The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/David Copperfield

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The Encyclopedia Americana
David Copperfield
Edition of 1920. See also David Copperfield on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

DAVID COPPERFIELD. This novel appeared in 20 monthly numbers, beginning in May 1849 and ending in November 1850. After finishing the novel, Dickens remarked that he liked it the best of all his books. His fondness for this child of his fancy, as he called it, was partly due to the fact that the novel was reminiscent of his own early life. Not autobiography exactly, the novel rather runs on correspondencies between the careers of Charles Dickens and David Copperfield. D. C. is C. D. reversed. ‘David Copperfield’ is the story of a young man, who by his industry and talents rises out of the lower middle class — the proletariat almost — into literary fame. He passes through a cruel and degraded childhood, being compelled at one time to earn his living by pasting labels on bottles in a wine-shop with urchins like Mick Walker and Mealy Potatoes, and in the occupation he nearly starves to death. He is befriended, by his great-aunt, Betsy Trotwood, who puts him to school, where he displays unusual abilities; he studies law, learns stenography and becomes an expert reporter in the House of Commons; he writes books and thereby gains a name. Throughout his career he associates with all sorts and conditions of men, from gentlemen down to rascals, some of whom, like Uriah Heep, find their way into jails. He marries twice; the child wife Dora dies, and he becomes supremely happy in the union with the mature Agnes. Everywhere ‘David Copperfield’ is a skilful mixture of fact and fiction. Dickens drew upon himself and a score of others for personal traits out of which his imagination created characters, rare and new.

Quite apart from autobiography, many readers have regarded ‘David Copperfield’ as Dickens's best novel. “Dickens never stood,” says his biographer, “so high in reputation as at the completion of ‘Copperfield.’ The popularity it obtained at the outset increased to a degree not approached by any previous book except ‘Pickwick.’ ” The novel was admired by Bulwer-Lytton and Thackeray, and praised by Matthew Arnold, who rarely condescended to notice fiction. “What treasures of gaiety, invention, life, are in that book! What alertness and resources! What a soul of good-nature and kindness governing the whole!” These were Arnold's words. In my opinion, ‘David Copperfield’ contains no character quite equal to Mr. Pickwick, Sam Weller or Dick Swiveller, nor does it display the grotesque fancy of ‘Great Expectations,’ or the wonderful intellectual grasp of ‘Bleak House.’ To know Dickens it is necesrary to read all that he ever wrote. But as a work of art ‘David Copperfield’ is Dickens's masterpiece. It contains little or no melodrama, little or no exaggerated pathos; farce and caticature are held in restraint to the point where they become comedy; incident naturally rises out of character, and character naturally rises out of incident. The most remarkable creation, said to be a remote likeness of Dickens's own father, is Mr. Micawber, the happy impecunious gentleman, whose debts do not trouble him so long as he can keep out of jail; who always eats, drinks, orates and sleeps in perfect contentment, certain that something will turn up. He is not dazed by the prospect of emigrating to Australia, where something does actually turn up, and he finds ample scope for his rhetoric in a colonial newspaper.

It is a decided drop from Micawber to Copperfield. The story of his boyhood is excellent, but Copperfield really develops into a cad without the author's knowing it. Nor are Dora and Agnes girls who now greatly interest readers. But there is the eccentric Betsey Trotwood who treats Mr. Dick the lunatic as if he were sane and protects David against Mr. Hurdstone. She is admirably conceived and developed. And there are Peggotty, nurse and servant, with cheeks and arms so red that the birds might peck them in preference to apples, and her brother the fisherman and Barkis who “was willin',” and finally won her. In depicting the Peggotty group of characters Dickens rendered the mingled humor and pathos and heroism of humble life in a surprising manner. And was there ever elsewhere an undertaker like Mr. Omer? Streaks of pain and crime run through the book, but scoundrels like Steerforth and Uriah Heep are somehow forgotten for the fun. ‘David Copperfield’ it has been observed, “is the perfection of English mirth.”

Wilbur L. Cross,
Professor of English, Yale University.