Thoughts on Copperfield, Bleak House, and Lions

I think the thing that interested me the most about finally reading David Copperfield was how much I enjoyed the novel. As I mentioned in an earlier post, in high school I didn’t much like Dickens. The second or third chapter of Copperfield started to bog down and I almost gave up, but, pushing on, I enjoyed most of the rest of it… until about the final third.

A number of essays at the back of the edition I read mentioned reading and re-reading the novel, but I don’t see myself doing that. But I might re-read various segments. My favorite parts come mostly before Steerforth leaves the narrative as a speaking character. After that the text produces more and more of Macawber. I gather I’m supposed to find Macawber funny, but the deeper into the text I got, the more I groaned when I saw he was to be a central character of a chapter. I disliked his meanderings so much that I began to blip over huge swathes of paragraphs where he was talking. I likewise didn’t find the machinations of Uriah Heep of great interest. Some villains you hate and you long to see when they will get their comeuppance — the Murdstones, for instance. Heep I just found so irritating I wanted to get him out of the narrative. Not necessarily because I wanted to see him get his just desserts but because I was tired of him.

It sounds like I’m complaining, but there are brilliant bits all through the book. I particularly like the first time Copperfield gets drunk, which was wonderfully described. And I don’t think anyone’s ever described insipid young love as well as Dickens does, or little yipey dogs. And I loved Copperfield’s aunt, and Mr. Dick, who are all that much finer when you can look back on their first interactions with Copperfield and understand better where they were “coming from.” I pretty much enjoyed all of Copperfield’s childhood when he was with the horrible Murdstones and at the awful boarding school, and when he was hanging out with Steerforth as a young man.

The book put me in mind of some of the criticism I see about my Dabir and Asim novels — that anything written in first person has no tension because you know the narrator survives. I still think that’s silly. As with Copperfield, or Sherlock Holmes, the interest comes in seeing how it all works out. But I don’t suppose me saying that again will change the fact that people will continue to use that as a point against first person in my own work.

Bleak House I pretty much enjoyed all the way through. Some complain about the pace. I’ve read various reviewers who claimed they knew how it would turn out, but I’m not sure how they could. They might get the general feel for how it would end, but watching it happen was of great interest, and masterful. I do find that Dickens’ perfect helpmate women are a little trying, but every genre is going to have its conventions you have to deal with, and this appears to be one of his things. I was afraid one of the other characters would turn into another Macawber, but Dickens ended up showing him as a social parasite, which was a nice turnabout.

Anyway, I will definitely be reading more Dickens, though I might give it a year or more before I try again. I sense that the same themes will turn up and I don’t want to keep tasting the same flavors.

And now for something completely different: the best lion fight ever filmed.

 

10 Comments on “Thoughts on Copperfield, Bleak House, and Lions

  1. Dickens is a favorite of mine and David Copperfield is at the top of my list. Ever read The Signalman? A classic ghost story. Oh and I’ve refuted the first person ‘lack of suspense’ thing time and again, only to see it pop up somewhere else like a hydra with ADD. I suspect some writing teachers are repeating that little chestnut. I mean I can show you books where the narrator dies and even if I couldn’t, there’s more to suspense than worrying about the survival of the protagonist.

    • Hey Charles,

      Haven’t read The Signalman yet. I’ll try to remember around October. I have heard that Dickens wrote some pretty excellent ghost stories.

      I’ve read at least one of your essays on first person, and really thought you nailed it. I think you’re right about the whole writing teachers repeating the chestnut theory. It just doesn’t make sense. So much excellent, even classic, literature has been written from first person viewpoint. Huck Finn, anyone? But I can’t try to educate the whole of the reading world, so I expect that the “lower review grade because I wrote in first person” will continue to pop up from time to time.

      Howard

  2. Bleak House is such a blast. It’s one of the few books of such length where I wouldn’t want to lose a single character or sideplot. I was fortunate enough to be in London when I was reading it and walked the streets of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Without the fog or nearby slums it didn’t have quite the same field I imagine it did in DIcken’s days but it was pretty cool.

    • I bet that was a neat experience. I’ve yet to make it to the British Isles myself.

      Any suggestion on which Dickens I should try next time?

      Howard

        • Well, that’s the one I despised in high school. While I realize now that I didn’t have the wisdom to appreciate it, I’d probably want to try some more books I haven’t read first.

          • The only other ones I’ve read that hasn’t been mentioned is Great Expectations and Hard Times. GE’s got some great gothic touches. HT is ok, but Dickens is clearly sermonizing and it’s a little wearing.
            I hope to read Barnaby Rudge this summer.

  3. I also rushed through Copperfield in high school but would definitely like to revisit Dickens. I ran into “Dombey and Sons” in a used bookstore and didn’t end up picking it up but it looks great. I’ll have to try and track it down.

    • I’ve done some research, and be warned about Dombey. There’s a lot of disagreement among Dickens scholars about which ones are in the top 5, or even top 10, but I don’t think I’ve seen any list Dombey among either…

  4. Oh man. I guess “hidden gem” is a bit too much to hope for then, eh? (Totally still going to hope anyway.)

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