I’ve been steadily moving through David Copperfield — ignoring the Norton Critical Edition/Penguin Classics footnotes and bric a brac — and I’ve been grabbed by the story. I’m at the point where young Master Davy has been kicked out of his pleasant and loving house, after his widowed mother unwisely married a mean man who brought along his equally mean spinster sister, and has been sent to a brutish boarding school. I’m interested in finding out what happens to this poor kid.
The prose in David Copperfield is dense, with tiny typeface that wreaks havoc on my 60-year-old eyes, but it’s an interesting read. In the book Charles Dickens provides lots of descriptive information about the world surrounding young Davy, and pointed social commentary in the guise of the innocent observations of the naive and trusting Davy in his childish years. I’m finding that I am enjoying those passages as much as the passages that advance the narrative arc of the novel.
I’ve always enjoyed good historical fiction, because along with the story it conveys information about life in a different time and place, with different rules of conduct, different issues, and different social mores. David Copperfield is like historical fiction in that it provides a fascinating window into England during the Victorian period, with its distinctive culture and social strata. And in some ways David Copperfield is better than modern historical fiction, because it was written at the time, by someone who was actually there, observing in real time the details of a world and its people that have long since vanished. Of course, there’s no doubt that Dickens, like any good novelist, has thrown in some exaggeration for the sake of the story, but I have no doubt that his depiction of the harshness of British boarding schools, for example, with barbaric, ignorant masters eager to use the rod to beat an education into their youthful charges, is based on more than a few kernels of truth.
I don’t know how well Dickens novels are selling these days and whether they are flying off library shelves, but I wonder if booksellers and librarians wouldn’t be well advised to pitch Dickens not as something that must be read to establish your intellectual bona fides, but rather as an interesting read for the historical fiction lovers of the world.