DICKENS called David Copperfield his favourite child. He was wiser than most parents or authors in his choice of a favourite. It is curious and amusing to see how men of genius, even, are misguided. The tragedian prefers his comedy; the comedian his tragic efforts; the statesman his literary attempts; the painter, like Turner, his essays in poetry. An author is wont to be prejudiced in favour of that effort in which his aim has been highest, and his labour most assiduous and prolonged. The difficult birth is the dearest. Now, in any art, above all, where genius is engaged, the work done most fluently and easily is apt to be the best. But the writer is fond of the child of a painful intellectual travail. In Dickenss case, Copperfield came to him easily. The story bore him irresistibly along; certainly with less trouble to himself in the composition; and he was probably never less harassed by interruptions and breaks in his narrative, says Mr. Forster. Yet Dickens made the book his favourite, agreeing, probably, with the majority of his genuine admirers. They who prefer A Tale of Two Cities merely prove themselves no true Dickensians. Had we to lose all Dickenss books but one, the choice would be hard between Copperfield and Pickwick. But Pickwick would probably carry the day.
Mr. Forster seems to have suggested a tale told in the first person: the narrator being the hero. His own reminiscences of a neglected childhood then awoke in the memory and fancy of Dickens. He recalled the days of the debtors prison, of the blacking shop, of the lonely, self-supporting child, with his tiny budget and feats of housekeeping, his sense of being degraded by his environment, and of the something there within him, which Andreé Chénier spoke of on the scaffold. All this he has made immortal in Copperfield with the most tender pity and humour. It is a book for a boy (how happy were the childish days spent with the child!), and a book for a man. In his father Dickens had a type of Mr. Micawber, and surely the father himself could not have objected to the glorious and courageous waif, the unsoured and indomitable innocent adventurer, who blossomed out of his milder eccentricities. Miss Mowcher came perilously near being a case of Harold Skimpole and Leigh Hunt, but Dickens modified the character, and mollified the little original. Characters, in fiction, all start from a germ of observed reality; Mrs. Nickleby was Mrs. Dickens mère, but she never recognised herself, and if Mr. Micawber had done so, he would have smiled. Unluckily, Leigh Hunt was too generally recognisable; the original hurried the artist beyond bounds. David Copperfield, however, is doubtless even less Dickens himself than Pen is Thackeray.
Dickens was thinking over Copperfield at the close of 1848. Early in January, 1849, he, with Lemon and Leech, visited the scene of the Rush murder, and Dickens saw and fell in love with Yarmouth: the strangest place in the wide world. I shall certainly try my hand at it. Then came the usual struggle to find a name beginning with
BEING THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF MR. THOMAS MAG THE YOUNGER, OF BLUNDERSTONE HOUSE.
On February 20, 1849, Dickens sent to Forster a list of names; that actually chosen is decidedly the best. But he felt initial difficulties, I am lumbering on like a stage-waggon; I am quite aground, in the first Number (April 19). The reader does not discover this. We are at once in the tide of the story; there is none of the early difficulty of Chuzzlewit. David Copperfield is so excellent that criticism is swallowed up in pleasure. Dickens, as he makes his hero say, had as a man a strong memory of my childhood. This kind of memory seems to be a privilege, or rather a constituent part, of genius. We see an excellent instance of this in George Sands autobiography: her childhood remains to her as vivid a series of pictures as those which she used to watch in the polished screen. It is probably more than a mere curious fancy which holds that the child re-lives (in a modified way) through the evolutionary experience of the race. To many children, at least, the world is all animated and personal, everything in it has life and character. This is the essence of early human thought, and the cause of the gender terminations in early languages. But this ancient mood is the indispensable basis of poetry and mythology; this, with the associated difficulty of discerning between dreams and realities. Had mankind been created in the modern condition of knowledge and reason, we could have no romance, and no poetry. The child of genius is a voyant, and the majority of children have genius. It fades into the light of common day, with the majority of mankind, but in the intellect of Dickens, George Sand, Scott, and Wordsworth (to take a few examples about which we have knowledge), it does not fade. They never lose the gleam, and to them the bright visions of their infancy are always present.
This enables Dickens to draw his children, of whom the old-fashioned little Brooks of Sheffield is only a Paul Dombey with a stronger constitution, and with that vivida vis of observation which Dickens asserts for himself. Men who are remarkable in this respect, may with greater propriety be said not to have lost the faculty than to have acquired it. We know, indeed, by the singular history of Calculating Boys, like Gauss, Whateley, and many others, that some of those did actually lose their mysterious gift. So we almost all are abandoned by the gleam of childhood, but they who keep it delight the world.
The tender grace of the opening chapters of Copperfield, the pretty child-mother twisting her bright curls; Peggotty, with her unexaggerated love and goodness and needle-marked finger and red cheeks; the little boys mature studies in Tom Jones and Peregrine Pickle, his lectures on crocodiles, his keen notice of things, and fantastic reflections, and inspired antipathiescan never cease to charm in any change of taste. The Murdstone passages we can hardly bear to read, but, happily, the immortal waiter, with his fable of Mr. Topsawyer, comes in as a relief. Even Creakle is a relief from the Murdstones. Dickens excelled in drawing private schools. Mr. Creakle is not a repetition of Mr. Squeers, and, with his inaudible voice, is terrible in a new fashion.
Like Dickens, St. Augustine had a vivid memory of childhood, and bore a grudge against his own Creakle. My stripes, which were so grievous and offensive to me at the tyme, were laught at by mine elders; and he compares his sufferings to those hooks, racks, and other torments, for the avoyding whereof men pray to God with great feare, from one end of the world to the other.
The race of Creakles is probably not extinct. But Dickens has helped to thin it. There is not, probably, elsewhere in our literature so fine a study of a small boys hero-worship, his idolatry of a big, handsome, strong, kind boy, as in the story of David and his Jonathan, Steerforth. As a little lad of eleven, I remember being glad, with precocious foresight, that David had not the pretty sister about whose existence Steerforth inquired. But Tommy Traddles had the sharper sightTommy, who bravely cried, Shame, J. Steerforth! One used to draw many skeletons in imitation of Tommy.
The episode in London, the bottle-cleaning, the struggle with poverty, the delightful Micawber, are all in the foremost places of fact, glorified by imagination. The flight to Dover is a masterpiece, which dwells unalterable in the memory, from the young man with the donkey-cart, to Mr. Dolloby, and the dealer in coats whose slogan was Goo-roo! Miss Trotwoods is a haven inexpressibly welcome, and Mr. Dick is an author from whose failing most professional scribes know that they cannot free themselves. We all have our King Charless Head.
Indeed, we linger fondly over the whole of Davids youth, his love for Miss Shepherd, his epic encounters with the young butchers boy. Berry and Biggs, Tom Browne and Slogger Williams, scarcely fought better fights, and this combat is described from within. That the Old Soldier suggested the Campaigner, Mrs. Mackenzie, is conceivable, but Thackeray probably knew a campaigner of his own, and Mrs. Mackenzie is a warrior more cruel in victory, more obstinate in defeat. Dickens expressed a just pride in Davids first dissipation; it will be found worthy of attention, I hope, as a piece of grotesque truth.
The affair of Steerforth and Little Emly is, of course, indicated and inevitable. If the crushing charge of obviousness is to be brought against any part of the novel, it is against this. The aristocratic seducer, the confiding rural maid, her poor but honest relations, her return, betrayed, the necessary Nemesis, the whole set of situations, are, we may venture to hope, very much more common in books, and on the stage than in life. Though Uriah Heep is an originally repulsive villain, yet the part played, as regards him, by Mr. Micawber, the unsuspected watcher, is the old Edie Ochiltree or Flibbertigibbet part of the man round the corner, the comic character who overhears everything. These are among the ficelles of fiction with a plot, but Mr. Micawber scarcely seems to have been born for the part he plays. However, somebody has to act it.
It is possible that most readers of Copperfield fall in love with the wrong heroine. We prefer, in our hearts, the child-wife, Dora, to domesticating the Recording Angel, in the form of Agnes. Mr. Forster hints that, when writing Copperfield, Dickens had already a sense of how easily things go wrong in his own married life. With this we have nothing to do. However, Mr. Forster himself preferred the pretty Dora to the ideal as depicted in Miss Wickfield. The pathos of Dickens has rarely been more delicate and playful than in the life and death of Dora, though the supercilious may regret that he could not hold his hand from the slaying of Jip. Dickenss own favourite characters were the Peggotty group. But, except the Peggotty of the buttons herself, they dwell less faithfully in our recollections than Mrs. Crupp, Mr. Spenlow (who had a partner, Mr. Jorkins), the immortal waiter, Littimer (who again suggests Major Pendenniss servant, Morgan), Miss Mowcher, Mr. Creakle, Tommy Traddles, the Micawbers, and the general population of this exquisite masterpiece.
The faults of Dickens, his emphasis, his blank verse, his iteration (for custom cannot stale the iterations of Mr. Micawber, or time wither them), are inconspicuous in Copperfield. He was at his prime of observation, humour, tenderness, and style. Something may be conceivably due to this use of the first person, which brought him into direct contact with life, and had a tendency to exorcise the wilfully fantastic. The same cause produces similar results in Great Expectations, probably the best work of his later period. It is perhaps a pity that he so seldom wrote in other than what we may call the irresponsible third person. Using it, he can reflect on things freely, and freely indulge his own tendency to the grotesque or the didactic. But when he has to make his hero speak throughout for himself, he subdues his own manner to the dramatic necessities of the character narrating. In Copperfield he cannot select a moral for a motive, or make the protagonist a moral type, of pride or of selfishness, as in Dombey or Chuzzlewit. He is saved, in fact, by the nature of the method, from a perilous resource.From Introduction to David Copperfield.