Charles Dickens around 1850

Charles Dickens, photographed around the time he was writing David Copperfield

Reading the opening chapters of David Copperfield again for the first time in more than half a century brought vividly to mind the memory my first encounter with Dickens’s own favourite novel, teeming with some of Dickens’s most familiar characters.  I was a child, like Copperfield; I was off school and ill in bed, dirty chunks of snow piled in mounds along the roadside outside, and the delicious feeling of drowsy bedroom warmth and nowhere to go but follow where Dickens leads as his narrator sees ‘the phantoms of those days go by me, accompanying the shadow of myself, in dim procession’.

That such a long-forgotten memory should come flooding back as I turned the pages seems entirely appropriate for a book in which the narrator records the memories and early experiences which shaped his life and led him towards a deeper understanding of the world and his own inner feelings:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

Now a grown man, David Copperfield looks back on his life, tracing his personal growth and achievements but also recognising, with sadness, mistakes he has made and friends he has lost. The novel falls into three broad sections, of which the first two – telling of his early childhood, youth and early manhood – are undoubtedly the most memorable, approaching a state of literary perfection.

Throughout the first part of the novel Dickens brilliantly combines two points of view: the reader sees David’s childhood experiences as if through the boy’s eyes – the writing plain and pared-down – whilst at the same time the tone and occasional commentary by the older David offer a mature reflection by the narrator:

As I walked to and fro daily between Southwark and Blackfriars, and lounged about at meal-times in obscure streets, the stones of which may, for anything I know, be worn at this moment by my childish feet, I wonder how many of these people were wanting in the crowd that used to come filing before me… When my thoughts go back, now, to that slow agony of my youth, I wonder how much of the histories I invented for such people hangs like a mist of fancy over well-remembered facts! When I tread the old ground, I do not wonder that I seem to see and pity, going on before me, an innocent romantic boy, making his imaginative world out of such strange experiences and sordid things!

There is a fine example of this approach in chapter 11 when, in another incident adapted by Dickens from his fragmentary autobiography, Copperfield recalls himself as a young innocent entering  a  pub not far from the Thames:

I remember one hot evening I went into the bar of a public-house, and said to the landlord: “What is your best—your very best—ale a glass?” For it was a special occasion. I don’t know what. It may have been my birthday.

“Twopence-halfpenny,” says the landlord, “is the price of the Genuine Stunning ale.”

“Then,” says I, producing the money, “just draw me a glass of the Genuine Stunning, if you please, with a good head to it.”

The landlord looked at me in return over the bar, from head to foot, with a strange smile on his face; and instead of drawing the beer, looked round the screen and said something to his wife. She came out from behind it, with her work in her hard, and joined him in surveying me. Here we stand, all three, before me now. The landlord in his shirt-sleeves, leaning against the bar window-frame; his wife looking over the little half-door; and I, in some confusion, looking up at them from outside the partition. They asked me a good marry questions; as, what my name was, how old I was, where I lived, how I was employed, and how I came there. To all of which, that I might not commit nobody, I invented, I am afraid, appropriate answers. They served me with the ale, though I suspect it was not the Genuine Stunning: and the landlord’s wife, opening the little half-door of the bar, and bending down, gave me my money back, and gave me a kiss that was half admiring, and half compassionate, but all womanly and good, I am sure.


Hablot Browne (Phiz), My magnificent order at the public house

Hablot Browne (Phiz), ‘My magnificent order at the public house’ 

In David Copperfield, Dickens employs the first person narrative for the first time, and in the process he transmutes his own life experiences into a story rich in both comic and sentimental passages, and populated by some of his most memorable characters.  In her study of Dickens, Jane Smiley notes that the incidents of Dickens’s early life were quite different to those in the novel, but that David Copperfield ‘seemed to evoke the feelings he had had as a child, and therefore to be true to his life as he had experienced it’. Smiley observes that David Copperfield evokes Dickens’s life without relating it:

The fiction frees him to contemplate not only his boyhood and young manhood, but boyhood and young manhood in general.

Dickens had begun writing an autobiography in the late 1840s which he shared with his friend and future biographer, John Forster. However, he found the process too painful, and abandoned the project. He opted instead to follow Forster’s advice and work his own story into a first-person fictional narrative. Much of the detail contained in Dickens’s lost autobiographical fragment forms the basis of chapter 11 in the novel, ‘I Begin Life on my Own Account, and Don’t Like It’.

It’s here – in Copperfield’s account of being taken from school and separated from his friends Steerforth and Traddles to work at Murdstone and Grinby’s warehouse – that Dickens draws upon his own painful memories of the time when, after his father had been imprisoned for debt, he was set to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory:

A period of my life, which I can never lose the remembrance of, while I remember anything: and the recollection of which has often, without my invocation, come before me like a ghost, and haunted happier times.

Here, too, that we meet the Micawbers, whose financial troubles – and Micawber’s perennial hope that ‘something will turn up’ – mirror those of Dickens’s parents. When David is asked by Mrs Micawber to take some of their treasured possessions to the pawn shop to help meet their obligations, Dickens is recalling his own painful memories of having to pawn the books he read and treasured as a child.

Hablot Browne (Phiz), Mrs Gummidge casts a damp on our departure

Hablot Browne (Phiz), ‘Mrs. Gummidge casts a damp on our departure’: Barkis and Peggotty depart the upturned boat house on Yarmouth shore

In a superb passage in his monumental survey, Dickens, Peter Ackroyd suggests that David Copperfield ‘is both a novel of memories and a novel about memory’:

Memory brightens: ‘. . I have never seen such sunlight as on those bright April afternoons . . . ‘; memory creates in the mind fresh associations: ‘ . . the Martyrs and Peggotty’s house have been inseparable in my mind ever since, and are now’; memory revives the clearest and most detailed impressions: ‘… the scent of a geranium leaf, at this day, strikes me with a half comical, half serious wonder as to what change has come over me in a moment . . . ‘; memory retains the sharpest of all impressions: ‘ the face he turned up to the troubled sky, the quivering of his clasped hands, the agony of his figure, remain associated with that lonely waste, in my remembrance, to this hour. It is always night there, and he is the only object in the scene.’ And memory brings back the earliest and most permanent impressions of childhood, like the occasion when David sees his mother for the last time:

‘I was in the carrier’s cart when I heard her calling to me. I looked out, and she stood at the garden-gate alone, holding her baby up in her arms for me to see. It was cold, still weather and not a hair of her head, or a fold of her dress, was stirred, as she looked intently at me, holding up her child. So I lost her. So I saw her afterwards, in my sleep at school – a silent presence near my bed – looking at me with the same intent face – holding up her baby in her arms.’

But there is also the mystery of other memories, preconscious memories: ‘. . . a feeling, that comes over us occasionally, of what we are saying and doing having been said and done before, in a remote time . . .’ Memory, then, as a form of resurrection and thus of human triumph; as David Copperfield looks out of the window he had known so many years before and sees the old sorrowful image of himself as child.

‘Long miles of road then opened out before my mind; and,toiling on, I saw a ragged way-worn boy forsaken and neglected, who should come to call even the heart now beating against mine, his own.’

Thus does memory recreate the self out of adversity, linking past and present, bringing continuity and coherence, engendering peace and stillness in the very centre of the active world. It is the purest and best part of Dickens’s self, the source of his being, the fountain of his tears.

Yet memory here is also such a troubling force. It is associated with ‘the old unhappy loss or want of something . . .’ as if in the act of remembrance the narrator must confront and once again experience some central bereavement; it is linked, too, with the fear and sense of ‘change in everything’; and somehow memory is associated in Dickens’s imagination with the pain which men cause women.

Introducing the 1997 World Classics edition, Andrew Sanders described David Copperfield as ‘a key text of mid-Victorian civilization, a text in which the self-fashioned hero is redefined for a post-Romantic generation’, one that combines an exploration of the moral and imaginative growth of the individual with the contemporary concern with change and doubt. In David Copperfield there are obvious similarities with earlier novels – in the focus on an individual hero’s adventures and on childhood, as well as its cast of comic and grotesque characters.  But now there is a concern with individual development, a strain of pessimism and more carefully-planned structural development which foreshadows the later novels.

I fall into captivity

Hablot Browne (Phiz),I fall into captivity (David meets Dora)

The last time I read Copperfield I was barely a teenager;  this time I was struck by the centrality of Dickens’ views on marriage – or perhaps a better word would be uncertainties. The nub of the novel’s argument comes in chapter 45 where Annie Strong remarks to her husband, Doctor Strong, ‘There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose.’  Annie’s words haunt the rest of the novel as David, in his marriage to Dora (the ‘child-wife’), slowly comes to realize that his and Dora’s characters are irreconcilably different:

I was thinking of all that had been said. My mind was still running on some of the expressions used. ‘There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose.’ ‘The first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart.’ ‘My love was founded on a rock.’ But we were at home; and the trodden leaves were lying under-foot, and the autumn wind was blowing.

It will take David a painfully long time to truly understand that the feelings he has for Agnes are more than those ‘for a sister’.  At certain points in the story, Dickens inserts intimations of the mature Copperfield’s understanding of his true feelings:

Oh, Agnes, sister of my boyhood, if I had known then, what I knew long afterwards – !


There was a beggar in the street, when I went down; and as I turned my head towards the window, thinking of her calm seraphic eyes, he made me start by muttering, as if he were an echo of the morning: ‘Blind! Blind! Blind!’

This is only one aspect of the clear moral thrust of the novel, which also emphasises values such as: hardships in life can be overcome by hard work and an honest behaviour; goodness has nothing to do with social position; greed and ambition corrupt people’s judgement and behaviour; and suffering is part and parcel of the process of gaining maturity.

Steerforth and Mr Mell

Hablot Browne (Phiz), Steerforth and Mr Mell

Throughout David Copperfield, the powerful abuse the weak and helpless – orphans, women, and the mentally disabled.  Exploitation – not pity or compassion – is shown to be the rule in society. Dickens could draw on his own experience as a child for the passages that describe the inhumanity of child labour and the indignities of the debtors’ prison. Murdstone can end David’s education and send him to work in the wine-bottling factory because David is too small and dependent to resist. Virtually all of the characters suffer at the hands of the hard-hearted or due to forces beyond their control, even though they are morally good people. Emily is ruined and spirited away by Steerforth while her uncle Peggotty tramps Europe to find her and bring her home. Ham loses Emily and dies trying to foreign save sailors in the great storm. In a perceptive passage, the older and wiser Copperfield recalls how Steerforth causes the likeable but ineffectual teacher Mr Mells to lose his job. Traddles (‘the most unfortunate boy in the world’) is the only one to see the injustice in Steerforth’s action, while David and the other boys continued to admire and respect Steerforth:

Poor Traddles, who had passed the stage of lying with his head upon the desk, and was relieving himself as usual with a burst of skeletons, said he didn’t care. Mr. Mell was ill-used.

‘Who has ill-used him, you girl?’ said Steerforth.

‘Why, you have,’ returned Traddles.

‘What have I done?’ said Steerforth.

‘What have you done?’ retorted Traddles. ‘Hurt his feelings, and lost him his situation.’

‘His feelings?’ repeated Steerforth disdainfully. ‘His feelings will soon get the better of it, I’ll be bound. His feelings are not like yours, Miss Traddles. As to his situation—which was a precious one, wasn’t it?—do you suppose I am not going to write home, and take care that he gets some money? Polly?’

We thought this intention very noble in Steerforth, whose mother was a widow, and rich, and would do almost anything, it was said, that he asked her. We were all extremely glad to see Traddles so put down, and exalted Steerforth to the skies: especially when he told us, as he condescended to do, that what he had done had been done expressly for us, and for our cause; and that he had conferred a great boon upon us by unselfishly doing it.

A Will Office, from Picturesque Sketches of London by Thomas Miller, 1852

A Will Office, from ‘Picturesque Sketches of London’ by Thomas Miller, 1852

But this wouldn’t be Dickens if, amidst the serious moral lessons there were not high comedy.  My favourite part of the story is the chapter entitled ‘My First Dissipation’ in which Copperfield, newly-established as an articled clerk in Doctors’ Commons (a ‘common house’ of ‘doctors of law’ practising civil law) and settled in his accommodation – ‘a singularly desirable, and compact set of chambers … with a view of the river’, decides to invite his friends round for ‘a little house-warming’:

I abandoned myself to enjoyment.

I began, by being singularly cheerful and light-hearted; all sorts of half-forgotten things to talk about, came rushing into my mind, and made me hold forth in a most unwonted manner. I laughed heartily at my own jokes, and everybody else’s; called Steerforth to order for not passing the wine; made several engagements to go to Oxford; announced that I meant to have a dinner-party exactly like that, once a week, until further notice; and madly took so much snuff out of Grainger’s box, that I was obliged to go into the pantry, and have a private fit of sneezing ten minutes long.

I went on, by passing the wine faster and faster yet, and continually starting up with a corkscrew to open more wine, long before any was needed. I proposed Steerforth’s health. I said he was my dearest friend, the protector of my boyhood, and the companion of my prime. I said I was delighted to propose his health. I said I owed him more obligations than I could ever repay, and held him in a higher admiration than I could ever express. I finished by saying, ‘I’ll give you Steerforth! God bless him! Hurrah!’ We gave him three times three, and another, and a good one to finish with. I broke my glass in going round the table to shake hands with him, and I said (in two words)


I went on, by finding suddenly that somebody was in the middle of a song. Markham was the singer, and he sang ‘When the heart of a man is depressed with care’. He said, when he had sung it, he would give us ‘Woman!’ I took objection to that, and I couldn’t allow it. I said it was not a respectful way of proposing the toast, and I would never permit that toast to be drunk in my house otherwise than as ‘The Ladies!’ I was very high with him, mainly I think because I saw Steerforth and Grainger laughing at me—or at him—or at both of us. He said a man was not to be dictated to. I said a man was. He said a man was not to be insulted, then. I said he was right there—never under my roof, where the Lares were sacred, and the laws of hospitality paramount. He said it was no derogation from a man’s dignity to confess that I was a devilish good fellow. I instantly proposed his health.

Somebody was smoking. We were all smoking. I was smoking, and trying to suppress a rising tendency to shudder. Steerforth had made a speech about me, in the course of which I had been affected almost to tears. I returned thanks, and hoped the present company would dine with me tomorrow, and the day after—each day at five o’clock, that we might enjoy the pleasures of conversation and society through a long evening. I felt called upon to propose an individual. I would give them my aunt. Miss Betsey Trotwood, the best of her sex!

Somebody was leaning out of my bedroom window, refreshing his forehead against the cool stone of the parapet, and feeling the air upon his face. It was myself. I was addressing myself as ‘Copperfield’, and saying, ‘Why did you try to smoke? You might have known you couldn’t do it.’ Now, somebody was unsteadily contemplating his features in the looking-glass. That was I too. I was very pale in the looking-glass; my eyes had a vacant appearance; and my hair—only my hair, nothing else—looked drunk.

Somebody said to me, ‘Let us go to the theatre, Copperfield!’ There was no bedroom before me, but again the jingling table covered with glasses; the lamp; Grainger on my right hand, Markham on my left, and Steerforth opposite—all sitting in a mist, and a long way off. The theatre? To be sure. The very thing. Come along! But they must excuse me if I saw everybody out first, and turned the lamp off—in case of fire.

Owing to some confusion in the dark, the door was gone. I was feeling for it in the window-curtains, when Steerforth, laughing, took me by the arm and led me out. 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.

Hablot Browne (Phiz), The emigrants

Hablot Browne (Phiz), The Emigrants

One interesting aspect of David Copperfield that reflects Dickens’s tendency to incorporate contemporary details in his novels is that he has several of the major characters emigrate to Australia: the Micawbers, Mr. Peggotty, Emily, Martha, and Mr. Mell, the wronged school-teacher. Each of these characters is successful in beginning a new life in the English colony.

Whilst writing David Copperfield, Dickens had developed a keen interest in Australian emigration, believing that it represented the possibility of starting a new life abroad for families with few prospects in Britain. In the first issue of Household Words, the two-penny weekly magazine of original short fiction and crusading social journalism launched by Dickens on 30 March 1850, there had appeared a ‘Bundle of Emigrants’ Letters‘ which consisted of a number of emigrants’ letters passed on to him by the founder of the Family Colonisation Loan Society, Mrs. Caroline Chisholm, whom Dickens later satirized for her ‘telescopic philanthropy’ as Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House.

In a preface to the letters, Dickens stated the case in favour of the Society’s scheme for transferring the poor, unemployed, and starving from the slums of London, Liverpool, Manchester, and other blighted urban areas to the ‘Bush’ and the new towns of Australia, where they could contribute their energies and skills to the greater good of the Empire and build prosperous futures for themselves.

Five months later, in the 17th number of David Copperfield, Dickens despatches a number of his characters to the antipodes, resolving the Micawbers’ financial difficulties, and enabling Mr Peggotty, Emily and Martha to make a new life. Micawber’s initial reaction to the idea is less than enthusiastic:

‘Why, what a thing it would be for yourselves and your family, Mr. and Mrs. Micawber, if you were to emigrate now.’

‘Capital, madam, capital,’ urged Mr. Micawber, gloomily.

‘That is the principal, I may say the only difficulty, my dear Mr. Copperfield,’ assented his wife.

In the illustration by Phiz we see the figures of Micawber, Peggotty, and David Copperfield as they shake hands before the departure of the emigrant ship at Gravesend. It’s a scene of working class men, women, and children crowded into restricted quarters below deck in which Phiz has drawn upon Dickens’s allusion to the 17th century Dutch genre painter Ostade, notable for painting the gloomy interiors of working class homes and taverns:

It was such a strange scene to me, and so confined and dark, that, at first, I could make out hardly anything; but, by degrees, it cleared, as my eyes became more accustomed to the gloom, and I seemed to stand in a picture by Ostade. Among the great beams, bulks, and ringbolts of the ship, and the emigrant-berths, and chests, and bundles, and barrels, and heaps of miscellaneous baggage – ‘lighted up, here and there, by dangling lanterns; and elsewhere by the yellow daylight straying down a windsail or a hatchway—were crowded groups of people, making new friendships, taking leave of one another, talking, laughing, crying, eating and drinking; some, already settled down into the possession of their few feet of space, with their little households arranged, and tiny children established on stools, or in dwarf elbow-chairs; others, despairing of a resting-place, and wandering disconsolately. From babies who had but a week or two of life behind them, to crooked old men and women who seemed to have but a week or two of life before them; and from ploughmen bodily carrying out soil of England on their boots, to smiths taking away samples of its soot and smoke upon their skins; every age and occupation appeared to be crammed into the narrow compass of the ‘tween decks.

In this departure scene, the figures of the two fallen and homeless women,Martha and Emily, are hidden in the shadows.  They, too, reflect Dickens’s active concern with working class conditions and his active involvement in a project to rescue prostitutes from exploitation and destitution. While he was writing David Copperfield, Dickens was actively involved in the day-to-day operation of Urania Cottage, a home for homeless women, which he administered on behalf of his friend, the philanthropist Angela Burdett Coutts. The home aimed to separate homeless, and ‘fallen’ women from their former lifestyle, to educate them in the execution of household duties and self-discipline, and then help them emigrate to Australia to begin new lives.

Dickens signed David Copperfield first edition

Dickens signature on a first edition of David Copperfield  (full story here)

There are moments in David Copperfield when Dickens’s writing approaches the poetic.  I was taken, especially, with this passage from the introduction to chapter 43 (you can imagine it being translated in a filmed adaptation) in which Dickens evokes time passing:

Weeks, months, seasons, pass along. They seem little more than a summer day and a winter evening. Now, the Common where I walk with Dora is all in bloom, a field of bright gold; and now the unseen heather lies in mounds and bunches underneath a covering of snow. In a breath, the river that flows through our Sunday walks is sparkling in the summer sun, is ruffled by the winter wind, or thickened with drifting heaps of ice. Faster than ever river ran towards the sea, it flashes, darkens, and rolls away.

David Copperfield was published in instalments from 1849 to 1850 and in book form in 1850. Dickens wrote in the preface to the first edition of being deeply affected by its completion:

An Author feels as if he were dismissing some portion of himself into the shadowy world, when a crowd of the creatures of his brain are going from him for ever.


‘Dickens’s Dream’: Robert Buss’s unfinished posthumous painting of the author in his chair, dreaming of his creations, who flutter in outline around his head.

The completion of the novel coincided with a tragic period in Dickens’s life.  His third daughter was born in August 1850, just as Dickens had decided that Dora in the novel must die.  Curiously, he named his new daughter Dora.  His wife Catherine was unwell for months after the birth.

Dickens finished writing David Copperfield on 21 October 1850.  He wrote to Forster:

If I were to say half of what Copperfield makes me feel tonight, how strangely, even to you, I should be turned inside out!  I seem to be sending some part of myself into the Shadowy World.

In the coming year Dickens would suffer two devastating losses: first the death of his father, and then in April 1851, the death of his baby daughter, Dora. In these months of the year ‘in which all the bleakness of Bleak House descend[ed] upon him’ (Ackroyd), Dickens began work on possibly his greatest novel, and certainly my own favourite.

Re-reading Dickens

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