David Copperfield is Born and is … A Great Many Other Things As Well
Over at The Millions, there’s a hearty back and forth about David Copperfield (I started to write “Dickens’ David Copperfield,” but that’s got to be -splaining of some kind, so I let it be). The authors walk us through their struggles with the book, and in a way with Dickens himself, what he seems to represent to us, and how he actually comes across on the page today. The verdict isn’t without reservation, at all, reading a bit like a conversation between two friends trying to decide how best to tell an aging celebrity that it’s well past time to stand down. I tried not to read the whole conversation at first, since by coincidence I was getting to the end of my own encounter with DC. I decided to try to get down my own impressions, before being impressed and probably swayed by theirs.
I’ve loved Dickens for most of my life, on the strength of just one book: Great Expectations, which was the whole of my exposure to Dickens in print, outside of abortive runs at Hard Times and Bleak House, and the impossibility, at age twelve, of getting anywhere past the first page of A Christmas Carol, in which, as I bitterly complained to my mother, who had given me the book, the author devotes several hundred words, at least, to a dissertation on the ways in which a door-nail may or may not be dead. (I say “in print” because I was plenty exposed to other Dickens influence: owing to his popularity, he is much transmitted, and much received, adapted into every manner of movie, play, musical, comic book and abridgment for the young.)
I read Great Expectations in high school, and again in college. Its images and language are still indelible to me: Pip shivering in the churchyard, the convict Magwitch hugging himself with cold and fever, the “boy” who comes to cut out the livers of real boys who talk too much, the Hulks, Estella, Miss Havisham’s cake, Mister Pumblechook (“What are seven and six, boy? And nine? And three?”). And the delirious wonder of chapter 39, in which Magwitch visits Pip-made-good in the latter’s rooms high atop “the last house” in the Inns of Court in the midst of a raging storm, a chapter that shows just what a writer who’s on his game can do with “a dark and stormy night.”
But that was it. One book, and failed assaults on three more. When I decided, not long ago, that I had to take up a reading and writing way of life again, I knew I was going to have to go on at least one more date with CD. I settled, as the authors at The Millions did, on Copperfield, for many of the same reasons: its apparent typicality, and the love its author is said to have had for it.
Being Read To Again
Lepucki and O’Connell found themselves borne down by the book’s weight, its immense-feeling length. I get that. But I had a way around the problem, or at least a different route up it: the audiobook.
Audiobooks have been pretty good to me of late. They’ve worked well for history books, and, thanks to a suggestion I got at the New York State Summer Writers’ Institute, they got me well over the sizable hump of Ulysses. I browsed through the many available performances of the book (audible.com offered about eleven unabridged readings). But there was a problem. Dickens seemed to be attracting a particular kind of reader, generally sounding rather elderly and tweedy, as though they ought to be Regius Professor of Something Something, or a bit like Angela Lansbury in the case of the ladies. They seemed to want to read Dickens as though his works were fairy tales for children. The intonations might have been fine for Peter Pan, but I wanted something a little fresher.
One day, what looked like a new reading popped up. I clicked to play a sample, and heard a lean, slightly hoarsened baritone reading out the following:
“..we turned down lanes bestrewn with bits of chips and little hillocks of sand, and went past gas-works, rope-walks, boat-builders’ yards, shipwrights’ yards, ship-breakers’ yards, caulkers’ yards, riggers’ lofts, smiths’ forges, and a great litter of such places, until we came out upon the dull waste I had already seen at a distance.”
This fellow didn’t sound like he was reading Dickens in a suitcoat before a fire, but rather as though he’d just ducked out of a cold wind and was trying to pass along some urgent and not particularly good news before he had to hurry away again. I bought the book on the spot. After a few days of listening, ever more beguiled by the voice, I thought to look around to see what else the reader, Richard Armitage, might have ever done. Those of you who know your movie actors better than I do will know the punch line. I was being read to by another of my childhood heroes: Thorin Oakenshield.
Being read to is very different from reading, especially if the reader is a skilled voice actor with a half-dozen or so distinct voices and accents in his kit. Considering how much more easily the book seemed to go down in this form, it occurred to me that we ask a lot of our written fiction, sometimes. We don’t expect Shakespeare to leap off the printed page and pull us right in. I read Two Gentlemen of Verona recently. It was gettable-through in print, but seemed creaking, cardboardy, stylized, almost as ancient as Sophocles. But dropped into modern dress and animated by the Royal Shakespeare Company, suddenly, it was alive. Having turned to the print of Copperfield from time to time, I can say that it definitely feels “flatter” on the page, the accents and tones less obviously varied. The color of the reading seemed to bring out all the latent contrast, like stain on a microscope slide.
Armitage has a decent range of acting voices. Some are a little strained, liked the pinched nasal tones of David’s step-aunt Jane Murdstone. Some, like the improbable choice of a dry Scots accent for David’s aunt Betsey, are borderline inspired. There’s no question of Betsey actually having a Scots background, but it distinguishes her sharply, and is no more unusual a re-dressing than setting Two Gentlemen in modern nightclub culture. It’s an accent that Maggie Smith, in her screen interpretation of Aunt Betsey, might have convincingly adopted. Armitage’s Littimer is blandly cool and menacing, his Heep writhing and unctuous, his Rosa Dartle chill, and sharp as an awl.
So, lulled along by Thorin’s steady tones, I didn’t struggle much with length. But I did struggle with other things, I’ll admit.
Some Things Do Feel Tired
Well, they do. Dicken’s stagecraft can be pretty unsubtle. There are few plot “twists” in DC to speak of that can’t be seen coming from fifty miles off, like a church over the Minnesota plain. People generally turn out the way the heavy foreshadowing signals that they will — especially if they are female people. Uriah Heep seems villainous, and he is. Steerforth seems capable of putting himself before everything else, and so he eventually does. Agnes, a model of constancy, stays constant to the end. Poor Dora, just about too foolish to live, eventually doesn’t. Ruinable Emily is duly “ruined.”
As well, Dickens can wield a brutally didactic hand. Even in one of the more nuanced revelations, when Annie Strong explains why everyone’s suspicions of her are wrong, it’s still a rather footlit, achingly choreographed set-speech, with much adumbrating advice, clearly for David, on what makes for a good, versus a less good, marriage, which DC repeats over and over to himself for good measure as he exits the chapter, just in case we may have missed them.
Dickens doesn’t use his female characters terribly well. In many cases they suffer chiefly in order to prove a point or deliver a lesson. David’s mother Clara, unflatteringly ill-equipped to protect her son from his step-father, eventually has the life drained from her by the viciously severe Murdstone siblings. Emily is “ruined” in order that David may learn that someone he loves deeply may still not be worth his trust. Poor Dora is simply the incarnation of David’s “undisciplined heart”, and has to die in order for him to grow out of it. The dispensability, the mere instrumentality of these women in supporting the (male) protagonist’s story line seems like a precursor of the modern film and comics trope sometimes called “women in refrigerators“.
And there is something absurd, and ultimately very concerning, in packing off to Australia simply everyone who in some way has sinned against the tenets of (bourgeois) adulthood. Ruined Emily, the just about equally ruined Martha, their protectors the honest (but red-faced and rough fingered, ya?) Peggottys, the pompous spendthrift Micawber and his whole brood, all of them are transported, like sheep thieves, so that David and all of England may go on getting more and more sober and adult. There is some bizarre pastoral at work here, in which those troubled by or ill-suited to the social order of England simply disappear from it, and are soon heard to be prospering beyond any reasonable probability, at the ends of the earth. It’s a death without death, like Bilbo and Gandalf taking ship at the Grey Havens. This yearning to cleanse the social order by transportation, or if not the yearning at least the contemplation, has an echo, sad to say, in the later plans of people like the Nazis for other people, like the Jews. A stretch? Maybe. But the idea makes Micawber’s anti-semitic one-liner, as The Millions nicely put it, that much more distasteful.
In the end, David is really only at risk of being insufficiently grown up. But he’s in the hands of an author who, like a chef reducing fifty chickens into an impossibly rich sauce for a single diner, is willing to shame, ruin, transport or kill off quite a number of supporting characters, in order that the hero may soberly progress.
What’s great in Dickens then? His unembittered humor, his keen sense of place, his recourse to the strange and the wild. His kindness and his belief in it.
Laugh out loud? Yes, CD made me do it during this book, more than once. Betsey Trotwood, in particular, is a great comic role.
My aunt, with every sort of expression but wonder discharged from her countenance, sat on the gravel, staring at me, until I began to cry; when she got up in a great hurry, collared me, and took me into the parlour. Her first proceeding there was to unlock a tall press, bring out several bottles, and pour some of the contents of each into my mouth. I think they must have been taken out at random, for I am sure I tasted aniseed water, anchovy sauce, and salad dressing. When she had administered these restoratives, as I was still quite hysterical, and unable to control my sobs, she put me on the sofa, with a shawl under my head, and the handkerchief from her own head under my feet, lest I should sully the cover; and then, sitting herself down behind the green fan or screen I have already mentioned, so that I could not see her face, ejaculated at intervals, ‘Mercy on us!’ letting those exclamations off like minute guns.
Colorful working-class behaviors and school adventures are also familiar source of humor.
There was a silence. Mr. Peggotty, to relieve it, took two prodigious lobsters, and an enormous crab, and a large canvas bag of shrimps, out of his pockets, and piled them up in Ham’s arms.
‘You see,’ said Mr. Peggotty, ‘knowing as you was partial to a little relish with your wittles when you was along with us, we took the liberty. The old Mawther biled ’em, she did. Mrs. Gummidge biled ’em. Yes,’ said Mr. Peggotty, slowly, who I thought appeared to stick to the subject on account of having no other subject ready, ‘Mrs. Gummidge, I do assure you, she biled ’em.’ […]
We transported the shellfish, or the ‘relish’ as Mr. Peggotty had modestly called it, up into our room unobserved, and made a great supper that evening. But Traddles couldn’t get happily out of it. He was too unfortunate even to come through a supper like anybody else. He was taken ill in the night—quite prostrate he was—in consequence of Crab; and after being drugged with black draughts and blue pills, to an extent which Demple (whose father was a doctor) said was enough to undermine a horse’s constitution, received a caning and six chapters of Greek Testament for refusing to confess.
(Ron Weasley, anyone?)
Humor is also apt for showing us a child’s keyholed view of the world, as well as the unconscious workings of imagination.
Peggotty darned away at a stocking as long as she could see, and then sat with it drawn on her left hand like a glove, and her needle in her right, ready to take another stitch whenever there was a blaze. I cannot conceive whose stockings they can have been that Peggotty was always darning, or where such an unfailing supply of stockings in want of darning can have come from. From my earliest infancy she seems to have been always employed in that class of needlework, and never by any chance in any other.
‘I wonder,’ said Peggotty, who was sometimes seized with a fit of wondering on some most unexpected topic, ‘what’s become of Davy’s great-aunt?’
‘Lor, Peggotty!’ observed my mother, rousing herself from a reverie, ‘what nonsense you talk!’
‘Well, but I really do wonder, ma’am,’ said Peggotty.
‘What can have put such a person in your head?’ inquired my mother. ‘Is there nobody else in the world to come there?’
‘I don’t know how it is,’ said Peggotty, ‘unless it’s on account of being stupid, but my head never can pick and choose its people. They come and they go, and they don’t come and they don’t go, just as they like. I wonder what’s become of her?’
Dickens, of course, has plenty of skewering ready for the legal profession, which he was later to positively impale on the great spike of Bleak House:
‘What says our aunt on the subject?’ inquired Steerforth, glancing at the letter in my hand. ‘Does she suggest anything?’
‘Why, yes,’ said I. ‘She asks me, here, if I think I should like to be a proctor? What do you think of it?’
‘Well, I don’t know,’ replied Steerforth, coolly. ‘You may as well do that as anything else, I suppose?’
I could not help laughing again, at his balancing all callings and professions so equally; and I told him so.
‘What is a proctor, Steerforth?’ said I.
‘Why, he is a sort of monkish attorney,’ replied Steerforth. ‘He is, to some faded courts held in Doctors’ Commons,—a lazy old nook near St. Paul’s Churchyard—what solicitors are to the courts of law and equity. He is a functionary whose existence, in the natural course of things, would have terminated about two hundred years ago. I can tell you best what he is, by telling you what Doctors’ Commons is. It’s a little out-of-the-way place, where they administer what is called ecclesiastical law, and play all kinds of tricks with obsolete old monsters of acts of Parliament, which three-fourths of the world know nothing about, and the other fourth supposes to have been dug up, in a fossil state, in the days of the Edwards. It’s a place that has an ancient monopoly in suits about people’s wills and people’s marriages, and disputes among ships and boats.’
‘Nonsense, Steerforth!’ I exclaimed. ‘You don’t mean to say that there is any affinity between nautical matters and ecclesiastical matters?’
‘I don’t, indeed, my dear boy,’ he returned; ‘but I mean to say that they are managed and decided by the same set of people, down in that same Doctors’ Commons. You shall go there one day, and find them blundering through half the nautical terms in Young’s Dictionary, apropos of the “Nancy” having run down the “Sarah Jane”, or Mr. Peggotty and the Yarmouth boatmen having put off in a gale of wind with an anchor and cable to the “Nelson” Indiaman in distress; and you shall go there another day, and find them deep in the evidence, pro and con, respecting a clergyman who has misbehaved himself; and you shall find the judge in the nautical case, the advocate in the clergyman’s case, or contrariwise. They are like actors: now a man’s a judge, and now he is not a judge; now he’s one thing, now he’s another; now he’s something else, change and change about; but it’s always a very pleasant, profitable little affair of private theatricals, presented to an uncommonly select audience.’
And there is all of Chapter 24, “My First Dissolution,” where David tries to match his old school friend Steerforth, and Steerforth’s new friends, drink for drink.
Somebody was smoking. We were all smoking. I was smoking, and trying to suppress a rising tendency to shudder. Steerforth had made a speech about me, in the course of which I had been affected almost to tears. I returned thanks, and hoped the present company would dine with me tomorrow, and the day after—each day at five o’clock, that we might enjoy the pleasures of conversation and society through a long evening. I felt called upon to propose an individual. I would give them my aunt. Miss Betsey Trotwood, the best of her sex!
Somebody was leaning out of my bedroom window, refreshing his forehead against the cool stone of the parapet, and feeling the air upon his face. It was myself. I was addressing myself as ‘Copperfield’, and saying, ‘Why did you try to smoke? You might have known you couldn’t do it.’ Now, somebody was unsteadily contemplating his features in the looking-glass. That was I too. I was very pale in the looking-glass; my eyes had a vacant appearance; and my hair—only my hair, nothing else—looked drunk.
Somebody said to me, ‘Let us go to the theatre, Copperfield!’ There was no bedroom before me, but again the jingling table covered with glasses; the lamp; Grainger on my right hand, Markham on my left, and Steerforth opposite—all sitting in a mist, and a long way off. The theatre? To be sure. The very thing. Come along! But they must excuse me if I saw everybody out first, and turned the lamp off—in case of fire.
Owing to some confusion in the dark, the door was gone. I was feeling for it in the window-curtains, when Steerforth, laughing, took me by the arm and led me out. We went downstairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell, and rolled down. Somebody else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at that false report, until, finding myself on my back in the passage, I began to think there might be some foundation for it.
Many people would probably already recognize that Dickens was a fine humorist. But I think we think of him as a champion of the traditional, the bourgeois. In many ways he is — but not merely. His gravitation toward settled stability have been a counterweight to a wide-eyed sense of the world’s untameable strangeness, otherness, darkness.
‘I have been acquainted with you,’ said Mr. Omer, after watching me for some minutes, during which I had not made much impression on the breakfast, for the black things destroyed my appetite, ‘I have been acquainted with you a long time, my young friend.’
‘Have you, sir?’
‘All your life,’ said Mr. Omer. ‘I may say before it. I knew your father before you. He was five foot nine and a half, and he lays in five-and-twen-ty foot of ground.’
‘RAT—tat-tat, RAT—tat-tat, RAT—tat-tat,’ across the yard.
‘He lays in five and twen-ty foot of ground, if he lays in a fraction,’ said Mr. Omer, pleasantly. ‘It was either his request or her direction, I forget which.’
(It’s not due to Dickens, though maybe to his influence, that the distant sounds of coffin-building call to mind As I Lay Dying, or that five foot nine and half is precisely the height of Leopold Bloom. But why is David Copperfield Senior buried in 25 feet of earth? We’ll never know. Dickens may have had “full fathom five” on his mind, and what more reason do you need?)
David of course begins his life in the Gothically drawn Blunderstone Rookery (whose complete absence of rooks is crisply derided by Aunt Betsey). On his Odyssean journey to find Aunt Betsey, he meets a “long-legged young man” who harasses and eventually robs him; a random tinker on the road who robs him again; and a strange howling shopkeeper who lives in something very like an ogre’s den.
This modesty of mine directed my attention to the marine-store shops, and such shops as Mr. Dolloby’s, in preference to the regular dealers. At last I found one that I thought looked promising, at the corner of a dirty lane, ending in an enclosure full of stinging-nettles, against the palings of which some second-hand sailors’ clothes, that seemed to have overflowed the shop, were fluttering among some cots, and rusty guns, and oilskin hats, and certain trays full of so many old rusty keys of so many sizes that they seemed various enough to open all the doors in the world.
Into this shop, which was low and small, and which was darkened rather than lighted by a little window, overhung with clothes, and was descended into by some steps, I went with a palpitating heart; which was not relieved when an ugly old man, with the lower part of his face all covered with a stubbly grey beard, rushed out of a dirty den behind it, and seized me by the hair of my head. He was a dreadful old man to look at, in a filthy flannel waistcoat, and smelling terribly of rum. His bedstead, covered with a tumbled and ragged piece of patchwork, was in the den he had come from, where another little window showed a prospect of more stinging-nettles, and a lame donkey.
‘Oh, what do you want?’ grinned this old man, in a fierce, monotonous whine. ‘Oh, my eyes and limbs, what do you want? Oh, my lungs and liver, what do you want? Oh, goroo, goroo!’
Dickens, as others have pointed out, does much better with women who are troubled or “broken” in some way than with those who are not. Here, pristine Emily is shadowed by the wretched but much more enduring Martha.
Suddenly there passed us—evidently following them—a young woman whose approach we had not observed, but whose face I saw as she went by, and thought I had a faint remembrance of. She was lightly dressed; looked bold, and haggard, and flaunting, and poor; but seemed, for the time, to have given all that to the wind which was blowing, and to have nothing in her mind but going after them. As the dark distant level, absorbing their figures into itself, left but itself visible between us and the sea and clouds, her figure disappeared in like manner, still no nearer to them than before.
‘That is a black shadow to be following the girl,’ said Steerforth, standing still; ‘what does it mean?’
He spoke in a low voice that sounded almost strange to me.
In the later parts of the book, Dickens draws out Martha’s terrible resilience with unsentimental clarity. But the spike-sharp Rosa Dartle is more terrible still. Dicken’s stagecraft is not always clumsy.
When we arrived at the house, I was directed to Miss Dartle in the garden, and left to make my presence known to her myself. She was sitting on a seat at one end of a kind of terrace, overlooking the great city. It was a sombre evening, with a lurid light in the sky; and as I saw the prospect scowling in the distance, with here and there some larger object starting up into the sullen glare, I fancied it was no inapt companion to the memory of this fierce woman.
She saw me as I advanced, and rose for a moment to receive me. I thought her, then, still more colourless and thin than when I had seen her last; the flashing eyes still brighter, and the scar still plainer.
The climax of Rosa’s story comes when she confronts Emily in Martha’s sorry rooms in lower London; and Richard Armitage delivers her soliloquy with such distilled, hissing venom that, for the one and only time in the book, I wanted to reach out and shake DC violently, and tell him to get off his rear end and damn well intervene, say something: make the madwoman be silent before her words cut her victim into pieces.
So is Dickens sentimental? Yes. A caricaturist? Yes. Hopeful defender of bourgeois stability? Check. But why? I think because he felt acutely the world’s untameable strangeness, and longed for some shelter from it, some order that could hold it at bay.
I’m quoting great swathes of the book, I know. I can’t help it. Let me try to show, by simple example and by way of finishing, what I love in Dickens.
‘Don’t you think that,’ I asked the coachman, in the first stage out of London, ‘a very remarkable sky? I don’t remember to have seen one like it.’
‘Nor I—not equal to it,’ he replied. ‘That’s wind, sir. There’ll be mischief done at sea, I expect, before long.’
It was a murky confusion—here and there blotted with a colour like the colour of the smoke from damp fuel—of flying clouds, tossed up into most remarkable heaps, suggesting greater heights in the clouds than there were depths below them to the bottom of the deepest hollows in the earth, through which the wild moon seemed to plunge headlong, as if, in a dread disturbance of the laws of nature, she had lost her way and were frightened. There had been a wind all day; and it was rising then, with an extraordinary great sound. In another hour it had much increased, and the sky was more overcast, and blew hard.
But, as the night advanced, the clouds closing in and densely over-spreading the whole sky, then very dark, it came on to blow, harder and harder. It still increased, until our horses could scarcely face the wind. Many times, in the dark part of the night (it was then late in September, when the nights were not short), the leaders turned about, or came to a dead stop; and we were often in serious apprehension that the coach would be blown over. Sweeping gusts of rain came up before this storm, like showers of steel; and, at those times, when there was any shelter of trees or lee walls to be got, we were fain to stop, in a sheer impossibility of continuing the struggle.
When the day broke, it blew harder and harder. I had been in Yarmouth when the seamen said it blew great guns, but I had never known the like of this, or anything approaching to it. We came to Ipswich—very late, having had to fight every inch of ground since we were ten miles out of London; and found a cluster of people in the market-place, who had risen from their beds in the night, fearful of falling chimneys. Some of these, congregating about the inn-yard while we changed horses, told us of great sheets of lead having been ripped off a high church-tower, and flung into a by-street, which they then blocked up. Others had to tell of country people, coming in from neighbouring villages, who had seen great trees lying torn out of the earth, and whole ricks scattered about the roads and fields. Still, there was no abatement in the storm, but it blew harder.
As we struggled on, nearer and nearer to the sea, from which this mighty wind was blowing dead on shore, its force became more and more terrific. Long before we saw the sea, its spray was on our lips, and showered salt rain upon us. The water was out, over miles and miles of the flat country adjacent to Yarmouth; and every sheet and puddle lashed its banks, and had its stress of little breakers setting heavily towards us. When we came within sight of the sea, the waves on the horizon, caught at intervals above the rolling abyss, were like glimpses of another shore with towers and buildings. When at last we got into the town, the people came out to their doors, all aslant, and with streaming hair, making a wonder of the mail that had come through such a night.
I put up at the old inn, and went down to look at the sea; staggering along the street, which was strewn with sand and seaweed, and with flying blotches of sea-foam; afraid of falling slates and tiles; and holding by people I met, at angry corners. Coming near the beach, I saw, not only the boatmen, but half the people of the town, lurking behind buildings; some, now and then braving the fury of the storm to look away to sea, and blown sheer out of their course in trying to get zigzag back.
Joining these groups, I found bewailing women whose husbands were away in herring or oyster boats, which there was too much reason to think might have foundered before they could run in anywhere for safety. Grizzled old sailors were among the people, shaking their heads, as they looked from water to sky, and muttering to one another; ship-owners, excited and uneasy; children, huddling together, and peering into older faces; even stout mariners, disturbed and anxious, levelling their glasses at the sea from behind places of shelter, as if they were surveying an enemy.
The tremendous sea itself, when I could find sufficient pause to look at it, in the agitation of the blinding wind, the flying stones and sand, and the awful noise, confounded me. As the high watery walls came rolling in, and, at their highest, tumbled into surf, they looked as if the least would engulf the town. As the receding wave swept back with a hoarse roar, it seemed to scoop out deep caves in the beach, as if its purpose were to undermine the earth. When some white-headed billows thundered on, and dashed themselves to pieces before they reached the land, every fragment of the late whole seemed possessed by the full might of its wrath, rushing to be gathered to the composition of another monster. Undulating hills were changed to valleys, undulating valleys (with a solitary storm-bird sometimes skimming through them) were lifted up to hills; masses of water shivered and shook the beach with a booming sound; every shape tumultuously rolled on, as soon as made, to change its shape and place, and beat another shape and place away; the ideal shore on the horizon, with its towers and buildings, rose and fell; the clouds fell fast and thick; I seemed to see a rending and upheaving of all nature.
Here our author has abandoned all his stagecraft, his moralizing, his gallery of grotesques, as though that same wind had blown them all clean away from him, leaving him to write on without devices, leaning steeply into the wind, and writing as though his life simply depended on it, hat blown off, holding the fluttering sheets in place with a flattened hand, writing, writing madly with the other, lest in the next instant the wind should lift him away too, writing-table, works and all, and blow them straight on into Eternity.