Completing Copperfield

Over the weekend, I finished Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield.  Three month, and 882 pages — 882! — of tiny, eye-squinting type later, I completed “Mas’r Davy’s” journey from birth to a happy adult life.

the-personal-history-of-david-copperfield-charles-dickens-first-edition-rare-originalI can’t say it was an easy read, because it really wasn’t, but I’m glad I did it.  It’s pretty clear that reading for enjoyment back in Dickens’ era was a lot different from leisure reading in our modern world.  Following the twists and turns of David Copperfield’s life — which apparently has a lot of autobiographical elements of Dicken’s own life in it — required a significant amount of focus and attention to detail to follow the different characters and the arc of the plots and subplots, and it wasn’t always easy to accept, or understand, the motivations of the characters living in a long-ago time.  David Copperfield is definitely not a “beach read.”

I confess that there were times, especially during the middle part of the novel, when I came home after a long day at work and just couldn’t face another encounter with the execrable Uriah Heep or another exposure to the elaborate manners and curious conversational gambits of people in Victorian England — which is one reason why it took me more than two months to finish the book.  (That tells you something, incidentally, about the demand for Dickens’ novels these days; I was able to renew the book multiple times without the library advising that I needed to return it because someone else wanted it.)  And yet the story was interesting enough that I kept at it, and as the novel progressed I found that the momentum of my reading increased because I wanted to see whether the plot ended the way I thought it would.  (It did.)

So now we’ve reached May, and I can check off one of my New Year’s resolutions.  There’s some satisfaction in that, but my next bit of reading is going to be something a little less taxing.  I’ve concluded that I’m not done with Dickens, however — his writing is intriguing, and after a detour into some recent fiction I’m going to tackle Great Expectations.

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David Copperfield And Historical Fiction

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.

charles-dickens-9274087-2-rawThe 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.

Crossing The “Critical Edition” Barrier

For a 2019 New Year’s resolution, of sorts, I vowed to try to read at least one book that is more challenging than my normal fare.  In furtherance of that goal, I went to the library and picked up Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, in the Penguin Classics edition.  That means the book comes with a lengthy introduction, an appendix, and lots of footnotes — all of which make the book seem more mentally demanding than, say, your standard sci fi fiction.

img_8056Admittedly, presenting a Charles Dickens novel as some kind of awesome intellectual gauntlet is a bit dodgy.  After all, Dickens was easily the most popular writer of his day, read avidly in both England and America, and David Copperfield was one of his most popular books.  Dickens made huge amounts of money through his writings and his literary tours, where he would read aloud from his works to large live audiences.  Some sources contend that, during his heyday, 1 in 10 Britons who could read read Dickens’ books — which is pretty astonishing, if true.

But here’s the thing:  those readers of the past didn’t read David Copperfield in the form of a Norton Critical Edition, or a Penguin Classics volume, knowing that the book is generally considered to be one of the Greatest Novels of All Time.  Anyone who has taken a British Literature or Comparative Literature course in college knows about the “critical editions,” which expect the reader to carefully digest every sentence, pick up nuances and associate them with historical and cultural figures of the time, analyze the plot and the characteristics of the characters, and correctly interpret the text for underlying messages.  Even now, decades after the final exam in my last literature course, my heart quailed at the prospect of tackling an esteemed writing presented in the “critical edition” format.

I skipped the lengthy introduction to David Copperfield and went straight to the book itself.  The first sentence reads:  “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”  Of course, being a “critical edition,” there’s got to be a footnote in there somewhere.  Sure enough, “hero” is footnoted.  When, out of curiosity, I went back to the back of the book to read the footnote, it said this:  “hero:  Carlyle discussed the hero as “the man of letters” in On Heroes and Hero-Worship (1841).  See Introduction.”

Really?  I’m supposed to interrupt the flow of the book in the very first sentence to read that?  Who gives a flying fig what “Carlyle” has to say?  The footnote was almost a parody of academic overkill — which is really why so many of us hated “critical editions” in the first place.

So, with David Copperfield, I’m going to try to break through the “critical edition” barrier.  Footnotes be damned!  I’m going to read David Copperfield like those adoring Britons did, like any other book, without worrying about introductions or critical context or the comments of Carlyle.  Who knows?  Maybe underneath all of the academic posturing and overlays of intellectualism, there’s actually an interesting story in there somewhere.