|Original title||The Personal History, Adventures,
Experience and Observation
of David Copperfield
of Blunderstone Rookery
|Illustrator||Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz)|
|Cover artist||Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz)|
|Published||Serialised May 1849 – November 1850; book format 1850|
|Publisher||Bradbury & Evans|
|Pages||624 (first book edition)|
|Preceded by||Dombey and Son (1848)|
|Followed by||Bleak House (1852–3)|
David Copperfield is the eighth novel by Charles Dickens. The novel’s full title is The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account). It was first published as a serial in 1849–50, and as a book in 1850. The novel features the character David Copperfield, and is written in the first person, as a description of his life until middle age, with his own adventures and the web of friends and enemies he meets along his way. Copperfield finds career success as an author, and is a person of deep emotions.
Many elements of the novel follow events in Dickens’s own life, and it is often considered his veiled autobiography. It was Dickens’ favourite among his own novels. In the preface to the 1867 edition, Dickens wrote, “like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield.”
Like some of his other novels, it contains descriptions of child exploitation and abuse, some based both on his own childhood experiences, and other published reports.
The story follows the life of David Copperfield from childhood to maturity. David was born in Blunderstone, Suffolk, England, six months after the death of his father. David spends his early years in relative happiness with his loving, childish mother and their kindly housekeeper, Clara Peggotty. When he is seven years old his mother marries Edward Murdstone. During the marriage, partly to get him out of the way and partly because he strongly objects to the whole proceeding, David is sent to lodge with Peggotty’s family in Yarmouth. Her brother, fisherman Mr Peggotty, lives in a house built in an upturned boat on the beach, with his adopted relatives Emily and Ham, and an elderly widow, Mrs Gummidge. “Little Em’ly” is somewhat spoiled by her fond foster father, and David is in love with her.
On his return, David is given good reason to dislike his stepfather and has similar feelings for Murdstone’s sister Jane, who moves into the house soon afterwards. Between them they tyrannize his poor mother, making her and David’s lives miserable, and when, in consequence, David falls behind in his studies, Murdstone attempts to thrash him – partly to further pain his mother. David bites him and soon afterwards is sent away to a boarding school, Salem House, under a ruthless headmaster, Mr Creakle. There he befriends an older boy, James Steerforth, and Tommy Traddles. He develops an impassioned admiration for Steerforth, perceiving him as something noble, who could do great things if he would.
David goes home for the holidays to learn that his mother has given birth to a baby boy. Shortly after David returns to Salem House, his mother and her baby die, and David returns home immediately. Peggotty marries the local carrier, Mr Barkis. Murdstone sends David to work for a wine merchant in London – a business of which Murdstone is a joint owner. David’s landlord, Wilkins Micawber, is arrested for debt and sent to the King’s Bench Prison, where he remains for several months, before being released and moving to Plymouth. No one remains to care for David in London, so he decides to run away.
He walks from London to Dover, to his only relative, his eccentric yet kind-hearted great-aunt Betsey Trotwood. She had come to Blunderstone at his birth, only to depart in ire upon learning that he was not a girl. However, she takes pity on him and agrees to raise him, despite Murdstone’s attempt to regain custody of David, on condition that he always try to ‘be as like his sister, Betsey Trotwood’ as he can be, meaning that he is to endeavour to emulate the prospective namesake she was disappointed of. David’s great-aunt renames him “Trotwood Copperfield” and addresses him as “Trot”, and it becomes one of several names which David is called by in the course of the novel.
David’s aunt sends him to a far better school than the last he attended. It is run by Dr Strong, whose methods inculcate honour and self-reliance in his pupils. During term, David lodges with the lawyer Mr Wickfield, and his daughter Agnes, who becomes David’s friend and confidante. Wickfield has a secretary, the 15-year-old Uriah Heep.
By devious means, Uriah Heep gradually gains a complete ascendancy over the aging and alcoholic Wickfield, to Agnes’s great sorrow. Heep hopes, and maliciously confides to David, that he aspires to marry Agnes. Ultimately with the aid of Micawber, who has been employed by Heep as a secretary, his fraudulent behaviour is revealed. At the end of the book, David encounters him in prison, convicted of attempting to defraud the Bank of England.
After completing school, David apprentices to be a proctor. During this time, due to Heep’s fraudulent activities, his aunt’s fortune has gone down. David begins to struggle for his life. He works mornings and evenings for his former teacher Doctor Strong as a secretary, and also starts to learn shorthand, with the help of his former school-friend Traddles, upon completion reporting parliamentary debate for a newspaper. With considerable moral support from Agnes and his own great diligence and hard work, David ultimately finds fame and fortune as an author, writing fiction.
David’s romantic but self-serving school friend, Steerforth, seduces and dishonours Emily, offering to marry her off to one of his servants before finally deserting her. Her uncle Mr Peggotty manages to find her with the help of London prostitute Martha, who had grown up in their county. Ham, who had been engaged to marry Emily before the tragedy, dies in a storm off the coast in attempting to succour a ship; Steerforth was aboard the same and also died. Mr Peggotty takes Emily to a new life in Australia, accompanied by Mrs Gummidge and the Micawbers, where all eventually find security and happiness.
David marries the beautiful but childish Dora Spenlow, but their marriage proves unhappy for David. Dora dies early in their marriage after a miscarriage. After Dora’s death, Agnes encourages David to return to normal life and his profession of writing. While living in Switzerland, David realises that he loves Agnes. Upon returning to England, after a failed attempt to conceal his feelings, David finds that Agnes loves him too. They quickly marry and in this marriage, he finds true happiness. David and Agnes then have at least five children, including a daughter named after his great-aunt, Betsey Trotwood.
Charles John Huffam Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870) was an English writer and social critic. He created some of the world’s best-known fictional characters and is regarded by many as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. His works enjoyed unprecedented popularity during his lifetime, and by the 20th century critics and scholars had recognised him as a literary genius. His novels and short stories are still widely read today.
Born in Portsmouth, Dickens left school to work in a factory when his father was incarcerated in a debtors’ prison. Despite his lack of formal education, he edited a weekly journal for 20 years, wrote 15 novels, five novellas, hundreds of short stories and non-fiction articles, lectured and performed readings extensively, was an indefatigable letter writer, and campaigned vigorously for children’s rights, education, and other social reforms.
Dickens’s literary success began with the 1836 serial publication of The Pickwick Papers. Within a few years he had become an international literary celebrity, famous for his humour, satire, and keen observation of character and society. His novels, most published in monthly or weekly instalments, pioneered the serial publication of narrative fiction, which became the dominant Victorian mode for novel publication. Cliffhanger endings in his serial publications kept readers in suspense. The instalment format allowed Dickens to evaluate his audience’s reaction, and he often modified his plot and character development based on such feedback. For example, when his wife’s chiropodist expressed distress at the way Miss Mowcher in David Copperfield seemed to reflect her disabilities, Dickens improved the character with positive features. His plots were carefully constructed, and he often wove elements from topical events into his narratives. Masses of the illiterate poor chipped in ha’pennies to have each new monthly episode read to them, opening up and inspiring a new class of readers.
Dickens was regarded as the literary colossus of his age. His 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol, remains popular and continues to inspire adaptations in every artistic genre. Oliver Twist and Great Expectations are also frequently adapted, and, like many of his novels, evoke images of early Victorian London. His 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities, set in London and Paris, is his best-known work of historical fiction. Dickens has been praised by fellow writers—from Leo Tolstoy to George Orwell, G. K. Chesterton and Tom Wolfe —for his realism, comedy, prose style, unique characterisations, and social criticism. On the other hand, Oscar Wilde, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf complained of a lack of psychological depth, loose writing, and a vein of saccharine sentimentalism. The term Dickensian is used to describe something that is reminiscent of Dickens and his writings, such as poor social conditions or comically repulsive characters.