As I’ve been reading David Copperfield, I’ve been taking notes which I had originally intended to post while I was reading the book, a kind of progressive log book for my reactions. However, other commitments and the death of my computer at the start of April (my computer use is now relegated to my daughter’s laptop while she is in school) have prevented this. So, in the lead-up to our Dickens Literary Salon on Copperfield, I’ll post my observations of the novel (as I was reading it) in a few posts. Here’s the first:
“Chapter 1: I am born
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. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.”
Not quite in the same league as “It was the best of times, etc.” but still a famous opening, or at least the spirit of the opening, about the birth of the hero, is a well known trope, now considered a very Dickensian way to start a novel. I can’t read the opening paragraphs and not think of Holden Caulfield, promising that his narrative in The Catcher in the Rye will emphatically NOT be Dickensian:
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
Everything I’ve read about Dickens describes Copperfield as an autobiographical novel, so I’ll be alert to situations, characters, ideas that relate to what I know of Dickens’ biography. Usually, I am reluctant to read an author’s life into his/her novel because it is too easy to mistake fiction for real-life. I see this so much with Edgar Allan Poe. He writes about madmen, so he must be mad. However, when we have a significant amount of biographical material that also correlates to an author’s fictional work, then I feel like I am on safe ground making the comparison. And Dickens’ own autobiographical fragment, as well as his own comments on the novel, don’t leave much room for doubt that David is a fictionalized version of Dickens. The hard part is discerning what is fantasy–what has Dickens created especially for David that is not true of himself–from what we know about Dickens’ life and character.
Random notes about Chapter 1
Betsy Trotwood is another wonderful character of Dickens. Her arrival promises great things for this novel. I hope she sticks around.
I also love the line “Let us have no meandering” from the old woman who wins David’s birth-caul in the lottery and then David/Dickens promises not to meander in his story, as if a nine hundred page Dickens novel could do anything but meander at times.