Counting Down Dickens’ Greatest Novels. Number 4: David Copperfield

Every time I read the book I think, the story of a boy who overcomes adversity and grows up to be a writer? That’s the most cliché first-novel idea around. Except that it was Dickens’ eighth, and it marked a departure.

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I have read David Copperfield many times now, and every time I pick it up again I think, Oh, it can’t be as good as I remember. It’s the story of a young boy who overcomes adversity and grows up to be a writer. That’s about the most cliché first-novel idea around.

Except David Copperfield was Charles Dickens’ eighth novel, and it marked a departure. It was his first time writing in the first person, and for a writer like Dickens, that had the potential to be a disaster. When you’re working in first person, you are chained to your hero. You can’t get into other heads or other landscapes. If Robinson Crusoe is your protagonist and he’s on the island, there’s no way to zip your readers back to England to check in on his estate — not until he gets back there. Dickens, as we’ve seen, thrives on making connections between disparate worlds, upper- and underclass, rich and poor. With David Copperfield, he had to commit to the world of David Copperfield.

(READ: Counting Down Dickens’ Greatest Novels—Number 6: A Tale of Two Cities)

He also drew explicitly from his experience. A few years earlier Dickens had begun working on an autobiography, but when he got to the part about his first romantic disappointment it depressed him, and he burned the manuscript. Having gone through the exercise of reliving his early past, though, he felt the urge to use it. He chose the most wrenching episode of his childhood: the time he spent working at Warren’s Blacking factory, where his parents sent him to earn the family some money while his father was in debtors’ prison. This is David’s version of the parallel event, when his stepfather, Mr. Murdstone, packs him off to work in his firm’s London warehouse after his mother’s death:

I know enough of the world now, to have almost lost the capacity of being much surprised by anything; but it is a matter of some surprise to me, even now, that I can have been so easily thrown away at such an age. A child of excellent abilities, and with strong powers of observation,quick, eager, delicate, and soon hurt bodily or mentally, it seems wonderful to me that nobody should have made any sign in my behalf. But none was made; and I became, at ten years old, a little laboring hind in the service of Murdstone and Grinby.

You can hear the lingering hurt in Dickens’ voice, the piteous wonder. We’re familiar with the author speaking out on behalf of children in general — when Oliver Twist asks for more, he’s doing it for all the boys in the poor house — but this scene gains its poignancy from our understanding of David’s singularity, and his isolation. Dickens shared that isolation, on this topic at least. He was so ashamed of this chapter of his past that he spoke of it only to a few people. It wasn’t widely known until his friend John Forster reported it in his biography of Dickens, which came out a few years after the writer died.

David is a fascinating central character, the hero as beta male. A “posthumous child,” as he describes himself (his father died before he was born), he is raised by his timid but adoring mother. When she remarries, David is sent off to school, where he meets an alpha male, Steerforth, who becomes his idol. Steerforth is just one of a series of strong personalities whom we encounter refracted through David’s perspective. The first-person narration may have its limitations, but it’s a great tool for layering impressions: in Steerforth, David sees a handsome, Byronic god, while the reader sees through to the arrogant schemer beneath.

(READ: Counting Down Dickens’ Greatest Novels. Number 7: The Pickwick Papers)

The charm of David Copperfield is largely in its supporting cast. There’s David’s Aunt Betsey Trotwood, a gale-force wind personified, and the Micawber family, led by the perpetually indebted Mr. Micawber, who excels at writing theatrical letters with elaborate cascading signatures forecasting his imminent financial doom, e.g.: “This is the last communication, my dear Copperfield, you will ever receive /From/The/Beggared Outcast/Wilkins Micawber. (Things always turn out fine.) David may be an orphan, but the novel feels like a family affair, and ultimately a happy one.

If you really want to know why I love David Copperfield, though, it probably comes down to the night David gets drunk. For my money, this is the best description of drunkenness that exists in literature, and that includes the brilliant “Ooof. Tumbled over” line from Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.

Somebody was leaning out of my bedroom window, refreshing his forehead against the cool stone of the parapet, and feeling the air upon his face. It was myself. I was addressing myself as ‘Copperfield’ and saying, ‘Why did you try to smoke? You might have known you couldn’t do it.’ Now somebody was unsteadily contemplating his features in the looking-glass. That was I too. I was very pale in the looking-glass; my eyes had a vacant appearance; and my hair — only my hair, nothing else — looked drunk. […]
“Owing to some confusion in the dark, the door was gone. I was feeling for it in the window-curtains when Steerforth, laughing, took me by the arm and led me out. We went downstairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell, and rolled down. Somebody else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at that false report, until, finding myself on my back in the passage, I began to think there might be some foundation for it.

There’s more, but this should be enough to encourage someone to start a drunk hair Tumblr. The real takeaway, of course, is not David’s social smoking; it’s the scene’s gentle humor, the way Dickens lovingly needles his alter-ego even as the alter-ego tumbles down the stairs. David Copperfield has its sentimental moments — the death of David’s mother among them — and they are a critical part of its appeal, but the novel endures because of its fundamental optimism and good cheer. As Mr. Micawber says, even from the depths of despair, “Something will turn up.” It always, always does.

Come back tomorrow for our look at Charles Dickens’ third best novel.

READ: The Previous Entry in This Series—Number 5: Our Mutual Friend

MORE: The Secret of Charles Dickens’ Enduring Success