; the younger reader tends to race through focusing on plot development and missing so much of the observation of character - of motivation, reaction and individual foibles.
David Copperfield has its fair share of delightfully, almost exaggeratedly, eccentric characters - who draws these as well as Dickens? The wonderful Betsy Trotwood - from her whirlwind entrance (and hilarious exit) in chapter one, to her coming up trumps when the young David Copperfield makes his pilgrimage to Dover and she makes her magnificent return to his life story. Her transformation from "a dread and awful personage" to a much loved and cherished aunt plays out over much of the rest of the novel. A rescuer of David from the frightful Mr Murdstone (and his equally frightful sister), the provider of his route to a more congenial education and career, a stalwart figure in his disappointments and personal trials and finally her becoming godmother to his daughter - to "a real living Betsy Trotwood". A memorable and engaging character in a novel which has an abundant supply of them.
Brian ponders the importance of the sea
The portrayal of the sea in David Copperfield is the element that most returns to haunt me when I think about the novel. It is almost as if the sea were a character in itself. Little Em'ly describes it chillingly as a malicious person: 'Ah! but it's cruel. I have seen it very cruel to some of our men. I have seen it tear a boat as big as our house all to pieces.' Of course, the sea can also be placid and bountiful, and many - including some in the novel - depend on it for a living. But in the coastal scenes of this novel there is always a sense that any calm is only the kind that comes before a storm and that the sea is characteristically malevolent and wrathful.
Storms and turbulence feature in other novels by Dickens too - from 'Heaven's wrath' in Martin Chuzzlewit and the 'Devil abroad' in The Old Curiosity Shop to the violence of the mob in Barnaby Rudge that 'raged and roared'. Yet these are external to the characters' lives in a way that the stormy sea in David Copperfield is not. Shelter from these storms can be found and they go on outside, but in David Copperfield the sea engulfs the characters it destroys and their lives are literally absorbed by it.
Critics have suggested that the novel should have ended with the climatic storm in which Ham dies valiantly trying to save Steerforth, but this drama is not one of the Shakespearian tragedies that Dickens admired, and calm follows as well as precedes a storm. The other scale of the balance is filled with the reassuring palliative sentimentality so much enjoyed by Dickens and his audience.
Indeed, it is tempting to resort to the typical explanation of Dickens' source of inspiration and wonder whether his use of storm imagery was prompted not just by his interest in plays and dramatic effects but also by his memory of the vagaries of fate and the reversal of fortune that led him as a child to the blacking factory.
Lauren makes a Uriah Heep Quiz in honour of her favourite Dickens villain
Do you have what it takes to takes to be a 'Uriah'? Take this quick quiz and see:
1. Have your friends often remarked on your ashy, skeletal appearance, and physical and moral resemblance to moist feta cheese?
2. Do you enjoy public grovelling?
3. Have you secretly wished for belly crawling to be an Olympic sport?
4. Do you claim your path in life is a 'umble one', but actually think Machiavelli was a pretty swell guy?
5. Do you feel that encouraging your colleagues' and/or boss's bad habits, bringing about their subsequent dissolution, to be an excellent opportunity to ask for that promotion?
6. Do you see your path to fortune through the linty fuzz of your boss's pockets?
7. Do you have any designs on the boss's morally upstanding daughter - that same boss whose books you've cooked in the hopes of bringing about his professional and financial ruin? If not, why not?
If you answered 'yes', to any of the previous questions, then perhaps you might just need to sort yourself out, and thus you will have more sympathy than I did for one of the best baddies, Uriah Heep, in one of Charles Dickens' best novels, David Copperfield. Dickens' description of this character will not only make your skin crawl, but will make you thankful for your annoying colleague at work who only has that irksome habit of nicking all the post-its from your desk.
In David Copperfield, we are introduced to one of Dickens' best villains, in my opinion, in all of his novels. Not only is Uriah physically repulsive, but we come to learn that it isn't only his appearance that is abhorrent. Although he portrays himself as 'umble', Uriah is really treacherous, conniving and sneaky.
Our first glimpse of Uriah is when David goes to live with Mr. Wickfield so that he might attend school in nearby Canterbury. Uriah's corpse-like face appears menacingly in a window before we see him bodily:
'The low arched door then opened, and the face came out. It was quite as cadaverous as it had looked in the window...It belonged to a red-haired person - a youth of fifteen, as I take it now, but looking much older - whose hair was cropped as close as the closest stubble; who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown; so unsheltered and unshaded, that I remember wondering how he went to sleep. He was high-shouldered and bony; dressed in decent black, with a white wisp of a neckcloth; buttoned up to the throat; and had a long, lank, skeleton hand...'
Perhaps not so strangely, Uriah's hands, his moist, wet, cold hands, become symbolic. When reading a law book David imagines Uriah's hand to have '...made clammy tracks along the page (or so I fully believed) like a snail.' Later, when David shakes Uriah's hand, he thinks it '...as ghostly to the touch as to the sight! I rubbed mine afterwards, to warm it, and to rub his off.' These references to Uriah's hands are a metaphor for the wily work that he would perform with them, to almost every other character's detriment.
Uriah's constant writhing and twisting of his body is serpent-like, and his continual self-effacement are clues that can be read to warn the reader, in true Dickensian style, that the snake has most certainly left the garden. That snake has rather made plans to make off with someone else's rightful money (that belonging to Mr. Wickfield, his boss) and with someone else's rightful girl (Agnes, who was 'destined' to be David's partner, that is, when he finally got round to realising it).
I really enjoyed David Copperfield, and one of the reasons was the cast of memorable characters in it. Among all of Dickens' novels, if you asked me which character I would least like to meet, I would have to say it would be Uriah Heep on which I think you might agree, and I'd shake on it, but not if you aced that quiz, thank you.
Mario considers the auto-biographical nature of Copperfield
In the opening pages of the novel the narrator has this to say (Ch.2):
"And if it should appear from anything I may set down in this narrative that I was a child of close observation or that, as a man, I have a strong memory of my childhood...l undoubtedly lay claims to both of these characteristics..."
These twin talents, or gifts, which Dickens most certainly displayed throughout his writing, powers of observation and memory, were nowhere seen better than in David Copperfield, arguably his finest work. There is undoubtedly a lot of himself in the book, what he was and also perhaps something he would have wanted to be.
The young David introduces the reader to parents who are less than ideal; his natural father has died before his son is born and is replaced by a cruel and overbearing stepfather, Mr. Murdstone, who makes life very difficult for the child and his mother Clara who although well-meaning is herself dominated by the Murdstones; consequently she is unable to protect David and it falls to the likes of Peggotty his nurse to look after his welfare.
With only nine of the sixty four chapters complete, David still a young child, finds himself all alone in the world with the tragic death of his mother and his own newborn baby brother; it was to be a defining moment in his life...
"The mother who lay in the grave was the mother of my infancy; the little creature in her arms was myself, as I had once been, hushed forever on her bosom."
To me this is Charles Dickens affirming that his success in life would be achieved by his own efforts, that he would rise above the adversity into which he had been born. In effect he will bury his childhood and make his own way in the world.
And so the stage is set and the reader is invited to marvel at the progress of a self-made man and his encounters with a cavalcade of never to be forgotten characters whose names may be made up but who almost certainly walked the streets of Victorian London and were the inspiration for a great literary work...names like Peggotty and Trotwood, Heep, Micawber and so many more.
Unlike many of his other novels, David Copperfield doesn't have a critical or crusading agenda. It is more by way of being a personal memoir but however we may wish to categorise the work it is undoubtedly one of the 'greats'... and it certainly vindicates the author's claims regarding his powers of memory and eye for detail.
Rosalind wonders if Dickens needed a stern editor
With its rambling structure, I'm not sure that this is a successful novel. Had I read it, as its original readers would have done, in serialisation form, I think I would have grown less exasperated. One moment I would be entranced by Dickens power of visual description of setting and of character or caught up in a fast-moving piece of action (both combined in Chapter 55, "The Tempest") and then the next, really fed up with, in particular, the Micawbers and just wish that they would get a move on and emigrate and never be heard of again. I had the impression that Dickens felt under some strain to keep the episodes going and to pad them out - why else the digression into prison reform so near the end in Chapter 61? I thought Uriah was completely off the scene by then anyway. Was the sub-plot involving Miss Trotwood's husband necessary? David's and Agnes's conciliation was pretty tedious also. Come on, both of you and throw off those inhibitions! We knew it was going to happen, so why didn't you?
Which leads me to David's naiveté and lack of emotional intelligence. While all the other characters were richly drawn (I particularly loved Traddles and his hair), I didn't have a strong picture of the narrator. He just seemed to be a mouthpiece and plot device. (Yes, I know Dickens was using his own experience and maybe he didn't want to reveal too much about himself). I was saved from dismissing Dora as an uninteresting character, however, by the thought that Dickens was describing someone who, nowadays, might be thought of as having learning difficulties - dyslexia, dyscalculia, possibly autism?
However, I can say that my enjoyment outweighed the longeurs. Dickens is very, very funny, especially about Dora's little dog, Jip. I also liked reading about characters like Mr Peggotty who are "steadfast"; there is a great spirit of friendship, loyalty and solidarity among the "good" characters to offset the villains, which is heartening, and all the good ones thrive (except Dora, who really had to disappear, so that David could develop, and she was too silly to count anyway!) and the bad ones come to a gloomy end. (But was Rosa Dartle resurrected by Ian Fleming as Rosa Klebb?).
So all in all, a memorable writing achievement but I do feel I need a reader's reward for going back to it again and again and then ... finishing it! As somebody else has mentioned on the blog in relation to Little Dorrit, I think this needs a rigorous edit, which is probably why most people first encounter it through shortened adaptations.
Want to get involved?
Share your own thoughts on David Copperfield by adding a comment to this blog. Or get in touch with us to tell us if your reading group is discovering Dickens.
Remember to watch out for our Dickens Champions' blog posts as they read and review their way through Dickens during 2012.