David Copperfield is Dickens’ great nostalgic sigh of a novel. It is, we are told, his most personal, the one he cherished above all his others; it is also one of his most highly rated – Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf were fans – and most loved by the general public. It is, this being Dickens, who is for my money the greatest English novelist of all time, very good, of course. Yet, I couldn’t quite fall for it in the way that I have done with many of his other works. While reading it I felt a little bit like one of those guys who doesn’t think Angelina Jolie is super-hot: no matter how much everyone tells you how incredibly beautiful she is, for some reason you just can’t see it, you think she’s merely alright.
As with all of Dickens’ novels there is much in David Copperfield to admire, and much, actually, that sets it apart from the rest of oeuvre. Perhaps the reason that this novel is so highly rated by other writers and critics, in particular, is that it is his most beautifully written. There are passages in the book, lyrical passages, that genuinely moved me; there is an elegiac, Proustian, quality to the writing, which is something, I must admit, I wasn’t even sure he was capable of. I have been moved many many times by his work previously, but on those occasions it was the characters that drew an emotional response from me. I wish I had bookmarked some of my favourite passages, but unfortunately I didn’t. However, here is a lovely line I found at random:
As the elms bent to one another, like giants who were whispering secrets, and after a few seconds of such repose fell into a violent flurry, tossing their wild arms about, as if their late confidences were really too wicked for their peace of mind, some weather-beaten, ragged old rooks’ nests, burdening their higher branches, swung like wrecks upon a stormy sea.
It is fair to say that some readers find the abundance of zany, eccentric, or larger-than-life people in Dickens’ novels tiresome. I am not one of those. The man simply had an immense talent for creating memorable characters, some of whom are as immortal as Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Ahab and so on. The big deal is that those were all thought up by different writers; Dickens – one man, one writer – created a whole bunch of them. In any case, David Copperfield houses much fewer of these sorts of people; the characters are, to my mind, far more understated, more [and this seems to matter a lot to some of you] real. This may go some way to explaining why I did not enjoy it quite as much as, say, Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend or Great Expectations. I spoke about flat characters in my Gravity’s Rainbow review, so I don’t want to repeat all that here, except to say that flat to me doesn’t mean unrealistic, rather it means dull or not engaging. Truth be told, I found quite a few of the characters in this book boring or slightly irritating, people like Peggotty, who is very good and very lovely and well written and all that jazz, but who simply did not hold my interest.
This neatly leads me on towards my biggest issue with the book, which is that I just could not take to David himself. As previously stated, I struggled with Bleak House’s Esther, the only other Dickens first-person narrator, but I at least found her intriguing, or interesting. David, aside from his wonderful prose, is, bafflingly for a narrator, a kind of void; he lacks a strong personality. I came out of the novel knowing almost nothing about him as a man, aside from numerous biographical details. For much of the novel, he seemed oddly distant from the action, was, so to speak, standing apart, in a corner while the action took place. I did wonder whether that was Dickens’ point, that David Copperfield is about how someone sees their life and the people who played a part in it, that it isn’t meant to be a portrait of the narrator; maybe he was trying to say something about the functioning of one’s memory, how it relegates you to a position of observer. If that is what Dickens intended then his book is a success. But the damn thing is called David Copperfield, so if we don’t get to know him that counts, at the very least, as false advertising.
I must confess that the little of David I did get to know I found pretty objectionable. Of course, one doesn’t need to like a narrator, but I couldn’t shake the feeling, what with him being to some extent a stand-in for the author, that I was meant to. It’s strange, because one of the things I most like and enjoy about Dickens is his open-heartedness, his warmth, his, yes, sentimentality. However, David, although absolutely sentimental, isn’t particularly warm or open-hearted; in fact, I found him pompous and judgemental. I don’t think that was intentional. I guess much of that can be put down to a paradigm shift; which is to say that things that were acceptable, or expected, during Dickens’ time are less so now. I’m referring to things like his reaction towards his workmates early in the book, which is sneering and rather unpleasant, and his thoughts and behaviour towards the fallen Little Em’ly. The whole storyline concerning her got right on my tits. She leaves her intended to be with a man who she loves, and it, ultimately, ruins her. Dickens, via David, almost appears to believe that she got her just desserts. I found that surprising. Yes, paradigm shift and blah blah blah, but Dickens always struck me as a morally forward-thinking writer, it’s one of his most admirable qualities, and yet in David Copperfield he doesn’t come across that way at all.
There are, however, still some great characters in the book. Uriah Heep is the most famous, and justly so. His physical appearance, his verbal tics are brilliantly imagined and written. But, once again, I would say that David’s immediate response to him, which is one of suspicion and dislike, perturbed me a bit. Of course, he turns out to be right in his judgement, his negative appraisal, in the end, but I couldn’t help but think he was judging Uriah not on his qualities, or lack of them, as a human being, but rather his status. In any case, Aunt Betsey and Mr Dick are two other memorable creations, and all of their appearances are a joy.
A joy, also, are numerous scenes or episodes throughout the novel. It seems, from the reviews I have read, that many people do not find much to praise in the opening section that features David and his mother, but I did. I found their relationship entirely believable. Furthermore, I was particularly smitten with David’s school days and, later, an awesome chapter in which he gets drunk with some friends. Indeed, this drunk scene is the best description of drunkenness I have ever read, and it was one of the few times I warmed to David. My favourite section of the novel, however, was David’s and Dora’s courtship and marriage. Women, I imagine, might hate Dora because she’s the kind of girl women typically can’t stand i.e. she’s impractical, otherworldly, cute and child-like. As a man, I loved her. She charmed me entirely. The tragic nature of the relationship – that, really, they were ill-suited, despite their love – was heartbreaking, particularly Dora’s acknowledgement of her own failures as a wife. Truly, all that killed me. In fact, I’m feeling emotional just thinking about it. But, then I’m sentimental too. And, I guess, that, that parts of this book still managed to floor me, even though it is not at all my favourite Dickens, is further evidence of the author’s colossal genius.