I am struggling to write this review and know that I will not be content with it. I think this might be the best book I have read in many years, and it is thoroughly intimidating to try and explain why. Please bear with me as I attempt to make some sense of it.
Charles Dickens writes as David Copperfield, the titular hero. It is Copperfield’s autobiography, from his birth to very old age. One side effect of reading this is that I am now even more firmly of the opinion that an autobiography should not be written before one is at least 60 years old. The people known and lessons learned in a life cannot be fully understood before one has reached a certain age of knowledge and contentment.
Dickens has a true gift of mingling tragedy and comedy. He takes a reader through the complete mind-numbing devastation of losing one’s only parent and becoming an orphan, of being rendered homeless, abandoned and destitute in such a way that even though none of those things has ever happened to me, I could attempt to understand them.
Similarly, Copperfields’ friends and the happy moments are divinely scripted. I put the two together because Dickens never separates the two in the story – Copperfield’s joy is almost always derived from the people around him. His personal successes in school and in his profession would not give him joy on their own, but elate him when he sees the pride his aunt, schoolmasters and companions have in him. The humour in the novel is not obvious, but the kind one finds in the daily aspects of life – there aren’t any outright jokes, but one laughs anyway. I laughed a lot by the end of the tale, when I knew some of the characters so well that on hearing that they had done something so typically them, I would find it hilarious.
The thing that truly and completely blew my mind was how I felt I knew each of the characters. When Copperfield becomes the friend and protege of a young man, James Steerforth, at his atrocious first school, I am glad for him, and feel the sense of protection that having an older, popular friend can provide. I also feel edgy – Steerforth cannot be as good as Copperfield thinks he is. There is nothing explicit, but I do not wholly trust him, and would not introduce him to my loved ones. I wish I could tell Copperfield to moderate his admiration, much as Agnes does. Yet, when my sense of foreboding is confirmed, I am only saddened at his loss and mourn his friends’ fall from grace with him.
The same sense of knowing the characters applies to everyone else. There were many instances where I was stunned because a gut feeling about someone turned out to be true – without there ever being anything explicitly written to guide me along that line of thought. When reading about little Em’ly, Dora, Agnes or even his Aunt, I felt and understood the nature of all these women long before events played out that would fully demonstrate them. Similarly, one could never read this book without feeling a deep sense of revulsion at the name of Uriah Heep, even from the very first time he is introduced.
This novel is so immense and so all-encompassing of the full range of human emotions that I feel misguided in my attempt to explain any of it here. My heart was broken and rejoiced so many times, and it was swelled with love by the end of it. I was truly, truly sad to put it down, even as the story had reached a natural and well-written end.
In short, it is a novel that everyone should read, even though the stamina required is quite remarkable. It is also one of the few truly long tales I have read recently that does not require a prelude of “It takes a while to get into it, but once it gets going…” It might be long, but it starts and ends well, and is good in the middle too.
Some favourite lines (I wish I had page numbers, but I read it on my kindle… I also only figured out how to highlight favourites about halfway through… I also only infrequently remembered to do this, so the lines are rather random.):
“To mend the matter, Hamlet’s aunt had the family failing of indulging in soliloquy, and held forth in a desultory manner, by herself on every topic that was introduced.” – In describing a lady hosting a dinner party, (not really Hamlet’s aunt) – we’ve all known someone like this.
“I have never believed it possible that any natural or improved ability can claim immunity from the companionship of the stead, plain, hard-working qualities, and hope to gain its end. There is no such thing as fulfilment on this earth.” – In discussing his rising career as an author.
“She had a cousin in the Life-Guards, with such long legs that he looked like the afternoon shadow of somebody else.”
“‘Mr. Copperfield,’ returned Mr. Micawber, bitterly, ‘when I was an inmate of that retreat I could look my fellow-man in the face, and punch his head if he offended me. My fellow-man and myself are no longer on those glorious terms!'”
“In the course of my descent to it, by the winding track along the mountain-side, from which I saw it shining far below, I think some long-unwonted sense of beauty and tranquility, some softening influence awakened by its peace, moved faintly in my breast. I remember pausing once, with a kind of sorrow that was not all oppressive, not quite despairing. I remember almost hoping that some better change was possible within me.”