Here it is; a classic of English literature, one of the most famous novels ever written, and the one that this most successful of authors thought his best. So why have you probably not read it? The illusions of the American magician with the same name have probably been scrutinized more thoroughly than the mysterious magic hidden here, and yet the reading public still regards David Copperfield as not just a literary treasure but a familiar friend. Phrases from the book – “Barkis is willin’”, “Procrastination is the thief of time: collar him”, “Ever so ’umble”, “Something will turn up” – feel like remembered lines from an old hymnal. We may not have read David Copperfield, but we think we know what it’s like to have done so.

Could it be that, though we’ve all heard of the great Mr Micawber and Uriah Heep, our understanding of them is formed more by the accumulated memories of performances in TV and cinema? As someone who has just released a film adaptation of this book, I’m aware I may be adding to this problematic legacy. My only defense would be that I felt compelled to make the movie after recently rereading the book and being astonished by the unexpected modernity of the narrative and the sheer boisterous energy of the language; there was so much more in this novel than I’d ever seen on-screen.

Start your free trial to read the full story

Subscribe to Air Mail to access every article
and search our entire Arts Intel Report.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here.