Gaynor Arnold was born and brought up in Cardiff and studied English at St Hilda's College, Oxford. She has been a social worker most of her life and now lives in Birmingham where she recently retired from a job in the city's Adoption and Fostering Service. Her first published novel Girl in a Blue Dress (a fictionalized account of the marriage of Charles Dickens) was long-listed for a number of awards, including the Man Booker Prize 2008 and the Orange Prize 2009. Her next book, Lying Together, is a collection of short stories which will be published by Tindal Street Press next January. Unsurprisingly, Gaynor has chosen to write about her favourite Dickens novel, David Copperfield.
Gaynor Arnold on David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Some books appeal to the head, and some to the heart. So while I don't think David Copperfield is the finest book ever written, it's the one that means the most to me. It was published in serial form during 1849-50 and first read by me 105 years later at the age of eleven. It particularly appealed to me as my father had just died; and the essential loneliness of the orphan David chimed with my own somewhat exaggerated sense of bereavement.
I think Dickens felt similarly about the book. It was his own 'favourite child' because it drew most deeply on his own early experiences in the dark days when his father was imprisoned for debt and he himself was lodged with strangers and put to work in a boot-blacking factory. The novel-reading public of the day had no idea how close to Dickens's own life this part of the novel was. Yet the strong identification Dickens has with David (it has often been pointed out that CD became DC) makes us - or me anyway - care for him in a very visceral way.
The book admittedly takes a couple of chapters to get going. Dickens is never at his best when describing unalloyed contentment, and his account of David's idyllic childhood with his pretty widowed mother and loving nursemaid Peggotty (albeit interspersed with a few bits of mild comedy) is rather run-of-the-mill stuff. However, the narrative takes off as soon as the Murdstones (in nature as in name) come on the scene, and little David's jealousy, incomprehension, fear - and final furious rage - at the domination of the household by these two self-righteous bigots, has us unequivocally on his side. Anyone who has ever failed to do mental arithmetic under the ferocious gaze of an adult will sympathize with David's agony as he tries to learn his lessons; and when he finally bites Mr Murdstone on the hand, we all wish we had done it too. David is of course, sent away in disgrace, endures the rigours of an indifferent school where he is inevitably (this being a Victorian novel) brought the news of his mother's death. There is a wonderfully-written scene where he becomes conscious of himself as an orphan walking alone in the playground, being watched and pitied by the other boys, and, although he is genuinely grief-stricken, he experiences at the same time a sense of pleasure at being the object of their attention.
In many ways, David Copperfield is a classic story about growing up, but it is also about keeping self-belief and not giving in - qualities that were Dickens's own watchwords. Although David has many obstacles to overcome as he journeys - alone, or with dubious companions - we never doubt that he is going to make it. And make it, of course, he does, coming into young manhood, fame and fortune, and eventually finding his soul-mate. But he makes a number of false starts (his description of his first dinner party is the funniest account of getting (a) fleeced and (b) drunk that I have ever read), and leaves his heart in all the wrong places (although his description of how it feels to be insanely in love is equally brilliant). But we don't get simply the conventional linear story. Dickens gives us a crowd of walk-on characters including carriers, coachmen, undertakers, lawyers, pawnbrokers, landladies and especially waiters, who all have their full moment in the spotlight, even though we may never see them again - characters like the gloomy lady in black velvet whom David meets at a dinner and dubs 'Hamlet's aunt'. She speaks only once; she has no role in the ongoing drama; but he cannot resist describing her in loving detail. She is there for the sheer fun of it.
This, of course, is Dickens's genius. He is a supremely generous writer. He loves his characters; he can't have enough of them. David Copperfield in particular is littered with dramatis personae whose attributes and sayings have passed into the language - Mr Micawber with his annual income being the most memorable. It makes reading the book such a joy. But the novel is not just a collection of comic turns and phrases. It is not a children's book, either, although children can enjoy it as I did all those years ago. Dickens is exploring rich universal themes like the loss of innocence, the betrayal of friendship, and the disillusions of romantic love. The narrative is as strong and seductive as a born storyteller like Dickens can make it, and in spite of any reservations my right-brained adult self may have about its sentimentality or long-windedness, each time I open the covers, I'm hooked.
I think part of its appeal is that comedy and tragedy are juxtaposed pretty equally in what Dickens himself described as 'the streaky bacon effect'. Many of the scenes are at the same time laugh-out-loud funny, and excruciatingly sad, as when the pimple-faced waiter cheats David out of his supper by proposing a most unequal eating contest:
'Come on little 'un. Let's see who gets most!' The waiter certainly got most. He entreated me more than once to come in and win, but what with his tablespoon to my teaspoon, his dispatch to my dispatch, and his appetite to my appetite, I was left behind at the first mouthful and had no chance with him.
We so feel for David, and yet we so laugh at the waiter.
Dickens of course did laughter-and-tears in all his novels. But what is unique about David Copperfield is the way the child's own voice and viewpoint are at the centre of this emotional whirlpool. No writer before had empathized with the child as powerfully and realistically as Dickens; and few, in my opinion, have done it as well since. He is writing with compassion and love; and that is what gets me every time.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]