I am not an expert on Charles Dickens, but I do enjoy his writing immensely. I have gone through periods where I thought I liked other Victorian authors more: Anthony Trollope and George Eliot notably, but I always return to Dickens with vigor and realize that he is the best. Wasn’t there an old McDonalds ad which stated “30 Million Customers can’t be wrong”, or something like that? Maybe it’s not a good analogy, and perhaps being loved by the masses isn’t always best. I try to imagine what you read about that period of the 19th century and boats showing up at the port of New York that are carrying copies of the latest serial installment of a Dickens novel with near rioting on the docks. So many things in history are so hard to imagine that it is hard to even make an apt comparison.
Lately I have been going out of my comfort zone and reading mystery novels. To generalize them a little, they tend to be less than 400 pages, many less than 300. They are “quick” reads, and for me that not only means that you read through them quickly but also that I need to read them quickly, otherwise I will certainly forget important clues, plot devices, minor characters, settings … all of these things are so important in your average mystery read. I don’t think I have a terrible memory problem when it comes to reading, but I do think my memory is better with gradually delineated details rather than quick and minute ones. I am fine with a huge cast of characters as long as each character is very well explained to me by the author.
Your average 19th century tome spends a great deal of time with character development, plot development, making sure that the reader gets a very good impression of the setting, theme, mood … much of this may not be important to a 20th/21st century reader. With little else available for “self-entertainment” back in the pre-electronic age a reader might not necessarily want things to go quickly. I have so many of these classics on my Nook device (ironically) because I pick that up when I am lying in bed before sleep; these novels are warm, comfortable, cozy, and leave me feeling quite restful and pleased. I am like a hobbit in his warren and life could not be better. Quite a good way to be before falling asleep.
Charles Dickens only lived to be 58 years old, but he managed to complete fourteen novels, novellas, non-fiction, some “sketches”, and almost finish a murder mystery there at the end. He apparently was very much committed to reading his work in a public forum for his fans. Several sources seem to indicate that this hastened his ultimate demise; he became sick and was weaker and continued to read for his public. Without looking up the specifics, I believe he was married with several children, began an affair with a much younger woman and left his wife for her. Apparently celebrities are celebrities in any age. We seem to forgive celebrities their “sins” dependent upon their possible good nature, and perhaps with regard to the superiority of their product.
I mentioned in one of our recent posts how Dickens’ works can sort of be divided. If you look at a list of the novels and include The Mystery of Edwin Drood on that list, then David Copperfield takes the middle position, at number eight. The seven novels prior to DC are those of a younger novelist who is experimenting and learning his craft. The seven novels after DC are of a more experienced novelist, are seen as more realistic, have plots less likely to include fantastical coincidence, and can be a little more grim. As the reader completes Copperfield and dutifully moves to the next book he or she is faced with the grand opening chapter of Bleak House, which begins:
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
I believe that this chapter acts as an introduction to a new Dickens experience. There is nothing here remotely like what has come before. Yes, Oliver Twist certainly has its disturbing aspects, but by and large it is the story of an innocent young boy with little personality whose story will inevitably take us to a happy conclusion regardless of Fagin, the Artful Dodger, and the terrible Bill Sikes. Dickens’ main characters certainly become more interesting as the novels are written, and the latter half of his oeuvre holds those which are more complex.
But where does that leave us with the beloved middle book, David Copperfield? I will resist any discussion of my personal favorite, Great Expectations, in lieu of what has already been discussed recently on this blog. But having just completed DC recently for a second time I can mention a few aspects of it which come to mind before ending this post.
With a shout-out to William Blake, if the first half of the Dickens canon is innocence (The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son), and the second half is experience (Bleak House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, The Mystery of Edwin Drood), then DC is a tale of a young man moving from innocence to experience. The first half of the novel shows the protagonist relaying the years of his life in which he is a very young man being bullied about by the forces of his fate as an orphan – the Murdstones, James Steerforth, and Uriah Heep most notably. Then at some point in the novel young Davey grows up and starts to fight back to some degree, and thus enables his own fate to be made. He in particular takes action against Uriah Heep which made this reader even feel a little sorry for that despicable character. I think I could write a rather long research paper on this innocence/experience idea.
This sets David Copperfield (the character) apart from characterizations in earlier books, most notably Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby (again, the characters). Oliver takes no real action, and as I mentioned before has little personality. Nicholas is simply the perfect protagonist, which also makes his character lacking to some degree. Nickleby and his sister are so wonderful and perfect for the entire book that they sort of make you sick. What saves the stories of both of these eponymous heroes are the supporting characters who surround them, and the travails they must go through to reach the end of the novel and encounter their happy ending. Destiny is more in the hands of the character of David Copperfield. This may be why Dickens is said to most prefer his middle novel, and of course it is the one modeled after himself. G.K. Chesterton is a tad more critical of David Copperfield, writing that the first half of the novel is perfect and harkens the reader back to the earlier novels, while the second half not so much. Chesterton is more of a fan of the “fun” Dickens novels. In David Copperfield, Chesterton says, Dickens is “making a romantic attempt to be realistic”.
I feel that I am not doing Charles Dickens justice in this post, and I have only given one quote which most of you have most likely already read. Even in my discussion of DC I do not give it its due – no mention of Wilkins Micawber, or Betsey Trotwood – two wonderful characters (Micawber is pictured above). Then there are the wonderful illustrations in many of his novels. I believe these were commissioned due to his immense popularity, first by George Cruikshank, then by Phiz. These illustrations are wonderful and fun to look forward to when reading, and even come through nicely on my Nook! No one needs a recommendation from me. The books are there. There are the very popular, the less popular, and then Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit (who has read these besides Chesterton?).
Many many years ago Eric Clapton was coming to Miami for a concert and friends had to convince me that it would be a worthwhile experience. I went, it was amazing, and I thought, “Well, I guess that’s why he’s Eric Clapton!” Perhaps that analogy is better than McDonalds.
—El Gaucho is a pseudonym for Stuart Moore, who used to work for a small Jesuit, Liberal Arts college in the South and now works for a small Baptist, Liberal Arts university in the South. He is either confused, seeking, or simply working for the greater glory of God with whomever he may.