This review contains spoilers.
Famously, David Copperfield was Dickens’ favourite of his novels. Possibly equally famously, it’s quite recognisably autobiographical.
Conflating these things is dangerous, of course. And just because some things in the novel are autobiographical doesn’t mean all or most of it is. But I couldn’t help reading it in the light of Claire Tomalin’s biography Dickens: A Life, which I read the Christmas before last, and specifically in the light of the fact that Dickens was, to put it crudely if punningly, a bit of a dick.
So. David Copperfield is narrated in first person by its eponymous hero, whose early childhood is as elysian as all remembered childhoods are; he lives with his adoring mother (widowed on the eve of his birth) and an equally adoring female housekeeper, Peggotty. That’s until his mother marries the odious Mr Murdstone, who turns out to be emotionally abusive and financially grasping. He sends David away to school, and then, after the narratively inevitable death of David’s mother, to work in a bottle factory. Oppressed by this life, David flees to the doubtful embrace of his fearsome aunt Betsy Trotwood, who takes him under her wing, sends him to a decent school and generally sets him on the path of genteel, middle-class poverty.
I think David is supposed to be a sympathetic, nay laudable, protagonist: fair-minded, right-thinking and generally well-intentioned. Mine is a resistant reading, then: I found him, like his creator, a misogynist pig.
David Copperfield is in part a kind of relationship sandbox for its hero: it’s full of couples who are functional or dysfunctional in various ways which, conveniently, David gets to witness and in some cases take part in, so he can learn for himself What Makes a Good Spouse. Although David’s assumptions about these relationships aren’t always correct, I think they are supposed to be reasonable assumptions from the evidence he has – and, for reasons I’ll go into later, I think whether they’re reasonable is as important to Dickens as whether they’re right. This is important because David is judgemental, unsympathetic and, usually, contemptuous about the relationships he witnesses.
So. The functional relationships in the novel (spoilers, obviously):
- Mr and Mrs Micawber – Mr Micawber, David’s landlord during the time he works in the bottle factory is terrible with money and constantly in debt. Mrs Micawber’s family have disowned her for marrying him, and they are constantly having children they can’t afford to feed. This should, according to most narrative logic, be a disaster. In fact, Mrs Micawber is devoted and forgiving – not uncomplainingly so, which would be sickening, but in a kind of pragmatic, bustling way that speaks of a genuinely robust relationship despite their incompetence with reference to accepted financial social codes.
- Peggotty and Barkis – another relationship that seems based in comfortable companionship rather than romantic devotion. We don’t actually get much of a look at this relationship, which is surprising given how important Peggotty is to David.
- Agnes and David – Agnes is the person David ends up with at the end; she is, of course, radiant, angelic, intelligent, emotionally competent and patient. Although this reads like an idealised relationship, I think it’s actually supposed to be more friendship-based than David’s other entanglements.
And the dysfunctional relationships:
- Doctor and Mrs Strong – Doctor Strong is David’s teacher at the school his aunt sends him to. Everyone (meaning David and Aunt Betsy’s alcoholic lawyer Mr Wickfield) thinks Mrs Strong is in love with her cousin, Jack Maldon. Not having an affair or anything; just in love. David is horrified that she should have socially unapproved feelings, notwithstanding the fact that she is much younger than her husband, who seems to be more of a father figure to her in that creepy Victorian paternalistic way. David and Mr Wickfield turn out to be wrong.
- Mr Murdstone and David’s mother – obviously, being David’s mother’s second husband, Mr Murdstone is emotionally abusive, because women marrying again are always monsters or mistaken, even though marriage often gives women the social status and/or finances they need to survive.
- David and Dora – a particularly shitty one. Dora is David’s first wife (men not being subject to the same rules re remarriage). She is described pretty much entirely in terms of how David sees her: enchanting, pretty, tinkly-laughed, frivolous. She turns out to be totally useless at being a wife: she can’t manage servants or do the accounts or support David emotionally, for the very good (though unacknowledged by Dickens) reason that she’s been taught to be ornamental all her life and has never had to apply herself to anything. No wonder she’s confused. In any case, just as David has learned his lesson she dies of feebleness, apparently, leaving him free to select someone more worthy. Oh, and she asks David to call her “child-wife”, which, eww.
- Em’ly and Steerforth – this one is the worst. Steerforth is one of David’s friends from school, so devilishly handsome and charismatic that even David wants to sleep with him a little bit. Em’ly is a fisherman’s daughter, the niece of Peggotty’s brother, who David meets as a child and is, even into adulthood, bewitching, charming, and (fatally) flirtatious. She is seduced by Steerforth, and at a stroke her life is ruined: her fiance leaves her and she’s renounced by everyone who once knew her. I’ve no doubt that this is an accurate representation of what might happen to a fallen woman of her class; but neither Dickens or David seem to have an ounce of sympathy for her, who was almost certainly promised marriage by Steerforth (which of course he did not intend to provide), and who’s been damned by an act that men could do with impunity. Look at Tess of the D’Urbevilles, after all, about a woman of a not dissimilar social class living in similar times under similar circumstances: Hardy has more sympathy for his heroine in one page than Dickens and David have in the entire book. David at one point muses that it might be better for Em’ly to be dead than ruined.
For Dickens, the secret to a successful relationship seems to be equality: equality of intelligence, age and social standing. It takes David the whole novel to learn this.
This is important because in a wider sense the novel is about David finding out who he is supposed to be and where he is supposed to fit in the world. Just as he tries out different relationships through his social circle, he tries out different roles in life: manual labourer, lawyer, writer, breadwinner, unmasker of villains. It’s significant that, at the end of the novel, a ship heads for Australia, to the new society taking shape there: it carries the Micawbers and Em’ly with her uncle, people who no longer have a place in England’s body politic. And what I think is meant to be a particularly existentially terrifying moment comes when David, during some research for his writing, visits a model prison, again towards the end of the novel. There he finds Uriah Heep, a particularly odious specimen of humanity who has throughout the novel been blackmailing Mr Wickfield, taking advantage of his alcoholism to gain power over him; Uriah’s famous refrain is, “I’m very umble, sir,” when of course he means nothing of the sort. Also in the prison is Steerforth’s manservant, ostensibly arrested for petty theft, although narratively he is obviously in prison for his role in Em’ly’s seduction. The manservant’s schtick is respectability; the kind of disapproving correctness (so I imagined) you get off waiters in expensive restaurants. Both are commended by the prison guards as model prisoners; though we, and David, know they are anything but. They are actors, taking advantage of the role society’s marked out for them and playing it so very perfectly that it becomes subversion. And they are dangerous because they know their power; and they are terrifying because they are absolutely products of their society.
My point is that, in a wider sense, David Copperfield is a novel about the body politic, and where people fit, correctly, into it. That’s why, after all, it’s so important that David marry the right person; because marriage and the nuclear family is the cornerstone of England’s bourgeois body politic in Dickens’ time. And that’s why it’s important that the women of the novel aren’t really characters in their own right (the exceptions are the delightfully proto-feminist Betsy Trotwood, who dresses masculinely and refuses to marry, and Peggotty, who exists, it seems, to serve David); they’re ciphers, seen only through David’s eyes, existing only insomuch as they affect the men around them. (Poor Em’ly’s fiance! His heart is broken and he will never marry now! Never mind that Em’ly is considered worse than dead by her society.) In Dickens’ society, women exist only for men: to uphold and serve the body politic and allow men to learn and have stories and actual lives. In Dickens Land, a woman will only ever be a supporting character.