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What the Dickens!
by Asa Butcher
Issue 6
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David Copperfield
Charles Dickens
Penguin Books Ltd, 1849-1850
G.C.S.E. English Literature has a great deal to answer for. The classics we were forced to read for our exams in secondary school were often too boring, heavy going and weighted with long-winded descriptions. The endurance test we underwent has sadly put many of us reading classics and reading in general. It never crossed my mind that at the age of 27 it was shocking that I’d never read a single novel by Dickens.

David Copperfield was recommended as an excellent starting point and I repeat that advice now. If memory serves me well, no other book has touched me as much as this novel managed in its 64 chapters. I laughed out loud many times, I felt emotion for these imaginary characters, I was angry, I was hurt and even my eyes welled up with tears.

First published in twenty instalments from 1849 to 1850, the story is written in the form of an autobiography and follows the story of the hero David from birth. Dickens’ wrote in the Preface, “Of all my books, I like this the best…like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield.” The statement is even more believable once you complete the book because you feel as though you have watched David grow up, following his childhood sorrows, teenage friendships and struggles in adulthood.

Despite the story written as an autobiography, David is not always the primary focus of the narrative. David is the observer, the eyewitness, to other characters as they grow up alongside him and suffer their own tribulations. The characters intertwine throughout the pages, so by the end many of them have encountered one another in some form. Dickens’ has created characters so carefully that you feel some emotion towards each; in fact, one of the barely mentioned characters made me quite sentimental.

Peggotty, Miss Betsey, Traddles, Mr Micawber, Mr Murdstone and, the one and only, Uriah Heep. Heep, or Ury to his mother, is a piece of work that will stay with you long after the book is returned to the bookcase. He is slimy, conniving and completely ‘umble, but he is one of the villains that you love to hate. I guess every hero has a nemesis; Heep is such a strong character and is strangely still alive today in the form of some of the people we all know.

Much has been written about Dickens’ style and use of the English language, but it is not until you see how well he can convey the vocabulary of the many classes of Victorian England and paint a scene so vividly that it will be believed. Reading the that era’s etiquette and social rules make you scream in frustration and the treatment of David as a child made me so angry that I forgot it was fiction.

David Copperfield is a classic…blah, blah, blah, but I ask, “Have you read it?” Forget the fact that it is over 150 years old until you have finished it and don’t be daunted by its size because you won’t be disappointed by the final page. You may even be ‘umbled.

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