In the Preface to the 1867 edition of David Copperfield its author, Charles Dickens, made this confession: “Of all my books, I like this the best. It will be easily believed that I am a fond parent to every child of my fancy, and that no one can ever love that family as dearly as I love them. But, like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And that child is David Copperfield.” I recently read David Copperfield, which is considered by many to be Dickens’ best novel, and have come to love it, too. Below are some of my thoughts on the book and the time in which it was written.
The Barnes & Noble Classics edition that I read is over 700 pages long, and the print is small. There are numerous characters in the book who appear, wander through a few pages, and then largely vanish because they are not pivotal in the plot development. Other characters are unnecessarily verbose. Mr. Micawber, one of the main characters in the book, would never utter ten words when he could use a hundred, but that was true for other characters as well – including the narrator. So, I wondered, why did Dickens make his books so long? One answer is that his novels were serialized in monthly magazines (David Copperfield was presented in 20 parts), and the longer the novel went on, the greater the number of magazines would be sold. Also, Dickens and other authors would end each installment with a “cliff-hanger” that would leave the readers impatiently waiting for the next installment so they could find out how the terrible problem that ended the last installment was resolved. In some cases they were left to wonder if a main character lived or died.
Another advantage of serializing his books was that he could gauge the reaction of his readers as they read the installments and alter the future contents accordingly. For instance, one of the characters in David Copperfield is a middle-aged dwarf named Miss Mowcher who is a hairdresser for wealthy people. The first time we meet her, she seems to be a talkative but shallow character. When a woman who was a dwarf complained about Dickens’ characterization of Miss Mowcher, he decided to give Miss Mowcher a heroic role late in the novel.
You may have noticed that many of the books of that period are very long – occasionally 1,000 pages or so. Did the readers of the nineteenth century really enjoy reading books that were that long? Today we want our books to be short. We want to finish a book and move on to the hundred other things on our to-do list. But think about the world in 1850 when David Copperfield was first published in book form. The internet didn’t exist; radio and television didn’t exist; telephones and electric lighting didn’t exist; and automobiles were more than half century in the future. How did people amuse themselves? They talked to each other, they played musical instruments or listened as someone else played one, and they read books. Books were a major and somewhat rare form of entertainment, so readers were delighted to have something long to read. And all the strange characters who populated the pages were a delight to people who didn’t have access to the wide world that we take for granted.
Charles Dickens had a horrible childhood which obviously left mental scars. His father, throughout his life, spent more money than he made and he and his entire family (except for Charles) went to debtor’s prison for a while. Charles had to leave school and was forced to work ten hours a day in order to provide money for himself and his family. He also saw how terrible the lives of many other poor people were, and he never forgot. He was later sent to a school that was run by a sadistic headmaster. Many of his books – but especially David Copperfield – were autobiographical to some extent. For instance, David was forced by his stepfather to leave school (one with a brutal headmaster) and go to work in a business that he (the stepfather) owned. The world treated David badly, but he persevered and became a famous writer – just as Dickens did.
Though Charles Dickens did not openly crusade to right the wrongs of that period, he created characters in his novels who personified the evils of his time, and then he made his readers despise them. Early in David Copperfield we learn to detest David’s stepfather and his stepfather’s sister. They are self-righteous and harsh people who treat David and his mother abominably. By creating strong negative emotions in his readers about such horrid people, Dickens’ novels did more to change the culture of his time than any number of essays or speeches that he could have produced. He made (and makes) his readers feel deeply. He set moral boundaries that no one could fail to recognize.
He also gives us examples of people who are exceedingly good. David’s mother and his childhood friend Agnes are examples of characters who are almost saintly. They are loving, patient, devoted, and kind to everyone they encounter (poor and wealthy alike). They are so good that they are taken advantage of by the evil characters, but the good characters normally turn out fine while the evil ones get exactly what they deserve.
Let me mention one more aspect of Dickens’ novels: they contain some unbelievable coincidences. For instance near the end of David Copperfield our hero is touring a prison (under unlikely circumstances), and finds that two of the best-known inmates are men who caused a lot of pain for him and others earlier in the novel. We know that this event is improbable in real life, but who would want to alter it? Instead we’re delighted to see that, on occasion, good is rewarded and evil is punished.
The works of Charles Dickens are a treasure. Put aside your lengthy to-do list and revel in them. And consider starting with Dickens’ favorite child, David Copperfield.