Thursday, January 17, 2013

Rereading David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

I think that there are certain novels that must be read at multiple ages.  David Copperfield Charles Dickens’ autobiographical novel of 1850 – is a very different book to a 22-year old than it is to someone approaching his dotage.  As I am in that enviable (or unenviable) season of life, I find it to be so different from my recollections as to be a new book entirely.

It’s not that I have misremembered the incidents of the novel, but, rather, the emotional tenor.  No one has written about children for adults as well as Charles Dickens, and the further one is removed from childhood, the more resonant and moving a book like Copperfield is.

Dickens writes childhood the way that it is lived – often clouded in ignorance through inexperience, and quaking in terror or crying in pain.  David often thinks smiling villains are the kindest of people; he is robbed and taken-advantage-of by unscrupulous older boys and adults, and mystified by the actions of several people actually striving to do him good.  When I think back to my own childhood, I realize how much of it was experienced through a miasma of misinformation, misconception and miscalculation.  Dickens realized that children are a race separate from adults – and the notion that adults always behave well towards children a polite fiction.  All too often, children live in a world of giants indifferent to the pain they cause smaller people.

Another thing that strikes me is how I now chuckle at the notion that Dickens was an “optimistic” writer.  Though the book is suffused with love and good feeling, hominess and tender nostalgia, it is also a hard-headed book that lays bare man’s inhumanity to man.  David is beaten by the stepfather Mr. Murdstone, criminally ignored by his own mother, abused at school and essentially sold into drudgery.  These events ran past my eye during my initial reading more than 20 years ago as I savored the sweet parts with Mr. Dick or the comedy of Mr. Macawber; today, I can’t help but read them with a shudder of horror.  The pain of the authorial voice – the tale is told by the now-adult David, standing in for Dickens himself – is all to clear and often intolerable to bear.  In other words, I read the book when I was younger and thought the world a wonderful place with harsh moments; I now know it to be a harsh world with wonderful moments.

Dickens often said that Copperfield was the favorite of his novels and it’s easy to see why.  The novel most like it would be Nicholas Nickleby (1839).  Like Copperfield, Nickleby is filled with memorable (and sometimes grotesque) characters.  However, Nickleby himself is a nonentity; he is the excuse to parade a series of memorable character turns like Vincent Crummles and Smike.  Copperfield, however, is as fully-rounded a character as his supporting gallery; and I think the time-worn truism that Copperfield=Dickens is correct.  The novel may not be strict autobiography, but as a man’s picture of his own interior, emotional self, it consistently rings true.

Finally, the thing that strikes me is the warmth of Dickens, the man.  He is a man of uniformly good humor – he feels fully the pain of past experiences and wrongs, but his own emotional chemistry makes it impossible for him to be depressed or sad for long.  On top of that, he is a man who must have his little joke; he can’t help it.  Often, while describing the most horrific incident, Dickens-as-David tosses in a casual aside that lets us know that he see the funny part of the human comedy.  Here, for example, is the wretched David after walking cross country to find his Aunt, Betsey Trotwood:

My aunt, with every sort of expression but wonder discharged from her countenance, sat on the gravel, staring at me, until I began to cry; when she got up in a great hurry, collared me, and took me into the parlour. Her first proceeding there was to unlock a tall press, bring out several bottles, and pour some of the contents of each into my mouth. I think they must have been taken out at random, for I am sure I tasted aniseed water, anchovy sauce, and salad dressing. When she had administered these restoratives, as I was still quite hysterical, and unable to control my sobs, she put me on the sofa, with a shawl under my head, and the handkerchief from her own head under my feet, lest I should sully the cover; and then, sitting herself down behind the green fan or screen I have already mentioned, so that I could not see her face, ejaculated at intervals, 'Mercy on us!' letting those exclamations off like minute guns.

I think it is this – the emotional stability and high spirits of Dickens himself – that has been the essential part of his enduring popularity, and the main reason he is so beloved by readers.  First class minds are fairly common, but first class temperaments are nothing short of miraculous.


lyle said...

Based on your premise, I went looking to find Dickens' birth date to see what 'age' of his life "Copperfield" was written. Born in 1812, the book was written when he was 38 (he passed at 58). During my 'research' it was noted that "Copperfield" was first published in 19 monthly installments starting in May 1849. My question is, if this was the custom, was the entire novel finished by the author before the first installment, or was it being written during the installments?

James Abbott said...

Many (if not most) Victorian novels were written for magazine publication first, and published in installments. Also -- it was often the case the the writer was writing for the monthly publication -- racing to meet the deadline. I suspect that parts of David Copperfield were as much of a surprise to Dickens as they were to us!