Lucy and Todd

David Copperfield – by Charles Dickens

In The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on April 19, 2013 at 5:44 am

Dickens can’t deal with women, as we know (Miriam Margolyes has made the most of this difficulty, hilariously so). Why though? All because his mother made him work in the bottle factory? They either have to be absolutely passively good and benevolent, as in Agnes, who never does anything but glow; or Dora, that sickly concoction of crying and curls (she should really have been a comic figure); or they’re corny witchlike monsters: Rosa Dartle, of the scarred lip, who’s presented as the personification of all evil, even more so than Uriah Heep – yet her actual effect on anything is very anti-climactic.

All the fallen woman stuff in this novel is amazing for its prudishness – and its melodrama. The worst writing of the book flows from these sexual ‘disasters’ (women having sex before marriage). The pleading, the clasped hands, the faces lifted up, the tresses poignantly spread across the shoulders… Good grief! David can’t even be in the same room with Emily after she’s found (rescued from prostitution), as if she’d sully him.

David’s inaction when watching Rosa haranguing Emily (he peeps at them through a doorway) is not just a let-down, and poor writing, but turns him (for me anyway) into an amoral character, from which he doesn’t recover, no matter how tender he feels towards his dying wife and his new bride (the remorseless tear-jerking moments of the book). Why doesn’t he step in? Come on, man! In fact, he’s curiously passive throughout, a mere witness rather than a hero – he’s not even Johnny-on-the-spot when Dora dies but downstairs watching the DOG die!

Heep’s downfall should have come much sooner, and David should have been more dramatically instrumental in it. There’s a much earlier moment when he should have punched him out. Heep’s reappearance as a hardened criminal – in prison – is also unnecessary and undramatic. Enough of HEEP. Meanwhile, poor old Peggotty and Aunt Betsey Trotwood subside into dull functions, shadows of their former selves. Dickens really should have given them more to do! Betsey in particular showed so much spirit earlier on, she was startling, and a great eccentric. Then she just becomes GOOD. What a waste.

In fact the whole book would have benefitted by being half the length, or less. The childhood is extraordinarily engrossing, and moving. Dickens has us in the palm of his hand throughout. It really should end when David reaches Dover, and is taken in by his aunt. Some hints about his later life could be offered, and some time given to Mr. Dick. Instead, they bundle him off to school almost immediately. And silly reappearances of the Murdstones follow later on, when the superb scene with the aunt should have been the last we see of them.

The only reason to read the book, apart from the childhood section, is for Micawber, who is a stunning achievement, and really does seem just like W. C. Fields (who played him in the movie). Micawber’s ornately formulated letters are one of the wonders of the world. He himself delights in them too.

It may be understandable that, over such a long book, written in parts, Dickens couldn’t sustain or pace it right, but that doesn’t excuse the wheel-spinning, such as all the Miss Mowcher stuff (the abrupt insertion of comedy into an increasingly ominous scenario in Yarmouth just doesn’t work). And in such a flawed book, to make Copperfield himself become a highly successful writer seems immodest.

And yet of course, now it’s over, I miss it all and will have to start another one soon. Part of Dickens’ genius is that he drags you in and won’t let go.



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