David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

David Copperfield Since I started blogging I have been trying to read at least one Dickens novel a year – I read A Christmas Carol in 2009, Bleak House in 2010, Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 2011, Great Expectations in 2012 and A Tale of Two Cities in 2013. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to read any Dickens at all in 2014 so decided to make him a priority this year. With plenty of his books still to choose from, I picked up David Copperfield on the first day of January. It took me most of the month to read it – it’s a long book – and it has taken me almost as long to decide what to say about it!

How do you begin to write about a book like this? The plot is not the sort that you can sum up adequately in a paragraph or two. In fact, there really isn’t a central plot at all, but rather, lots of subplots all circling around the narrator, David Copperfield – or Trotwood, Trot, Daisy or Doady as he is called at various points in the novel…usually anything but David!

At the time of David’s birth, his father has already been dead for six months. Growing up in the small Suffolk town of Blunderstone, his early years are relatively peaceful and uneventful, until his mother marries again and David is sent away to boarding school. As he progresses through school and on into adulthood, a host of fascinating and eccentric characters pass in and out of David’s life. These include:

  • Betsey Trotwood, David’s formidable but kind-hearted great-aunt, who never quite recovers from the disappointment of David being a boy instead of the little girl she’d set her heart on.
  • Mr Murdstone, David’s cruel and brutal stepfather.
  • David’s beloved childhood nurse, Peggotty, her brother Daniel and his nephew and niece, Ham and Little Em’ly.
  • James Steerforth, a handsome, charming and manipulative schoolfriend of David’s.
  • The villainous ‘humble clerk’, Uriah Heep.
  • Wilkins Micawber, with whom David lodges in London, always in debt but never giving up hope that ‘something will turn up’.
  • And Dora Spenlow and Agnes Wickfield, two very different young women who enter David’s life.

All of these characters, as well as many others, have an important role to play in David’s story, helping to shape the man he grows up to be.

Of all of Dickens’ novels David Copperfield was apparently the author’s own favourite. In his own words, “like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield.” It’s also supposedly the most autobiographical of his novels – and having read Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life, I can see where he drew on some of his own personal experiences in writing David’s story. Even the style of David Copperfield is autobiographical, with David himself narrating the events of his life, sometimes in retrospect from an unspecified point in the future.

Although, as I’ve explained, the story is made up of a set of complex and closely linked subplots, this is very much a novel that is driven by the characters. As with any book with such a large cast of characters, there were some that I loved (such as Betsey Trotwood and Peggotty), and some I disliked (such as Steerforth and the Murdstones) but all were so well-drawn they seemed to jump out of the pages. The one character I really couldn’t stand, though, was Dora Spenlow! Dickens gets a lot of criticism for his female characters, but Dora is the worst I’ve encountered in any of his books so far: a woman who happily calls herself a ‘silly little thing’ and asks to be thought of as a ‘child-wife’. Thank goodness for Agnes Wickfield – I suppose she could also be criticised for representing the Victorian ideal, but I found her a much more likeable and far less infuriating character than Dora!

David Copperfield, as I mentioned at the start of this post, is a very long book. My edition had more than 900 pages, which seemed quite daunting at first, and I fully expected it to take much longer than a month to read, especially as I like to have one or two other books on the go at the same time. Once I started reading, though, I found it surprisingly addictive and it was actually a much quicker read than I imagined it would be. Of the seven Dickens novels I’ve now read, A Tale of Two Cities is still my favourite, but I think this one ties with Our Mutual Friend for second place.

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22 thoughts on “David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

  1. realthog says:

    I remember enjoying David Copperfield a lot — as you say, it’s a great fast read, unlike, say, Bleak House, which is denser. In favor of the latter novel, though, I’d say its atmosphere lives a long time in the mind.

    My own faves are Our Mutual Friend and, I think, Great Expectations . . . but then, hm, Oliver Twist and . . .

    I’ve never been able to read The Old Curiosity Shop, for some reason, and Edwin Drood, when I finally got to it, was a big disappointment — not just because it was unfinished but because CD seemed to be losing his narrative grip a bit. Or maybe I was just being pickier.

    Thanks for a wonderful reminder of this excellent novel!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, Bleak House is very atmospheric, particularly those opening paragraphs describing the fog. It’s not one of my favourites, though.

      I tried to read The Old Curiosity Shop years ago and couldn’t get past the first few chapters. I’ll probably try it again one day but it’s not high on my list of priorities at the moment.

  2. J.E. Fountain says:

    I’m with you…I love Dickens, and David Copperfield, but I think A Tale of Two Cities is his best. But somehow D.C. is usually listed as his best. I think it is because he said it was his favorite, and that it is slightly, semi, sort of, autobiographical.

  3. Nish says:

    I don’t know, I didn’t care for David Copperfield all that much. It seemed a little bit on the preachy and David himself is a bit of a bore. I much preferred Bleak House and A Tale of Two Cities.

  4. lindylit says:

    I read David Copperfield for a Classics Club Spin and remember thoroughly enjoying it at the time and being surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I keep meaning to get round to Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens having heard some of it on the radio.

    • Helen says:

      I enjoyed the Claire Tomalin book. I think knowing a bit about Dickens’ life before reading David Copperfield helped me to understand just how autobiographical it is.

  5. Karen K. says:

    I liked DC but thought that the middle dragged somewhat. I completely agree about Dora, but I can’t stand most of Dickens’ ingenues. Esther Summerson from Bleak House is the most tolerable but that’s my favorite novel (and I still think Ada is annoying). But DC gets extra points for Betsy Trotwood who is just priceless.

    • Helen says:

      I remember feeling slightly irritated with Esther Summerson when I read Bleak House, but she really isn’t too bad compared with Dora and some of Dickens’ other female characters! And yes, Betsy Trotwood is wonderful!

  6. jessicabookworm says:

    I too neglected to read any Dickens in 2014! I am pleased to hear you enjoyed this one as I have it on my Classics Club list. I love Dickens’ characters so I am happy to hear there are plenty to get to know in this novel. Of Dickens’ novels I already own I think I’m being drawn most to The Pickwick Papers I hope I get round to it soon.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you enjoy this one when you get to it for the Classics Club. I think it has some of the strongest characters of all the Dickens’ novels I’ve read.

  7. Lisa says:

    It’s been so long since I’ve read Dickens, but David Copperfield was one of my favorites. It’s one of the few that I still have on the shelves. Uriah Heep is the character who stands out most strongly in my memory.

  8. JaneGS says:

    I’ve just started on a reread of DC myself–I read it a few times when I was in my teens but I haven’t read it since then.

    I totally agree with you about Dora—like fingernails on a chalkboard is that character to my nerves!

    Interestingly, I’m half way through listening to Dombey and Son, and I’m finding a lot of similarities to DC. It was written just before Dickens wrote DC, and it seems he tried out some of his characters in the Dombey before perfecting them in DC.

    Tale of Two Cities is also a favorite with me, and one I only read for the first time a few years ago.

    I went through a long spell of not reading Dickens at all, but now that I’ve resumed, I’m finding they are addictive.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you’re enjoying your re-read! This is probably a book that I’ll want to re-read myself one day – there’s so much going on and so many characters that I’m sure a second read would be very rewarding.

      I haven’t read Dombey and Son yet, but it’s one that I’ve always liked the sound of. I’ll look out for the similarities to David Copperfield when I read it.

  9. Fleur in her World says:

    I’m trying to read a Dickens a year, but I haven’t quite decided what this year’s book will be. David Copperfield is a possibility, and I’d like a contrast with last year’s book – Bleak House – and I do like Dickens’ writing in the first person.

    • Helen says:

      Dickens never really appealed to me until fairly recently, but now I love his books. I’ll look forward to seeing which one you choose next – this one is quite different from Bleak House so would be a good contrast.

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