A novel approach
As a new film version of David Copperfield hits the silver screen, Dan Carrier talks to Dickens biographer Professor Michael Slater about why it was the Victorian author’s ‘favourite child’
23 January, 2020 — By Dan Carrier
Dev Patel in The Personal History of David Copperfield
The latest screen adaption of Charles Dickens’ great semi-autobiographical novel, David Copperfield, is in cinemas this week – and the re-telling of the story highlights why the novelist believed the book was his favourite.
Dickens experts have long looked between the lines of the novel, published in 19 monthly instalments in 1849 and 1850, for clues about Dickens’s life.
Professor Michael Slater MBE is a leading authority on Dickens: he taught Victorian literature at Birkbeck up to his retirement in 2001, and has penned a number of books on the author. His biography is seen as the key text on the writer’s life.
The beginnings of Copperfield came via a conversation Dickens had with his close friend and confidante John Forster, reveals the Bloomsbury-based professor. Forster was to be Dickens’ appointed biographer, and it was a chance conversation between the two that may have prompted Dickens to look back over his past for material.
“A man called Dilke had mentioned to Forster how he had seen Dickens as a child when he was working at a blacking factory,” says Professor Slater. “Dilke had given him a tip – and Dickens had in turn given a low bow and politely thanked him. Forster was curious about this incident – people did not know anything about this period of his early life. When Forster asked about this, Dickens remained strangely silent. Instead, he wrote an autobiographical fragment, describing this episode. It was not published until after his death.”
Later, Dickens told his friend and quasi-literary agent he had a better way of writing about his childhood – and so set to work on David Copperfield.
Professor Michael Slater
Professor Slater says the book was a watershed for Dickens. “He called it his favourite child. It was so deeply personal to him.
“In an amazing way, he was confessing to his beloved public. He had previously concealed the trouble he had known as a child, how he was sent to work in a blacking factory, his father had been in a debtors’ prison, he was hungry, vulnerable and on the streets.
“He wanted to write about the social disgrace of his father, how they had flitted from lodging to lodging to avoid their debtors. He had previously been deeply ashamed about this. It was the first time he had written in the first person, and drew on his own family for inspiration. Mr Micawber, who is kindly but useless with money, is sent to a debtors’ gaol.”
Dickens wrote instalments from his home in Devonshire Terrace, Regent’s Park, and then over a summer at a villa he rented on the Isle of Wight. Its central themes focus on issues that had long played on Dickens’s mind. He considers, through David’s eyes, attachment and loss, and how your persona is affected by your childhood.
Charles Dickens in 1842
“Copperfield was his most honest book,” he adds. “He comes much closer to the truth as to what had happened to him, than say Oliver Twist, which also had elements of autobiography.”
Professor Slater highlights how as a 19-year-old Dickens had fallen madly in love with a woman called Maria Beadnell – a banker’s daughter. Maria gave inspiration for the unflattering character of Dora in Copperfield.
Professor Slater said: “He adored her and she strung him along. Her father did not want them to marry. In Copperfield, David does marry Dora – and it is a pretty disastrous betrothal. Dickens knew if he had married Maria, it also would have been unhappy.”
Other figures can be traced to those he was close to, says Professor Slater. “The character Agnes, who David is so close to, was modelled on his older sister Fanny,” he says. “Their relationship was hugely important to him. She had died just before he started writing, and was another reason he felt compelled to look back at his own past.”
While biographers have found no evidence directly in Dickens’ papers that he had read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, published a year before, it was hugely successful and written in the first person.
Professor Slater adds: “It was Charlotte Bronte telling her story and it might have given Dickens the idea for a novel written this way.”
Other links between Dickens and the title’s lead emerge: Copperfield becomes a parliamentary reporter – a role Dickens held before becoming a novelist.
“His contempt for Parliament and MPs is apparent,” says Professor Slater. “Copperfield becomes thoroughly cynical about the speeches he hears – he felt it was about mystifying the public, rather than explaining. He also used it to illustrate the need for social justice – and greater respect for the poor. It is an important aspect of the book. The working-class Peggotty family, for example, are golden characters.”
Packed with such endearing figures, it was an instant success.
“It says a lot about his pride in his own achievements,” adds Professor Slater. “Above all, he was celebrating the greatest love affair of his life – his relationship with his readers.”