Tuesday, September 15, 2009

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

I finished this book last night, and I must admit, it was exhausting. I started this book back in July, and I kept getting distracted. I don't know if it's the longest book I've ever read (I'm pretty sure War and Peace is longer), but it's got to be pretty close to the top of the list. My edition was 821 pages of text, not including the introduction, end notes, etc. I actually found a article which claims it's 358,000 words -- Dickens' longest work. Normally, I have nothing against long books, but lately I find that some of them make me impatient. Dickens, Dreiser, Tolstoy -- sometimes I think they really could have used a good editor. Even my beloved Jane Austen has moments in Emma (my other current read) in which I feel like shouting, "Just get on with it! Move it along!" It could be my education in journalism, in which we were taught that less is generally more. "Never use a ten-dollar word when a two-dollar word will do!" was the mantra that I have never forgotten. That's why Hemingway (a journalist) wrote. With. Very. Short. Sentences.

But back to David Copperfield. This is one of those classics that frequently shows up on lists of The Best Novels of All Time, Top Reading for College, etc., and in fact is the one Dickens loved best of all his works, probably because it's his most autobiographical. There is some great stuff in this book, and I absolutely started out loving it -- I read the first 300 pages or so very quickly and fell in love with it. I was sure it was going to supplant Bleak House as my favorite Dickens work. The story of David's childhood is both tragic and hilarious. His aunt Betsey Trotwood is an absolute hoot, and I was so impressed that his tragic beginnings were so compelling -- repugnant, but I couldn't put it down. His father died before he was born, his mother remarries an abusive monster, then she dies leaving him with a wretched stepfather who forces him to work in a factory. Of course, he's the quintessential Dickensian orphan.

However, I really got bored in the middle and kept putting it down for other books. David's youth and his courtship of the angelic Dora just didn't do it for me. Generally, I'm not impressed with Dickens' young female characters, which seem to be idealized and flat. It's the great descriptions of scenes and the quirky minor characters that really make the stories come to life. Also, the plot in David Copperfield isn't really that gripping, like in Oliver Twist or Bleak House.

I do realize that Dickens' books were all serialized and he had contracted with his publishers to come up with so many words per week or month; hence, the length and all the padding. I really wish I'd kept a running list of the characters, since minor characters disappear for hundreds of pages and then suddenly reappear. I found myself wondering where in the heck I'd heard of them, and consulting online sources so I could remember how they fit into the story. And of course Dickens is notorious for his use of unbelievable coincidences, which seem to appear mostly at the end of the book, thereby tying up all the loose ends of the story.

Don't get me wrong, I really like Dickens -- I've been on a Dickens kick the last year or so and I've read eight of his works since last May. But I think I may have overdone it this time. I'm glad I read it, and I do recommend it if you like the Victorian style of flowery prose, multiple short chapters, and amazing coincidences. However, I think it's time for me and Dickens to take a short break.


  1. I have to admit, this is not high on my list of books to read. Dickins still scares the...um...dickins out of me (pardon the stupid pun). I'm determined to read Great Expectations and Bleak House (isn't that about 1000 pages?), but I really have no interest beyond that. Maybe I'll change my mind after those, but I don't know. A Christmas Carol was SO BORING. I couldn't stand the writing.

    Some of those old serial writers really could have used an editor, I agree. I admit, I didn't have trouble with American Tragedy, but for instance Vanity Fair? Oh my...and The Count of Monte Cristo? Yeah. But I suppose at the time these long books were the best form of entertainment, without TV and without a huge mass of books being printed. It makes me wonder what it would have been like to live in that time.

    And btw, 358k words is INSANE.

  2. I haven't read this one, but do love Charles Dickens (yes, Amanda and I, I fear, frequently disagree on books... she won't read Dune either!). His books seem to be in two general category for me: charming books (Oliver Twist, Christmas Carol) and urgent books (Tale of Two Cities, Hard Times) - admittedly, the two sides do have a grey middle area, but still, generally there is a line between the two. This one sounds like the former, and in my experience, to enjoy those they have to be really... well... charming. I guess this sounds less charming than you might hope for...

  3. It's charming, but just kind of sentimental, and the story itself just doesn't go anywhere. It's not nearly as gripping as Tale of Two Cities or Oliver Twist or Great Expecations. And those are also -- wait for it -- much shorter. I really do recommend Bleak House. Full disclosure: I fell in love with Bleak House after watching the BBC miniseries, which is wonderful. Yes, I admit they had to cut parts and condense, but they really captured the essence of it. It turned me into a Dickens lover.

    And I never got the appeal of A Christmas Carol, it's my least favorite Dickens.

  4. So I just had a bad Dickins as my first try? Hm. Well, one day in the next 5 years I plan to attempt both Great Expectations and Bleak House. Maybe we'll end up reading GE or A Tale of Two Cities for our book club in 2011 or 12...

  5. A Dickens Haiku:

    Oh my heck, I
    actually enjoyed Dickens.
    Vive le Carton!

    Sadly, cannot take credit for this. But I have found a wonderful book blog mostly written in haiku:

    http://www.emilyreads.com. Add it to your favorites, trust me.

  6. I'm going try Dickens again at some point. I read Great Expectations way back yonder when..before I could appreciate it really. So time to try again. Jason, maybe if we gang up on Amanda about Dune...she'd give it a try?? It's the best!!

  7. While hope springs eternal, Ms BookDiva, reality continues to smack it in the face and laugh cruelly. But, still, one can hope, I suppose...

    Love the haiku blog link...

  8. (Jason: FYI - That's Debye there. I didn't know if you new, haha!)

    Is that really a haiku? With only 4 syllables top and bottom? I'm not real up on my poetry types...

    ps - Karen, I love the list of books you've read!

  9. I didn't actually count the syllables, just cut and pasted from emilyreads. Seriously, check out her blog, you'll love it.

    I counted, 45 of those are children's or YA. No wonder I read so many! Some, great, great juvenile lit, though. Can't believe I read so many.

  10. I am almost finished with Oliver Twist, and I am enjoying the story line. I agree sometimes I just want Dickens to get one with it.

    I hope to read all of Dickens some day but I think I'll take it at a slower pace: 8 since last May! WOW.

  11. I have yet to read Great Expectations in its entirety so I truly admire you for doing just that!
    Also, I did enjoy the BBC/Masterpiece Theatre version of Great Expectations which I felt was very well done.

  12. I agree the early Copperfield years are the best and I also enjoyed the lovers scandal, but ugh Dora. Dora is a terrible character, but at the same time she doesn't deserve to die just because there's another, better woman waiting in the wings.

  13. Jodie, I agree completely. Why are all of his young heroines so drippy? Ada Clare in Bleak House (and Esther, but at least she's the main character); Pet Meagles; Amy Dorritt; Kate Nickleby (forgot the name of Nicholas' love interest); Lucie Manette; the list goes on and on. Clearly, Dickens had issues with young women.


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