Thursday, November 19, 2020

David Copperfield

 "I will never desert Mr. Micawber!"

I decided to reread David Copperfield because--well, does one really need a reason to reread David Copperfield? But I've been thinking about rereading it recently because of the new movie version directed by Armando Ianucci, The Personal History of David Copperfield:

It's possible to have seen the movie by now, but it is challenging these days and I haven't. Dev Patel should be a good Copperfield; Ben Whishaw as Uriah Heep seems pretty inspired; Peter Capaldi looks promising as Micawber in the clip, though maybe a little Whovian to me. Anyway not Malcolm-Tucker-ish. Capaldi does have to compete with W. C. Fields to be the definitive Micawber. Nevertheless what I'm really looking forward to is Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood, David's aunt. Some day, hopefully soon, I'll manage to see it.

We'll keep the plot summary simple: young David Copperfield is orphaned, he's sent off to be a child laborer, he runs away from that to his Aunt, he makes good, he marries the wrong girl, and finally he gets married to the right girl. You probably knew all that. It's a pretty good read...

A couple of things occurred to me. Maybe it's just because I have Vindication of The Rights of Women in my head, but just as I wondered if Austen knew that book, now I'm wondering if Dickens did, too. Not unlikely, though in googling I didn't find any particular indication. But Dora is educated to pre-Wollstonecraft specifications, with the expected results; Agnes, according to post-Wollstonecraft ideas. It's not that Dora is a bad person, just that she acts as she's been brought up to do.

Marriage, and marrying the right person, is the theme in this. Well, Dickens always has a bit of a message in his novels. Mrs. Strong says she nearly gave way to the 'first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart.' The words register with David who, at the time he hears them, is married to Dora. Dickens wants it to become a bit an ear-worm for us, but it doesn't, not entirely. Instead we remember, "I will never desert Mr. Micawber." Which fits the theme, of course. Emma Micawber's heart's first impulse was equally undisciplined, I guess, certainly her family thought so, but she disciplined her heart to follow Mr. Micawber. She gets rewarded for it in the end. And she's not the only undisciplined heart in the novel. (David, of course, Emily Peggotty, even Betsey Trotwood.) David, through the magic of the omnipotent Victorian novelist, gets to fix that initial error. Dora may be more lamented, but she goes the way of Bertha Rochester and Edward Casaubon. 

My edition includes the introduction G. K. Chesterton wrote for the Everyman's Library. Like all of the Chesterton introductions, it's contrary, but written with verve. He writes:

"The reader does still feel that David's marriage to Dora was a real marriage; and that his marriage to Agnes was nothing, a middle-aged compromise, a taking of the second-best, a sort of spiritualized and sublimated marriage of convenience."

I suspect no actual reader of Copperfield other than Chesterton ever thought anything like this. And Dickens doesn't want you to think this. If David's marriage to Dora feels more real than his marriage to Agnes that's because Dora comes across as a real person, and Agnes is the usual, too-good-to-be-true, Dickensian heroine. But David and Agnes are the ideal Dickensian couple, and we're meant to feel warm and fuzzy when they do get married. (And I did...)

I had some other thoughts but I'll stop for now.

David Copperfield was a late sub onto the field for a couple of other books (Decameron, Razor's Edge) but definitely qualifies for a couple of my challenges.

Did somebody just say it was supposed to be Novellas in November? Oy! Now you tell me!

Have you seen the movie? If you've read it, what did you think?

And...I will never desert Mr. Micawber!


  1. "contrary is good for Chesterton... i used to call him an oppositionist, as he loves to demonstrate his points by citing the opposite cases... i did DC in high school but not since; i think i liked it okay, but in spite of reading quite a bit of Dickens i'm not crazy about his writing; he has interesting tropes and plots, but they do seem similar after a while... maybe one of his books every ten years or so would be suitable...

    1. That made me interested and I just checked. I seem to read one about every three years, though I've read Edwin Drood several times recently which bumps the average up just a bit.

      I don't mind his style--sometimes even like it--but he does have that over-the-top rhetorical thing going on pretty often. A bit full of flourishes. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, etc.

  2. My father-in-law always reminds me of Mr. Micawber....

    1. Oh, dear. As good a soul as Mr. Micawber is in the end, I'm not entirely sure one wants him in one's life...

  3. The first person - and also the private - nature of this text make too-good-to-be-true Agnes a piece of stone cold realism. Who, exactly, will be reading this manuscript?

    1. Ha! Well, there is that, of course.

      You have to assume David believes her to be that good, and it's nice of him that he does. Let's just say he hasn't convinced me.

      But Dickens as author is perfectly happy to let us know when David is 'blind, blind, blind' as Aunt Betsy says; he doesn't do that with Agnes' goodness. We're meant to believe it in the abstract, not just in David's mind. (Or at least accept it as the convention.)

      As for the private-ness of the MSS. David certainly says that. But I'm not sure I believed him when he did. He's a successful author; his books are praised. He'd have to be a real graphomane to write a 800 page book & not publish it for a profit when he could...

  4. One never needs a reason to reread a favorite classic. :)

  5. This Dickens is one of my "more" favourites. Like Mudpuddle, he's not my favourite writer but I do think it's valuable to read his works.

    I love Chesterton and contrary is right! At least he makes you think and often think in weird ways which is one of the many things I appreciate about him.

    I do have to give DC a re-read as this review and conversations have whetted my curiosity.

    BTW, why did you read Edwin Drood so many times?

    1. I usually just read Dickens for the pure delight of it. May be a sign of my immature personality... ;-)

      One of my ongoing projects is to figure out whodunnit (or if somebody dunnit at all) in Edwin Drood. I seem to have a new idea about it and reread that one every year or two. May be some more thoughts coming up on that soon.

    2. What fun: I'm so glad someone asked you this!