The David Copperfield Site

Cambridge History of English and American Literature
Occasional References to David Copperfield

Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One. - X. Dickens,


§ 1. Early life. 

(...) Dickens’s biography is familiar from one great storehouse, Forster’s Life, and from many smaller monographs of varying merit, nor does it require full handling here. Born in the lower, rather than the upper, middle class, and sunk, by family misfortune, at one time, to the very level poignantly described in David Copperfield, he acquired, in his interrupted schooldays, a very limited amount of regular education and never enjoyed David’s subsequent “advantages.” But he knew something of the school groundwork usual at that time, and, on his own account, developed a keen and most fortunate fondness for the great classics of English fiction, original or translated—Smollett, perhaps, most of all, but, also, Fielding; Don Quixote, as well as The Arabian Nights. After all the sordid but, eventually, genial experiences which, later, reflect themselves in his books—the childish schooling which provides some of the most charming things of his Christmas stories; his father’s prison in the Marshalsea; the dismal shabby lodgings at Camden town and in Lant street and so forth—he got no nearer Copperfield’s dignified articled position in Doctors’ Commons than a boy-clerkship in a solicitor’s office and a reportership in the Commons itself. But this last gave him a sort of hold on the fringe of journalism, if not of literature, and he soon fastened that hold on the garment itself. More varied and important reportings; Sketches by Boz, at first mainly imitative but, even then, in part, noticeably original, led to the great chance of Pickwick, which was taken greatly. After the success of Pickwick, the aspect of his life presented as sharp a contrast to its earlier phase as the often cited one which is shown by the two parts of a portrait in a picture-cleaner’s windows, or the advertisements of a certain soap. It was, if not exactly all dark, at any rate all shabby, grimy and obscure before: it was all bright now, except for certain domestic inconveniences late in his career. He never had any more money troubles; he never had any lack of popularity; he worked hard, indeed: but he was a “glutton for work” and could choose his time, place and manner of doing it after a fashion which deprives work of all, or nearly all, its worrying effect. He found, in addition to his original and independent work as novelist, two occupations, that of editor and that of public reader, both of which were very profitable, while the former of them gave exercise to his busy and rather autocratic temper, and the latter furnished an outlet to the histrionic faculty which was almost as strong in him as the literary. He died, it is true, in middle age only; but after a full, glorious and, apparently, on the whole, happy life, not, indeed, without some preliminary illness, but without suffering from that terrible lingering failure of faculties which had beset Scott and Southey and Moore in the generation immediately before him. Fame and fortune after the very earliest step, and far earlier than in most cases, had, in almost all respects, been equally kind to him. (...)


§ 8. Martin Chuzzlewit. 

(...) There is, in the bulk of the book, and in the majority of its characters, an intensity of verve, “a warmth of imagination which excites the composition of the writer,” only to be found in Pickwick earlier and never surpassed, and seldom, even in David Copperfield, equalled later. (...)


§ 16. Great Expectations. 

There are, however, those who admire A Tale of Two Cities sincerely, and who think but little of the novel which followed it through the paper and in publication; while there are others who take up the Tale more seldom than any other of Dickens’s books, and who consider Great Expectations one of his very masterpieces, putting it with the “wild freshness of morning” in Pickwick and the noonday completeness of David Copperfield as an “evening voluntary” of the most delightful kind. It is not faultless. The mannerism and the exaggeration of all the later books sometimes break through, and the grime of the heroine’s parentage is not only unnecessary but ill-managed. That obsession of feeble satire as to rank and respect to rank, which was one of Dickens’s numerous forms of his own “king Charles’s head” disease, comes in, and melodrama is not far off. But he had never done anything, not even in Copperfield itself, so real as “Pip,” with his fears, his hopes, his human weaknesses and meannesses, his love, his bearing up against misfortune. Never did he combine analysis and synthesis so thoroughly as here. (...)

§ 17. Summary. 

 (...) “How is it possible that things not fully real should exercise such power?” some may ask, and others may answer, that it is precisely the fantastic element—the contrast of real and unreal—which keeps the charm effective. David Copperfield, in its characters, is, undoubtedly, the nearest throughout to persons whom we have met and feel it quite likely that we might meet. Pip, who, to some extent, is David’s younger brother, perhaps comes next. It would be hard to find them many companions.  (...)


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