Book Review: “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens

david copperfield book cover
David and Mr Micawber on the cover

In the preface Dickens wrote, “like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield. David Copperfield is Dickens’ eighth novel and, coincidentally, the eighth of his novels that I have read, but I haven’t been reading them in chronological order. My first impression of Charles Dickens came with a BBC TV adaptation of David Copperfield back in 1974, my parents watched it and I caught a couple of the six episodes. I remember Arthur Lowe’s tremendous performance as Mr Micawber. I also remember the fawning obsequious character of Uriah Heap and Barkus telling David to pass a message on to his nurse, Peggoty,  that “Barkus is willing”. I remember little else of the story from that time. My next encounter with Dickens was at school in my teenage years, when we had to read “A Tale of Two Cities“, this put me off Dickens for a very long time, not because of the story but because of the way literature was taught in school, destroying the magic of reading. I was in my thirties when I picked up “Great Expectations” and I loved it. In the past few years I’ve set myself the task of reading through all of Dickens’ novels. I started by rereading “A Tale of Two Cities“, which didn’t impress me as much as Great Expectations as it lacked the humour that characterises Dickens’ work. David Copperfield has such humour in abundance.

“We went downstairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell, and rolled down. Somebody else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at that false report, until, finding myself on my back in the passage, I began to think there might be some foundation for it.”

David Copperfield after having rather too much to drink (Chapter 24)

 

David Copperfield has so many wonderful memorable characters. Mr Micawber is “a man who labours under the pressure of pecuniary embarrassments”, but no matter how bad things get he is forever optimistic, thinking his luck about to turn for the better (it is surely no coincidence that Dickens’ father also knew pecuniary embarrassments).
The protagonist, David Copperfield we see as a boy and a young man, this is supposedly the most autobiographical of Dickens’ novels, it is the first of his novels described in the first person. David as a boy goes to work in a factory for a time cleaning bottles, Dickens worked in a blacking factory as a child. David as a boy, like Oliver Twist,  makes a long journey with almost no money, whereas Oliver walked to London, David walked away from London to Dover to seek out his aunt. Charles Dickens also enjoyed walking at night to stimulate his imagination. As a young man David begins a writing career and meets with early success as did Dickens.

David Copperfield ch 44

David is much more convincing as a child than Oliver Twist. David’s childhood friends James Steerforth and Tommy Traddles are both intriguing characters. The fawning Uriah Heep, who claims to be “ever so humble” rises by devious means and provokes David to strike him at one point. David’s eccentric aunt Betsey Trotwood, is a wonderful character and provides comic relief when chasing donkeys off her land.

Aside from his aunt, there are some other interesting female characters: Little Emily, Dora Spenlow, Clara Peggoty, Agnes and Martha. Martha and Emily show how society shunned “fallen” women at the time. David falls madly in love with Dora on first meeting her but later rues the lack of intelligence of his “child-wife”, some suggest this might also reflect on Dickens own marriage, which wasn’t happy. Agnes, David’s childhood companion in Kent, attracts the unwanted attention of the obsequious, Uriah Heep. Peggoty, looks out for David and his frail mother as best she can at the start of the novel and introduces David to her brother in Suffolk, Mr Daniel Peggoty, and his strange family of strays, an adopted son, Ham, an adopted daughter, little Emily and Mrs. Gummidge, a widow.

David Copperfield Martha Endell
Martha, David Copperfield and Mr Peggoty by the River Thames, illustration by Phiz

There are echoes of other dickens novels, the plotlines rely much on coincidence, characters meet, part and meet up again in unlikely circumstances. Australia, where Magwitch made his fortune in Great Expectations is seen as a place to start again. Barkus like Fagin and Scrooge has a miserly character. The dark River Thames features as it does later in Our Mutual Friend as a brooding melancholy presence. The book shows David coming from an impoverished troubled childhood to make his way in the world.  There is far too much in the 800+ pages to condense into a simple review, I thoroughly enjoyed the entire novel.

My rating : 5 out of 5

My reviews of other Dickens novels:

Book Review: “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens

Book Review: “Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens

Book Review: “The Old Curiosity Shop” by Charles Dickens

Book Review: “The Pickwick Papers” by Charles Dickens

Book Review: “Hard Times” by Charles Dickens

Book Review: “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens

I have also read “Great Expectations” but that was before I kept a blog.

Book Review: “Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens

“No one who can read, ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot.”

This took a while to read, I began it way back in June 2019 (shortly after finishing The Old Curiosity Shop” and finished at the beginning of February – on the palindromic 02 02 2020 (granted I was reading other books concurrently). My copy weighed in at a hefty 777 pages. It is the first book where I have had both the paperback copy and a Kindle version. I read a lot when I am travelling the city (Tbilisi, not smoky old London) and the paperback seemed a bit bulky to lug around. Aside from the issue of weight, the paperback (Wordsworth Classics Edition) is preferable as it includes notes and some charming illustrations absent in the free Kindle version I have. It was easier finding my place when I switched to the Kindle version than when I switched back to the paperback, the Kindle having a handy search engine.

Our Mutual Friend
my paperback copy

The River Thames, shown on the front cover, plays an important role in the novel. The novel opens with Lizzie and Gaffer Hexam, a waterman, dragging a corpse out of the river, identified as John Harmon. “But it’s well known to water-side characters like myself, that him as has been brought out o drowning, can never be drowned.” Our Mutual Friend is Dickens final complete novel, it is complex and echoes themes of earlier Dickens work. It is critical of child exploitation, three of the characters: Pleasant Riderhood, Jenny Wren and Lizzie Hexam are daughters looking after abusive fathers. There are complicated romances alongside a social and an economic critique and satire of the times. Dickens is kinder to Jews this time around; Mr Riah, a Jewish moneylender, is frequently slandered by his evil Christian master Fascination Fledgeby, but is shown to be a very sympathetic character, looking out for Jenny Wren, the fascinating doll’s dressmaker.

‘Do you not, sir—without intending it—of a surety without intending it—sometimes mingle the character I fairly earn in your employment, with the character which it is your policy that I should bear?’ Mr Riah pleads with his employer Fascination Fledgeby

There are many strong and intriguing female characters, Lizzie Hexam, for example,  goes against expectations when she refuses to marry Bradley Headstone. Lizzie is a strong independent woman, who worked in a paper mill. Headstone would have been an excellent match for her by social class, according to norms of the time, however, Lizzie does not love him. Bradley Headstone is a schoolmaster, with a very dark side.

Our Mutual Friend Miss Wren and Riah
Mr Riah and Jenny Wren, two of the more sympathetic characters in the tale.

John Harmon, whose corpse was supposedly fished out the Thames, was returning to England for his inheritance, his father having made a fortune out of dust, literally. The Harmon estate had mounds and mounds of dust accumulated over the years. The fortunes of the estate go to two faithful servants of the Harmons, Mr and Mrs Boffin. Mr Boffin is ill educated but known as the “Golden Dustman” because of his newly gained wealth. This wealth attracts those who may have earlier shunned the Boffins. There is a lot of hypocrisy about and Dickens coins a term “Podsnappery” – an attitude toward life marked by complacency and a refusal to recognize unpleasant facts, epitomised by his character Mr Podsnap. Like latter day Brexiteers, the Podsnaps look down on foreigners  who can’t speak English well ‘Our Language,’ said Mr Podsnap, with a gracious consciousness of being always right, ‘is Difficult. Ours is a Copious Language, and Trying to Strangers.”

There is a wonderful array of truly Dickensian characters. There are also lovely descriptions “the staring black and white letters upon wharves and warehouses ‘looked,’ said Eugene to Mortimer, ‘like inscriptions over the graves of dead businesses.’ Dickens would famously take long walks like Eugene Wrayburn in the novel, around the London streets after dark and this undoubtedly inspired his writings.

The novel is both dark and comic, like the best of Dickens works.

“Being an orphan of a chubby conformation, he then took to rolling, and had rolled into the gutter before they could come up.”

London is dark and foggy, like in the Sherlock Holmes films: Even in the surrounding country it was a foggy day, but there the fog was grey, whereas in London it was, at about the boundary line, dark yellow, and a little within it brown, and then browner, and then browner, until at the heart of the City—which call Saint Mary Axeit was rusty-black.

There is something for everyone in Our Mutual Friend, as a collector, I enjoyed the passages where Mr Boffin and Bella would search out books on misers; he pursued the acquisition of those dismal records with the ardour of Don Quixote for his books of chivalry. I made a post about this in another blogpost: Collecting Mania and Charles Dickens
Katie Lumsden, who is an avid reader (she read an incredible 194 books, last year!), particularly of Victorian literature, has a YouTube channel entitled Books and Things. She gushes about “Our Mutual Friend” being her favourite book of all time.

I am slowly working my way through Dickens’ novels,

I read Pickwick Papers (1836) in 2019, his first novel.

Hard Times — (1854), I read this in 2016, unusually for Dickens this was set away from  London in a fictitious mill town in the north of England called Coketown.

A Tale of Two Cities (1859) This was the only Dickens novel I read in school, I reread this in 2016, it is a historical novel and lacks a lot of Dickens’ usual humour.

Great Expectations  (1861). Many lists rank this as the greatest of Dickens’s novels. I read it in 2006, when I was a member of a book club in Worcester (UK). I loved it.

The Old Curiosity Shop (1840),  I finished in May 2019 just before starting Out Mutual Friend.

I now have nine left to read:

Oliver Twist —(1839)

Nicholas Nickleby (1839)

Barnaby Rudge (1841)

Martin Chuzzlewit (1844)

Dombey and Son (1848)

David Copperfield (1850)

Bleak House (1853)

Little Dorrit (1857)

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) (six of twelve numbers completed)

which do you suggest I read next?

 

 

Book review: “Jonathan Strange and Dr Morrell” by Susanna Clarke

“Magic is returning to England. Strange has found a way to bring it back.”

This book took me an age to read, I began on 1 August 2018 and finished it yesterday (October 28, 2019). It was just so long (1006 pages) and so slow paced. The updates I posted on Goodreads of my progress couldn’t all fit on one page.

Screenshot from 2019-10-28 09:06:02
Updates on Goodreads for the first 70% of the book

Set in the Regency Period, this is a story of English magicians, particularly the two of the title. If you are expecting a Hogwart’s for grown-ups you will be disappointed. Clarke has clearly read many Victorian and Regency writers and has the literary nous, but J K Rowling is much better at drawing you into her fantasy world created with characters who you really care about. We begin with Mr Gilbert Norrell, a keen collector of books on magic, who sees himself as the only practical magician in England, the others like those of The Learned Society of York Magicians are merely theoretical magicians. He impresses government ministers when, with the aid of a villainous gentleman with thistledown hair from the land of Faerie, he manages to bring an influential politician’s newly deceased fiancée back to life. He is then employed to contribute to the war effort against the French and he manages to create an illusory fleet out of rain to keep the French ships blockaded in their ports.
The book, I feel could have done with a good editor, it is incredibly long weighing in at over 1000 pages, there are flashes of brilliance but it is a long slog from beginning to end. We have to plough through a quarter of the book until we meet the second character from the title, Jonathan Strange, a second practical magician, who seems more of a natural at magic than the more scholarly Norrell. This book has copious footnotes, unusual in a work of fiction, relating often to fictitious tomes on English magic. There are also a few pencil drawn illustrations to give the book that 19th century look.

P1070361
Illustration by Portia Rosenberg and footnote

The language is a kind of faux-Victorian with archaic spellings sprinkled liberally throughout the text like “chuse” and “shewed”. Some of the characters names like Drawlight, Childermass and Honeyfoot seem to have walked straight out of a Dickensian novel. Real historic characters like the Duke of Wellington and Lord Byron enter the story but do little to enhance the story. The characters are rather dry and chaste, the reader doesn’t get emotionally attached to them.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
that is one thick book…

My rating : three out of five

 

Book Review: “The Old Curiosity Shop” by Charles Dickens

”’I say’ – quoth Miss Brass, abruptly breaking silence, ‘you haven’t seen a silver pencil-case this morning, have you?’

‘I didn’t meet many in the street,’ rejoined Mr Swiveller. ‘I saw one – a stout pencil-case of respectable appearance – but as he was in company with an elderly penknife, and a young toothpick with whom he was in earnest conversation, I felt a delicacy in speaking to him.’”

Laughter lay very near the surface of Dickens; it was always on the verge of breaking out, generously, ruthlessly, uncontrollably, as if someone had struck a match near a volatile substance. Dickens was an entertainer, he knew that to address serious social issues, he would need the sympathy of his readers. He would need also to have a wide circulation, Dickens was a keen businessman. He also, through his writings, wanted to show goodness to be attractive and to broaden our horizons to identify with people whose outward lives though unlike ours, had inner lives which are not unsimilar.

I’m slowly working my way through Dickens oeuvre, it started way back in school with A Tale of Two Cities, unfortunately studying books in school can put you off an author for life. It took a long time to get back into Dickens. But I am glad I did.

I am not reading the novels in chronological order, The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) is the fourth novel he wrote and the fifth that I have read.

the Old Curiosity Shop
The Old Curiosity Shop

I was intrigued by the title “The Old Curiosity Shop” as I love searching in junk shops, secondhand shops, fleamarkets and antique shops for interesting curios. The book, however,  has little to do with the shop, but is more focused on two of its inhabitants Little Nell and her grandfather, who are forced out of the premises by the villainous dwarf Mr Quilp.

Little Nell’s grandfather has a gambling addiction, explained so well by Dickens, one wonders if he too were tempted by the cards and dice. The book includes many illustrated etchings by Hablot K Browne (Phiz) and George Cattermole.

the Old Curiosity Shop illustration 2
Mr Swiveller’s Libation

As an adult, I get a nostalgic buzz from an illustrated novel, as many of my childhood favourites like “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” were amply illustrated.

the Old Curiosity Shop illustration

One problem with the book in this our PC age, is the main villain, Mr Quilp is a hideous dwarf.  Quilp is depicted as a monster both in the way he acts and the way he looks, disabled characters in Victorian literature tend to be depicted as victims or villains and Dickens is very guilty of such representation particularly in his earlier works.

the Old Curiosity Shop illustration3
Mr and Mrs Quilp

Like all Dickens novels “The Old Curiosity Shop” came out in serial form, it was published along with short stories and the novel Barnaby Rudge  in his weekly serial “Master Humphrey’s Clock” from 1840 to 1841. This leads to some odd aspects of the novel, it begins with first person narration but this is dropped by the third chapter for third person narration. Like the Game of Thrones fans in our current time, Dickens’ fans weren’t always happy with the way the plot developped and begged Dickens to change it or spare their favourite characters. Dickens like the Thrones’ writers stuck to his own ideas. “The Old Curiosity Shop” was a hit even so. And as far as I know no one was angry that they had “wasted all this time” with a story that did not end they way they wanted it to or publicly threatened to never read anything by Dickens again (which is a good thing, since most of his best-loved novels were to come). But then Dickens didn’t have to deal with Twitter. Little Nell isn’t Daenerys Targerean, she doesn’t have any dragon to ride.

The Old Curiosity Shop is full of melodrama and colourful characters. One is Dick Swiveller, a name which sounds like a pornstar pseudonym, a well-meaning but naïve and easily manipulated young man with drama-queen tendencies. Little Nell herself is rather one dimensional as a sweet young girl of almost 14, who battles bravely against adversity, I would have liked to see more spark in her personality, maybe standing up to her grandfather’s gambling addiction. Kit (Christopher Nubbles) is more interesting, an errand boy for Nell’s grandfather, he is awkward but warm-hearted and has a special way with animals, he alone can get a cantankerous pony to do as he wishes.

When I started The Old Curiosity Shop I was 2 books ahead of my Goodreads target of 40 books this year, now I’ve fallen back to one behind. I find it difficult to rush Dickens, Pickwick Papers took me even longer, I was dipping in and out of that novel for around a year, interspersed with other books, before I finally finished it.

My rating: 4 out of 5

My progress with Dickens’s novels:

I read Pickwick Papers (1836) earlier this year, his first novel.

Hard Times — (1854), I read this in 2016, unusually for Dickens this was set away from  London in a fictitious mill town in the north of England called Coketown.

A Tale of Two Cities (1859) I reread this in 2016, it is a historical novel and lacks a lot of Dickens’ usual humour.

Great Expectations  (1861). Many lists rank this as the greatest of Dickens’s novels. I read it in 2006, when I was a member of a book club in Worcester (UK). I loved it.

I still have ten left to read:

Oliver Twist —(1839)

Nicholas Nickleby (1839)

Barnaby Rudge (1841)

Martin Chuzzlewit (1844)

Dombey and Son (1848)

David Copperfield (1850)

Bleak House (1853)

Little Dorrit (1857)

Our Mutual Friend (1865)… started reading December 2019

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) (six of twelve numbers completed)

which do you suggest I read next?

Book Review: “The Pickwick Papers” by Charles Dickens

pickwick Papers coverLike most English kids, I first encountered Dickens at school and this put me off reading Dickens for a long while.  I remember Mrs Holgate taking us drearily through “A Tale of Two Cities”  asking us innane questions about the text. Daniel Pennac in  “Comme un Roman” (The English title was “The Rights of the Reader“) describes how young children are introduced to the magic of reading. Then he examines how they’re put off usually at school, when they are asked questions about what they are reading and reading becomes a dreary chore. School can put people off reading for life!

Dickens was a showman and an entertainer, he tackled many social issues of his time, like child labour, but he did so with a lot of humour. “A Tale of Two Cities” lacks a lot of Dickens humour and is probably a poor introduction to his oeuvre.  I did read it again in 2016.(My Review )

Seeing Simon Callow play Charles Dickens in an episode of Doctor Who (“The Unquiet Dead“) rekindled my interest in Dickens and I picked up  “Great Expectations“. Pip, Magwitch and Miss Havilsham got me back on board with Dickens, I had earlier read some of Dickens ghost stories of my own volition when I was at college including the celebrated “Christmas Carol”.

dickens who
Simon Callow (right) as Charles Dickens with Christopher Eccleston as Dr Who

The Pickwick Papers” (also known as “The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club”) was the first of Dickens’ novels, it came out in a serialised form, the first installment of Pickwick sold about 500 copies while the last installment sold about 40,000 copies. The young Dickens was 24 at the time. This was the novel that propelled Dickens into the public spotlight.

It is a comic novel about the escapades of a club, the Pickwick Club, whose founder and perpetual president is one Samuel Pickwick. He and his fellow Pickwickians: Mr Nathaniel Winkle, Mr Augustus Snodgrass, and Mr Tracy Tupman travel from London to more remote parts of the country and report back to the club about their findings. There are wonderful details of various coaching inns of the time.

Pickwick enlists a servant, the cockney Sam Weller, who has a comic turn of phrase and is a source of idiosyncratic proverbs and advice.

pickwick papers saw weller spelling
Sam Weller on the spelling of his name

The novel is less plot driven than many of Dickens’ later novels, and tends to meander from one story to the next. There is social commentary like descriptions of the Fleet debtor’s prison, where Pickwick finds himself incarcerated after a misunderstanding and some underhand practices by the  legal firm of Messrs. Dodson and Fogg.

Dickens worked as a law clerk and his  outrage over the inequities and incompetence of the system show up in this and later novels. Each character in The Pickwick Papers, as in many other Dickens novels, is drawn comically, often with exaggerated personality traits. Alfred Jingle, who joins the cast in chapter two, provides an aura of comic villainy, with his devious tricks repeatedly landing the Pickwickians into trouble.

Having read the first two Harry Potter novels, I was amused to see one of the places mentioned in the text named “Muggleton”. The twenty-ninth chapter, “The Story of the Goblins who stole a Sexton“,  a Christmas story contains some of the themes  Dickens’ more famous Christmas story, “a Christmas Carol“, written seven years later.

I have another Dickens’ novel “The Old Curiosity Shop“, ready for my next dip into Dickens’ prolific oeuvre.

My rating 4 out of 5

My review of “Hard Times”: Hard Times Review