Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Classics Club 15: David Copperfield

David Copperfield is the lengthiest of the classics I've read so far. And that length - both in absolute terms and in the length of individual sentences - is a strength and a weakness. Certainly there are times where the words seem simply repetitive, where Dickens could justly be accused of circumlocution, where reading is unduly difficult, and where it is possible to believe that he really was paid by the word (in fact he was paid by the episode). But without the length David Copperfield would be so much weaker. One of its strengths is the way Dickens shows us, rather than tells us about his characters. He doesn't tell us Uriah Heep is a villain. He shows us by laying out in glorious detail all of Heep's actions, mannerisms, behaviours and speech.   The same with events. Dickens doesn't tell us that David Copperfield gets drunk with some friends and behaves badly . He shows us, in hilarious detail.
Owing to some confusion in the dark, the door was gone. I was feeling for it in the window-curtains, when Steerforth, laughing, took me by the arm and led me out. We went down-stairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell, and rolled down. Somebody else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at that false report, until, finding myself on my back in the passage, I began to think there might be some foundation for it.

How much poorer  David Copperfield would be without such descriptive passages.

This novel, Dickens's eighth and favourite, follows the life of David Copperfield from childhood through to late adulthood. His childhood involves many tribulations and much suffering - his father dies before he is born, his step-father treats him and his mother badly, he is sent away to school with a cruel headmaster, then his mother and baby brother die and he is sent to work for a wine merchant. Eventually Copperfield runs away and presents himself to his eccentric great-aunt, Betsey Trotwood. She takes him under her wing, ensures he gets a good education and sponsors him in his first profession as a proctor.  Through his own perseverance and hard work (his efforts to learn shorthand spring to mind) he rises, overcomes obstacles like his aunt's financial setbacks, and eventually becomes a successful novelist.

What really sticks with me from this novel is the characters . While there are some that could be used as role models for how to live and behave (Agnes Wickfield and Mr Peggotty are the most obvious examples), it is the more flawed or eccentric characters that are the most memorable. Uriah Heep obviously (has there ever been a more odious villain?), the incredibly flawed but still lovable and ultimately heroic Mr Micawber, the self-centred, manipulative James Steerforth and the immature Dora Spenlow will stay in my memory long after David Copperfield  is returned to the shelf. Even more minor characters - Rosa Dartle and Miss Mowcher - are not easily forgotten.

The character of Copperfield himself is, somewhat surprisingly, not one of the novel's more memorable. However, I did like the fact that he was not impossibly and unbelievably perfect either. His ultimate success in life was due in many respects to his own hard work. However, Copperfield also had character flaws which negatively impacted him and others at times. Chief amongst these was his sometimes being a poor judge of character. This led to his friendship with James Steerforth, which in turn had large ramifications for the entire Peggotty family, and his ill-advised marriage to the petted, spoilt  Dora Spenlow.

Much more could be said about this classic novel - the themes, the power of the scene where Mr Micawber takes down Uriah Heep, the concept of the 'fallen' woman . Suffice to say that I really enjoyed it and considered the effort involved in reading it to be well rewarded. I can definitely envisage rereading David Copperfield in the future.

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