Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

David CopperfieldDavid Copperfield by Charles Dickens

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wanted to revisit Dickens after reading Jeanette Winterson’s Art Objects. Like other British critics who want to keep alive the modernist tradition—see also Gabriel Josipovici and James Wood—Winterson is vexed by Dickens. She wants to dispatch him as Victorian relic, but she’s also unable to deny his imaginative and emotional force. (In this, these critics are like the modernists themselves: Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Kafka—all haunted by Dickens.) Winterson is, ultimately, generous, judging Dickens by his mightiest feats of language. She dismisses with the contempt it deserves the mindless cliché that such a master prose stylist would write TV shows were he alive today, even as she admits that 19th-century standards (moral, aesthetic, economic) often forced him to walk when he should have been flying, in her metaphor.

David Copperfield, Dickens’s own favorite among his novels and his most autobiographical fiction, largely confirms Winterson’s argument—more so, surely, than such other novels as the fragmented and sublimely apocalyptic Bleak House or the perfectly designed Great Expectations.

This long first-person narrative begins with the title hero’s birth to an economically insecure widow in the village of Blunderstone. From there, Dickens treats us lavishly to Copperfield’s life: his mother’s marriage to the cruel Murdstone; his filial love for his mother’s maid, Peggotty, and her seafaring family at Yarmouth; his time in a school run by the cruel master Creakle, where he meets the charismatic and privileged Steerforth, the great friend of his life who will later become an enemy; his mother’s death, after the murder of her spirit by Murdstone and his sister; his time in a blacking factory as a poor boy alone in London, where he meets the grandiloquent debtor, Mr. Micawber, and his loyal wife and family; his escape to his paternal great-aunt, Betsey Trotwood, who lives in Dover with the mentally handicapped Mr. Dick; his time in Canterbury, where attends school at Salem House and lives in the home of the widower Mr. Wickfield and his pure, good daughter Agnes, and where he also encounters the nasty, manipulative social climber Uriah Heep; his journey to London to become a lawyer; his reunion with Steerforth (and his meetings with Steerforth’s imperious mother and bitter cousin, the scarred Rosa Dartle) and their complicated involvement, ending in calamity, with the lives of the laboring Peggotty family; his delirious courtship of and unsatisfying marriage to the winsome, innocent, spoiled and naive Dora Spenlow; and the Dickensianly complicated disentangling and narrative re-knotting of all these relations with melodrama and good humor. Copperfield, like his creator, becomes a successful novelist, thus giving him the consummate ability to tell his own personal history. The novel ends happily (though not without a considerable body count and with much of the still-living cast of characters having emigrated to Australia), our now famous hero in a marriage of true minds to his childhood friend Agnes, who draws him on toward the ideal. (Note: the novel is spilling over with characters and stories; I have not accounted for them all.)

What are the novel’s flaws? It is just too long, for one thing, even allowing for narrative length as part of the project of telling a life story. Some of its variations-on-a-theme (the overall theme being love, marriage, and family relations, I think) go on forever while also going nowhere, such as the story of Dr. Strong and his almost-errant wife or the zany married life of Tommy Traddles. Arguably, even the devoted wandering of Mr. Peggotty in search of the Steerforth-seduced Little Em’ly is an over-extended sentimental journey. And since this novel lacks some of the elements that make Dickens’s other fiction so exciting—the nearly Gothic depiction of London’s corruption; the theatrical and inventive third-person narrative voice; the furious socio-political satire and polemic—it loses considerable force after its first quarter, when David’s childhood travails, always a glory of Dickens, are surpassed.

Then there is the problem of the Victorian writer’s ideological constraint, always most apparent around questions of gender and sex. David Copperfield has three types of female character: the benign grotesque (Peggotty, Aunt Betsey, Mrs. Micawber); the malign grotesque (Miss Murdstone, Miss Mowcher, Rosa Dartle); and the more realistically and normatively represented failed or successful exemplar of domestic virtue (David’s mother, Little Em’ly, Agnes, Dora). And the problem, as I have called it, is that Dickens can only make the first two types truly interesting. A benign grotesque is a category we moderns (or perhaps we Judeo-Christians) do not seem to have much access to, and such characters are always best if kept very close to the border of nightmare, in my opinion; Dickens’s quasi-pagan retention of such figures makes his fiction as distinctive as it is and separates his work from mere realism, but, even so, even the likes of Peggotty get tiresome after a while. As for the potentially virtuous women and their relation to the malign grotesque, more needs to be said.

David’s failed first marriage to the “child-wife” Dora, whose mind is not equal to his own, shows that the Victorians did not simply expect women to waste away in the domestic sphere; rather, they expected them to manage, order, and supervise it, as the successful wife, Agnes, is later to do—and David makes much of her being his intellectual equal, if his spiritual superior (as he is presumably her worldly or secular superior, able to act in public as she cannot). They need to be equals because they—man and woman—divide responsibility for the nation between them, as she superintends the private (emotional, affective) sphere and he the public (rational, intellectual). Or not quite: for David is a novelist, an artist. And the Victorian artist, who trafficked to the public the emotions of the private, was caught between gender norms, since the artist’s public appeal masculinized the female writer (hence Southey’s notorious insistence to Charlotte Brontë that a woman ought not be an author at all) while the artist’s parade of private feeling feminized the male writer (hence those agonized Victorian poems about the difficulties of being man and artist, such as Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall” or Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi”).

David Copperfield, in some of its worst moments, simply relays the values that make an independent life for individuals of either gender unlivable:

I cannot call to mind where or when, in my childhood, I had seen a stained glass window in a church. Nor do I recollect its subject. But I know that when I saw her turn round, in the grave light of the old staircase, and wait for us, above, I thought of that window; and I associated something of its tranquil brightness with Agnes Wickfield ever afterwards.

And in other of its worst moments—the entire depiction of Dora, for instance—it simply punishes women for failing to live up to social norms out of what I suspect is Dickens’s unconscious rage at the system to which he otherwise subscribes. When Dora and her dog, Jip—surely two of the most insufferable characters in all of fiction, despite the novel’s otherwise perceptive account of a too-early marriage caused by David’s “undisciplined heart”—die simultaneously, one would have to possess a heart of stone not to laugh, as Wilde said of Little Nell:

How the time wears, I know not; until I am recalled by my child-wife’s old companion. More restless than he was, he crawls out of his house, and looks at me, and wanders to the door, and whines to go upstairs.

‘Not tonight, Jip! Not tonight!’

He comes very slowly back to me, licks my hand, and lifts his dim eyes to my face.

‘Oh, Jip! It may be, never again!’

He lies down at my feet, stretches himself out as if to sleep, and with a plaintive cry, is dead.

‘Oh, Agnes! Look, look, here!’ —That face, so full of pity, and of grief, that rain of tears, that awful mute appeal to me, that solemn hand upraised towards Heaven!


It is over. Darkness comes before my eyes; and, for a time, all things are blotted out of my remembrance.

To put it simply, Dickens cannot convincingly represent a woman who is not a grotesque. (He will, of course, do better in the next novel, Bleak House, with Esther Summerson.) And it is the malign grotesques who are most vivid, especially the fascinating Rosa Dartle, with her wounded and wounding mouth (“She is all edge,” says Steerforth, who gave her the scar on her lip by throwing a hammer at her in childhood).

David loves no female peer as passionately as he loves Steerforth, of course, his tedious protestations about the angelic Agnes to the contrary. The charismatic aristocrat with the thrusting phallic name, the corrupter and seducer—Steerforth is everything the good Victorian boy and successful Victorian author is not and secretly wants to be. In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, Jeremy Tambling points out that Steerforth is the spirit of Byron, which the bourgeois age wants to banish, and also that David’s birth caul, described on the novel’s first page, folklorically ensures that he, unlike Steerforth, will not be drowned—in water or in passion. And here, at the heart of this Künstlerroman’s psychomachia, we come to Dickens’s literary triumph.

If this novel lacks the vital depiction of London that one finds in even comparatively slighter works, such as Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, it almost makes up for it with the sea. David’s lyrical recollections of his time in Mr. Peggotty’s boat house and by the beach at Yarmouth are some of the best writing in the early chapters:

I lay down in the old little bed in the stern of the boat, and the wind came moaning on across the flat as it had done before. But I could not help fancying, now, that it moaned of those who were gone; and instead of thinking that the sea might rise in the night and float the boat away, I thought of the sea that had risen, since I last heard those sounds, and drowned my happy home. I recollect, as the wind and water began to sound fainter in my ears, putting a short clause into my prayers, petitioning that I might grow up to marry little Em’ly, and so dropping lovingly asleep.

This is an unexpectedly salty, briny, sandy, wind-swept book, redolent of the ocean. Late in the novel, after the deaths of Dora, Steerforth, and Ham Peggotty, and after Mr. Peggotty’s and Emily’s and the Micawbers’ Australian emigration, David takes Wordsworthian refuge in nature on a tour of the Continent; he echoes “Tintern Abbey” when he writes that “Nature [is] never sought in vain” (Wordsworth’s speaker says, “Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her”). And, as Tambling notes, “emotion recollected in tranquility,” Wordsworth’s mission for the poet as expressed in the preface to Lyrical Ballads, seems to be the novel’s watchword. In a very moving passage about his desperate boyhood days in London, David remembers the birth of his artistic imagination in an innocent, suffering boy’s recreation of experience:

As I walked to and fro daily between Southwark and Blackfriars, and lounged about at meal-times in obscure streets, the stones of which may, for anything I know, be worn at this moment by my childish feet, I wonder how many of these people were wanting in the crowd that used to come filing before me in review again, to the echo of Captain Hopkins’s voice! When my thoughts go back, now, to that slow agony of my youth, I wonder how much of the histories I invented for such people hangs like a mist of fancy over well-remembered facts! When I tread the old ground, I do not wonder that I seem to see and pity, going on before me, an innocent romantic boy, making his imaginative world out of such strange experiences and sordid things!

But is such Wordsworthian memory, interfused with the maternal spirit incarnated in this novel’s woefully insipid heroine, really the source of art? Do nature and imagination really keep faith with humanity?

In the novel’s single best passage, the extraordinary “Tempest” (Chapter 55), Dickens lets himself say no. In the chapter’s eponymous storm, nature is a destroying force, killing the good laborer (Ham Peggotty) with the bad aristocrat (Steerforth), and sweeping away the works of men and women. The extended description of the tempest, which mounts towards an understated climax in David’s discovery of Steerforth’s body onshore, “among the ruins of the home he had wronged—I saw him lying with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school,” must be one of the most intense pieces of fictional prose in English:

The tremendous sea itself, when I could find sufficient pause to look at it, in the agitation of the blinding wind, the flying stones and sand, and the awful noise, confounded me. As the high watery walls came rolling in, and, at their highest, tumbled into surf, they looked as if the least would engulf the town. As the receding wave swept back with a hoarse roar, it seemed to scoop out deep caves in the beach, as if its purpose were to undermine the earth. When some white-headed billows thundered on, and dashed themselves to pieces before they reached the land, every fragment of the late whole seemed possessed by the full might of its wrath, rushing to be gathered to the composition of another monster. Undulating hills were changed to valleys, undulating valleys (with a solitary storm-bird sometimes skimming through them) were lifted up to hills; masses of water shivered and shook the beach with a booming sound; every shape tumultuously rolled on, as soon as made, to change its shape and place, and beat another shape and place away; the ideal shore on the horizon, with its towers and buildings, rose and fell; the clouds fell fast and thick; I seemed to see a rending and upheaving of all nature.

Note the ambiguity in the final clause: is nature being rent and upheaved, or is nature rending and upheaving itself? The latter is true, however hesitant the language, however ostensibly Wordsworthian the novel’s cosmos. And speaking, like Jeanette Winterson, as a child of the twentieth century, I think this frothing and undulating and battering sea is always underneath the artistic imagination as it is always underneath sexual desire and romantic longing, as it is underneath all the (often necessary) rules and norms by which we order and regulate society. That Dickens’s own imaginative powers draw him so close to this truth, allow him to express it despite his narrator’s quite opposite didactic intentions, testifies to the value of David Copperfield.

A killing storm, a wounded mouth: I suspect these disturbing images—along with those “splendid gargoyles” (Orwell’s phrase) Micawber and Heep and Mowcher—are what the reader will recollect, without tranquillity, of this novel’s mixed achievement when Agnes and all the other pictures of Victorian rectitude have faded from the mind.



  1. Sorry for the pedantry, but David is not in apprenticeship to be a general interest lawyer like Traddles. He is in apprenticeship to be a proctor which according to Wikipedia is the equivalent for ecclesiastical courts and he never finishes because Aunt Betsey loses all her money.
    (I was lucky enough to be assigned this book for the summer between 9th and 10th grades.)

    • No problem; thanks for the information! I agree that Dora’s situation is a serious one, but I am not as convinced that Dickens portrayed her with the needed seriousness. I can certainly understand identifying with her predicament, though.

  2. I don’t find Dora insufferable perhaps because I’ve been haunted by possibly ending up like her. Shortly after I was married, I was stunned to find out that you don’t have to know how to buy any cuts of meat these days or that following the description in the cookbook (“cubed lamb shoulder trimmed of fat”) will get you far at the butcher shop. (I was then devoted to the Cookery Book…) The experience of being married also showed me that Dora might not have believed that she could be responsible but within those limits she really loved David. That is something.

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