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Son of Water - David Copperfield


David Copperfield


David Copperfield

As Dickens himself said of David Copperfield, “like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield.” The novel is Dickens' first written in the first person, and takes the form of a memoir – two details appropriate for a book which draws largely on Dickens' own personal biography. While incidents such as young Dickens' time at Warren's Blacking factory appear in the novel thinly veiled, David Copperfield is more important as a touchstone to the moods and feelings of the young author growing up, how he came to terms with his own past as a middle-aged man, and a growing understanding in him of the meaning and implications implicit in the act of writing itself.


 David is a sensitive boy with an undisciplined heart. By starting from the beginning and retracing his life story through the expressive and organizing artistry of words, both David and Dickens make sense of their lives – seeing, as David finally comes to see Agnes, the worth in what had been there all along. David Copperfield is fecund with idiosyncratic Dickens characters, and David sees them in all their kaleidoscopic spender. In a sense, then, David is a cipher; an empty vessel being filled by the cornucopia of characters who envelop him. This artless, unformed aspect of David is reflected in the many names those around the boy give him: the Peggotty family address him as "Davy"; James Steerforth calls him "Daisy"; Dora calls him "Doady"; the Micawbers address him as "Copperfield"; Uriah Heep condescendingly calls him "Master"; and Betsey Trotwood and her circle refer to him as "Trot". This use of nicknames forms a special bond between Dickens' only other first-person narrators - both orphans themselves - Philip “Pip” Pirrip and Esther “Miss Trot” Summerson.


 David Copperfield is a bildungsroman – a novel tracing the development of a young boy becoming a man. From his forceful aunt Betsey David learns a person can be both stern and loving. He also learns the importance of one of the over-arching themes in the novel: learning from the past. Betsey is making-up for with David the younger what she neglected with his father, David senior. Counterpoint to this is Mr. Dick's inability to complete his Memorial due to the violent intrusions of Charles I's decapitated head – a gory allegory of Dickens' own memoir and the obstacles encountered as Charles came to countenance his past. David and Dickens were able to efface their own history and grow, whereas Mr. Dick, unable to do so, remains forever an adult man in body and a boy child in mind.


 As a work of artistic fiction, David Copperfield is a seminal work. For Dickens himself it is also a pivotal work; a turning point inaugurating the mature period of his career. The full title of the novel - which both masquerades as a memoir and is one – reads: The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account). That these accounts were never meant to be published is of course a conceit; that is: an artistic device, and - if not exactly excessive pride in oneself - the semblance at any rate of humility. It is David's overlooked angel Agnes who has encouraged him to write his life story, as a way to work through his grief and remorse over the death of Dora. It's also a way to exorcise the ghosts which seem to inhabit and haunt him. Like Dickens, David is a writer, and both men use writing as an act of agency, avoidance, discovery, and expiation. But in writing about a writer recounting and accounting for his life - a life that both is and is not the real writer's real-life - something heretofore unseen began to reveal itself to Charles Dickens. In the honest attempt to accurately recast events, no matter how good the faith of the author's intentions or exacting the skill of their artistry, there is and will always be, inherent in that very artistry, the exact opposite of what the author intended and the precise elements preventing the author from attaining his intentions. This is the germ of a realization which saw the mature work of Dickens career direct itself to the monumental task of besieging the dehumanizing systems of Victorian society, a retrenchment to the individual spirit as the only true and transcendent thing of value, and the specific seed which would grow to become perhaps Dickens' apotheosis as an artist: Great Expectations.


 The landscape at night seen behind the Victorian memento of David, encompassed with a weave of his mother's hair, is literally a copper field – one the young boy slept in on his brave and ambitious trek from Murdstone & Grinby's warehouse in London to his aunt Betsey's house in Dover. It captures a moment early in the novel wrought with a young boy's sense of emancipation and fear. It also alludes to a boy's fundamental faith – one reciprocated in the love he finds returned to him in those he in turn loves. This old Kent road, it turned out, is one Dickens would come to know very well, leading as it did from his offices in London to what became his refuge and final home, Gad's Hill. It is also the same route, in reverse, Dickens has Pip walk after Estella rejects his love. And, in a final variation of life imitating  art, it is the very route an unconscious Dickens was spirited down, Nelly at his side, as she conveyed her secret lover by closed carriage from Peckham to Gad's Hill and the waiting Georgina – all so that his death would in no way jeopardize the credibility of the fiction he had gone to such pains to write.



Shorthand : amiable boy - enthusiasm in spades - sensitive - open-hearted - artistic soul - restless spirit - a fair and fine figure - down-right lovable - may be something he's not - something of a dissembler - cute as the dickens - makes his own opportunities - the hero of his own life - learns from suffering - heart-felt focus on family - weakness for driveling - shows a marked inability to discern where truth ends and falseness begins.

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