Book Review: David Copperfield

I face a real dilemma in my life at the moment, and it all has to do with the "Coming of Age Novel."

My eldest son is 15, the age when literature really began to matter to me. It's an age when big ideas can most impact fertile minds. I find myself trapped between wanting him to read all the great books that I read when I was 15--or have read since--and encouraging him to develop on his own, feeding his own mind with books that mark out and expand his unique preferences.

Readers owe so much to the British novelist, Charles Dickens, who pioneered the coming-of-age genre in fiction. Most of us have read Great Expectations in high school or college, tracing the obsessions and disappointments of the teenage years. But I hear very little about David Copperfield. To be honest, I had read one of the Great Books Illustrated versions of this novel--the books with an illustration on every facing page--back when I was in grade school.

When I saw that Richard Armitage had recorded a new reading of David Copperfield for Audible, I knew it was time to take another look at the book. It was late winter--the time when I spend days in my woods uprooting thorns and planting daffodils. It's the best time of the year for book-listening.

What I found as I listened were connections to many of the books that readers love today, and a reminder of my own age, even as I experienced David's own coming of age.


First, every writer worth her salt should read Dickens to remember just how much we owe the old master. One of the first things I noticed about the text were the names of the characters that Dickens developed over the course of the novel.

Consider the following list of characters (particularly if you've never read the book):

  1. Mr. Murdstone
  2. James Steerforth
  3. Tommy Traddles
  4. Mr. Spenlow
  5. Uriah Heep

Now see if you can match them with the characterization
A. A young man whose life runs off course and scandalizes an innocent girl in the process
B. A sniveling villain who hides behind claims that he is "so 'umble, Master Copperfield"
C. A lawyer who always has an excuse for leaving bills unpaid and raises ungranted
D. A stepfather who would send his wife's only son to the workhouse as punishment
E. A true friend and partner in the advancement of the main character.
Dickens has a genius for using names to characterize. It--among many qualities of this book--brought to mind the strengths of his compatriot, J.K. Rowling. The characters are almost always named before they are described. This may be one reason they are so memorable, but the characterizations always seem to build upon the names. That's why clever readers have probably already figured out the correct matches to the names above:  1-D; 2-A; 3-E; 4-C; 5-B.

I couldn't leave without commenting on Dickens's descriptions of these characters--as thorough and insightful as his choice of names--
  • Murdstone: "At this minute I see him turn round in the garden, and give us a last look with his ill-omened black eyes, before the door was shut."
  • Steerforth: "Before this boy, who was reputed to be a great scholar, and was very good-looking, and at least half-a-dozen years my senior, I was carried as before a magistrate. He inquired, under a shed in the playground, into the particulars of my punishment, and was pleased to express his opinion that it was 'a jolly shame'; for which I became bound to him ever afterwards."
  • Traddles: "In a tight sky-blue suit that made his arms and legs like German sausages, or roly-poly puddings, he was the merriest and most miserable of all the boys. He was always being caned—I think he was caned every day that half-year, except one holiday Monday when he was only ruler'd on both hands—and was always going to write to his uncle about it, and never did. After laying his head on the desk for a little while, he would cheer up, somehow, begin to laugh again, and draw skeletons all over his slate, before his eyes were dry."
  • Spenlow: "He was a little light-haired gentleman, with undeniable boots, and the stiffest of white cravats and shirt-collars. He was buttoned up, mighty trim and tight, and must have taken a great deal of pains with his whiskers, which were accurately curled. His gold watch-chain was so massive, that a fancy came across me, that he ought to have a sinewy golden arm, to draw it out with, like those which are put up over the goldbeaters' shops. He was got up with such care, and was so stiff, that he could hardly bend himself; being obliged, when he glanced at some papers on his desk, after sitting down in his chair, to move his whole body, from the bottom of his spine, like Punch."
  • and Uriah Heep: "Though his face was towards me, I thought, for some time, the writing being between us, that he could not see me; but looking that way more attentively, it made me uncomfortable to observe that, every now and then, his sleepless eyes would come below the writing, like two red suns, and stealthily stare at me for I dare say a whole minute at a time, during which his pen went, or pretended to go, as cleverly as ever. I made several attempts to get out of their way—such as standing on a chair to look at a map on the other side of the room, and poring over the columns of a Kentish newspaper—but they always attracted me back again; and whenever I looked towards those two red suns, I was sure to find them, either just rising or just setting." (all quotes from Project Gutenberg)

The Schoolhouse

David experiences education in three ways in the book. First, he is sent away to Salem House soon after his mother marries Mr. Murdstone--for David it is punishment for biting his stepfather during an altercation, for Clara Copperfield-Murdstone it is the first sign that her will has been usurped.

David's entrance to Salem House is captured perfectly with image and very lively metaphors:
I gazed upon the schoolroom into which he took me, as the most forlorn and desolate place I had ever seen. I see it now. A long room with three long rows of desks, and six of forms, and bristling all round with pegs for hats and slates. Scraps of old copy-books and exercises litter the dirty floor. Some silkworms' houses, made of the same materials, are scattered over the desks. Two miserable little white mice, left behind by their owner, are running up and down in a fusty castle made of pasteboard and wire, looking in all the corners with their red eyes for anything to eat. A bird, in a cage very little bigger than himself, makes a mournful rattle now and then in hopping on his perch, two inches high, or dropping from it; but neither sings nor chirps. There is a strange unwholesome smell upon the room, like mildewed corduroys, sweet apples wanting air, and rotten books. There could not well be more ink splashed about it, if it had been roofless from its first construction, and the skies had rained, snowed, hailed, and blown ink through the varying seasons of the year.At Salem House, 
The classroom at Salem House (Wikimedia)
David's teacher is a beleaguered and haggard man, Mr. Mell. His effort to play the flute comes across as a summation of his competence as a teacher--"[he]brought out his flute in three pieces, which he screwed together, and began immediately to play. My impression is, after many years of consideration, that there never can have been anybody in the world who played worse. He made the most dismal sounds I have ever heard produced by any means, natural or artificial."

His principal at Salem House has the name of Mr. Creakle, Sorry, but I just have to include Dickens's full description of this principal:

Mr. Creakle's face was fiery, and his eyes were small, and deep in his head; he had thick veins in his forehead, a little nose, and a large chin. He was bald on the top of his head; and had some thin wet-looking hair that was just turning grey, brushed across each temple, so that the two sides interlaced on his forehead. But the circumstance about him which impressed me most, was, that he had no voice, but spoke in a whisper. The exertion this cost him, or the consciousness of talking in that feeble way, made his angry face so much more angry, and his thick veins so much thicker, when he spoke, that I am not surprised, on looking back, at this peculiarity striking me as his chief one.
Creakle's teaching methods--like his facial features--are stern. And that's about it in . "[He] was the sternest and most severe of masters; that he laid about him, right and left, every day of his life, charging in among the boys like a trooper, and slashing away, unmercifully. That he knew nothing himself, but the art of slashing, being more ignorant (J. Steerforth said) than the lowest boy in the school." The children aren't treated much better than animals, being prepared to be herded and bullied by one and all by the time they get out of school.

David's second "school" of sorts follows the death of his mother and newborn half-brother. Murdstone sends him to work in the factory of a wine exchange. Conditions are horrible, and the pay so low that it leaves David scheming just to get enough to eat. (It doesn't help that David's landlords, the Micawber family, are themselves constantly in need of cash--to which he donates his meager earnings from time to time.)

 Dr. Strong and his young wife, Annie.
Finally, David runs away from London, finds support with a long-lost aunt, and enteres a new tutelage of a schoolmaster named "Doctor Strong." Is this schooling likely to turn out OK with a principal with this name? Of course it is.

Look at David Copperfield's first impression of Doctor Strong's school:

"The schoolroom was a pretty large hall, on the quietest side of the house, confronted by the stately stare of some half-dozen of the great urns, and commanding a peep of an old secluded garden belonging to the Doctor, where the peaches were ripening on the sunny south wall. There were two great aloes, in tubs, on the turf outside the windows; the broad hard leaves of which plant (looking as if they were made of painted tin) have ever since, by association, been symbolical to me of silence and retirement. About five-and-twenty boys were studiously engaged at their books when we went in, but they rose to give the Doctor good morning, and remained standing when they saw Mr. Wickfield and me."

The words that jump out to me from this description are "quiet,"stately," and "commanding"--although not in the same sense as Mr. Creakle might understand the word. Aloes, the plant for healing burns, are prominent (I actually kept aloes in my classroom for many years--they were the only plan I couldn't ruin by neglect). And the boys in the room are "studiously engaged" in their lessons, even with Strong returning to the room. Here, dear readers, is the sign of a master teacher--and a master school administrator.

David makes more observations of the school later, claiming that it is "as different from Mr. Creakle's as good is from evil."

"It was very gravely and decorously ordered, and on a sound system; with an appeal, in everything, to the honour and good faith of the boys, and an avowed intention to rely on their possession of those qualities unless they proved themselves unworthy of it, which worked wonders. We all felt that we had a part in the management of the place, and in sustaining its character and dignity. Hence, we soon became warmly attached to it—I am sure I did for one, and I never knew, in all my time, of any other boy being otherwise—and learnt with a good will, desiring to do it credit. We had noble games out of hours, and plenty of liberty; but even then, as I remember, we were well spoken of in the town, and rarely did any disgrace, by our appearance or manner, to the reputation of Doctor Strong and Doctor Strong's boys."
The emphasis here is on "character and dignity," which seem awfully similar to the current buzzword in education,"grit." Moreover, the school appears to have found the balance of inquiry and responsibility to let students manage most things in their own interests. "[The boys and I] learnt with a good will, desiring to do [the school] credit."

Coming of Age

Dickens captures the challenges of growing up as a young man--and adds considerably to them--with an honesty that is remarkable. He also manages to capture David's growing awareness of the world in real time, despite the fact that the story is set up as a first-person memoir in the voice of the title character.

For example, David's reaction to his stepfather, is genuine and typical of many children whose lives are uprooted. He doesn't like him--particularly after the marriage is performed out of site, while he is away at Pegotty's. When David goes to boarding school, his thoughts of the terrible conditions are soon overshadowed by his admiration for the elder student, Steerforth. Even his youthful adoration of Li'l Em'ly is charming and believable..

Yet Dickens is brave enough to follow his charge through mistakes and mishaps--many of which prove disastrous. David's strong bond to the Pegotty clan is betrayed by a traitorous and lascivious friend that he brings into that family to wreck terrible damage. David rushes into marriage with Dora despite obvious signs that she might not make the best wife and mother for his long-term future.

Yet in other ways, David's youthful loyalties pay off, particularly with his forbearance of the obvious flaws of Wilkins Macawber, and his enduring loyalty to Agnes Wickfield and her father.

Compared to today's coming-of-age novels, which usually focus on one event or one season in the life of the protagonist. Dickens's narration begins when David is, well, born, and continues up through what I assume to be his early thirties at which point he is a successful writer and young father.

Final Thoughts

What really impressed in this reading of the book is that--at 45--I'm far closer to the age of Dickens when he wrote David Copperfield (38) than I am to any of the ages of the protagonist. The experiences aren't prescriptive as they might be for younger readers, instead they took me back to decisions I made about how to perform in school, which careers to pursue, and whom to marry.

The time to 'come of age' has come and gone for me. Yet reading David Copperfield captured the significance of those choices, and it re-introduced me to one of the founding characters of the novel's winding course through the past two centuries.