Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Hero of His Own Life? Notes on Dickens' David Copperfield

“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.” It's one of the most famous opening lines in literature, and after reading Charles Dickens' David Copperfield again, I'm struck by the ambiguous answer I might give.

 For in key moments, it isn't David Copperfield who is heroic, but other characters. The novel has the usual thoroughly evil Dickens' villains: David's cruel stepfather Murdstone and Murdstone's echoing sister Jane, the craven and cruel schoolmaster Creakle (a brief appearance but so meaty that Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellan both made a ham sandwich of him in film versions) and the unforgettable Uriah Heep.

 There are the usual slyly satiric portraits of institutions of law and order, and the men who make their livings from them, more than hinting at Dickens' underlying outrage and disdain. There is also a hero (at least in David's eyes) who commits acts of villainy that Copperfield condemns, yet he persists in remembering him "at his best."

 There is a kind of angel or goddess, a child woman, a girl who yearns too much, a wayward girl, and an old woman servant with a heart of gold. There are the stalwart and large-hearted men of the sea, Mr. Peggotty and Ham.

 And there are the somewhat comic characters that populate a Dickens novel: his Aunt Betsey and her friend Mr. Dick, the eternal complainer Mrs. Gummidge, Copperfield's school friend and later companion the hapless Traddles, and the most famous of all, the scoundrel with a heart of gold, Mr. Micawber, and his long-suffering wife.

 As he does in other novels, Dickens' pegs several of these "minor" characters with their repeated turns of phrase and small repeated behaviors. But notably and in some respects unexpectedly, several of them do the heroic deeds. It's Micawber and Traddles who bring Uriah Heep to heel. It's Aunt Betsy who rescues young David, Mr. Peggotty who with the help of the wayward girl rescues the girl who yearns too much, Emily. And it's Ham who dies attempting to rescue a survivor of a storm at sea. Even Mrs. Gummidge becomes heroic.

 It's true of course that classical heroes often have decisive help, and couldn't accomplish their goal without aid. And David does have his moments, particularly when he suddenly becomes the financial support of others and applies himself with discipline and hard work. But it took the special interest and attention of others, as well as their good-heartedness and generosity, responding to David's good-heartedness and generosity, for him to succeed.

I read this Signet edition, which was the
first to publish Dickens' entire text.
Since I knew the story, both from having read the book before and from seeing a couple of film versions, the emotional response to key happenings was muted, and I was better able to appreciate how Dickens created his effects, and generally to savor the details. So while it didn't have the emotional resonance of reading W.G. Sebald's enigmatic The Emigrants, which I also recently finished, it provided other pleasures.

 But it's probably more than that. When I was younger I was more than impatient with the pace and language of 19th century novels--it took great effort to sit still for them. I craved faster prose and faster styles of storytelling that I found especially in some contemporary authors. I was young, it was the 1960s, my metabolism was set to rock music. I eventually could become immersed in the images of foreign films but I found these books difficult to sink into.

 That's not a problem now. My old metabolism is happy to read those long sentences and long books, though I take my time, and read not much more than a chapter at a sitting. For both reasons, I read with delight, savoring the language and narrative skill.

 For example, he gives us the murderous-hearted Mr. Murdstone (need it be said for a character in Dickens that he's aptly named? J.K. Rowling must have known her Dickens) and his sister, Miss Murdstone, as the tyrants of David's young life. Then after leaving them behind in David's boyhood, he inexplicably and a bit awkwardly makes Miss Murdstone the paid companion of David's employer's daughter who he loves and intends to marry. But it pays off in a confrontation scene.

 After Miss Murdstone has informed on David, the father opposes the marriage. As the scene begins with formalities, Dickens reminds us of Miss Murdstone's character with a memorable expression. He doesn't say that David takes her cold hand in greeting, but that "Miss Murdstone gave me her chilly finger-nails, and sat severely rigid." What a sentence!

But the resonance is given additional power at the end of the conference, as David observes: "Miss Murdstone's heavy eyebrows followed me to the door...and she looked so exactly as she used to look, at about that hour of the morning..." when she glowered at him over his lessons.

 It's true that David doesn't exhibit much psychological acuity, apparently not sensing that his first choice for a wife replicated qualities of his mother. But on more general matters he shows some insight. “I had considered how the things that never happen are often as much realities to us, in their effects, as those that are accomplished.” 

Originally serialized in a periodical, each
installment ended in a "cliffhanger."
This was a popular work of fiction, serialized in a periodical. So the philosophical observations in the writing may not be earthshaking but remain essential--and especially essential to Dickens, as in the ruminations of a very minor character near the end of the novel:

 “Dear me,” said Mr. Omer, “when a man is drawing on to a time of life, when the two ends of life meet...he should be over-rejoiced to do a kindness if he can... And I don’t speak of myself particular, because, sir, the way I look at it is that we are all drawing on to the bottom of the hill, whatever age we are, on account of time never standing still for a single moment. So let us always do a kindness, and be over-rejoiced.” 

 As for the film versions, they may guide the reader through main events and give visual references to the characters, but they are far too short to suggest the richness and riches of the book. It's good to have a guide through the story, though, and fun to see good portrayals of the characters.

 Probably the best version is the 1999 BBC/PBS miniseries, mostly because it is the longest. But even this one is not full enough--after lavishing attention on the earlier parts of the novel, it rushes through climactic scenes and invents others. One notable change is the fate of Uriah Heep. In the movie he is arrested and is seen as a prisoner to be transported to a penal colony in Australia. But in the novel, Micawber and Traddles force Heep to make restitution and return funds he had stolen, under threat of exposure. Dickens clearly doesn't trust the justice system of his day. (The film's solution also muddles the positive meaning of a new life in Australia for other characters in this book.)

But this film version features a fine performance by Daniel Radcliffe as the very young David, shortly before he became Harry Potter. Other performances are definitive: Maggie Smith is Aunt Betsey, Nicholas Lyndhurst is Uriah Heep and so on down the line--in particular, Bob Hoskins as Mr. Micawber (and that's saying something, since the role was also played in movie versions by Ralph Richardson and W.C. Fields.)

 The one questionable role was the adult David Copperfield, and that seemed to be the case in all other film versions. Probably it is not the fault of the actors--in this case, perfectly serviceable--but in the role. He is the center of the action, but he mostly reacts. Still, it's notable that well-known actors played the "minor" roles, and not this one. 

Which suggests again but doesn't answer the first question posed. David is the narrator of the story, and he becomes a writer in the course of the book. (Which could be one reason why Dickens named this as the favorite of his novels.) But is he is the hero of his own life? Well, we might say of him as of ourselves: if not, who is?

My Bleak House Experience

Perhaps it was my selection of classes, or a reflection on the times (the 1960s, though the lit department was still enthralled with the New Criticism of earlier decades) but I got a bad impression of Charles Dickens as an English literature and composition major in college.

It didn't help that my only experiences with Dickens were an interminable term in high school forced through Great Expectations, and the annual television viewing of one or another version of the melodramatic romp of A Christmas Carol.

But things are different now, and so am I.  I'm not in the academic grip of modernism, nor postmodernism for that matter.  I'm in no academic grip at all. Nor do I read for money much anymore.  I can read what I like.

These days I'm liking Charles Dickens, perhaps because I've become acquainted with his work through Bleak House, one of his later big novels which some consider his best.  Some call it the best English novel of the 19th century.

I was startled by the freedom and virtuosity of Dickens in Bleak House as well as his powers of description. In the immense space of that novel he could be satirical and naturalistic, transparently heartfelt and slyly ironic. Some of it bordered on surrealism. The moderns must have stolen a lot from Dickens, perhaps even while denouncing him.

But after 881 pages of the Signet paperback edition, I read the short afterword by Geoffrey Tillotson and learned that Dickens not only riffed on some of his contemporaries like Carlyle and Tennyson but learned his satiric technique from 18th century poet Alexander Pope. This is the difference between working writers, who beg, borrow and steal from the best no matter their current standing, and the critics and teachers of literature, who decide who is fashionable and legitimate to read.

I also watched the 2005 miniseries of Bleak House on DVD.  It was decently faithful to the book's characters and plot, and especially useful to me fairly early in my reading.  I watched all the episodes on the first of three disks, which coincidentally ended at about where I'd last left off reading.  It helped in clarifying some plot points.  After that, I enjoyed it less as accompaniment as for itself, with its uniformly fine acting.

Having the plot clarified and seeing the characters portrayed did not disturb my reading at all, partly because I was reading in considerable degree for other elements.

I recently saw the Richard Curtis movie About Time. It concerns a contemporary young man who learns from his father that the men in their family can travel through time, though only the past times of their own lives. When his father (played by Bill Nighy) reveals this and the son asks him how he's used this gift, the Nighy character says he's used this infinite time to read books. He's read everything he's wanted to twice, and Dickens three times.

 At my age I read for the experience of it, while I'm reading. I don't worry about how much I retain. Well, I do notice the loss, but it doesn't stop me from reading as much as I can. One thing has remained true, and perhaps become more true: I read not so much for story or even characters but for the diction, the vocabulary, the rhythms. The words, the sentences, and so on. I guess you can say I read for a good time, but what constitutes a good time for me would probably mystify most people.