I didn’t quite realise until I started this review that this is my first Dickens! I’ve started a bunch of them (including David Copperfield, probably about aged 12, which was possibly a tad ambitious) and watched various adaptations (you’re probably starting to see this is somewhat of a pattern with me) but I have never managed to complete one.
The reason for this may have been another first: Audible. This is the first of the books on my list that I read via audiobook rather than conventional pages. The whole audiobook vs. ‘real’ book is a hot debate and one that I’ll save for another post but for now I’ll say that I really enjoyed the experience. The audiobook of David Copperfield that I downloaded is read by Richard Armitage, star of The Hobbit, Spooks, North & South etc. and he truly performed the novel, which made such a difference. The mix of voices really brought the narrative to life and made the most of the eccentricity of Dickens’ characters. It would probably be disingenuous to say that this didn’t help my enjoyment of the book, or make a difference to my engagement with it. At about 624 pages, it is long and it has many characters to keep in mind at all times, so the dramatic element of the audiobook undeniably helped to break that up. However, I didn’t find the book a trial at all. I think the audiobook format most helped me to read it consistently, keeping up momentum so I could finish it faster than I would have done if I were reading it myself. The traditional approach probably would have resulted in a bit more procrastination. But since I could put this on each time I did my commute, went to the gym or travelled anywhere, I got through it relatively quickly.
First published as a serial in newspapers between 1849-1850, David Copperfield gained its reputation partly from being Dickens’ personal favourite novel. It is often interpreted as being quasi autobiographical, and Dickens himself commented:
“like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield.”
It’s easy to see why David himself would be Dickens’ favourite child. He’s a deeply likeable and sympathetic character, who suffers a huge amount as a boy at the hands of a variety of cruel and weak individuals. Fortunately, divine providence or determination and resilience prevail and David manages to make a decent life for himself with friends, family and love surrounding him. But not before a few plot twists and turns threaten ruin at several points between – this is a Dickens novel after all, it can’t be as simple as happily ever after. If I were to nitpick, I’d say that David is too likeable. Sometimes, you get so frustrated as his passivity and you’re crying out for him to just make a stand, either by taking his landlady to task, getting Dora to pull herself together or stepping in to stop Uriah Heep poisoning the mind of his friends. His lack of action is often infuriating.
What did I like about this novel? I liked the array of characters. Whilst there are a lot of them, and the way that they seem to be all interconnected is somewhat farfetched, the sheer variety and complexity of them is fascinating. You get the traditional Dickensian caricatures in the form of the decrepit Mr Creakle, the villainous, obsequious Uriah Heep, and the frustrating yet endearing Mr Micawber, as well as myriad other quirky individuals. It’s these characters that bring the entertainment value to the book. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that the only ‘beige’ character in this book is David himself. Maybe Agnes, too. The rest are pretty extreme. Whilst that does bring high energy and variety into the narrative, sometimes this could be a little overwhelming in audiobook format as everyone was just so high-octane, I often felt a little wearied just listening.
What didn’t I like? Well, this is perhaps controversial, but I didn’t love Mr Micawber. I found him irresponsible and quite selfish for most of the novel, only redeemed by this rather unrealistic act of heroism in thwarting Uriah Heep’s malevolent deeds. He offloads onto a vulnerable boy, whose love for him is possibly a demonstration of just how little affection he has ever been shown. Yes, I grant that Wilkins Micawber is a good-hearted and kind man, but I just didn’t love him like many other people do. I also set against him because, despite appreciating the wonderfully florid nature of his language as a logophile, it took him forever to say things and it significantly tried my (limited) patience.
Also, by the end of the novel, it feels pretty depressing to be female, despite all that is done to wrap up the story and empathise with situation of Little Em’ly. In terms of female characters, David Copperfield has many excellent ones – two of my favourites being Betsey Trotwood and Miss Mowcher. I don’t know how much of this was to do with Betsey Trotwood being given a Scottish accent and Miss Mowcher characterised as a Scouser in the reading by Richard Armitage, but it certainly played a part. They were both outsiders and eccentrics in many ways, but demonstrated strong spirit and conviction in their actions which I admired. In comparison to the delightful but dull Agnes and the insipid Dora and Mrs Copperfield, these two were very entertaining. Evil as they were, Miss Dartle and Miss Murdstone demonstrated further breadth in female characters, and the sympathy engendered for Little Em’ly and Martha, despite their reputations as fallen women, was touching.
Nevertheless, I was still left with the overwhelming vulnerability of women in this society – Martha and Little Em’ly are only redeemed through the existence and attitude of Mr Peggotty and David, whose affection transcends the general condemnation of society. Without such support, the fate of these women would have been tragic. Equally tragic seemed to be how so many other women were at the mercy of men in various circumstances: Mrs Copperfield manipulated by Mr Murdstone, Betsey Trotwood by her husband, Agnes by Uriah Heep, Mrs Micawber, to some extent, by Mr Micawber. Even the cruelty of our two spinsters, Miss Dartle and Miss Murdstone, seemed to be linked to their status as ‘unlovable’ by men. It’s not that I thought Dickens was creating a purposefully wretched picture of women; on the contrary, in many ways, he is quite sympathetic in his portrayal, it was the realisation of the position of women in Victorian society that left me feeling pensive and unsettled.
Finally, my last gripe is just that the ‘wrap-up’ is very neat. Apart from Ham (possibly the saddest character in the book?) everyone you care about meets a happy ending. The baddies are punished and the goodies emigrate to Australia where they all live happily ever after. After all of the turmoil and suffering that happens over the years of this book, I found it difficult to buy the ‘happy ending’ even though I felt most of the characters deserved it. Perhaps I just need to curb my cynicism and enjoy the fairytale.
Pleased with the achievement of reading this and looking forward to more Dickens in the future!