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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES - BIOGRAPHY
"I seem to be sending some part of myself into the Shadowy World," Charles Dickens wrote in a letter just before he finished the final chapter of David Copperfield. Dickens, as a matter of course, became intensely involved with all his books while he was writing them. His daughter once recalled how her father would sit in his study, speaking the characters' speeches as he wrote them, making faces, giggling, or sighing with emotion. But in 1869, the year before he died, Dickens wrote that Copperfield was still his "favourite child." Why was he so attached to this novel, of all the masterpieces he had created?
Readers of his own time assumed, of course, that David Copperfield was thinly disguised autobiography. After all, it was the first novel Dickens had written in the first person. Like Dickens, David is a novelist who started out as a political reporter. David's initials are even Dickens' in reverse (though Dickens himself was surprised when that coincidence was pointed out to him). But now that more is known about Dickens' life, it is clear that he changed the facts a great deal to write David Copperfield, Let's compare the two stories.
Whereas David is a naive village boy and an orphan, Charles Dickens spent his childhood in the bustling seaside towns of Portsmouth and Chatham, on the southern coast of England, and was the second of eight children. His parents, John and Elizabeth Dickens, were charming and utterly irresponsible people, who lived far beyond Mr. Dickens' salary as a civil servant. When their financial situation grew desperate, they packed up and moved to London, to a cramped, grubby house, where bill-collectors were continually hammering at the door. Finally John Dickens was arrested for debt and sent to Marshalsea Prison. Most of the family moved in with him (a typical arrangement in debtors' prison, which was a fairly open place), but twelve-year-old Charles lived outside in rented rooms so he could work in a factory, pasting labels on bottles of bootblacking (a kind of shoe polish).
Although this experience lasted only four months, it scarred Charles so profoundly that he never spoke of it to anyone. We only know about it from a fragment of writing he once silently showed to his closest friend-and from his fictional treatment of it, when he sends David Copperfield to work in a similar sweatshop. Dickens never really forgave his parents-especially his mother, who'd pushed the idea hardestfor sending him to the factory. Perhaps that is why he later identified so readily with the orphans in his novels, and wrote glowing descriptions of the "perfect" family he felt he'd never had. It's interesting, however, that John and Elizabeth Dickens' delightful personalities seem to have been the models for David's friends, the Micawbers, while Dickens created for David a wicked stepfather, Mr. Murdstone-a worthy target for the anger that still boiled deep in Dickens' heart.
A surprise inheritance from a distant relative freed the Dickens family from prison. Yet it took a bit of arguing for Charles to persuade his mother to let him quit working and go back to school. Unfortunately, the school he was finally sent to, Wellington House, was run by a cruel headmaster who liked to beat boys-much like Mr. Creakle at Salem House, where David begins school. Whereas David later gets a good education from Dr. Strong, Charles had to make do with the little he learned at Wellington House. Again Charles was resentful, sensing that he had talent and feeling thwarted by his inferior education. He went to work first as a clerk in a lawyer's office and then, dissatisfied with law, learned shorthand so that he could get a job taking down the debates in Parliament for a newspaper that published transcripts of them. David Copperfield does this, too.
When he was seventeen, Dickens fell in love with Maria Beadnell, who by all accounts was as winsome and flirtatious as David Copperfield's sweetheart, Dora. Maria's father, a banker, apparently disapproved of Dickens, and after a couple of years, he sent his daughter abroad to separate them, just as Dora's father threatens to do in David Copperfield. Maria showed no interest in Charles after her return, and he felt crushed. In describing David Copperfield's courtship of Dora, Dickens may have been reliving his infatuation with Maria-and, in David's marriage to Dora, Dickens may have been speculating on what could have happened if he had married Maria. (Soon after publishing David Copperfield, Dickens would run into Maria Beadnell again and discover, with chagrin, that the living model for Dora had become a fat and extremely silly middle-aged matron.)
Hurt by Maria's rejection, Dickens threw himself into hard work. Then began another courtship, this time with Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of a fellow journalist. He was so desperate to settle down that he didn't judge his prospective bride carefully, for they were not really suited for each other in the long run. David's disappointment with his "child-wife" Dora may be realistically drawn from Charles' eventual discontent with the woman he did marry-dull, sweet Catherine.
But before he could get married, Dickens, like David, had to work furiously to set himself up in his career. He had won some fame as a journalist, and in 1836, just before his wedding, he published his first work of fiction-Pickwick Papers, a loosely connected series of comical sketches. This book appeared in serial installments, as all of his novels would. Month by month Dickens' fame mushroomed. Suddenly he was a celebrity. Even while Pickwick was still appearing, Dickens began a new book, Oliver Twist, which also was a best-seller-and he kept producing hits, year after year. By the time David Copperfield, his seventh novel, appeared in 1850, Charles Dickens was a British national institution.
To be a best-selling novelist in nineteenth-century England was practically like being a pop star today. In those days before movies, radio, or television, people read novels as their main form of entertainment. They didn't think of them as "literature." Dickens' books did a lot to make novels more respectable, because his novels were read by all levels of society. Intellectuals pored over them for their political satire and social commentary. Middle-class families in their cozy parlors looked forward to reading Dickens' latest book, admiring his sentimental scenes and moral messages. In poorer neighborhoods, people might gather in groups, breathlessly listening to it being read aloud; they laughed at the broad comedy and gasped at the thrilling suspense. Dickens had hit upon a formula for pleasing everybody: he spanned all levels of society with his multilayered plots and huge cast of characters, and he ended each serial installment with a thrilling climax, to make his readers rush out to buy the next month's.
Having begun his career as a political journalist, Dickens used his novels to examine problems he saw in society. In Oliver Twist, for example, he exposed the wretched living conditions of England's poorhouses and slums. In Nicholas Nickleby he attacked the cruel, negligent Yorkshire boarding schools. In Bleak House he went after the Court of Chancery. Thus, in David Copperfield, he protests against the sexual mores of his age that condemned "fallen" women-unmarried women (usually poor) who had affairs or gave birth to illegitimate children. He also shows the misery of child labor. (While his original readers probably assumed the warehouse scenes were invented for purposes of satire, we now know that Dickens was recording actual memories of his secret past.) Dickens criticizes the antiquated legal institution of Doctors' Commons in a few passages. He also devotes a chapter to satirizing prison reform.
Some of these bursts of satire are not really central to the book. It's almost as if Dickens felt he had to include satire, because that was what he was known for. Much of Dickens' popularity was based on his reputation as a social critic. Many middle-class Victorians liked to think of themselves as concerned citizens, whose rational, humane efforts were creating the perfect society. Dickens was, like them, a reformer but not a radical. Some of the conditions he criticized had already been improved by these reformers by the time he wrote about them. Dickens had no interest in tearing apart the framework of society-only in improving it to come closer to his ideals of justice and Christian charity. He was actually more of a conservative than many readers realize.
Some readers see the publication of David Copperfield as the turning point in Dickens' career. Until then, in novels such as Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and Dombey and Son, he had written very much with his audience in mind. All the elements of comedy, melodrama, mystery, and social criticism appear in those books, for the author seems most concerned with entertaining his readers. But David Copperfield gave Dickens an opportunity to be more personal, to write about his own life and explore individual human nature rather than society as a whole. His later novels, such as Little Dorrit, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend, move further into this psychological territory and leave satire further behind.
At the time he wrote David Copperfield, Dickens was popular, admired, famous, and rich, just as David Copperfield is at the end of the novel. Yet Dickens' later years did not bring him the happy ending he had written for David. He found that the success he had driven so hard for only increased the demands upon his time and energies. He felt his ideal of domestic harmony falling to pieces. In 1858 he and his wife separateda scandalous action in those days. Though his ten children remained with him in his huge country house, he was bitterly disappointed by his sons' failures. Melancholy, restless, and irritable, he continued to write novels, but they became tinged with pessimism about human nature and society. He tried to stave off depression with more and more work, as well as with amateur theatricals, lecture tours, and dramatic readings from his own works. But this frenzied activity only hastened his death of a stroke in 1870.
Like most great artists, Dickens was a complex man, perhaps more complex than his character David Copperfield. His writer's instincts compelled him to shape the events of his life into a richer, more artistic form when he wrote about them in David Copperfield. If you want to read a biography of Dickens, there are plenty to choose from. But if you want to read a great work of literature, turn to David Copperfield.