Friday 11 December 2009

85 - 'David Copperfield' by Charles Dickens

This year has seen a return (for me) to reading Dickens after a fair absence, and it would be fair to say that I've had mixed impressions so far. After being amazed (again) by 'Bleak House', partially disappointed by 'A Tale of Two Cities' and thoroughly let down by 'Oliver Twist', I was looking for a right-rollicking read to restore my faith in the master Victorian novellist. Thankfully, 'David Copperfield was that book.

I was persuaded to buy it after reading Nick Hornby's review in his book 'The Polysyllabic Spree' earlier this year, and it has lain dormant for the past few months, waiting for me to take a break from my Japanese, German and Russian novels. Hornby's love of a single scene, totally unimportant in the progress of the story but given three or four pages by Dickens, a scene which other authors would have skipped over in a couple of sentences, attracted me to the book, which I thought I hadn't read before (having now read it, I suspect that I had read it a long, long time ago but had forgotten all about it).

'David Copperfield' is the book Dickens himself described as his favourite, and well it might be as it is heavily influenced by the author's own life experiences. A young boy overcomes a rocky start to life, caused by difficult family circumstances and financial hardship, and starts to earn his place in the world. After dabbling in law and reporting political speeches, he finally becomes a successful writer. Sound familiar?

Of course, what happens to David himself is not the key to the book. The wonder of 'David Copperfield' consists in the amazing descriptions of the people he meets along the way, among them some of the most memorable characters in English literature. One of these is Mr. Micawber, a noble pauper much given to writing letters (and running up debts), a man who is permanently unemployed but always convinced that something good is just around the corner, indulged and supported by his long-suffering and ever-supportive wife. Another is Mr. Dick, a weak-minded gentleman who, saved by David's aunt from being locked up in an asylum, charms everyone with his simplicity and astounds all and sundry by his ability to see solutions and unite warring parties where 'normal' people are unable to see the wood for the trees (just don't mention King Charles...).

However, the most memorable character in the book is the ever 'umble Uriah Heep, a creature described so meticulously and horribly that the reader's skin crawls whenever his name makes its slimy way onto the page. The working class lawyer's clerk, who attaches himself to his employer in his misfortunes like a parasite, acts like a slow-moving cloud on a sunny day; gradually, but surely, his false servility and slimy obsequiessness cast a shadow over the happiness of the other characters, poisoning the happiness of David's friends as - HEEP! plots his dastardly revenge on the upper classes. Don't worry, this is Dickens...

'David Copperfield' is a fairly long book (my copy was around 750 pages), and this broad canvas allows Dickens to work at his best, spreading the story thinly over the framework of the pages so that he is able to colour in the gaps with characterisation and humorous asides. The part quoted by Hornby is a typical example; rather than just allowing the wandering David to sell off his jacket and be on his merry way, Dickens puts a wild, half-crazed pawnbroker in his path, forcing little David to wait outside the shop while the eccentric owner attempts to persuade him to accept a lower price, always adding the nonsense word 'Garoo!' to his utterances. Believe me, it's surreal.

The length of the story also allows us to follow a wide cast of personages and build our opinions of their characters as we go. This is important as one of the main ideas of the work is the fallibility of first impressions and the need to get to know someone intimately before making assumptions about their worth. Aunt Betsy, Mr. Dick, Mr. Micawber and Miss Moucher all rise in the reader's estimation as the story progresses while characters such as Steerforth and Littimer lose their initial lustre as we learn more about them. Naturally, some characters, whether good or bad, are exactly what they seem at first glance...

Finally, the book is about family. Although David never knew his father, and loses his mother early on in life, in reality he is surrounded by a group of people who love him and help him through the difficult periods of his life. As people come into his life and assist him in his path through Dickens' Bildungsroman, they become part of his family and often connect with David's other acquaintances. Peggotty, Traddles, Agnes and all the rest eventually form an extended family group which does more for David than a nuclear family ever could.

I know that up there in the northern hemisphere it's the start of winter and that you all need something to get you through the abysmal weather and the long nights. Might I suggest a nice warm room, a comfy chair, a cup of tea and 'David Copperfield'? You won't regret it.