Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

Notes On David Copperfield

This is the last of the novels in which Dickens was making it up as he went along. All the subsequent novels have architecture.

"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," says David at the start of the book- suggesting that Dickens himself didn't know at this early stage.  In the event, David- endearing as he is- turns out to be too passive to be a proper hero. The "real" hero is the Byronic, fatally flawed  Steerforth- a  character who achieves something like tragic stature.

There is a loss when Dickens abandons the picaresque form with his next novel, Bleak House. The tyranny of Plot inhibits the creation of great comic characters.  In David Copperfield characters like Miss  Mowcher pop in and out for no other reason than that they're so brilliantly entertaining. In Bleak House characters have to earn their place, conform to the tone and serve theme and story.   If Bleak house is Dickens' masterpiece (which seems to be the current orthodoxy) it's a masterpiece with a whole heap of things wrong with it. There is almost nothing wrong with David Copperfield.

David Copperfield is a novel about marriage and family.  Dickens has a very modern sense of the family as something created not given. Aunt Betsy and Mr Dick are not related and David is nephew not son. The family at Peggoty's boathouse consists of the bachelor Peggotty, his niece and nephew (by different sets of parents) and the unrelated widow of his former partner. 

There are two successful marriages in the book ( setting aside David and Agnes) The first is that of the  Micawbers- who are unsuccessful in everything else. 

The Barkis marriage is more mysterious, its inner dynamic hidden from us. What does Peggoty see in him- who knows? But Barkis the carrier is one of literature's great lovers and is given a death bed scene more affecting than Romeo's.  "Barkis is willin."

The characters in David Copperfield skirt the abyss. We keep getting glimpses of the horrors they could tumble into or have  been rescued from. The Micawbers are bi-polar and continually on the edge of ruin, the delightful Mr Dick has barely escaped the madhouse, Aunt Betsy is shadowed by her wastrel husband. Another kind of ruin claims Steerforth and Little Em'ly. Drop off the edge in Victorian England are there are no nets to catch you.

Evil slithers in and out of the story in the shape of Uriah Heap. How profoundly Dickens hated the evangelicals. Tolkien stole the character almost entire when he created Gollum. " Thank you, thank you, Master Copperfield! It's like the blowing of old breezes or the ringing of old bellses to hear you say Uriah".

Another kind of evil- the evil of privilege and repression- haunts the Steerforth's house at Hampstead. David is wholly admiring, but even so you can smell the decay. This is so subtly done. There must be a name for the technique whereby a narrator says one thing and the reader intuits something completely different, but I can't think what it is.  Rosa Dartle with her scar and her sarcastic gabble and her manic harp-playing- fingering invisible strings before sitting down to play her Irish song- is both wonderfully gothic and painfully real. .There are three such houses in Dickens: the others are  the tumbledown house in the City in Little Dorrit and Miss Havisham's Satis House in Great Expectations. I think of them, collectively, as Grimmauld Place.

My mother-in-law charactises David Copperfield as "a nice Dickens". I know what she means. It's a comic novel. For all the death and despair and evil in it, you walk away smiling. But Dickens is like Shakespeare in this- comedy and tragedy are all mixed up and you can't have the murder without the comic porter but also you can't have the comic porter without the murder. In this they're merely true to life. We tend to prefer the later, better-structured novels ( maybe- simply-  because they yield more to critical analysis) but Copperfield is Dickens at the top of his game. Bleak House and Little Dorrit may be more impressive, Great Expectations is tighter, but nowhere else is Dickens so  freely and happily creative. David Copperfield just gives and gives and gives.


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