Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)

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. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry simultaneously.

David Copperfield is the classic Victorian novel: a huge, moral, sentimental bildungsroman published slap bang in the middle of the century.  It has Dickens writing at the top of his form in beautifully balanced prose.  I love the way, in the famous opening quoted above, Dickens subtly undermines the confidence of his tone with that “(as I have been informed and believe)”.   This comment in parentheses is the important part of the paragraph, reminding us that we tell stories about our lives based on stories told to us by others, that in order to construct our stories we must rely, not only on our own memories, but on the memories of others.

My mother, who’s read every single one of Dickens’s novels, doesn’t like David Copperfield. “What’s it about?” she asks and then answers her question with, “It’s not about anything; it’s like a series of sketches strung together”.  Now that I’ve read it, I’d say that what it’s about is quite simply the experience of living itself – what it feels like to be abused and bullied, to grieve, to heal, to fall in love, to make some wrong choices and some right choices.  Life is difficult and life is full of change.  And I think that one of the reasons why Dickens has maintained his popularity is that his work is,  psychologically speaking, very astute .   A lot has changed since 1850 when this novel was published, but there’s still much that’s recognisable in the narrative.

David Copperfield contains some of Dickens’s best loved characters: the faithful servant, Pegotty, eccentric Aunt Betsy Trotwood, and the feckless, but good hearted Mr Macawber. It also presents some of his most horrifying villains: the abusive Mr and Miss Murdstone, unctious, treacherous Uriah Heap, the predatory Steerforth, and the vicious Rosa Dartle.

This is also a book about sex (bear with me), specifically, the dangers of basing relationships on sexual passion, rather than more moral, intellectual and spiritual qualities.  In David Copperfield unrestrained sexual passion leads to all kinds of badness.  David’s mother is killed by her foolish marriage to Mr Murdstone.  Little Em’ly is ruined by her attraction to Steerfoth and has to spend the rest of her life repenting in exile.  Martha ends up on the streets of London, and almost in the river.  Rosa Dartle festers with rage and bitterness because Steerforth doesn’t love her back. David finds himself in a miserably incompatible marriage with sexy but stupid Dora.  Even Aunt Betsy has a dark secret that comes back to haunt her …  These relationships are contrasted with that of Traddles and his ever-so-patient fiancée, Sophie, and eventually with the happy marriage of David and Agnes.  In this sense, it’s a profoundly conservative narrative.

From a feminist perspective, the women’s stories in David Copperfield are pretty damn disturbing. Little Em’ly is forced to choose between marrying a man she does not love and running away with the seductive Steerforth. She is brutally punished for her understandable choice.  Dora is the classic Wollstonecraftian woman – entirely decorative, weak, ignorant and useless, conveniently dying of an unnameable female malady so that David can marry Agnes.  (There’s just no way to redeem the line “Oh my child wife” is there? Ick!)  Rosa Dartle represents the rage and hatred of the sexually frustrated woman.  I found this character, one of the nastiest and most sexual women in Dickens, so disturbing that I came to dread her appearances.  In a symbol of sexual injury, she is scarred on the mouth from when the young Steerforth threw a hammer at her.  She is the masochist who desires to be abused, and lashes out at everyone who stands in her way, descending into a kind of madness.  Then there’s the Angelic Agnes, who is a pill, but I felt bad for her – in love with David and waiting all those years, enduring the despicable attentions of Uriah Heap and the demands of her alcoholic father.  Dickens’s work is full of emotionally incestuous father/daughter couples (which are pretty common in Victorian literature in general), but he also tends to make a virtue of these incredibly creepy relationships.  Agnes has replaced her mother; she’s Mr Wickfield’s little housekeeper; he can’t bear to be without her etc.etc.

Dickens is oddly dissonant about women.  He has sympathy for and a deep understanding of the ways in which the women of his time were trapped in all manner of double binds and he can represent the horrors of the patriarchal family with a clear eye.  But, at the same time, the only solution he can come up with is to claim that women will find fulfilment in being the virtuous footstools of their husbands and fathers.  It took his far less conventional friend, Wilkie Collins, to see further.

So, David Copperfield is a hugely entertaining read, but when you scratch the surface, it brings up all manner of disturbing questions.

Want more Dickens?  Posts on Bleak House and A Christmas Carol.

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3 thoughts on “Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)

  1. But, at the same time, the only solution he can come up with is to claim that women will find fulfilment in being the virtuous footstools of their husbands and fathers.

    It kinda reminds me of those people who look at the problems of the queer community—drugs, alcohol, depression, suicide, AIDS— and say “Gosh, that’s so awful! See, this is why you all should go straight. It’s bad to be gay”. Really missing the point.

    It explains why his women are all caricatures though; he sees that patriarchy is bad for women, but he kind of likes it for himself, so he has to turn his female characters into cardboard dolls and villainesses. Real, three-dimensional women don’t compute.

  2. Thank you for this. I’ve just finished David Copperfield, first reread after thirty years and wanted to read some criticism on it. Your comments are very illuminating and wise, and just the sort of thing I was looking for. Yes, his women do make one feel very uncomfortable – I came away from this thinking I needed to read a good biography of him now and discover a bit more about what was going on in his own life – I have half-remembered stories of a beautiful 17-year-old sister in law he cherished (and his treatment of his own wife was infamous). Your post has given me lots to think about and shed fascinating light on the book’s themes, some of which I’d completely missed.

  3. Glad you enjoyed it.

    I’ve heard that Agnes is based on the 17 year-old sister-in-law, which is kind of creepy.

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