Heads up: I know it goes without saying that everything I’ve written is bound to contain spoilers, but this is probably the most spoiler-filled review thing I’ve written so far.
I’m almost a bit ashamed to say that, at the age of 23, David Copperfield is the first and only novel by Charles Dickens that I’ve read (so far). I did try to read it a few years ago and didn’t get very far, but I’m glad I picked it up again for a second attempt. I thought it might be a bit too stuffy and overly old-fashioned seeming, but it wasn’t at all and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s definitely a commitment though, my copy’s a grand total of 745 pages before end notes, but if you have the energy to prop it up on the pillow at night then it’s definitely worth it. It’s actually quite funny in places, and very witty throughout, and I found myself having a bit of a snigger in the tea room on more than one occasion.
I think one of the quite extraordinary things to notice about Dickens’ writing is the level of characterisation. David Copperfield is written as if it was an eponymous autobiography, and so it obviously features a whole wealth of characters encountered by David throughout his life. But what’s quite interesting is the level of detail given to describing the character traits, appearance and mannerisms of people who are really quite minor characters and may have only had one encounter with David in the book, so we are left with as vivid a picture of a waiter who serves David on a childhood journey as the regular appearance of aunt Betsey Trotwood. And the pictures really are vivid. I could clearly see in my mind’s eye the slimy crook Uriah Heep fawning and practically falling over himself in his loathsome “’umbleness” towards David. It’s quite rare for me to come across a book where I can visualise even the most minor of characters so clearly. It was almost like I was seeing it acted out in front of me, rather than just reading the words on the page.
And then, of course, there are the characters themselves. Uriah Heep, for one, is a fantastic invention. He’s almost the perfect villain, because his fake sincerity and grovelling, snivelling nature make him even more repulsive, and he’s definitely one of the most memorable characters. There are a fair number of eccentrics in the form of Aunt Betsey (who chases donkeys off lawns with a stick), and Dick (who has Charles I stuck in his head and constantly trying to invade his memoirs with snippets of history). I expect even those who haven’t read the book will at least be familiar with the names of Peggotty, David’s childhood nurse, and Mr Micawber, who seems to almost make a living out of being constantly impoverished and in debt. And then of course there’s David Copperfield himself. You just can’t help but like David Copperfield. He’s rather sweet and endearing, far too trusting and painfully naive at times, but he’s a pretty determined chap and picked himself up after a few hard knocks to carve a future for himself and, once he’d won her over, his pretty little childwife Dora. Dora did drive me mad at first, she was so simpering and silly with absolutely no common sense whatsoever and not nearly enough maturity to be married and run a home, especially when it was so obvious that lovely, sensible Agnes had been in love with David for donkey’s years and was far better suited to him. But towards the end, when Dora had realised her own shortcomings and begged ‘Doady’ to forgive her, and once he’d realised she really wasn’t great wife material but loved her to pieces anyway and doted on her while she was dying, I really warmed to her a lot and was quite moved when her poor little dog Jip gave up and died at the exact moment that she did, and even more so when we find out later that she’d entrusted Agnes to look after her poor old Doady, especially when it was increasingly clear that David was in love with Agnes without really knowing it. Apparently Dora died after an illness caused by suffering a miscarriage, although I somehow seemed to have missed that bit completely, goodness knows how. I was probably too busy musing over poor Steerforth, who I shall add to my increasing collection of literary loves.
Oh, Steerforth! He was a selfish, arrogant cad, but he was my favourite selfish arrogant cad. I had his number, I could tell what he was up to all along, but I was completely enamoured with him all the same. I was still a bit shocked when he ran off with Little Em’ly, even though I could see it was coming, but not half as shocked as poor old David who was equally enamoured with him and had far too much of a bromance going on to even slightly suspect him of anything remotely serious. I’m still quite devastated by the shipwreck scene. This is going to sound like a massive exaggeration, but it was so intense that I swear I could even hear the thunder and the crashing of the waves when I was reading it in the library on my lunch break. I was a complete nervous wreck throughout that chapter, I could tell what it was building up to and had worked out exactly who it was that Ham was trying to save, and the fact that he died trying to save Steerforth in particular, who had run off with the love of his life, was doubly tragic. But I think the fact that Steerforth wasn’t even named made it an even more poignant scene. Dickens has hinted and allowed us to work out who it might be, and the chapter closes with David seeing the second drowned body “lying with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school.” I actually genuinely think this was one of the most affecting scenes I’ve ever read. I don’t quite know why exactly, but it was all just incredibly vivid and powerful, and I really was quite in love with poor Steerforth. It was also right at the end of this chapter that I had to rush back to work with only a minute to spare, and I was completely useless all afternoon because I spent the rest of the day waiting for work to be over so I could read the next chapter, desperately hoping that I’d misunderstood and that maybe it was Traddles who’d drowned instead (sorry Traddles), but it could only be Steerforth.
When I first started reading David Copperfield, I felt a bit guilty that I’d left it so long because people always rave about Dickens as one of the greats, so I felt that having a peruse of his works must be The Done Thing if you wanted to be able to think of yourself smugly as a well-read person. But by the end of the book I was feeling guilty that I’d left it so long because I realised what I’d been missing out on all this time, and how much more enjoyable it was than I thought it’d be. It did take me quite a while too (it’s a pretty massive book), and I actually missed reading it once I’d finished because I had a real sense of travelling alongside David throughout his life, and in a way (and I know this is going to sound incredibly ridiculous and also quite tragic, I am in the process of trying to get a life, honest!) it was almost like saying goodbye to a friend that you’d seen everyday and knew you’d never see in the same way again. I think that’s all down to Dickens’ characterisation, the characters seem a lot more personal somehow so it’s easy to feel like you know them, as real, living people almost. I am very aware how ridiculous all of this (and I) sound, and before anyone says anything, I am fully aware that it is a made up story and they are not real people and it is not real life; that’s probably why I felt so attached to it. It has left me with a slight sense of trepidation in a way though. I’m excited at the thought of reading another Dickens’ epic, but at the same time I’m worried that it won’t meet my (now very high) expectations. I suppose there’s only one way to find out.