I believe that David Copperfield was the very first book I ever received as a young girl that was not a children’s book. My dad brought it home for me one day when I was sick (beginning my collection of Modern Classics back when they were hardcover), and it transported me to another world.
People have differing opinions about which Charles Dickens book is best. For example, author Nick Hornby blogged that Great Expectations was one of the greatest books ever written. I myself have never fallen under the spell of Great Expectations, though. David Copperfield is my favorite. Tolstoy thought Dickens was the best of all English novelists and considered this book Dickens’s finest work.
David is the narrator of his own story, and he begins it on the night of his birth. David is a posthumous baby, and the novel begins with the first appearance of Aunt Betsey Trotwood, who comes to greet the appearance of her niece and terrifies David’s gentle, foolish mother. When David turns out to be a boy, Aunt Trotwood is mightily offended and departs.
Although David’s early childhood is idyllic, worshipped as he is by his mother and Peggoty the maid, it soon takes a turn for the worse. David’s mother is courted and won by the stern, apparently upright (and ultimately cruel and hypocritical) Mr. Murdstone, and the house is taken over by his cold and fault-finding sister Jane. David is a true innocent with only good intentions, but at every turn he is found to be in the wrong. He is soon shipped off to a typically horrible (if you know Dickens) boarding school.
After a bit of a rocky start, David finds himself made a pet of the popular Steerforth and also befriends Tommy Traddles. However, his mediocre education is interrupted when his mother and baby brother die. Mr. Murdstone sends him to London to lodge with the feckless Micawber family and work in a factory. When the well-meaning but impecunious Micawber is sent to debtor’s prison, David tires of his degrading life and runs off to find the only family he has left, Aunt Betsey Trotwood.
Although Aunt Trotwood is still disappointed that he isn’t a girl, she is kind, and from here, David’s life improves. The story continues with his education, marriage, and young adulthood. It is loaded with some of Dickens’s most delightful characters and a few villainous ones. Alternately turning from comedy to pathos, Dickens expertly drives the story along.
I believe one reason I find David Copperfield so touching is that David’s early life is taken from Dickens’s own. Dickens’s father was sent to debtor’s prison and Dickens went to work in a factory at an early age. This connection translates into a moving experience for the reader.
When innocent and loving David is punished by his stepfather because he is so terrified he can’t recite his lessons or when he is sent off to work in a factory, who remains untouched? When Barkis is willin’ or Mr. Micawber appears on the scene, who doesn’t laugh out loud? When steadfast and valiant Ham dies trying to rescue his rival, who isn’t tearful? When the slimy Uriah Heep finally gets his comeuppance, who isn’t delighted?
If you are not used to reading Victorian literature, you may find the writing old-fashioned, but you will almost certainly be carried along by the story.