Sunday, November 29, 2020

Flashback, November 1850: Dickens’ ‘Favourite Child,’ ‘David Copperfield,’ Published

With the last of its breathlessly awaited 20 monthly serial installments issued, David Copperfield was released in book form in November 1850, capping the publication journey of the most autobiographical novel by Charles Dickens

Just a few years before his death, the astonishingly prolific writer pronounced this his “favourite child” among his novels, and whenever writers use the adjective “Dickensian,” they, more likely than not, have in mind the miserable childhood remembered and subtly reworked here.

In some ways, the novelist didn’t realize just how autobiographical his fiction in this case was: He later wrote friend and future biographer John Forster that he hadn’t noticed that David’s initials were his own in reverse.

Even the title character’s first name has underdog overtones that Dickens would have identified with: Just as the biblical David had to overcome a direct threat to his life, so did Copperfield and Dickens, in the form of grinding poverty.

The story of a youth at bay, struggling with a broken home, adult cruelty, youthful infatuation and the meaning of true friendship surely shows up, in one form or another, in many reading lists for children and youth adults. But I wonder how much the great prototype of the coming-of-age tale—Dickens’ novel—is read today, either by youngsters at their leisure or by students?

When I eye its bulk (882 pages, minus the scholarly appendices, in the paperback I’m holding now), a quote from a considerably slimmer, more recent novel, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, inevitably springs to mind:  “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” 

And there goes, I suspect, any inclination to urge Dickens on younger readers.

Victorian readers had no such compunctions about the novel’s length or its sentimental, sometimes lachrymose, subject matter. David Copperfield did not initially sell as well as its predecessor, Dombey and Son, but it became Dickens’ best-known book, particularly admired by Leo Tolstoy and Somerset Maugham.

Part of the book’s appeal comes from its almost cinematic qualities. Dickens’ affection for the stage has been well-chronicled, but it is equally extraordinary how he anticipated the elements of the motion picture: realistic depiction of setting and atmosphere, memorable dialogue, and most of all, montage, or parallel action that drives narrative simultaneously among different characters (a technique, Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein noted in a famous essay, first employed by D.W. Griffith).

The 2020 film, starring Dev Patel in the title role, is only the latest adaptation of the novel for the big screen and television. The many extraordinary characters that Dickens created (Micawber, Mr. Murdstone, Uriah Heep, Steerforth, Betsey Trottwood) has attracted, over the past 85 years (since the classic MGM version), some of the brightest acting talents, including Basil Rathbone, Maggie Smith, Ralph Richardson, Richard Attenborough, Laurence Olivier, Cyril Cusack, Wendy Hiller, Edith Evans, Michael and Corin Redgrave, Ron Moody, Bob Hoskins, Lionel Barrymore, Edna May Oliver, Hugh Laurie—and, in the most unconventional bit of casting, W.C. Fields as Micawber.

(As I contemplate all these actors--and all the other actors, directors, and adaptations of Dickens--it occurred to me that I could create an entire blog on everyone associated with these versions for film, TV and stage, and never come close remotely close to running out of material.)

But as much as anything else, what contemporary readers responded to in the novel was not just its masterly characterization or its vivid description—both characteristic of Dickens’ fiction from the start—but a more naked honesty than Dickens had previously attempted, or, as G.K. Chesterton termed it, “a new torrent of truth, the truth out of his own life.”

To some extent, that derived from its form: not merely a story seen through the consciousness of a child (something Dickens had created 12 years before in Oliver Twist), but an entire coming-of-age novel told through a first-person narrator.

Forster seems to have suggested this device after reading Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. But Dickens’ technique and voice differed from Bronte’s: less inclined at the start of the novel to take the reader immediately into the action, but more oriented towards a bifurcated vision of the past. Copperfield is not merely re-telling his history, but interpreting, even re-interpreting it as an adult, while foreshadowing later elements in his tale (e.g., the seaside setting and the roles of debt and dispersion, suggested in the sale of his birth caul).

In particular, Dickens--37 years old as he began his narrative, recalling a life of tumult and triumph--mined and tweaked his experiences and the people who played major roles in his life. 

For instance, Maria Beadnell, a pretty woman who infatuated him before she rejected his courtship attempts, was turned into David’s doll-like, childish first wife, Dora. Traits of the novelist’s father, John Dickens, were assigned to David’s stepfather, Mr. Murdstone (callousness), and Wilkins Micawber (an inveterate and unwise optimism in the face of financial catastrophe that has spawned the “Micawber Principle” of money management).

In a sense, the novel functioned as a form of displacement for Dickens’ long-repressed humiliation and anger at his parents, whose impracticality and improvidence led him to working in a blacking factory rather than being placed in school. Except for a reduction in age by two years (thus accentuating the peril faced by fictional David), the facts and feelings in this passage exactly mirror those of Charles:

“It is matter of some surprise to me, even now, that I can have been so easily thrown away at such an age. A child of excellent abilities, and with strong powers of observation, quick, eager, delicate, and soon hurt bodily or mentally, it seems wonderful to me that nobody should have made any sign in my behalf. But none was made; and I became, at ten years old, a little labouring hind in the service of Murdstone and Grinby.”

To be sure, the novel has its weaknesses: Chesterton complained that, in sending Emily, Peggotty and Micawber off to Australia in the conclusion, Dickens had conceived of the far-off colony as “a sort of island Valley of Avalon, where the soul may heal it of its grievous wound,” and I find Dora infuriatingly infantile at maddening length.

But altogether, Dickens’ recent biographer Claire Tomalin is correct in calling David Copperfield “a masterpiece built on Dickens's ability to dig into his own experience, transform it and give it the power of myth.” Midway through his career, it opened up a vein in his memory, leading to the mature period in which he would write Bleak House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit and Great Expectations.

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