I have just finished reading David Copperfield. The first time I read the book, more than forty years ago, I thought it was wonderful – I couldn’t put it down. This time, although I sort of enjoyed it, I was far more aware of its faults.
It is darker than I remember, with fewer lighter moments than I recall from the first reading. I was conscious of Dickens’ extremely unpleasant treatment of ‘fallen’ women. ‘Little Em’ly’, Copperfield’s childhood love, runs off with his greatest friend, Steerforth. They go to the Continent living as man and wife but do not marry. When Emily finally leaves Steerforth, refusing an offer of marriage from his sinister manservant, Copperfield tracks her down in London and sends word to her uncle to come and look after her. But he (Copperfield) never meets or speaks to Emily on her return; neither do any of his ‘respectable’ friends and family. As a fallen woman she is beyond the pale. Instead he overhears Steerforth’s family companion, Rosa Dartle, herself infatuated with Steerforth, subjecting Emily to the most brutal, humiliating and unrelenting abuse. It is clear from Copperfield’s description of Steerforth that he was an extremely attractive man, physically and personality-wise. He swept Emily off her feet, yet she was to blame…
David Copperfield was written in the late eighteen-forties. Just a few years later, Dickens, having subjected his own wife to extreme and consistent humiliation, took up with a young actress, Ellen Ternan, and had a secret affair which may have resulted in a child. It is very difficult to reconcile this behaviour with Dickens’ literary treatment of Emily. His breathtaking hypocrisy certainly coloured my reading of the rest of the book.
One also has to admit that the book is wordy, and the criticism ‘pot-boiler’ comes to mind. All of Dickens’ major works were published in weekly episodes in journals. The requirement to fulfil a weekly quota of lines becomes obvious at times. This is not such a problem for a story consumed in weekly chunks, but jars when the parts are combined with no editing. No doubt at the time, no-one would have dreamed of suggesting that the great man’s work be edited, and it is, of course, impossible to suggest such a thing now. It does though explain why his works transfer so well to the small screen, where editing is essential and the important characters and events can shine through the padding.
Charles Dickens was, nevertheless, a great teller of stories and a peerless inventor of characters. The efforts of other novelists of the period, pale into insignificance against people like Wilkins Micawber, Mr Pickwick, Samuel Weller, Smallweed, Scrooge and so on.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs