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Book Review: David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

One-line summary: Charles Dickens's semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman about the eponymous orphan and his rise from a hard-knocks childhood to life as a novelist.



Published as a novel in 1850; published serially a year earlier. ~357,000 words. Available for free at Project Gutenberg.


I really think I have done it ingeniously and with a very complicated interweaving of truth and fiction. So wrote Dickens of David Copperfield (1850), the novel he called his 'favourite child'. Through his hero Dickens draws openly on his own life, as David Copperfield recalls his experiences from childhood to the discovery of his vocation as a successful novelist. Rosa Dartle, Dora, Steerforth and Uriah Heep are among the characters who focus the hero's sexual and emotional drives, and Mr Micawber, a portrait of Dickens's own father, evokes the mixture of love, nostalgia and guilt that, put together, make this Dickens's most quoted and best-loved novel.






Charles Dickens said of this novel: "Like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts, a favourite child, and his name is David Copperfield." Not surprising, since the main character was basically Dickens himself, polished and idealized in a few places, made a bit more tragic in others, and given a happier ending than Dickens felt he'd gotten. David Copperfield relies on a lot of improbable coincidences -- every character from David's childhood on meets everyone else at the most opportune or inopportune times -- plot twists that were old even in Dickens's day, and the trademark Victorian-woman-on-a-pedestal (except the evil ones). But read it anyway, because it's Charles Dickens, yo. He's da man.

Born to a pre-deceased father and a sweet but weak-willed mother, David Copperfield's initially happy childhood comes to an end when his mother marries Mr. Murdstone, whose personality is clearly telegraphed by his name, and in likewise typical Dickensian fashion, David's life goes from bad to worse to horrible.

Dickens loved him some orphans, cruel stepfathers, sadistic schoolmasters, and frail women crushed like fragile flowers. David Copperfield has an abundance of these things, and every other thing that makes a novel Dickensian. This is not, however, one of Dickens's more brutal novels like Oliver Twist or Hard Times. David eventually finds a savior in the form of a crusty but kind-hearted aunt, and his life bumps along with ups and downs that echo those of the author's.

Also, if you know a bit of Dickens's personal history, you cannot help noticing that he basically took the fictional opportunity to kill off his wife after making fun of her housekeeping and remarry his childhood sweetheart, who is a perfect angel modeled after his other (dead) sweetheart.

Much of the drama and humor comes from the subplots -- David's own story is only moderately interesting once he gets out of childhood. He apprentices as a proctor, is smitten by his boss's daughter, and proceeds from penniless youth to prosperous middle age as a successful author. But along the way, his friends and associates have much more dramatic adventures, from the perpetual pecuniary difficulties of Mr. Micawber (a gregarious but completely irresponsible fellow who Dickens based on his own father) to the somewhat bumpier and less lofty ascendancy of his childhood friend Tommy Traddles, to the fall of his childhood sweetheart Little Emily, ensnared by his other childhood friend, the dastardly James Steerforth, in a plot that Dickens pretty much ripped off from Austen. (Kidding -- a sweet poor girl seduced by a rich dashing scoundrel was almost mandatory in every Regency and Victorian novel.)

Dickens's greatest talent is bringing outrageous characters to life in outrageous glory. I wanted to slap Clara Copperfield, murder the Murdstones, and wished a house would fall on Rosa Dartle. Dora Spengler made me laugh and wince, Wilkins Micawber made me laugh and groan, and Uriah Heep was detestable and pitiable at the same time. David Copperfield himself was perhaps the least colorful character in the book.

"Janet! Donkeys!"



Dickens delivers his usual come-uppances for the iniquitous and satisfaction for the injured (sometimes in such a convenient manner as to be pushing credibility). I gave honorable mention for my favorite character in the book to David's Great-Aunt Betsey Trotwood -- the one woman in the book who isn't a frail fragile flower of femininity, and the one who gives the detestable Mr. and Miss Murdstone a proper slapdown:

'Good day, sir,' said my aunt, 'and good-bye! Good day to you, too, ma'am,' said my aunt, turning suddenly upon his sister. 'Let me see you ride a donkey over my green again, and as sure as you have a head upon your shoulders, I'll knock your bonnet off, and tread upon it!'


From a sixty-year-old Victorian lady, them was some serious fightin' words!

But the real climax of the novel is the confrontation between my two favorite characters in it: the ever-improvident, garrulous Wilkins Micawber and the clammy, serpentine sneak Uriah... HEEP!


'I'll put my hand in no man's hand,' said Mr. Micawber, gasping, puffing, and sobbing, to that degree that he was like a man fighting with cold water, 'until I have—blown to fragments—the—a—detestable—serpent—HEEP! I'll partake of no one's hospitality, until I have—a—moved Mount Vesuvius—to eruption—on—a—the abandoned rascal—HEEP! Refreshment—a—underneath this roof—particularly punch—would—a—choke me—unless—I had—previously—choked the eyes—out of the head—a—of—interminable cheat, and liar—HEEP! I—a—I'll know nobody—and—a—say nothing—and—a—live nowhere—until I have crushed—to—a—undiscoverable atoms—the—transcendent and immortal hypocrite and perjurer—HEEP!'


Dickens was cooler than we could ever be


As far as I'm concerned, everything after that was Dickens indulging himself and padding out the number of installments.

There are a lot of Dickens novels I haven't read yet, but even in high school, I never read one I didn't like. David Copperfield is perhaps not his greatest work, even if he thinks it was -- it's too bloated (even for Dickens) and borders on maudlin at times -- and it doesn't have quite the edge of his more biting social critiques, but the characters are as memorable as any he ever wrote.

David Copperfield on the Screen



(No, not that dude.)

Like most Dickens novels, there have been a lot of film and TV adaptations of David Copperfield. (Wikipedia lists 12.) As has become my habit for book reviews ('cause I'm obsessive like that), I watched everything I could queue from Netflix to compare them.

Watching poor David Copperfield endure the Murdstones four times over was pretty harrowing. It is interesting to see which characters and scenes are included and which are left out in each adapation, but after watching all of them, I come back to just how much you lose from knowing a book only by its film adapation, even if the adaptation is a very good one. Dickens, in particular, filled his books with so many characters that no film version will ever reproduce them all. I was disappointed, for example, that not one version I saw included one of the most memorable bit characters:


Into this shop, which was low and small, and which was darkened rather than lighted by a little window, overhung with clothes, and was descended into by some steps, I went with a palpitating heart; which was not relieved when an ugly old man, with the lower part of his face all covered with a stubbly grey beard, rushed out of a dirty den behind it, and seized me by the hair of my head. He was a dreadful old man to look at, in a filthy flannel waistcoat, and smelling terribly of rum. His bedstead, covered with a tumbled and ragged piece of patchwork, was in the den he had come from, where another little window showed a prospect of more stinging-nettles, and a lame donkey.

'Oh, what do you want?' grinned this old man, in a fierce, monotonous whine. 'Oh, my eyes and limbs, what do you want? Oh, my lungs and liver, what do you want? Oh, goroo, goroo!'

I was so much dismayed by these words, and particularly by the repetition of the last unknown one, which was a kind of rattle in his throat, that I could make no answer; hereupon the old man, still holding me by the hair, repeated:

'Oh, what do you want? Oh, my eyes and limbs, what do you want? Oh, my lungs and liver, what do you want? Oh, goroo!'—which he screwed out of himself, with an energy that made his eyes start in his head.

'I wanted to know,' I said, trembling, 'if you would buy a jacket.'

'Oh, let's see the jacket!' cried the old man. 'Oh, my heart on fire, show the jacket to us! Oh, my eyes and limbs, bring the jacket out!'

With that he took his trembling hands, which were like the claws of a great bird, out of my hair; and put on a pair of spectacles, not at all ornamental to his inflamed eyes.

'Oh, how much for the jacket?' cried the old man, after examining it. 'Oh—goroo!—how much for the jacket?'

'Half-a-crown,' I answered, recovering myself.

'Oh, my lungs and liver,' cried the old man, 'no! Oh, my eyes, no! Oh, my limbs, no! Eighteenpence. Goroo!'

Every time he uttered this ejaculation, his eyes seemed to be in danger of starting out; and every sentence he spoke, he delivered in a sort of tune, always exactly the same, and more like a gust of wind, which begins low, mounts up high, and falls again, than any other comparison I can find for it.


It's understandable why he always gets left out: this crazy old shopkeeper is an incidental encounter on David's trip to Dover, and not at all necessary to the story. (Dickens wrote lots of filler, remember.) And he's one of the few individuals David encounters in his childhood who doesn't reappear later in his life. But he's still such a memorable character, I'd have loved to see some actor chewing up the screen playing him.

The 1935 film





I've been watching a lot of black and white movies since I started doing this book-and-movie review thing. Seeing how much actors hammed it up in the old days is a trip. William Shatner is a model of restraint by comparison

You might think a movie from 1935 is pretty old, but this was just the oldest one available on Netflix. Wikipedia lists earlier adaptations made in 1911, 1912, and 1922. Which means when this movie came out, it was the fourth remake, and audiences might have remembered previous ones going back 24 years.

Produced by David O. Selznick ("Gone with the Wind") and starring A-list stars of the era such as Basil Rathbone, W.C. Fields, and Edna May Oliver, this adaptation left out some crucial portions of the book, like David's time in Salem School. It's also full of the smarmy Hollywood piety of the day (the film opens with Christmas carols, and is full of church scenes, David praying, and religious exclamations from other characters, none of which were in the book). I also hated the actor who played young David Copperfield; he whined and cried so much I almost rooted for Mr. Murdstone.

This movie was highly instructive about the attitudes of the time. Hollywood from the mid-30s on hated women whose knees didn't go weak in the presence of a man. Mrs. Micawber was almost non-existent, and the only woman who wasn't a simpering doe-eyed thing was Edna May Oliver as Betsey Trotwood. It takes some doing to water down Dickens's female characters and make them even more submissive. And some of the more important aspects of Dickens's story (like David's marriage to Dora and his relationship with Agnes Wickfield) were seriously condensed and dumbed down.

Considering how many other scenes the movie cut from the book, it was amusing but interesting that it spent so much time preserving all the incidents showing what an incompetent housewife Dora was, mostly playing them for laughs. Except when they added a scene where David actually loses his temper, snarls at his wife, and grabs her dog and almost beats it. In the book, David never did any such thing and would never have behaved in such a manner. Naturally, the film then lingers over poor, dying Dora, giving the violins an extra workout, once again managing to turn Dickens's most maudlin moments even more maudlin.

Also, inserting exposition by pointing the camera at a letter: LOL! Wow, they actually expected audiences to read back then!

It's an interesting study of the moviemaking of the period, but definitely not my favorite adaptation.

The 1974 BBC Serial





This 5-hour miniseries had the look and feel of most BBC serials from the 70s and 80s. It's got the advantages of being a miniseries that doesn't have to cut as much as a shorter film, and the disadvantage of being a low-budget production with amateurish filmography and actors who belted out their lines as if conscious of being characters in a book. It's a very faithful adaptation which preserved most of the scenes and dialog from Dickens's novel, but I thought that the acting rendered the character portrayals flat. The BBC Acting Method back then pretty much consisted of sticking your nose in the air and speaking in a nasal tone.

The stand-out exceptions were Martin Jarvis (Uriah HEEP!) and Beth Morris, who I loved as Dora. (Patricia Rutledge, better known as Hyacinth from Keeping Up Appearances, was also quite amusing as Mrs. Micawber.)

I can't decide which aspect of Victorian dress was worse: the frilly gowns and sailor-suits worn by boys, or the ball-hugging tights worn by fat middle-aged men.

You really don't want to see what I'm wearing from the waist down

The 1999 BBC Special



Minerva McGonagall rescued an orphan from a horrible Muggle aunt and stepfather two years before Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.



This three-hour BBC special was my favorite adaptation. The casting was excellent. Everyone was a better actor than in the 1974 version, even Danielle Radcliffe (though his acting consisted mostly of making sad eyes). Ian McKellen practically steals the show in his bit part as Mr. Creakle, and Trevor Eve and Zoë Wanamaker actually made the Murdstones more evil than in the book.

We're still pissed that we never got our Hogwarts letters.
We'd have been awesome Death Eaters!


Since it wasn't quite as long as the earlier serial, it abridged the story a bit more, but it was still a pretty faithful adaptation, leaving out no significant scenes, and inserting a voice-over to quote some of Dickens's words to fill in expository details. The only major omission was David's friend Tommy Traddles, who was written out of this version entirely.

And seriously, it's no secret that J.K. Rowling borrowed a lot of Dickensian tropes for her books, but this production totally made it obvious, even aside from the casting. (You Harry/Ginny haters can even draw some snarky parallels from the David/Dora marriage.)

The 1983 Animated Film





(Netflix lists this as a 2004 production. By 2004, high school students could create better animation than this on a PC. It was actually made in 1983.)

Cheap animation studios make really, really dreadful low-budget productions of public domain childrens' books. Only being an obsessive completist would have made me sit through this cartoon. It's a 75-minute children's adaptation of a 900-page book, obviously intended to fill two hours with commercial breaks every ten minutes. It does actually keep some of the more memorable lines from the book and more or less follows the original story. It could be forgiven for being so abridged, but the animation and voice acting is awful.

There are only two other interesting things to observe about it:

1. Of all the adaptations, it's the only one that retained Miss Murdstone's reappearance as Dora's "confidential friend" who rats out the young lovers. Considering how much this cartoon cut/changed from the book, and considering that all the other adaptations dropped the Murdstones completely once David escaped them, I guess they brought her back here because she makes a suitably scary figure for children and they needed a villain, since once they get into David's adulthood, it's going to be harder to hold a child's attention.

2. When Emily runs off with Steerforth, in this version, Peggotty dismisses her with: "If it weren't Steerforth it would have been someone else. That girl has always had ambitions." And then she never reappears.

WTF? Of all the changes to make for a children's cartoon, they decide to add a line that makes Little Emily out to be a slutty gold-digger? That instantly turned this cartoon from "crappy low-budget production" to "abominable piece of shit," as far as I was concerned.

After suffering through this, I refuse to watch the 1993 anthropomorphic mouse version voiced by Sheena Easton and Julian Lennon. :P

See also my review of A Tale of Two Cities.


Verdict: I don't think Dickens wrote any bad books. This one isn't my favorite, but it's still epic and memorable with too many characters to fit into any film adaptation. A good book if you want a nice long read with one of Dickens's less grim works.

I did not read David Copperfield for the books1001 challenge, but it is one of the books on the list. Want to take a shot at a major literary work you may not have ever read, and read reviews of other books on the "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die" list? Come join us!
Tags: books, books1001, charles dickens, movies, netflix, reviews
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