Fiction > Harvard Classics > Charles Dickens > David Copperfield > Criticisms and Interpretations > III
Charles Dickens. (1812–1870).  David Copperfield.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction.  1917.
Criticisms and Interpretations
III. By Adolphus William Ward
NO doubt what so irresistibly attracted Dickens to “David Copperfield,” and what has since fascinated many readers, more or less conscious of the secret of the charm, is the autobiographical element in the story. Until the publication of Forster’s “Life,” no reader of “Copperfield” could be aware of the pang it must have cost Dickens to lay bare, though to unsuspecting eyes, the story of experiences which he had hitherto kept all but absolutely secret, and to which his own mind could not recur without a quivering sensitiveness. No reader could trace, as the memory of Dickens always must have traced, some of the most vivid of those experiences, imbued though they were with the tints of a delightfully playful humour, in the doings and dealings of Mr. Wilkins Micawber, whose original, by a strange coincidence, was passing tranquilly away out of life, while his comic counterpart was blossoming into a whimsical immortality. And no reader could divine, what very probably even the author may hardly have ventured to confess to himself, that in the lovely little idyll of the loves of Doady and Dora—with Jip, as Dora’s father might have said, intervening—there were besides the reminiscences of an innocent juvenile amour, the vestiges of a man’s unconfessed though not altogether unrepressed disappointment—the sense that “there was always something wanting.” But in order to be affected by a personal or autobiographical element in a fiction or poem, it is by no means necessary to be aware of its actual bearing and character, or even of its very existence; “Amelia” would gain little by illustrative notes concerning the experiences of the first Mrs. Fielding. To excite in a work of fiction the peculiar kind of interest of which I am speaking, the existence of an autobiographical substratum need not be apparent in it, nor need its presence be even suspected. Enough, if it be there. But it had far better be away altogether, unless the novelist has so thoroughly fused this particular stream of metal with the mass filling his mould that the result is an integral artistic whole. Such was, however, the case with “David Copperfield,” which of all Dickens’s fictions is on the whole the most perfect as a work of art. Personal reminiscences which lay deep in the author’s breast are, as effects, harmonised with local associations old and new. Thus Yarmouth, painted in the story with singular poetic truthfulness, had only quite recently been seen by Dickens for the first time, on a holiday trip. His imagination still subdued to itself all the elements with which he worked; and, whatever may be thought of the construction of this story, none of his other books equals it in that harmony of tone which no artist can secure unless by recasting all his materials.   1
  As to the construction of “David Copperfield,” however, I frankly confess that I perceive no serious fault in it. It is a story with a plot, and not merely a string of adventures and experiences, like little Davy’s old favourites upstairs at Blunderstone. In the conduct of this plot blemishes may here and there occur. The boy’s flight from London, and the direction which it takes, are insufficiently accounted for. A certain amount of obscurity as well perhaps as of improbability, pervades the relations between Uriah and the victim, round whom the unspeakable slimy thing writhes and wriggles. On the other hand, the mere conduct of the story has much that is beautiful in it. Thus there is real art in the way in which the scene of Barkis’s death—written with admirable moderation—prepares for the “greater loss” at hand for the mourning family. And in the entire treatment of his hero’s double love-story, Dickens has, to my mind, avoided that discord which, in spite of himself, jars upon the reader both in “Esmond” and in “Adam Bede.” The best constructed part of “David Copperfield” is, however, unmistakably the story of Little Emily and her kinsfolk. This is most skilfully interwoven with the personal experiences of David, of which—except in its very beginnings—it forms no integral part; and throughout the reader is haunted by a presentiment of the coming catastrophe, though unable to divine the tragic force and justice of its actual accomplishment. A touch altered here and there in Steerforth, with the Rosa Dartle episode excluded or greatly reduced, and this part of “David Copperfield” might challenge comparison as to workmanship with the whole literature of modern fiction.   2
  Of the idyll of Davy and Dora—what shall I say? Its earliest stages are full of the gayest comedy. What, for instance, could surpass the history of the picnic—where was it? perhaps it was near Guildford. At that feast an imaginary rival, “Red Whisker,” made the salad—how could they eat it?—and “voted himself into the charge of the wine-cellar. which he constructed, being an ingenious beast, in the hollow trunk of a tree.” Better still are the backward ripples in the course of true love; best of all the deep wisdom of Miss Mills, in whose nature mental trial and suffering supplied, in some measure, the place of years. In the narrative of the young housekeeping, David’s real trouble is most skilfully mingled with the comic woes of the situation; and thus the idyll almost imperceptibly passes into the last phase, where the clouds dissolve in a rain of tears. The genius which conceived and executed these closing scenes was touched by a pity towards the fictitious creatures of his own imagination, which melted his own heart; and thus his pathos is here irresistible.   3
  The inventive power of Dickens in none of his other books indulged itself so abundantly in the creation of eccentric characters, but neither was it in any so admirably tempered by taste and feeling. It contains no character which could strictly be called grotesque, unless it be little Miss Mowcher. Most of her outward peculiarities Dickens had copied from a living original, but receiving a remonstrance from the latter he good-humouredly altered the use he had intended to make of the character, and thereby spoilt what there was in it—not much in my opinion—to spoil. Mr. Dick belongs to a species of eccentric personages—mad people in a word—for which Dickens as a writer had a curious liking; but though there is consequently no true humour in this character, it helps to bring out the latent tenderness in another. David’s Aunt is a figure which none but a true humorist such as Sterne or Dickens could have drawn, and she must have sprung from the author’s brain armed cap-à-pie as she appeared in her garden before his little double. Yet even Miss Betsey Trotwood was not altogether a creation of the fancy, for at Broadstairs the locality is still pointed out where the “one great outrage of her life” was daily renewed. In the other chief characters of this story the author seems to rely entirely on natural truthfulness. He must have had many opportunities of noting the ways of seamen and fishermen, but the occupants of the old boat near Yarmouth possess the typical characteristics with which the experience and the imagination of centuries have agreed to credit the “salt” division of mankind. Again, he had had his own experience of shabby-genteel life, and of the struggle which he had himself seen a happy and a buoyant temperament maintaining against a sea of trouble. But Mr. Micawber, whatever features may have been transferred to him, is the type of a whole race of men who will not vanish from the face of the earth so long as the hope which lives eternal in the human breast is only temporarily suspended by the laws of debtor and creditor, and is always capable of revival with the aid of a bowl of milk-punch. A kindlier and merrier, a more humorous and a more genial character was never conceived than this; and if anything was wanted to complete the comicality of the conception, it was the wife of his bosom with the twins at her own, and her mind made up not to desert Mr. Micawber.…   4
  Thus, then, I must leave the book, with its wealth of pathos and humour, with the glow of youth still tinging its pages, but with the gentler mode of manhood pervading it from first to last. The reality of “David Copperfield” is, perhaps, the first feature in it likely to strike the reader new to its charms; but a closer acquaintance will produce, and familiarity will enhance, the sense of its wonderful art. Nothing will ever destroy the popularity of a work of which it can truly be said that, while offering to his muse a gift not less beautiful than precious, its author put into it his life’s blood.—From “Dickens,” in “English Men of Letters.”   5



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