Sunday, 4 October 2015
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1849-50)
This. This is the greatest of Dickens' works. Perhaps as a result of the fact that it was the one written from his heart (indeed, he described in depth the pain he felt whilst writing it), this novel is a vivid masterpiece, a pinnacle of literature, with its breathtaking scope, powerful description, stunning characterisation and a captivating insight into life in general.
David Copperfield is an autobiographical novel, and in that sense it's one of the best autobiographies ever written. But the novel doesn't just illuminate for posterity how the author felt, his own joys and sadnesses; it doesn't just tell us about the man behind the fiction, but the fact that this was written as an autobiography makes the plot and the narrative itself work far better. It's the first Dickens book to be written entirely in first person, and as such it achieves a sincerity and honesty, as well as an emotional intelligence and realism, above and beyond his previous efforts. So much of the story works because it's in first person: Steerforth's betrayal, for instance, is vastly more effective in the novel as it stands in part because he has been preserved as such a very admirable person in Copperfield's eyes.
The first-person style is one of the things that make Copperfield simply Dickens' best main character. This is of course in part because he is an authorial insert (oh, look: CD becomes DC), and thus Dickens knows the inner workings of this human being inside out; he pays real attention to making Copperfield rounded, complex, full of contradictory edges. He is by no means a quintessential or perfect hero: for instance, he trusts Steerforth, who we later discover is a bad lot, and he plunges into an overhasty marriage with Dora, resulting in much unhappiness. He is far more interesting and worth our time as readers than the likes of Nicholas Nickleby.
Copperfield also goes through more ordeals than other Dickens heroes or heroines; he suffers the loss of his mother, Mr Barkis, Ham Peggotty, Steerforth and his wife Dora in the space of this novel. Dickens gives us the full range of our main character's life and happiness, his grief, his pain. My two favourite scenes with Copperfield are his terrible sense of betrayal at Steerforth's death, and also a terrifying scene where we see Uriah Heep's nastiness to its fullest extent, and the reader can feel Copperfield's palpable rage towards Heep as he strikes the other man, and Heep stumbles back murmuring sweet "I forgive you"s. It's both unnerving and compelling, precisely because of the chilling reversal of roles.
Better still, Copperfield is surrounded by an utterly unforgettable supporting cast, right from the very beginning as the curtain rises on Copperfield's weak-willed mother, suffering as she does under the tyranny of Mr Murdstone. This latter figure is not a caricature in the least - rather an all-too-plausible man, a domineering husband, a cruel father. His sister Jane Murdstone is perhaps something more of a stereotype, but nonetheless enjoyable and her turning up in the middle makes for a nice, unexpected twist. One of my favourites is Copperfield's aunt, the seemingly austere Miss Betsey Trotwood: hilarious in all her scenes, and all the more so because of her apparent seriousness. And yet underneath all that she remains a caring, steadfast guardian (Mr Dick, meanwhile, is so brilliantly loveable that you want him to be in every chapter). A complete contrast comes in the form of Uriah Heep, writhing and slimy and overly obsequious, tricking and manipulating and embezzling at every turn - truly, another of Dickens' most memorable forays into unpicking the nastiness that resides in human beings.
Peggotty, meanwhile, is one of Dickens' best female characters; the scene where she kisses little Copperfield through the keyhole is one of the story's most moving. Her family, too, are equally likeable - especially Ham Peggotty - and Dickens further displays his ability to make you slowly fall in love with certain characters, such as Mr Micawber, a debtor with a grating personality who somehow becomes something noble over the course of the novel; not to mention Dora, Copperfield's first wife, who is at first the essence of simpering silliness but is later portrayed as an innocent dying girl and gets a rather moving death scene.
James Steerforth is of course worthy of much praise. He is portrayed as a charming young man and a good friend to Copperfield, until it emerges that in truth he has very little regard for the feelings of others. This about-change in his character is very well-handled, especially with regard to Copperfield feeling that he is to blame for Emily's shocking elopement with Steerforth in part because he introduced Steerforth to the Peggotty family.
I've spent quite some time on the characterisation as opposed to the writing style, and that's because it is for the most part unfussy, written as it is in first person; there are fewer long descriptive passages than in his earlier works and it is generally tauter for that very reason. But it would be remiss of me not to highlight one particular chapter - "TEMPEST", Chapter 55 of David Copperfield. The story really hits a turning point with this and the following chapter, which wrap up several plot points and form a very dramatic half-way climax, if you will. The chapter opens with this reference to a "life-changing event", setting the stage in advance and leading one to spend the rest of the chapter wondering what it is exactly that's going to happen. Once the raging storm hits Yarmouth, the chapter is impossible to put down. The gale is described superbly, culminating in Ham's heroic rescue attempt and untimely death, made all the more tragic as we realise the sailor in question was Steerforth (though told all the better as he remains unmentioned; Dickens lets us work it out). Leo Tolstoy once described this chapter as the standard by which the rest of fiction must be judged; how right he was.