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david copperfield

25 march 2024

I read A Tale of Two Cities in the seventh grade and Great Expectations in the eighth. Next I started David Copperfield in a blocklike old Signet Classics edition, with smudgy small print and flimsy pages. I read it, or at least parts of it, over and over throughout my youth. Or, I didn't so much read David Copperfield in those years as I inhabited it and let it permeate me.

It was always the first half of the novel that I read and re-read, when I was young: the part about the child David, of course. Well over a century after the novel appeared, I saw Ham and Little Em'ly, Steerforth and Traddles, Uriah Heep, Mealy Potatoes, and the Micawbers in the people around me. I didn't work in a bottle factory, but I did go to a ramshackle private school; I didn't take vacations on Yarmouth Sands, but I did go down the Jersey Shore. David Copperfield wound itself into the texture of my experiences.

When I re-read the entire novel several times as an adult, I continued to gravitate to, and be most impressed by, the earlier episodes. To my mind, the latter parts of David Copperfield were still worth reading. The characters kept reappearing, the plot kept crackling along. But David as an adult lacked the poignancy and immediacy of David as a child.

Or rather, David narrating his adulthood lacks the poignancy of David remembering his childhood. The narrator of David Copperfield is always David the adult, ruefully contrasting (in the earlier chapters) adult assessments against childhood naïvety.

The "jumped the shark" nature of David Copperfield is of course a critical commonplace. Paul Bailey, introducing the World's Classics edition for Oxford in 1999, calls it a "lopsided masterpiece" (viii) on account of its "flawed second half" (x). So I am just reiterating the usual judgment. Though I'm drawn to the idea of at least noting, this time round, what I like most in the early chapters and less in the later ones.

I like the Proustian things in David Copperfield. The connection between David and the narrator of the Recherche is often noted, and I assume it's a direct influence. In both books, the narrator grows into adulthood and becomes a writer. In both, he remembers his childhood, instead of presenting it in present tense in childhood terms. In both, the narrator is a gentleman; in both, a female servant (Peggotty in Dickens, Françoise in Proust) mangles the standard language and is superhuman in her devotion to him.

But there are smaller things too. Steerforth and Saint-Loup bear similar relations to the narrators in each work. A minor character in David Copperfield, Henry Spiker's "head, instead of being grey, seemed to be sprinkled with hoar-frost" (chapter 25), like the characters in the great "bal des têtes" scene near the end of the Recherche. A commonplace, perhaps. But David also has his madeleine moment:

The scent of a geranium leaf, at this day, strikes me with a half comical half serious wonder as to what change has come over me in a moment; and then I see a straw hat and blue ribbons, and a quantity of curls, and a little black dog being held up, in two slender arms, against a bank of blossoms and bright leaves. (chapter 26)
Above all, there's the continual way that David (like Proust's narrator) keeps washing up, in childhood, against things that he only understands much later. "Brooks of Sheffield," "Barkis is willin'" … Barkis' death, uttering that catchphrase, at the end of chapter 30, was the most moving thing in the novel, to me this time through, and maybe the last really great thing in a book that runs another 34 chapters.

Some of the best things early on in David Copperfield are foreshadowings of later tragedies that have to come to pass, for the foreshadowings to work. But when the big wind-up comes, it's nowhere near as affecting as the foreshadowings. Steerforth in Chapter 29 "fast asleep; lying, easily, with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school" is affecting as it points to his eventual death. Steeforth actually dying is pretty glurgy.

And so with David's foreshadowings of the fate worse than death that awaits Little Em'ly. Though that thread in the novel is also one of several that are weakly spun, thanks to Dickens' inability to create interesting women characters who aren't grotesques. In David Copperfield, Dora, Agnes, Em'ly, Martha, and Annie Strong are neither engaging nor even believable. Em'ly runs away with Steerforth. She thinks he will marry her and make her a lady. Of course he won't. But never at any point do we get a sense that Em'ly is remotely attracted to Steerforth. As soon as she goes off under his "protection," her character disappears under a crushing load of remorse. The whole venture is so utterly devoid of fun that you cannot imagine the characters even flirting decorously with each other, let alone absconding as lovers.

Still worse, the great characters are drained of energy as the novel progresses. Mr. Micawber loses his verve and becomes a mere bore. Miss Mowcher appears once in a burst of energy, and reappears only to explain herself at dreary length. Uriah Heep explains himself and ultimately winds up in a weird prison episode that doesn't work at all. Rosa Dartle loses her enigmatic edge and merely goes ballistic. Miss Betsey loses her perppery qualities, Mr. Dick gains entirely too much insight, and even Peggotty fades into anodyne helpfulness.

The obvious comparison among Dickens' novels is Great Expectations. Both have first-person narrators, both take those narrators from childhood to adulthood. Great Expectations is a far more coherent book (this is also a critical commonplace). Its plot, though dreamlike, has a relentless logic. And Great Expectations has the great virtue that its orphan hero isn't a gentleman waiting to be revealed. Pip (like Dickens himself, an inevitable parallel) is a social climber, and like many social climbers – like Uriah Heep, I suppose – Pip is intensely uneasy about his desire to vault over a large swath of his own social class.

David Copperfield, by contrast, is unproblematically a gentleman born. He descends to the working class before claiming kin of Miss Betsey to rise again. But his character note is one of chafing against conditions that do not become his birth. Uriah Heep's fraudulence kicks the props out from under David anew, and David works hard and rises by his own merit again. But David is never uneasy about being of the upper classes. He takes the homage shown him by the Peggottys for granted.

Clara Peggotty (Barkis), that innately self-effacing example of servile devotion, re-emerges in literary history not just as Proust's Françoise, but, bizarrely, as Tolkien's Sam Gamgee (just as Uriah Heep prefigures Gollum). Peggotty is to David as Sam is to Frodo: living confirmation that the class system is natural and functional. It takes a great, compelling imagination to inspire both J.R.R. Tolkien and Marcel Proust.

Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. 1850. Kindle Edition; and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.