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.

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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.