Book review

David Copperfield: Wise Friends, Unconventional Families, Reimagining Reality, the Dangers of Infantilising, and the Power of Circumstance

In David Copperfield, Dickens paints pictures of sage friends and family; reimagines the family unit; warns us of the dangers of overindulging children and infantilising adults, recreates aspects of his own life that he was dissatisfied with — and explores the power of circumstance in shaping human nature.

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This week I reread David Copperfield, which has been one of my favourite books since I first read it in primary schools. Some observations:

Dickens argues that, at their best, friends and family accept loved ones’ choices, refrain from offering advice when advice is not solicited, but don’t abandon their own ideas of right/wrong.

It’s no good trying to change someone’s nature.

Mr. Murdstone, Clara’s second husband, tries to harden Clara’s soft nature, basically driving Clara into the grave.

Later, Clara’s son David tries to change his first wife Dora, and fails completely; David then asks his great-aunt Betsey Trotwood to try to change Dora, and Betsey refuses. Betsey reminds David of the evil that befell his own ma when her second husband tried to change her. Betsey tells David, lovingly but firmly: “You have chosen your own wife [Dora] freely, and you must live with the consequence of your choice.”

Mr. Peggotty and all his family are devastated when Emily elopes with a man above her in station, a man who has no intention of marrying her. But Emily’s family still love her, and Mr. Peggotty devotes his life to finding Emily and taking her away from her lover and looking after her. Mr. Peggotty forgives Emily soon after recovering from his shock: but never he considers that what Emily has done is alright, or can be undone.

David’s guardian Betsey, and perhaps also David’s friend Agnes, and definitely Dora herself – all see that Dora is wrong as a wife for David. But David doesn’t ask their opinion on the suitability of his choice of wife, either before or after the wedding: so none of these loved ones thrusts their advice on him. David himself suspects that he has chosen badly, and later realises it. Meanwhile, his loved ones help him as best they can, without compromising themselves, taking sides, passing judgment, or hurting either David or Dora.

David does what he can to help the permanently broke Micawbers, without letting them get himself in debt. David gives his friend Traddles, too, a word of friendly advice about lending the Micawbers money. Again, this advice has effect only because Traddles himself has been learning the same lesson.

Families come in all shapes & sizes.

Conventional families in David Copperfield – a family unit consisting of parents and children and (given that this is Victorian England) servants – are almost absent. When present, these conventional families are even more dysfunctional than other families in DC. The Micawbers, a conventional family who have a new child every year (quite typical for a middle-class family of this period), are always struggling with money – living large, then being arrested for debt; are forced to move around frequently; are alienated from both their biological families, and make unjustified demands of their extended family i.e. the lodgers they take in to make rent. Structurally, a conventional family. In terms of ethics and effectiveness, hardly a model family.

Contrast this family with Mr. Peggotty’s. Mr. Peggotty lives with three destitute people, for whom he made himself responsible years ago: orphaned niece Emily, orphaned nephew Ham, and friend’s widow Mrs. Gummidge. This peculiar family seems very happy and efficient – until Steerforth enters to disrupt it.

Mrs. Steerforth lives with her son and a ladies’ companion.

Dora lives with her father and a companion. This companion is first a friend, Julia Mills, who is herself motherless; then a woman chosen by her pa.

Betsey lives with Mr. Dick, a distant relative who was about to be institutionalised for madness, until Betsey rescued him; and a maid, Janet.

Clara lives with a maid, Peggotty, and David. Then Clara lives with her second husband and his sister: Mr. and Miss. Murdstone.

Mr. Wickfield lives with his daughter, Agnes; then with his law-firm partner and his mother: Uriah Heep and Mrs. Heep.

DC is, like many of Dickens’s novels, absolutely swarming with orphans: children / young adults who’ve lost one or both parents. (DC alone has: David, Emily, Ham, Steerforth, Agnes, Traddles, Dora, Clara, Peggotty, Uriah.) Dickens himself grew up with both parents: but they were not the best parents. Perhaps Dickens saw himself as a virtual orphan, or perhaps he thought he’d have been better off as an actual orphan: David is born posthumously, and loses his mother as a young child.

Dickens’s own family experience, both in his birth family and in the family he founded – were less than ideal. His father was improvident, he was thrown on his own resources. He married young, and soon grew apart from his wife.

In DC, as elsewhere, we see Dickens reimagining the family in two ways:

  • Giving the Micawbers (Mr. Micawber is based on Dickens’s father: his verbal flourishes, his improvidence, his fertility) the happy ending that Dickens’s father never had. (Dickens’s father gentleman kept making demands of Dickens all his life.)


  • Reimagining the family itself as a unit formed from ties, not just of blood, but of mutual affection and affinity of purpose.

It’s dangerous to treat adults as if they were children; it’s dangerous to over-indulge children.

Mrs. Steerforth spoils her son. Steerforth himself is aware that, had he been guided better, checked by adults who were his superiors, he might’ve turned out differently. As it is, he exploits his friends, ruins two families, and dies young after a life purposeless and profligate.

In parallel, Mr. Wickfield spoils his daughter Agnes – though in this case the negative effects are on Mr. Wickfield only, not on his child. Mr. Wickfield later exclaims, “I thought I could one person truly, and not love all mankind. And for this I have suffered.”

Dr. Strong indulges his young wife more than she herself wants to be – leaving her behaviour open to misconstruction by strangers and exploitation by selfish relatives.

Everyone treats Dora like a child, including her betrothed and later husband, David. Dora remains incapable of growing up. In the end she dies very young: a fate generally symbolic, in literature of this period, as the destiny of those too ethereal for life. Emily

 is babied by everyone – “Little Emily” everyone calls her. Emily fails to develop the self-reliance necessary to resist her eventual seduction and ruin by Steerforth. Though, given David’s description of Steerforth’s supernatural charisma, perhaps few people could’ve resisted it, catastrophic consequences notwithstanding.

Dickens rewrites his own life in more satisfactory ways.

DC is known to be one of Dickens’s more autobiographical novels. It is always a fraught business to read any work of fiction straightforwardly as a clue to its author’s state of mind regarding his/her own affairs. Nonetheless, some possibilities suggest themselves.

Dora, David’s first wife, is unsuitable, and dies within years of their marriage – leaving David free to marry his soulmate, whereas Dickens himself was, under inaccessible divorce laws, stuck with his wife. Dickens, like David, married young; Dickens, like David, grew dissatisfied with his wife. Of Dora, David says (and I paraphrase): “I couldn’t share my worries with my wife: doing so only fretted her, and she could offer me no help. So I kept my worries to myself, and lived life without a partner.” Perhaps Dickens ay felt this way about his own wife. Dickens did leave his wife later, but with much calumny directed at Dickens by his own friends, and by society at large. Perhaps Dickens wanted to believe that the failure of his marriage was all his wife’s fault. Notably, DC makes the reader repeatedly ask, ‘Why, if David wants from the beginning to change Dora so much, does he want to marry her at all?’ Whether or not Dickens held his own wife responsible for his marital breakdown (as his correspondence certainly suggests that he did), David may represent a chance for Dickens to escape an unsatisfactory marriage and start over.

In DC, Dora’s death and incompetence offer David a nice easy way to remarry – to remarry the woman who, as we see from early in the book, is David’s soulmate.

Unlike Dickens, David also finds parent figures: Dr. Strong, David’s teacher, and, especially, David’s great-aunt and guardian Betsey Trotwood: who becomes both father and mother to David, and is therefore appropriately and explicitly a blend of masculine and feminine characteristics. Betsey is both firm and loving, practical and wise: the ideal parent.

Dickens flirts with understanding the immense power of circumstances in shaping individual humans – but stops far short of exempting or even humanising his ‘villains.’ Dickens also offers no clear remedies for the great evils that structural failures wreak on his characters and on families. Dickens’s class bias clearly shows in which villains are forgiven, and which are not.

Steerforth is a youth who, we’re repeatedly reminded, could’ve done much good: over-indulgence by his mother and fawning teachers spoils him; lack of guidance leaves him wilful. But we’re not shown how things could’ve gone differently for Steerforth. Nor is David a model for a case-study which we can contrast with Steerforth. For though David, too, is abandoned (in a different sense) for a while, David was in personality very unlike Steerforth, never at risk of becoming, from circumstance, like Steerforth. So, while the influence of circumstance on Steerforth is clear, it remains dissatisfyingly unclear how a child with his gifts and his faults should be raised.

Uriah Heep is, like most of Dickens’s villains, not really redeemed – he remains an evil man who is meant to be hated. Dickens does explore briefly the origins of Uriah’s evil. Uriah tells David that his grotesque and ceaseless act of excess humility was the product of his upbringing. Uriah’s father and mother, and Uriah himself, attended charity schools – were they had humility drilled into them. They were told that only by being humble could they survive this world, into which they’d been born at the bottom.

David reflects that, while he has disliked Uriah from the beginning (just as the reader is invited to do), he has not reflected where Uriah’s detestable personality came from. But, despite this foray into exploring roots, Uriah remains evil: “…a base, vengeful spirit.” The conclusion seems to be that Uriah’s baseness may have environmental / sociocultural origins: still, Uriah is evil, period. Uriah fully, physically embodies a reptilian creature. He is grotesquely red, thin, hairless, eyelid-less, and leering, and he is cold and clammy to touch.

Understanding a villain / fallen person’s circumstantial origins does not, for Dickens, exempt them – or even force the reader to confront the necessity of changing social institutions. Even in more socially-oriented novels like Nicholas Nickleby and Bleak House – where Dickens excoriates, respectively, the inhuman boarding-school system, and the morass of legal institutions – none of the characters becomes a reformer; nor do the villains reform their ways. The villains are punished, and the heroes enter into some safe, affluent, well-off means of living with their private circle of friends and family.

Notably, Dickens himself was active in many charities in his life, and was an outspoken critic of broken institutions. But his characters, after skirmishing with unpleasant characters and institutions – both clearly produced by systemic corruption – just build themselves their own little happy, secluded corners of life.

Finally, social class remains for Dickens a way to judge, in the final instance, his characters’ culpability. Uriah is to be condemned, it seems, largely because he is poor. Steerforth is excused – by David – from the beginning simply because they are friends, or because Steerforth is wealthy, or because Steerforth has a potentially noble nature – all bad ways to judge culpability. In a more direct comparison, Steerforth’s butler Littimer, who helped Steerforth to elope with Emily — is held culpable, whereas Steerforth himself is exonerated. (More precisely, David declares that he will always think of Steerforth only at his best; and that this misdeed of Steerforth’s long and carefully planned, caused David sorrow but neither anger nor reproach. In contrast, Littimer is treated as barely human by his former employers, and by David himself.)

Dickens remains one of my favourite writers, and DC one of my favourite novels. Here as elswhere, Dickens’s characters make long, eloquent speeches about their own motives; his female characters, especially, remain caricatures; Dickens pulls on our heartstrings vigorously; he tells us what to think of each character; he shows the prejudices of his time. Yet, somehow, it all works. His stories are interesting, his characters colourful and appealing; the moral lessons he teaches – kindness, duty, and industry – tend to make a reader, on the whole, I think a better person.

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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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