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.
David gets drunk, and all of London swirls around him. Seeing himself in the mirror he declares that his hair looks drunk, before he tumbles down the stairs. He falls in love with Dora and sees her name on items of cutlery as he’s eating. David Copperfield is a work filled with surreal visions, thrilling metaphors and deft one-liners. Most adaptations tend to concentrate on the story and not on poetic imagery, but in this book, language is all. The plot, being the depiction of a life, is, like most lives, a mess; but the pattern, the controlling force of the narrative, rests in the depiction of an inner imagination taking shape, processing what he sees and hears, and trying to construct an inner meaning out of the otherwise random experiences that he lives through.
David Copperfield is a work filled with surreal visions, thrilling metaphors and deft one-liners.
To read the book, then, is to be taken by surprise. Micawber, for example, is often thought of as a jovial roly-poly character, played in film versions by such actors as WC Fields or Ralph Richardson, rotund and full of bonhomie despite a life continually on the run from creditors owed a slag-heap of debts. Dickens writes something far more stark, though: a desperate, hungry man going through erratic mood swings linked to his financial state, smiling one minute, talking and acting out very graphic suicidal thoughts the next. He’s good company, but also a leech on others, infecting with debt all those who befriend him.
Or what of Mr Dick, a man constantly distracted with the unstoppable thoughts that seem to have come from a beheaded Charles the First? So often portrayed as a figure of fun, a simpleton and eccentric to be laughed at, Mr Dick is actually a humane depiction of a good-hearted man in mental pain. It’s the first proper description in English fiction of mental illness. Even Uriah Heep surprises. We’ve known him as the personification of a banal evil, a pathetic and suffocating parasite, determined to exploit the vulnerabilities of others to maximize his status. What’s actually in the book is something more ambiguous and original: yes, he’s villainous, but also strangely fragile, and the reader can’t help but feel there’s a strain of cruelty in how David and his circle laugh at his behavior and relish his downfall. It’s as if Uriah is the negative image of David himself, a warning to our hero, and to us, of what David might have become. Both he and Uriah live with early misfortune: the difference is that one chooses to free himself of it by relying on friendship and turning to honest work, while the other decides he can liberate himself by smothering the hope in those who regard themselves as his betters. David and Uriah are a fork in the road.
Most adaptations tend to concentrate on the story and not on poetic imagery, but in this book, language is all.
Reading this book, while trying to forget the many retellings of it, constantly takes us on these surprising journeys. This is no dusty relic, but instead something sparkling and modern. The theme is a narrator asking himself if he’s to become the hero of his own life, and giving as his answer 800 pages in which he seems not to know who he is, shuttled from memory to memory, sanctuary to sanctuary, and even from name to name: each new relationship David forms is marked by a fresh christening as he gets called Davy, then Trotwood, soon shortened to Trot, then suddenly Daisy followed by Doady. If I were an academic, I’d say we’re in the realms of meta-fiction (I’m not, so I won’t).
Something new is happening here. David Copperfield is Dickens’s first novel narrated entirely in the first person. More than that, the book’s opening chapters are partly autobiographical. Dickens’s previous novels were episodic and written in weekly or monthly installments. The plot was made up as he went along, and all his invention went into dreaming up self-contained comic episodes or heart-stopping cliff-hangers. In David Copperfield Dickens plays down the melodrama and is happy to end chapters on quieter moments of personal reflection or growth.
This is Dickens beginning to fashion a story line that is greater than the sum of its parts. He doesn’t quite achieve it here (as I said, the plot is a mess) but we encounter the themes that he was to develop in greater depth in the novels that were to follow. In David Copperfield we get the sudden changes in fortune and guilty moments of snobbery that are to be fleshed out in Great Expectations. We take our first look at the Marshalsea debtors’ prison, which is to be the core of Little Dorrit. We explore the law, and are also subject to a narrator’s tricks of narrative: both are to be the main components of Bleak House.
David Copperfield is the second half of Dickens’s writing career in protean form. In this book, he’s stumbling on something as if for the first time. He had already seen what he could achieve as a writer; he was the most famous one in the world, the author of the internationally successful The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist and the world’s first “celebrity” novelist. In David Copperfield, though, the discovery is more significant: as we read it, we see Dickens grow excited at what he could do not just as a writer, but as a novelist. It was the true making of him as an artist, and it’s no wonder that it became his “favourite child”.
Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield is available to stream on Amazon U.K. now, and in the U.S. on August 28