Gosh! Dickens is extremely hard to review. I have been polishing up this review trying to make it come right for more than a week now, but eventually decided to just go ahead and hit Publish.
Ahh! the delights of being an amateur
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
After my enjoyable experience with Bleak House, I was tempted to read one more Dickens. In most reviews, David Copperfield is singled out as one of his best books. A semi-autobiographical book based on Dickens’ own life intrigued me enough to make the plunge.
This is another bulky book from Dickens, but the story is very simple and straight-forward. It is a kind of bildungsroman chronicling the story of David Copperfield from his early childhood until early middle age.
This is the story of a boy named David Copperfield who struggles after his widowed mother marries again. David dislikes his stepfather and his sister who ill-treat him. He is sent to boarding school where he manages to make some friends. However, just when he is settling down at school, his mother dies, and he is left completely at his stepfather’s mercy. They apprentice him to work in London, where he is miserable. He runs off to Dover to seek protection from his aunt – Betsey Trotwood.
From then on, his life goes smoothly. He completes his schooling and starts work. However, when his aunt loses his fortune, his character is again tested. Throughout a variety of people both good, bad, and ludicrous flit in and out of his life, forming his character and enlivening the book in the process .
I don’t know what to think of the book. I found the starting bits very boring. David Copperfield is the least interesting character in the book, and because the beginning of the book deals almost entirely with him…well, let’s say it was heavy going for me.
In fact, the book itself doesn’t really take off till almost the middle of the story when David’s aunt loses her fortune. After that, David and his friends really stop messing about, and start trying to fix their messed up lives. Until then, it’s all a hodge-podge of bad choices in love, and money.
Dickens has a somewhat preachy, moralistic hero, and the tone of this book reflects that. I found some humorous sections, but not many, and the pace is uneven. Towards the end, the last 200 pages or so, Dickens is really forced to up the pace, and it’s an odd feeling when a slow book suddenly hurtles towards the end. In the process, Dickens ends up killing one important character, exporting a whole bunch of people to Australia, and sending another couple of people to prison!
So, I didn’t like David Copperfield (the hero I mean), and I wouldn’t have liked the book either if not for the really interesting secondary characters. There is Agnes – David’s good and wise childhood friend who is in love with him, David’s silly wife – Dora, the perennially in debt Micawbers, the evil albino Uriah Heep, the sentimental and kind Mr. Peggotty, David’s aunt – the strong, feminist Betsey Trotwood…so many people to keep track of…but good fun anyway.
One of my favorite lines from the book:
In one section of the book, David is extremely frustrated with his wife Dora who is a very bad housekeeper. After a fight with her, he asks his aunt to intervene and talk sense to his wife. Below is his aunt’s wise response:
I am not delivering a lecture – to estimate her (as you chose her) by the qualities she has, and not by the qualities she may not have. The latter you must develop in her, if you can. And if you cannot, child,” here my aunt rubbed her nose, “you must just accustom yourself to do without ‘em. But remember, my dear, your future is between you two. No one can assist you; you are to work it out for yourselves. This is marriage, Trot: and Heaven bless you both in it, for a pair of babes in the wood as you are!”
Even today, that advice would apply to people going to get married or just married. I suppose that’s why some books stand the test of time, and some just fall by the wayside.
I did like this book, it doesn’t really come close to being my favorite Dickens though. There is too much treacly sentimentality, and preachiness, and too little humor. But, the character sketches and the writing is great. Give yourself the time to read this book. If you just dive into Dickens’ world forgetting your 21st century sensibilities, you will be well rewarded.