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David Copperfield (1850)
If the critics are to be believed, David Copperfield was Dickens favorite of all his books and the most autobiographical. Narrated in the first person, it tells the story of a fatherless boy whose happy life with his mother and their doting servant Clara Peggoty is cruelly ended when his mother remarries. His stepfather, Mr. Murdstone, first sends him away to school (Salem House), where he is abused, then, after David's mother dies, puts him to work gluing labels on bottles. Eventually he runs away and is adopted by his stern but loving aunt, Miss Betsey Trotwood. She sends him to a better school (Dr. Strong's) and he is launched on a career that will see him become a law clerk, a reporter and ultimately a successful novelist. He marries Dora, the pretty but insipid daughter of Mr. Spenlow, for whom he clerked. She falls ill and dies after an unsuccessful childbirth and David marries Agnes Wickfield, who had been like a sister to him when he lived with her family while he was at Dr. Strong's school.
Such is the basic outline of David's life and it is not much to look at, is it? Nor is David a particularly compelling character--of course, Pip, in Great Expectations, isn't either but he at least is subjected to the demented machinations of Miss Havesham. No, the real strength of this novel does not lie in the narrator; it is the delicious cast of supporting characters who make this novel great. Early in life David is befriended by Peggoty and her wonderful brother Daniel, a fisherman raising his niece and nephew in a converted boat on Yarmouth Sands, and Mr. Barkis, the bachelor cab driver who asks David to inform Peggoty that: "Barkis is willing". While attending Salem House, David lives with the family of Wilkins Micawber, grandiloquent and eternally optimistic in the face of dire financial straights, he is always certain that something will turn up. David's Aunt is amusing, but even better is her friend Mr. Dick, an eccentric author who turns his voluminous masterwork into a kite.
Equally good are the villains of the piece. The stepfather and his sister, Jane Murdstone, are wicked enough for a fairy tale. David's schoolboy chum Steerforth proves to be a colossal heel. And there is no more malefic figure in literature than Uriah Heep, the scheming clerk who blackmails Agnes father, steals Betsey Trotwood's money and swears his undying enmity towards David.
Covering much of the same territory and offering up similar, but significantly different, characters, Copperfield offers a more benevolent view of life than Great Expectations. Because of this, and the general dyspepsia of literary critics and academics, it is often taken less seriously, tarred as somewhat lightweight. But it is vastly entertaining and if the ending is a little too pat, our complaint is less a function of the mechanics of the conclusion than our disappointment at seeing the Micawbers and Peggotys depart the scene. By any measure, it must be considered one of the truly great novels.
-REVIEW : of 'Savage Reprisals: Bleak House, Madame Bovary, Buddenbrooks' by Peter Gay (Lorraine Adams, Washington Post)
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-EXCERPT: The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907-21). Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One. X. Dickens. § 11. David Copperfield
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-ESSAY : Portrait of the artist as a minor character "David Copperfield" is the Dickens lover's guilty pleasure -- hammy, sweet and with a strangely passive hero (David Gates, Salon)
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-REVIEW : of The Master's Voice: Dickens' Journalism Volume IV: The Uncommercial Traveller and Other Papers, 1859-70 Michael Slater and John Drew ed (Dan Jacobson, booksonline uk)