David Copperfield – The Novel

David Copperfield was Charles Dickens’ ‘favourite child’: Sally Minogue considers the complications of a deeply autobiographical novel.

As I watched the film of David Copperfield last week, entranced, there was still a bit of my critical mind working; and it was thinking – Dickens got this idea from Jane Eyre! Charles Dickens claimed that he had not read Jane Eyre, and that he ‘never would’.[1] But the author doth protest too much. The serial publication of his novel David Copperfield began in May 1849, only 18 months after the sensational first publication of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, a bare year after its third edition in April 1848. Impossible to believe that a novelist of Dickens’ standing, highly competitive about his own status, could simply have ignored one of the extraordinary fictional successes of his age. By the time of that third edition, first jealousy, then sheer writerly curiosity, would surely have driven him to take a look. Though naturally, he wouldn’t admit to it.

David Copperfield, like Jane Eyre, gains its particular power from starting in childhood, before the character is yet fully formed, and in the first person, which allows the central figure to tell their own story, and so to comment on their own development as they grow. A further common dimension is that there is a secondary adult voice/consciousness narrating backwards, as it were, that of both the (internal, fictional) protagonist grown to adulthood, and of the (external) novelist. Sometimes this secondary voice inhabits that of its first-person narrator, sometimes it is at one side. There are many layers, then, of both story and storytelling. In this way, the nineteenth-century novel was an astonishingly sophisticated form, commenting upon itself, referring to itself, standing outside itself even, every bit as much as the rather shallower postmodern twentieth-century novel which depends upon it while pretending to outshine it.

What does this do for the reader? In David Copperfield, it pitches us right in at the very beginning, as the heading of Chapter 1 announces triumphantly, I am Born. We’re not going to be in any doubt about who is to be the hero of this story, even if we’ve not yet met him, and even though the first famous sentence introduces a slightly coy question: ‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.’ Now anyone who begins confidently with the belief that recounting the moment of his own birth is important is almost certainly going to be that hero – and in all probability, a man. Charlotte Brontë rather begins Jane’s story when she is around ten years old, and in these childhood years, Jane is definitely at the edge rather than the centre of her own story even though she narrates it. Indeed, her outsiderishness is part of her, and the novel’s, appeal.

I think that what Dickens took cleverly from Brontë was the idea of starting his bildungsroman (exploring the arc of a character’s development through life) with the first formative years; and this certainly appealed to him because he now wanted to tell the story of his own deeply marked childhood. The fictional first-person allowed him to tell that story of early humiliation frankly, without actually allying his own personal history to it – it is, instead, the Personal History of David Copperfield. This gave him the distance of the novelist; David was, after all, not him but a fictional character occupying a fictional first-person. A psychoanalyst would have a field day with this, and in a way, Armando Iannucci’s film does that job by actually making David and Dickens one and allowing the author the magical freedom within the dream-world of the film to shed the horrors of his past and bring to the happy fore his joys and successes.

But let’s leave aside for a moment the parallels between Dickens’ life and the story of David Copperfield, and dwell on the novel as it stands. Here, the first-person narrative remains paramount. David leads us into the story from the very first moment, as he is born on the stroke of midnight, with a caul – long-associated with magical powers, whether for good or ill (think Macbeth). It is a birth of omens, though the somewhat ironic stance of the narrator to his own story undercuts that, and whether the omens are for good or ill we do not yet know. Thus we are introduced to the sometimes deeply self-immersed and self-indulgent, sometimes highly self-reflective David Copperfield, and our engagement in this novel to its ending depends on an engagement with him. We see the world through his eyes – initially very young eyes, and Dickens is very good here on a childhood memory. David looks back ‘into the blank of my infancy’ and sees his earliest memories coming, as images, ‘out of the cloud’; but in the images and descriptions themselves, we hear his childish voice and impressions. As he grows, we meet myriad characters as he meets them, moving from place to place, starting at the rather doomy Rookery in Suffolk where he is born. This should be a happy beginning, closeted with his beloved mother and the megalith of comfort that is Peggotty, but it is overweighed by the recent death of his father, whose bright white gravestone calls up ‘the indefinable compassion I used to feel for it lying alone there in the dark night when our parlour was warm and bright’. A typical Dickens touch here is that it is the gravestone that seems lonely to the young boy, rather than the dead father buried beneath it. Thence he escapes to the vast seascape and swaddled cocoon of family life in the upturned boat at Great Yarmouth. In marked contrast to that idyll comes school at Blackheath with its sadistic Mr Creakle and David’s first love, Steerforth; then the further enclosed nightmare of the bottling factory on the wharf at Blackfriars, and the precariousness of lodging with the Micawbers. These many stations of life occupy only the first eleven chapters of the novel and the first ten years of David Copperfield’s life. And all the time he is being formed by these experiences.

This is the central drive of the novel, its hero moving constantly onwards, sometimes downwards, sometimes upwards, pushed by the currents of fate, but eventually taking that fate into his own hands when he heads for his great-aunt Betsey Trotwood, traversing the road from London to Dover. Here again, the film version revealed something that I’d not fully recognise in the novel, that it is picaresque, in the manner of its precedents in the eighteenth century (the characteristic example is Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, also the subject of a ground-breaking film). In the picaresque novel, the hero/anti-hero is catapulted from drama to drama, often across class divides; but usually, the practical manner of his progress is the English road which takes him hither and thither, whether on a coach or by foot – just like David.

The novel has (compared to the time-compressed film) somewhat less of this picaresque quality as it develops. As David grows older and begins to grow up, there are periods of rest and replenishment, with Aunt Trotwood and Mr Dick, further schooling at Dr Strong’s establishment, informal schooling with Mr Wickfield and most of all Agnes, and finally settled employment in the service of Mr Spenlow – and the delights of Dora. But always accompanying this slow, gradual growth of the boy to manhood, as he takes on the good influences of those who support and love him, is a threnody of uncertainty, threat and loss. Sometimes this lurks in the narrative through the appearance of an unexplained character, as in the strange man who haunts Aunt Trotwood. Sometimes it wells up within an ostensibly comfortable and benign interior, as with the unease that hangs like a vapour around Uriah Heep. And then it erupts in full fury as with Steerforth’s treacherous elopement with Emily, and the subsequent deadly storm in which both he and Ham perish – one bad, one good, both meeting the same fate at the hands of an indifferent nature, and an implacable author.

But in the opening out of these dread events, both Dickens and David show the power of self-reflection and self-knowledge. At the start of Chapter 32, just after they have all heard of the disappearance of Emily and Steerforth together, these are the narrator’s words:

I am not afraid to write that I never had loved Steerforth better than when the ties that bound him to me were broken. In the keen distress of the discovery of his unworthiness, I thought more of all that was brilliant in him, I softened more towards all that was good in him. … Deeply as I felt my own unconscious part in his pollution of an honest home, I believed that if I had been brought face to face with him, I could not have uttered one reproach.

There is a sort of arrested development here, as there is perhaps in Steerforth himself, but most of all it is in David. And Dickens sees it, sees it brilliantly, and admits it (and makes it also David’s admission). His remarkable recognition in this novel is of that terrified child he himself was when his life suddenly changed, his father fell into debt and was sent to the Marshalsea, and Dickens, at age 12, was consigned to working in a blacking factory (the equivalent of the bottling factory in the novel). This episode he suppressed in his lifetime, speaking of it only to his biographer John Forster, and in these fictional passages in David Copperfield, whose personal significance was unknown to the reader until the posthumous publication of the biography. This is his ‘favourite child’ as a novel just as David is his favourite child as a creation because David is himself. And he can take pity on him(self) and understand him(self) from the distance of writing him(self) out in the fictional form. At the start of Chapter 11 (‘I begin Life on my own account, and don’t like it’), David says, as he is dismissed from his dead mother’s home and consigned to factory work and the dubious care of Mr Micawber:

It is a matter of some surprise to me, even now, that I can have been so easily thrown away at such an age. A child of excellent abilities, and with strong powers of observation, quick, eager, delicate, and soon hurt bodily or mentally, it seems wonderful to me that nobody should have made any sign in my behalf. But none was made; and I became, at ten years old, a little labouring hind in the service of Murdstone and Grinby.

The child’s cry of distress, injustice and incomprehension is still evident there in the adult novelist’s words. He’s arrested in the grief and injustice of that moment, much as David is in the heart-breaking moment of his final parting from his mother just a couple of chapters earlier:

I was in the carrier’s cart when I heard her calling to me. I looked out, and she stood at the garden gate alone, holding her baby up in her arms for me to see. It was cold still weather; and not a hair of her head, or a fold of her dress, was stirred, as she looked intently at me, holding up her child.

So I lost her. So I saw her afterwards, in my sleep at school – a silent presence near my bed – looking at me with the same intent face – holding up her baby in her arms.

But as is the way with novels, and perhaps especially Dickens’ novels, all comes right in the end. Perhaps it is that arrested development that allows the all-powerful novelist to kill off the hapless Dora (another case of being stuck in babyhood) and give David his happy ending. And when we know that Dickens’ own mother was the one that urged his staying on at the bottling factory, rather than his father, we see the psychological complications inherent in the novelist completing this work at all. But it is still a remarkably clear-sighted human being and novelist who can write those passages that come so close to the pain in himself.

A final footnote: Dickens may indeed have secretly drawn on Jane Eyre in creating his first-person child narrator, but he has also provided the model and inspiration and a prime cultural reference point, for the 20th-century novelist. James Joyce with his ‘Once upon a time and a very good time it was’ beginning to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and his ‘baby tuckoo’ interior monologue, undoubtedly had in mind this novel about a writer coming to birth, though naturally, he disrupted his English nineteenth-century precedent. An even more subversive fictional descendant was J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), with its iconoclastic American colloquial opening:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, what my lousy childhood was like how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it.

The apparently dismissive name-check is actually tipping of the hat. And ever thought about why the hero is Holden Caulfield? Then there are Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), marking the birth not just of thousands of babies, but a whole independent country, at the stroke of midnight. Dickens goes post-colonial and postmodern.

David Copperfield is a highly influential novel, then; perhaps Dickens’ most honest confrontation of himself; but finally, a novel simply worth reading in and for its own right.

[1] See Claire Harman, Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2016, p. 323 for further information on this.

David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, and James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, are all published by Wordsworth Editions.

John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, 1872-74, is available in various print and electronic editions.

Image: 19th era / Alamy Stock Photo