I recently finished Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. I enjoyed the book – and found myself wanting to finish it only towards the end – and that too partly because my book purchases had formed a pile by now and it was demanding attention.
But let me first start on a note of disappointment. (It’s so difficult to admit to disappointment over a time-tested classic, isn’t it?) The book is an autobiographical novel and I expected it to tell how Dickens developed as a writer, his source of his early inspirations etc. It’s not that Dickens doesn’t talk about his beginning, development and finding of fame as a writer, but not as much as I had expected from a book which I had chosen to buy to read primarily about Dickens as a writer.
An eponymous and large-canvas novel, it traces the life of David Copperfield his birth onwards and takes you through the various phases of his life. The novel changes its mood several times over as David’s life goes through various phases, meeting and parting with friends.
Dickens had called David Copperfield his best work. He had written it during the later phase of his career (after his visit to the US). The change in style and temperament is understandable if you have read any Dickens from the earlier part of his career. I read Oliver Twist many years ago and felt DC was a little more introspective, character treatment a little deeper.
One of the highlights of the book for me is how Dickens has handled the changing shades of relationship among different characters. There is a romantic sub-plot which runs across the story. David meets Agnes as a child at a school. Agnes’ father runs the school and David becomes very close with the family and remains so through the rest of his life – and what also remains is David’s soft spot for Agnes, an affection which changes its complexion over time and goes from brotherly liking, bordering on obsession and excessive admiration, to a full blown romantic feeling.
And finally, towards the end of the story, David’s first wife dies and he proposes marriage to Agnes and some bouts of indecision later she accepts. Dickens had a wide readership. And, in what were Victorian times in Britain, many would have frowned upon it.
Another is Mr Macabre, which Dickens modeled on his father. Mr Macabre flits in and out of the story, such that I felt Dickens used him to provide the reader a departure from the monotony of an ongoing subplot. Mr Macabre is one of the most famous characters of literature. And, I feel, the utter idiosyncrasy of Mr Macabre makes him so talked about.
His language is so erudite and sentences so convoluted as to be incomprehensible. He goes from bouts of depression to optimistic outbursts with lightening frequency, which is one similarity he shares with Dickens’ father. He moves from one professional disappointment to another, which is another similarity he shares with John Dickens, who was always hard up. Another one is both Mr Macabre and Dickens’ father were irresponsible with money. Finally Mr Macabre finds success and fame in a new country, Australia (this, however, he doesn’t have in common with senior Dickens).
David’s relationship with Mr Macabre changes its shades. David meets him as a boy and is left awe-struck by his world (so does the reader – there are wonderful descriptions of Mr Macabre’s life which are very visual). The Macabre family welcomes David into their lives with open arms and David finds a home. He is somewhat grateful for this generosity but later as he sees Mr Macabre’s plights David develops an understated sympathy mixed with affection for Mr Macabre – from a benefactor he starts seeing Mr Macabre as his friend who deserves his kindness and consideration. And these remain his emotions for Mr Macabre for the rest of his life.
David’s outlook towards Uriah Heep, another famous character of David Copperfield, remains the same throughout the book. He loathes him and treats him shabbily throughout the book, partly because during the book Agnes was betrothed to Uriah, a relationship which breaks later. But partly also because Uriah is a greasy, scheming and opportunistic character who uses humility, he owes to his humble origins, as a decoy.
David Copperfield is full of characters, sub plots – the canvas and sweep of time, in fact, are so large that when Dickens throws in a reference of a character long lost in the swirls of the plot, you feel a pleasant nostalgia.