As a nation we are not fond of direct “confessions”. All our autobiographical literature, compared to the French or German, has a touch of dryness and reserve. It is in books like […] Marius, rather than in the avowed specimens of self-revelation that the time has produced, that the future student of the nineteenth century will have to look for what is deepest, most intimate, and most real in its personal experience.
Thus Mary Augusta Ward (‘Mrs Humphrey Ward’), reviewing Walter Pater’s obliquely autobiographical novel Marius the Epicurean in 1885. Clearly, Dickens’s abandoning of the autobiographical fragment, turning instead to David Copperfield, seems to illustrate the acuity of Ward’s insight. Both of Dickens’s first-person novels, Copperfield and Great Expectations, seem to fall into the category of novels that Ward identifies here. Both deal with Dickens’s abiding preoccupations: childhood, class, wealth, gentility and poverty, love and the choice of a life-partner. But his treatment of these themes, and thus our experience of reading the two novels, differs radically between the two. Wallace Stevens, in his poem The Man with the Blue Guitar, suggests that what humanity requires from an artist is
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are
If we cannot relate what we read to what we experience, in other words, our reading will not in the end satisfy us. It is in the light of this criterion that I am rereading David Copperfield.
Issue V begins with David’s flight from London to Dover and Aunt Betsey Trotwood. In Chapter 13 David encounters a clothes-shop ‘at the corner of a dirty lane’, whose owner ‘rushed out of a dirty den … in a filthy flannel waistcoat’. The dirt and squalor certainly ring true to what we know of ‘things exactly as they are’ in the mid-nineteenth century. But Dickens doesn’t leave it there. The old man ‘enjoyed the reputation of having sold himself to the devil’, David tells us. The child confesses ‘I felt quite wicked in my dirt and dust, with my tangled hair’. And from this point on, dirt and squalor are directly and repeatedly associated with evil: in each encounter David’s innocence, honesty and gentility are thrown into relief by the dirtiness, dishonesty and plebeian coarseness of the people he encounters on the road. He is forced to sell his clothes in order to eat, and arrives at Aunt Betsey’s gate unwashed, uncombed, sunburned and dusty. ‘In this plight, and with a strong consciousness of it (italics in quotations are mine), I waited’: his appearance is evidently more mortifying to David than his hunger, pain and exhaustion, as it threatens his status as a ‘young gent’. Tellingly, when Betsey puts the still unwashed David on her sofa, she places ‘the handkerchief from her own head under my feet, lest I should sully the cover’. The first meaning of ‘sully’ in my Compact Oxford English Dictionary is ‘damage someone’s or something’s purity or reputation’.
Aunt Betsey is troubled by no such anxieties: her genteel status is beyond question. In her garden she ‘stooped to dig up some little root’ – nothing so ungenteel as real manual labour for her! The older David narrating the story has endless sympathy for the childhood self, who has spent six days living in the way that the poor people he meets will spend every day of their lives. Aunt Betsey, Mr. Dick, Mr Wickfield, Agnes and Dr. Strong, also benefit from the narrator’s (DC’s or CD’s?) sympathy and compassion, while there is no sympathy, compassion or understanding for the poor people around them. On the contrary, poverty is seen as a contagion which sullies middle-class life. When David gives Uriah Heep his hand on parting, ‘I rubbed mine afterwards […] to rub his off’; this time, the italics are Dickens’s… Even Peggotty does not escape our narrator’s obsession with class distinctions, when she writes to David (Chapter 17): ‘Her utmost powers of expression (which were certainly not great in ink) were exhausted in the attempt to write what she felt on the subject of my journey’. DC/CD evidently cannot help himself from patronising or demonising uneducated, working-class people while stressing the misfortunes of David. And of course the posh boy has to ‘gloriously defeat’ the common butcher’s boy at the end of Chapter 18!
We never learn the precise sources of Aunt Betsey’s wealth, or of Mr. Dick’s ‘little income’: our narrator assumes that we, like he, will take their probity on trust and not ask vulgar questions. Yet it is precisely in such matters that the true determinants of societal ‘good’ and ‘evil’ reside, and not in matters of speech, dress and personal hygiene as the narrator of David Copperfield implies. If wealth is generated without exploitation and oppression, there is little to complain about. If on the other hand there is exploitation and oppression, then all pretensions to ‘good’ are hypocrisy. And on this crucial issue this novel is silent. It is all so different in Dickens’s other first-person narrative Great Expectations, where wealth and gentility are shown to be based on criminality and oppression; where the legal system is skewed in favour of the more ‘genteel’ Compeyson, giving him half the sentence that Magwitch receives for the same crime (Ch.42); and where love and constancy are to be found only in the person of an uneducated blacksmith.
I first read David Copperfield when I was twelve, and fell in love with Dickens’s consummate story-telling, his gentle humour, and his optimism. I identified entirely with David. It was only later that I realised I had also been turned into something of a snob by this novel. Alvarez’s ‘Beyond the Gentility Principle’ was key to this realisation. Then I read Great Expectations, and there it was, a novel expressing ‘what is deepest, most intimate, and most real’ in human experience,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are
For me, David Copperfield is the work of a great entertainer, the great entertainer. Great Expectations, on the other hand, is the work of a great novelist, moralist, and entertainer, on a par with any of Dickens’s French or Russian contemporaries.
- Does the reader feel comfortable with Dickens’s portrayal of the characters that David meets on his walk from London to Dover? Does it matter that they, unlike David, have no means of escape from a life of poverty and squalor?
- What are we to make of a sixty-two-year old man marrying a girl whom David thought was ‘his daughter’ (Ch.16)? For good measure, Dickens also has Miss Larkins, aged ‘about thirty’, marry ‘a plain elderly gentleman’, Chestle the hop-grower (Ch.18).
- How many of the feelings and reactions that the adult narrator attributes to David in these chapters are authentically those of a ten-year-old child, and how many are actually those of the adult narrator, DC/CD?
 M. A. W., “Marius the Epicurean”, Macmillan’s Magazine Vol. 52, (June 1885), pp. 132-39 (134).
 ‘I lost courage and burned the rest’ he confessed to Mrs Henry Winter in 1855: (Pilgrim Letters 7:543-544).
 Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber 1990), p. 165.