We all have that one movie, that one book . . . that one story that we keep coming back to again and again. It haunts us in the very best of ways– it keeps us thinking about it, almost drawing us into its magical world to live there, even as our bodies inhabit the present. We find ourselves slipping happily back into its pages whenever we have a moment, knowing that there the sun will be shining and the people will be smiling, waiting to see us. For me, that book has always been David Copperfield.
Now, if you aren’t a big time reader, you are probably thinking right now, David Copperfield? The magician? Yes, dear friends . . . before there was a magician, there was a book. And before there was a book, there was an author. And before there was an author, there was a man– a gloomy, somewhat curmudgeonly man– one that some might call grouchy, and others might call brooding. His life had been shaped, as with all of us, from both the smiles and the pains of life.
Dickens (yes– the Christmas Carol guy) grew up in a large, impoverished family. His father was always trying to “keep up with the Joneses,” even way back then, and he quickly accumulated so much debt that he was thrown into debtor’s prison. If you are thinking of “prison” like the jails of today, you are partially right. But debtor’s prison was even stranger, as often imprisoning the male (almost always familial breadwinner) of a family also meant that the family had no place to live. Usually a debtor’s family also moved into the debtor’s prison with him until the debt was paid. The family members were free to come and go, whereas the “debtor” had to remain inside. Ladies, if you’re looking to unload your husband, this option might be for you. hehe. Ok that’s not funny.
Ok it’s kind of funny.
If this system seems a little strange to you, you’re not wrong. You might be thinking, “Well then, if you could get free room and board, why didn’t everyone just do it then? Pretend you can’t pay your bills and live for free?” Well, honestly, the debtor’s prison was a horrible place. Although prisons ranged in condition, most of them were run down, slovenly, extremely overcrowded, rat infested places of misery. A new prisoner may not be able to find a place for himself and his family, especially if overcrowding was at a high, which it nearly always was. A man could find himself and his belongings, wife, and children (8 children, in the case of Dickens’ dad) trying to sleep in the streets of the prison, open to the weather, the prying eyes, and the itching fingers of the other prisoners. Also, there was barely any food provided, so generally a “debtor” had to have someone (usually family) bring him food so he didn’t starve. Not great, Bob. Not great.
Someone in prison could not earn a living, and therefore, had no hope of ever paying off his debt by himself (another flaw in the system– even back then, governments were crooked). So unless the debtor’s family went out every day and worked like dogs to pay off a debt that wasn’t theirs, the guy was going to sit along his little road with no privacy for all eternity. Women and children made next to nothing and were not considered for higher wage jobs, even if they were more than capable. Women could often receive work only as maids, laundry women, or in the case of extreme desperation, prostitutes. Children were given pennies a day to work 10-12 hour shifts in stinking, rat infested factories. Dickens himself worked at a boot blacking factory where he was forced to process bottles of glue in a space so filthy and hot that the labels would often melt off the bottles even after he had glued them on.
It was child labor at its finest– slovenly, unsafe conditions and horrendously unfair wages. The rats were so numerous that he could hear them squeaking during his entire shift. It was a dark, horrible place– and one which he immortalizes in David Copperfield, which many have considered to be somewhat of an autobiography of his life. The character David whispers words which the author must also have felt in this horrible place: “No words can express the secret agony of my soul.” How sad that a child is forced to feel this so young. On a more hopeful note, Dickens for all of his life fought to get laws against child labor passed, highlighting the terrible conditions of debtor’s prisons and child sweat shops as one who had lived and suffered greatly at the hands of both. He was largely successful, initiating reforms and fighting for better working conditions for the rest of his life. His past gave him experience; his authorship gave him a voice.
Charles’ father eventually got out of prison when his own mother died and left him a respectable inheritance. He purchased his freedom and took his small family out of debtor’s prison. He sent the children to schools designed to rigorize them for a life of privilege, which of course they didn’t possess or want. The school masters were unfair, cruel, and brutal, beating the boys savagely, often for no reason at all. Charles despised the school and couldn’t wait to leave it. He describes yet another traumatic childhood memory in David Copperfield, as he describes Mr. Creakle’s sadistic and torturous way of punishing the students placed into his care when David is forced to go away to boarding school at the whim of his evil stepfather (what– you thought evil stepmothers had all the fun?).
If this sounds like a horrible, dark book, I guess it is. Dickens isn’t really a laugh fest even on a good day. But what keeps drawing me back to this book again and again is the thread of hope that shines brightly throughout its pages– the wending, winding way of hope that somehow finds its way through the darkest and most hopeless of places to shine some light in the darkness.
Love is painted in the most interesting ways. Sometimes it is fluffy and sugary and delicious, but not often, and definitely not for long. Often it is lost. Sometimes it is gained in the most unforeseen ways. Always, it endures. I like that.
The character David (whom many believe to be an autobiographical picture of how Dickens saw himself) is first loved by his mother. He describes her young marriage to the love of her life (David’s dad), and then her despair when her love dies after less than a year of marriage, leaving her widowed and pregnant barely out of her teens. Even though they didn’t have much, he describes his early childhood as idyllic– time loved to the brim by his beloved nurse, Clara Peggotty, and his mom. He was loved, cared for, positively adored by these two women who made up his entire world.
After a few years, as was the custom in those days, Mrs. Copperfield needed to think about getting remarried. A single woman could almost never live on her own forever– generally the husband’s modest estate would last a few years, but not long enough to sustain a family forever. Women were generally not accepted in the workforce, and sadly, women were usually forced to remarry to keep their children fed. Mrs. Copperfield has many eager suitors due to her youth and beauty, but they turn up their nose at her son, calling him “bewitching Mrs. Copperfield’s encumbrance.” Ouch. She finally settles on Edward Murdstone, a chillingly cruel (rich) guy that we love to hate almost from the first moment.
He marries David’s mom and almost instantly gets her pregnant, showing his dominance as the family leader now (National Geographic music plays in the background). He is cruel and unfeeling to David, locking him in his room for days at a time for no reason at all, allowing Peggotty to push bread and water through the door only once a day (seriously? She couldn’t hide some candy in there?). David despairs in this lonely life, passing his time reading and becoming lost in the worlds of books so much more beautiful than the drab study of his own prison. Eventually the mean ugly (I mean, it doesn’t say he’s ugly but I bet he is) stepfather sends poor, sweet little David away to a horrible boarding school (ring any bells?). David is bullied, beaten, and extremely homesick until he meets James Steerforth, a rich, popular boy who happens to take a liking to David and become his friend. Although they come from two different worlds, Steerforth makes school bearable for David, even inviting him home to visit his family’s palatial estate, where David is confused to meet a whole bunch of strange, very unhappy people. He assumes that someone with this much money would be happy. Unfortunately, the money masks the misery within Steerforth’s family, and we see that unhappiness ooze out and bleed on others all the way through the story. Money doesn’t make the man. Money doesn’t make happiness. And the lack of resources, opportunities, and even love, won’t hold a noble heart back. This seems to be a recurring theme throughout the book. And, speaking as someone on “Team Poor,” I appreciate that. hehe.
David goes to school for a while, but then he is called home unexpectedly. He doesn’t realize it at the time, but his mother is dying. She has called him home despite his stepfather’s disapproval, to say goodbye and to see him one last time. She has a newborn that she tries to show him, but the evil stepfather wearing a black cloak and a wicked grin (again, it doesn’t say that but work with me here) sweeps in with his equally ugly, evil (single, obviously) sister, and snatches the baby away. These people really don’t even need Halloween costumes– they are evil and scary just as they are.
As David leaves to go back to school the next day, his mother stumbles out of the house after him. I cry every time I read this part of the story:
I was in the carrier’s cart when I heard her calling to me. I looked out, and she stood at the garden-gate alone, holding her baby up in her arms for me to see. It was cold still weather; and not a hair of her head, nor a fold of her dress, was stirred, as she looked intently at me, holding up her child.
So I lost her. So I saw her afterwards, in my sleep at school – a silent presence near my bed – looking at me with the same intent face – holding up her baby in her arms.
Gahhh. Is someone cutting onions? Don’t mind me. *wails into tissue. David’s mom dies, as does her newborn, since back then you couldn’t just go down to Walmart and buy Similac. Her last request is to nestle the baby in her arms and bury them together. Horrible, horrible. I’m not crying; you’re crying. Moving on.
David goes back to school, but he is shortly called back home, to his surprise and suspicious delight. They tell him that his mom has died (ouch), that his beloved nurse won’t be allowed to attend the funeral (um, double ouch), and that he isn’t worth keeping in school anymore because he obviously has zero talent. They are sending him to work in London (yes, he’s a kid). Oh yeah– they also blame him for the mom and baby’s death (because it couldn’t have anything to do with the crippling mental abuse and their evil, black cloaks snuffing out all the happiness in her life, could it????). They send David to, you guessed it, a blacking factory, where the details are so realistic that you see that only a man who had lived it could talk about it with such a sting of horror.
Unwittingly, the Murdstones do David a favor when they send him to London. Even though the factory is terrible, he ends up finding room and board (which he, A CHILD, has to pay for, himself) with the deliciously happy Micawber family, a happy, loving bunch who envelop David in their arms and family with love and affection such as he has never known. The Micawbers always seem to be behind the 8 ball, both luck and money-wise (most likely a stand in for Charles Dickens’ real parents). They end up, you guessed it– in a debtor’s prison. Again, the details of the prison are chillingly realistic. You can almost feel the resentment and anger lurking right under the words, as the author experiences those painful memories again. He in conjuring up trauma for us on a silver platter, those horrible memories rising from the mist like a spectre of death. You feel each pang of hunger, hear each clang of the prison gate in your very soul. Little David tries to help his friends, but his few pennies a day are not enough. He fears that he may be sent back to the Murdstones, so he decides to take desperate action.
Oh yes– I have to insert a little side note here. Looooong ago, in the beginning of the book, when David is first born, there is a weird little character that you think you’ll never see again. Of course, this is Dickens, and every character matters, so of COURSE we will see her again. You’re so smart. I love working with you. This character is David’s great Aunt, Betsy Trotwood. Betsy desperately wants a little girl to spoil and love, and when her nephew’s wife is pregnant she can’t wait to come see the new baby girl that she insists will be named Betsy Trotwood Copperfield and be her devoted friend, companion, and heir. When she finds out that the baby had the audacity to be a boy, she storms out of the house, never to be heard from again– or does she?
David has heard of this Aunt Betsy Trotwood, but he doesn’t exactly know where she lives– just in a big house by the sea, so being a little kid full of hope and not wanting to be forced to go back to the wicked witch and warlock of the West (the Murdstones), he decides to walk to . . . the sea (?) where the Aunt he has never met lives. He encounters all kinds of horrible things along the way (I won’t bore you with the details), but eventually he reaches the gorgeous, heavenly “white cliffs of Dover,” towering over the little picturesque town by the sea.
Realizing he doesn’t really have a plan, David eventually pesters his way into finding out where the wealthy Betsy Trotwood lives– and he sets out to walk to her house. He comes up to the palatial estate just in time to see his great Aunt fly, shrieking, out of her house at a peddler who has dared to bring a donkey onto her lawn (one of Miss Betsy’s greatest pet peeves). She chases him off with her umbrella in full flight, as David watches, terrified, from the sidelines. She whirls upon him, expecting that maybe he is part of the peddler group that she just exorcised, but David manages to stammer out that he thinks he is her great nephew, and that his mother is dead and his stepfather hates and abuses him. David breaks down and begs her to please not make him go back. Please, please, don’t make him go back.
Betsy Trotwood is aghast. Can this really be the little boy she left in a huff so many years ago? Doesn’t he know that he was supposed to BE A GIRL? She has no use for boys. Men have hurt her deeply in the past, and she has absolutely no use for boys, because they turn out to be thieving, heartbreaking MEN. No– a girl would have been MUCH BETTER and doesn’t he know that . . . but poor David, exhausted from the trip, has fallen asleep. We hold our breaths for a moment– will she call the police? She reaches out and softly strokes his hair. “Poor little fellow.” Can that be a flicker of tenderness across Miss Betsy’s eyes?
We find out that although she is a little bit eccentric (oh let’s call it endearing instead!) at times, Miss Betsy is a stubborn, stalwart friend who will be in your corner to the bitter end. She has taken in a special needs man by the name of Mr. Dick– a sweet, friendly (but mentally childlike) man who befriends David and brings a lot of laughter and much needed playfulness to his previously drudgerous days. In these times, anyone with mental handicaps of any kind was declared “a loon” or “insane” and sent off to live in an asylum, which is absolutely heartbreaking. Apparently, although we never quite get the whole story, Miss Betsy at some point observes Mr. Dick’s family mistreating him and about to send him off to live in an asylum to get rid of him, and she quickly and vehemently intervenes. She takes Mr. Dick in, caring for him almost as a mother for all the rest of his days. She is constantly praising him for being so smart, so wise, so talented. And both he and David thrive under her surrogate parenting. I always smile, picturing this totally atypical little family that, by society’s standard of the day, would never have worked. Yet love bound them together and made all of them happier, better people. Dickens often seems to do that throughout his work– create atypical family units that nonetheless thrive because love is there.
Of course, true to form, eventually the evil stepfather and his equally evil sister find out that David has escaped the torturous factory, and they find out that he has made it successfully to his Aunt’s house (blast the boy! How dare he escape the torture they had intended for him!). They come to see him. *thunder and lightning crash in the background.* David hears that they are coming and begs his Aunt not to make him return to the Murdstones– that they never loved him, they always abused him, and they killed his mother. She looks sternly and says that certainly he must return. Our hearts are in our throats! But just wait. Miss Betsy meets the Murdstones, takes one look at them, and reads them the riot act. She tells them everything that we have been longing to shout into their smug faces for ages– how they were cruel and ruined David’s mom– a soft, gentle creature, and destroyed her life, her innocence, and her family. And to make matters worse, Miss (yes MISS– you didn’t think anyone would marry the old bat, did you?) Murdstone has ridden a DONKEY across Ms. Trotwood’s lawn! And yes, they are properly chastised and chased off, much to the chagrin and horror of the Murdstones. As they leave in a huff, Aunt Betsy shouts after them:
‘Good day, sir,’ said my aunt, ‘and good-bye! Good day to you, too, ma’am,’ said my aunt, turning suddenly upon his sister. ‘Let me see you ride a donkey over my green again, and as sure as you have a head upon your shoulders, I’ll knock your bonnet off, and tread upon it!’
It would require a painter, and no common painter too, to depict my aunt’s face as she delivered herself of this very unexpected sentiment, and Miss Murdstone’s face as she heard it. But the manner of the speech, no less than the matter, was so fiery, that Miss Murdstone, without a word in answer, discreetly put her arm through her brother’s, and walked haughtily out of the cottage; my aunt remaining in the window looking after them; prepared, I have no doubt, in case of the donkey’s reappearance, to carry her threat into instant execution.
Love it. I was a member of the Aunt Betsy fan club from the moment I read that chapter.
Life in the beautiful Devon mansion by the sea could not be more different from life with the Murdstones, or life at the horrible debtor’s prison, or life at the brutal boarding school. David finds his days filled with sunshine, wildflowers, laughter, and sea breezes as he and Mr. Dick construct and fly kites by the hour, sneaking cookies when Ms. Betsy isn’t looking. Ms. Betsy buys David all new clothes to replace the rags that he is wearing, and pays a handsome sum to have him well educated in the financial business. His teacher is the esteemed Mr. Wickfield, who is an astute financial advisor (basically a rich hedge fund manager today) who has been managing Ms. Betsy’s vast financial estate for decades. His daughter, Agnes, is around David’s age, and the two become fast friends– as close as siblings.
David loves boarding at the Wickfield’s house during the school year, and they treat him like family until he goes back during holidays to live with his Aunt by the sea. Life is finally starting to look up. Unfortunately, as this is Dickens and no one can be too happy for long, there is this creepy redheaded man (redheads often symbolize evil in Dickens for whatever reason) named Uriah Heep that works for Mr. Wickfield. Uriah is always slinking around watching the children, whispering at Mr. Wickfield’s elbow. He’s a weirdo that just makes you uncomfortable. But he’s just a minor clerk so, for the moment, we don’t notice him too much, and as will be painfully obvious later, underestimating him is a mistake.
Eventually David grows into a young man. Life with his Aunt and Mr. Dick has fulfilled his childhood need for love, acceptance, family, and affection. His deep friendship with the Wickfields has encouraged him to use his quick and able mind, working hard to please and make them proud. Agnes develops a serious crush on him, but being the typical clueless boy, he is oblivious to it. His Aunt pays for an expensive internship for him at a fancy London bank, helping to ensure that he gets a lucrative job after school is over (something Murdstone would have drooled to know). At his first day on the job at the posh bank, David sees . . . her. He sees this stunning woman who instantly makes his world stop and his heart crash into his chest. It is love at first sight, and David falls– hard.
The lady is Dora Spenlow, the daughter of the bank’s owner (David’s boss). David, even though he is sponsored by a wealthy aunt, has no personal fortune, and thereby no chance with her. He determines right then and there that he will work ten times harder to make his fortune so that Dora will marry him. He throws himself into work, trying to earn her favor by quickly climbing the ranks in her father’s company. He writes, “All was over in a moment. I had fulfilled my destiny. I was a captive and a slave. I loved Dora Spenlow to distraction!”
Then later, as he is prowling around his house, unable to sleep, infatuated by burning thoughts of her beauty, he writes this:
All this time, I had gone on loving Dora, harder than ever. Her idea was my refuge in disappointment and distress, and made some amends to me, even for the loss of my friend. The more I pitied myself, or pitied others, the more I sought for consolation in the image of Dora. The greater the accumulation of deceit and trouble in the world, the brighter and the purer shone the star of Dora high above the world. I don’t think I had any definite idea where Dora came from, or in what degree she was related to a higher order of beings; but I am quite sure I should have scouted the notion of her being simply human, like any other young lady, with indignation and contempt.
If I may so express it, I was steeped in Dora. I was not merely over head and ears in love with her, but I was saturated through and through. Enough love might have been wrung out of me, metaphorically speaking, to drown anybody in; and yet there would have remained enough within me, and all over me, to pervade my entire existence.
Too funny. I think at some point we have all been there.
Side note, while the love bug is biting David HARD, he comes home from work one day to find his Aunt and Mr. Dick sitting on his doorstep with their suitcases. She says that Mr. Wickfield has somehow made a disastrous business deal, and all of her fortune is lost. She has had to rent out the grand house by the sea, and she is now practically penniless. It’s a sweet scene because now, for the first time, David is finally in a position to help the woman who has helped him so much. We wait to see– will he turn his Aunt away? Aww of course not. He invites them in, and the three of them remind each other that family is what matters– that they have each other, and that’s all they really need. David says that he will take on some extra work, and even Mr. Dick sweetly offers his state stipend, but of course Aunt Betsy tells him no– they will be fine, and that small amount is his to keep. For the time being they are poor but happy, barely afloat on David’s internship stipend. But he never stops thinking about Dora.
Many people in David’s life try to gently advise him that maybe Dora isn’t such a great match for him– she has been brought up in a very privileged lifestyle, is used to wealth, and really doesn’t know how to anything but shop (she’d be the one with her amazon app on tap today), and of course now David is a penniless pauper. But David is absolutely convinced that he is going to die of lovesickness if Dora doesn’t marry him. He writes her dozens of amorous letters every day, finally convincing her to date him secretly. They both know that if her dad finds out, it’s all over– both David’s job and their relationship. But their passion is too great for prudence. In the end, predictably (after all, David– hundreds of love notes coming to the house many times a day is bound to tip the old guy off), Dora’s dad finds out, and is, ahem, not pleased. He forbids David from seeing his daughter again– saying that his daughter isn’t meant to be “thrown away on a clerk!” Dora starts sending all the love letters back, and David is frantic to see her, to explain, to beg her to run away with him. Someone should explain cold showers to David.
But apparently no one does, because the next thing we know, he is girding up his loins to go see Dora’s dad and plead his case. He has a sparkling future career ahead of him– trained at Mr. Spenlow’s own bank, for goodness sake! Wouldn’t he actually be the perfect son in law? Yes, he might not have much now, but his prospects are bright, and he will not stop working until he gets Dora everything she deserves. Doesn’t Mr. Spenlow want his daughter to be happy?
Awkwardly, when David arrives at work early to talk to Dora’s dad, it turns out that Mr. Spenlow is lying over his desk . . . dead. Um . . . so yeah. That didn’t go so well. It ends up that Mr. Spenlow died of a heart attack, and the lingering question is . . . was the stress from finding out that his daughter was secretly dating someone POOR the thing that pushed him over the edge into heavenly oblivion? Will Dora blame David for her father’s death? David is sick to his stomach, aching to talk to Dora to find out if she is ok, if she blames him . . . if (ahem, not to be tactless here, but, um . . . ) now that your dad is dead can we finally date?
It turns out that Dora does blame David for her dad’s death. She refuses to have anything to do with him, turning his letters away and sending them back unopened. She has the servants refuse to let him inside or give him any information on how she is doing when he comes to visit. She refuses any and all contact. Essentially, she gives him the Edwardian form of a social media block. Why do I feel like Dora would have a bedazzled pink iPhone, today?
Ironically though, it is soon revealed that Mr. Spenlow wasn’t as rich as he had let on. In fact, his business is heavily in debt, and all of his assets are auctioned off to pay his debts, leaving Dora penniless. It is at that point that Dora reconsiders and starts to think that David (and a salary, any salary) looks pretty good. She reaches out to him to “rekindle the relationship.” *awkward chuckle.* David for whatever reason doesn’t seem to notice that he is being used, and instantly asks Dora to marry him.
Here is where we put on our wise old librarian glasses on the ends of our noses, and make judgmental Tsk Tsk sounds as we shake our heads. Children, don’t you know that you should be careful what you ask for, because sometimes you might just get it? David and Dora set a wedding date, and he anticipates a life of endless wedded bliss.
You know what? This is getting long, and to tell the story, I can’t let anything out. I think I will break this post into 2 posts. How about that? More later? Let’s pause here. Let me tuck you in; get a good night’s sleep, and we will finish the story tomorrow.
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I can’t wait for part two PB.
You’re the best PB <3