The classics, Dear Reader! They possess a foundational cultural force, are the prism through which we can understand much about a society at a certain point in time, and are often inextricably linked with imperial values (you can find more about this last point in Frank Kermode’s book, The Classic, as David Damrosch points out in the introduction to his seminal work, What is World Literature). Such is the case with the novel I am reviewing today, the fictional David Copperfield that is nevertheless linked to its author’s life by a number of incidents. I’ve written about Charles Dickens on this blog before, often in relation to Bleak House, which I consider one of the seminal works of Victorian literature; now, I can claim the same for this one.
David Copperfield is as different from Bleak House as any two books by a talented writer can be – that is to say, it is the same in the poignant wit and high quality at the level of the sentence, in the wryness and the author’s ability to draw tears from a stone, while quite different in the novel’s preoccupations. Bleak House was more what we’d refer to as an encyclopedic novel whose ambition was to encapsulate all of Victorian London in Dickens’ historical moment. This ambition, the author succeeds in – and with the greatest relish. With Copperfield, the ambition is a different one.
This novel is among the finest examples of a bildungsroman you’ll ever find – that is to say, a novel of development, following its principal character from childhood all the way into adulthood. The trials and tribulations of mas’r David Copperfield across the extent of his life were to me what a deadly roller coaster is to an adrenaline junkie – fun! That is not to say I didn’t shed bitter tears on numerous occasions, for I did, indeed; David endures cruelty and negligence, bitterness and disappointment on a scale of nauseating intensity. From the fate of his poor mother to his treatment by a cruel and villainous stepfather; through his schooling and growth under the steady gaze of a patient benefactor, his friendship with both worthy and unworthy companions; his choices in love; those elements and more make up the life of David Copperfield.
Dickens weaves an impressive tapestry of characters around Copperfield, every last one of them memorable. If you judge every character by flatness and three-dimensionality, you would certainly find a good few of even the major supporting characters to be one-note. Agnes, for example, infinitely good and kind and wise, is just such a one – yet it is difficult not to feel for this idealized version of the Victorian middle-class woman, considering all she has to endure. Other characters, such as David’s childhood friend Steerforth, are considerably more nuanced, their nature more visible to the reader than it is to the novel’s protagonist.
This is one of the quintessential first-person narratives, crafted with a mastery that time has not robbed of its potency in the least. There are many reasons Charles Dickens continues to be regarded as one of the pillars of his time, as one of the most important novelists in history and each of these can be found in the pages of David Copperfield.