David Copperfield: Dickensís "favourite child"

"No one can ever believe this Narrative, in the reading, more than I have believed it in the writing" avers Dickens in the preface to David Copperfield, going on to admit that "of all my books, I like this the best… like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is DAVID COPPERFIELD". The quintessential Dickens masterpiece and the most overtly autobiographical of his works, it occasioned him great pain to write, and even greater to finish, a parting that he saw as "dismissing some portion of [myself] into the shadowy world". As the comparison of the biography and synopsis above will confirm, the plot contains all too visible parallels with its author’s life, and the writing of it can be interpreted as a form of catharsis. The book differs in several important ways from Dickens’s previous novels: it has no systematic social reform agenda, far fewer grotesques and a markedly different plot structure, lacking the customary ‘flight and capture’ denouement, for example. Lastly and most significantly, however, it is written entirely in the first person, a device that, whilst occasionally stretching the plot’s credibility, allows a much more personal note to be struck.

Dickens wrote a fragment of autobiography shortly before starting work on David Copperfield and much of it seems to have been incorporated into the novel’s manuscript. Raking over his most painful childhood memories- perceived neglect, being put to work, his parents’ insolvency, his lack of education - Dickens embellished fact with fancy (making David an orphan, for example) to create his most resonant and lastingly popular book. It is a work of richly linked symbol and image, and a powerful testament to the vitality of human memory. The trademark Dickens mixture of sentimentality, coincidence and the grotesque is toned down in favour of a heightened sense of psychology and the first acutely convincing portrait of a child in his work. The childhood passages contain a precision unprecedented in Dickens’s earlier works and are the book’s most consistently revealing sections, consistently rated as the finest passages in Dickens’s oeuvre. David writes that "I believe the power of observation in numbers of very young children to be quite wonderful for closeness and accuracy", and it is in the common (not the intensely dramatic) experiences of David’s childhood that we see what Peter Ackroyd calls "the very life blood of [Dickens’s] genius".

David’s childhood is a catalogue of misery and neglect that would surely turn another man into a bitter wreck. Yet he is born with the talent common to Dickens’s heroes of assimilating childhood misery into subsequent happiness. "David, I wish to God I had had a judicious father these last twenty years!" exclaims Steerforth at one point, an unique moment of self-revelation with which David does not appear particularly to sympathise. Dickens is, of course, much disposed towards presenting David’s young character favourably, as it is in many ways a reflection of his own. Thus for the most part David is a child oddly immune to the temptations of childhood. Exceptions to this rule are rare but immediately resonant - for example, when news of his mother’s death reaches him at school, he is able to admit to a streak of theatricality in his grief. "I stood upon a chair when I was left alone, and looked into the glass to see how red my eyes were, and how sorrowful my face" he writes, unflinchingly identifying both his sorrow and the understandable urge common to schoolboys to be centre of attention at a time of tragedy. This admission recalls an earlier memory, when David looks at himself in the mirror after Murdstone’s beating, "so swollen, red and ugly that it almost frightened me". It is a highly sensory world that young David inhabits. For example, he lists amongst his earliest reminiscences Peggotty’s forefinger, "roughened by needlework, like a pocket nutmeg-grater", "the smell of soap, pickles, pepper, candles and coffee, all in one whiff" and "my mother with her pretty hair and youthful shape and Peggotty with no shape at all". These are perhaps the most intensely credible passages that the so-often fanciful Dickens ever wrote.

Despite the privations of his childhood, emotional and physical, David remains largely untouched by his brutal experiences, for all that he professes "the secret agony of my soul". He suggests that "but for the mercy of God, I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or vagabond". This is an unusual admission for Dickens to make, as he rarely concedes the unusual good fortune of his protagonists. Even those who are "robbers or vagabonds" (Oliver Twist, for example) are eventually rescued by a benevolent fate. Thus even at his lowest ebb (in the warehouse) David seems contentedly predestined. He is oddly unsympathetic towards his fellow "little labouring hinds", who lack the fairy godmother (Betsey Trotwood) that David has. The horrors of his own situation are vividly recollected - "the dirt and rottenness of the place are things, not of many years ago, in my mind, but of the present

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