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BLOG: Dickens and Copperfield - By Elliot James

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

Trotwood... Agnes.

David Copperfield was Dickens’ most personal and favourite of all his novels.

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