At the end of November I finished my fourth volume of J. S. Fletcher short stories, The Secret of the Barbican, and was in the mood for something different. I had not read Dickens in awhile. I am now well into David Copperfield. Though more than twice the length of Great Expectations (my other favorite Dickens work) it is a remarkably quick read, being free of the convoluted prosiness that afflicts Oliver Twist or A Tale of Two Cities.
For the first hundred and fifty pages or so, Dickens’ novel is a tale of barely relieved misery. But it is told sympathetically and with fascinating detail of character, dialogue and setting. One of the early bright spots is the third chapter when young David, on the verge of one of the many transformations to his domestic situation, finds himself vacationing in Daniel Peggoty’s “boat house” (a boat that is literally transformed into a house on the seashore). It is probably one of my favorite passages in Dickensian literature.
If it had been Aladdin’s palace… I suppose I could not have been more charmed with the romantic idea of living in it. There was a delightful door cut in the side, and it was roofed in, and there were little windows in it; but the wonderful charm of it was, that it was a real boat which had no doubt been upon the water hundreds of times, and which had never been intended to be lived in, on dry land. That was the captivation of it to me. If it had ever been meant to be lived in, I might have thought it small, or inconvenient, or lonely; but never having been designed for any such use, it became a perfect abode.
Admittedly I am a landlubber and can’t stand to eat (or smell) most aquatic fare. So reading Dickens is at times a purely vicarious pleasure!
One thing I particularly noticed in this delightful house, was the smell of fish; which was so searching, that when I took out my pocket-handkerchief to wipe my nose, I found it smelt exactly as if it had wrapped up a lobster.
The last time I perused Copperfield was five years ago. Fortunately I remember only the vague outlines of the story and have little or no recollection of such characters as Dr. Strong, Mr. Dick or Agnes. One really does want to see how these people turn out.
While some characters, like the kindly Peggoty or the villainous Mr. Creakle are “two-dimensional,” others are more ambivalent, like David’s friend Steerforth or even his own mother. Though essentially a decent creature, Clara Copperfield is a weak-willed enabler of Edward Murdstone’s bullying of herself and her son which causes both of them so much misery. Fortunately this gloom is relieved by the intervention of another complicated character, Betsey Trotwood, the eccentric and temperamental (but kindly) aunt who adopts David just when he seems condemned to a life of squalor and neglect.