Wednesday, 26 October 2011

David Copperfield. By Charles Dickens

David Copperfield

Charles Dickens

Oxford University Press. This edition published 1981.
First published in monthly serialized parts between 1849 and 1850.

My favourite Dickens. Actually one of my favourite books. This is the fourth time I'm reading it (and 'I'm lovin' it'!). It is a semi-autobiographical story of David Copperfield, orphaned at an early age and put to work in a factory. He runs away, is adopted by his kindly but fearsome and eccentric aunt, and grows up to become a successful author. The autobiographical parts are: the being put to labour in a factory; the character of Mr. Micawber (among the greatest inventions in English literature, I think, and so do many others) based on the character of Dickens' father; and of course the bit about growing up to be successful writer. I do not know how much of the other bits are based on his own life.  

Apart from David's own story, the novel weaves together two other major stories, and several smaller ones. One of the major stories is that of Steerforth, Emily and the Peggotty family. The other is the story of Mr. Wickfield, Agnes Wickfield, Uriah Heep and Mr. Micawber. The smaller stories include those of (Clara) Peggotty and Barkis ('Barkis is willing'); the Micawber family before they meet Uriah Heep; Tommy Traddles; David's aunt Betsey Trotwood, her husband, and her protege Mr. Dick; Doctor Strong and Mrs Strong; and Dora and Mr. Spenlow. The last may actually qualify as a major story line, except that it is intense, and runs over a smaller portion of the novel than the others.

This novel like all of Dickens' novels, emphasizes that love, goodness and decency are better treasures than all the money and prestige in the world. The most admirable character is presented as that of Mr. Peggotty, the fisherman, who has an immensely generous heart, and spends a good part of his life (and money) going in search of his adopted daughter Emily, who has become a 'fallen women' acceptable to no one else in society. His actions and statements, both before he makes his resolve, and especially after he does so, provide some of the most moving moments of the novel. Equally moving are the scenes where the young wife of the old Dr. Strong explains her attitudes and feelings towards elderly husband and her marriage to him. There are many other such passages, in fact the novel is full of them, with almost every page readable many times over. Below are brief sketches of some of the characters.

Mr. Murdstone and his sister ('the murdering woman'): A nasty pair, they  preyed on widowed or single women (at least two of them in the novel), bending them to their rigid ways. They do this to David's widowed young mother, driving her to her grave. To quote : 'Firmness was the grand quality on which both Mr. and Miss Murdstone took their was another name for tyranny and for a certain gloomy, arrogant, devil's humour that was in them both. The creed...was this. Mr. Murdstone was firm; nobody in his world was to be so firm as Mr. Murdstone; nobody else in his world was to be firm at all, for everybody was to be bent to his firmness'. Reminds me rather of Athan.

Steerforth: A spoilt son of a rich doting mother, he is handsome, intelligent, very easy with his friends, obnoxious to those he doesn't like, capable of learning and doing almost anything he wants, confident, and a man of the world. But there is a moral vacuum in him which makes him do what is comfortable, or even maybe just momentarily convenient rather than what is right. He is responsible for some of the nastiest behaviour in the novel, but there are some slight redeeming features in him, and David loves him to the end, though he can never forgive him for what he did. 

Miss Mowcher: A good natured, seedy, slightly shady, but ultimately moral, dwarf, she plays a significant, though minor, role in the denouement of one of the story lines.

Uriah Heep: A truly evil character, he is always claiming to be 'umble', while constantly planning nasty and crooked things. There is a explanation and extenuation of sorts of his actions when he explains how he has been taught from childhood to be humble in the presence of his 'betters'. This particular explanation raises questions about the novel that I shall have more to say about a little later. Uriah is the real villain of the whole novel

Peggotty: She is David's nurse, a loyal and sweet lady servant, and till the end  is happy to be with David, and serve him as much as she can. David in return treats her well, as does Dickens himself.

Emily: A rather colourless silly girl, her undoing is brought about by her desire to become a 'lady'.

Littimer: Steerforth's manservant, he is, like Jeeves, a 'gentleman's personal gentleman'. Also like Jeeves he is always dignified, respectable and competent. Especially, he doesn't walk, but floats silently from place to place, always appearing where he is required, and only when he's required. Maybe Wodehouse got his model for Jeeves from Littimer. Except that Littimer is an ultimately evil man, who encourages and helps his master Steerforth in his designs on Emily.

There are huge number of other memorable characters, minor and major, and I don't want to list them all. Instead I shall address, in the rest of this entry, a major point about this novel (and other novels by Dickens) that strikes me. It is the following. In this novel David (and other similar characters in the other Dickens novels) frequently bemoans having had a hard childhood, because he is put to work in a factory rather than being sent to school. He presents this as something truly evil that is done to him, something he does not 'deserve'. We note though that he has no such sympathies about his fellow child workers in the factory, but actually resents the fact that he, a 'gentleman', should be put in the such low company. Throughout the book, in fact, there is this peculiar distinction between 'ladies' and 'gentlemen' on the one hand, and the 'common people' on the other. We are not told what exactly distinguishes one set of people from the other. It is not money, for gentlemen remain gentlemen even when they loose all their money, and common folk never attain 'gentle' status no matter how much money they get. A classic case of such an attitude is Emily, who is attracted by a chance to become a Lady and deserts her well-off and faithful fiance, who is not a gentleman, but 'only' a successful and prosperous fisherman. It may be that Emily is actually attracted by the handsomeness, competence and confidence of Steerforth, but this is not what Dickens tells us. So I am puzzled. What defines a gentleman? It cannot be just the family into which one is born, but may be related to the attitude towards 'blood', that Dickens describes in a hilarious sequence. To quote: 'Other things are all very well in their way, but give me Blood.' Also 'There are some that would prefer to bow low down before idols. Positively Idols! Before services, intellect and so on. But these are intangible points. Blood is not so. We see Blood in the nose, and we know it.' Dickens is making fun of the attitude of looking up to Aristocracy (or 'Blood'), but is, I think, guilty of similar, if milder, attitude towards what he calls 'gentlemen'. Maybe it only means that in these matters, Dickens could not, understandably, rise too far above the social attitudes of his time.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Wodehouse At The Wicket. Edited by Murray Hedgecock

Wodehouse At The Wicket: A Cricketing Anthology

Sir P.G. Wodehouse

Edited by Murray Hedgecock

Published by Arrow Books, 2011.

    A collection of 'pieces' ('as we journalists call them' !), extracts, short stories, essays, and a few 'nifties', all related to cricket, taken from the extensive opus of PGW. Some of these are great to read (again, in many cases). These include the magnificent description of the school cricket match at Sedleigh's where Mike Jackson first showed the school what a great cricketer he was. The short stories, which I read for the first time, are not really very good. The other extracts are varied - good to boring. It's pity PGW didn't write as much about cricket as he did about golf. It would have been good to have had a 'PGW Cricket Omnibus'.