Coming out of the 1,000+ pages of Dombey and Son, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to leap right into another epically long book and embrace a whole new cast of characters without my brain spontaneously combusting. And yet here it is a week later and I’ve already devoured the 523 pages in the first volume of David Copperfield without pausing for breath and can’t wait to crack the second. Just when I think I’m starting to get into your groove and appreciate your style you go and kick it up a notch. How the hell do you do that? Logically, there are many of the same elements here that we’ve seen in earlier novels. Like Oliver, Nicholas, Nell, Martin and Flora, David is an innocent learning to navigate a harsh world. There are a host of fabulous supporting characters here too, but all your books have those in spades. So what makes this book so darned addictive?
It has to be the point of view, doesn’t it? This is the first time we’ve had a first-person narrator. It’s a small change, but that “I” makes all the difference in the world. Since you’ve put yourself (and us) firmly into David’s head, you can’t send him to America or leave him in some tidy little plot eddy while you go off and devote chapters and chapters to those interesting supporting characters you like so much. If David doesn’t see it, you don’t get to write about it. The point of view may be restrictive, but in the long run it has the effect of a) keeping the plot much more focused, and b) making your title character more human than some of your others. Can you really imagine Oliver (even a grown-up Oliver) with a hangover? Neither can I.
There’s some criticism I’ve been reading that suggests that David is the least interesting character in the book, and that may be true, but he’s certainly the most interesting of your protagonists so far. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our travels to date, but set David beside Nell or Barnaby and you have to admit he’s much more real and sympathetic. You make it so easy for us to like him – it helps that he’s definitely not perfect. We’ve all known people that make us feel young and stupid (I still can’t think of my grade 10 French teacher without forgetting every single word of French I ever knew), we’ve all had moments of behaving as if we were older than we are, we’ve all done stupid things that we regret and had impossible crushes in our youth on unattainable people (I’m looking at you, Donnie Wahlberg).
The other reason I think David is so appealing is that, unlike your contemporary readers, we know how closely David’s early work experience in London mirrors your own unhappy childhood working in a blacking factory. It gives us modern readers a fascinating and heartbreaking glimpse of your early years, and an appreciation of how far you rose above it. You said that David Copperfield was your favorite child, and part of that has to be because in many ways he’s a lot like you.So I’ll continue to keep David company as he grows. I can’t wait to find out what becomes of Steerforth, Uriah, the Micawbers, little Em’ly and Pegotty. And, of course, to David himself. At this pace, I shall be back ahead of schedule in no time. And of course, I remain,
P.S. I just came across this. Apparently David Copperfield is not quite the most quintessentially you.