In 1849, at the age of 37, Charles Dickens was ready to dig into the parts of his
past that he had repressed; that he had felt shameful about. Until now it had been a deep secret from friends, let alone the public, that his parents went to debtors’ prison. At just ten years of age he had to find lodgings, and to pay his way he worked ten-hour shifts at a blacking factory. He earned six shillings a week
pasting labels onto pots of boot blacking. The boys in the factory also worked in a
large room in which a window gave a view onto the London street… small
audiences often gathered to watch the boys at work. An indignity Charles never
forgot. The conditions were so harsh that they forever inspired Dickens’ passion
for social reform and sympathy for the poor.
The experiences were Dickens’ secret agony and shame… a dark mark upon his
soul that he had carried for years. In writing David Copperfield, he would exorcise
such demons at last! Mid career, middle-aged and in the middle of the century,
Dickens explored the prevailing middle class values… high morals, industry, the
gender-divide, strict social structure and absence of social mobility. Through
words and the conjuring magic of language he would transform his own
experience into fiction and give it a mythical quality.
David is not the young Charles but rather is lent his experience. Indeed, the first-
person narrative draws on many of his youthful experiences. David too will make
the incredibly unlikely journey from poverty to famous author. And a ‘guess who’
game emerges in terms of many of the classic characters: Is Mr Micawber, with
his extremes of joy and despair, luck and mischance, based Dickens’ father?
Many believe so. Is Dora based on Dickens’ own first love, Maria Beadnell? Who
inspired the obsequious villain that is Uriah Heep? Is he an amalgamation of
many villains encountered in Dickens’ time?
Transformation of personal experiences into the novel is Dickens’ great magic
trick. His grand illusion. And illusion plays a vital role in David’s journey. His
supreme maturation occurs when he develops the ability to distinguish between
illusion and reality. Littimer is not actually respectable. Heep is not actually
humble. People wear masks and true relationships occur when the illusions are
stripped away. Micawber sees through Heep. Traddles sees through Steerforth.
In the end David can also distinguish who truly loves him: Pegotty, Betsey
David Copperfield was Dickens’ most personal and favourite of all his novels.