Saturday, August 29, 2015
Okay. I think I get it now.
A lot of the Dickens I've read in the last year is of the mawkish, syrup-sweet variety that's basically impossible to read with a straight face. It's been a long time since I've read Hard Times and a longer time since I've read A Tale of Two Cities so I haven't seen the good side of Dickens in a while. But David Copperfield fixed that.
This is a wonderful coming-of-age story, and it's full of love and loss and realistic pain that reaches out and touches the reader. It has none of the over-the-top picturesqueness of The Old Curiosity Shop and isn't quite as focused on plucky, stupid, stolid women as Bleak House or Little Dorrit. David Copperfield is full of characters who ring true, who make mistakes that are honest and avoidable and frustrating instead of, say blindly perusing a law suit for decades or protecting a grandfather who relentlessly gambles away his savings. The characters in this story made me groan in sympathy at their misfortunes and mistakes instead of making me bang my head on my desk out of frustration with their plain masochism and inability to learn from experience.
What a relief!
And that's what I get, that's what I needed reminding of. Dickens isn't just about grimy descriptions of London or hilarious character names or relentless mockery of the Victorian educational system (though, yes, that gets its share of poking here too) - Dickens also wrote about people who were vulnerable and weak and depended on the kindness of others and were sometimes hurt by that. Dickens cared deeply about children and the future and the damaged world he was living in and Dickens wanted to make that world a better place. And he did - writing about what he wrote about, even if it included the ridiculous Little Nell and a whole bevy of insipid pedestal-standing straw-women, taught his readers to keep an eye out for the filth they had been blind to and to try to be kind where they could.
And the message still stands - clearer in David Copperfield than in any of his other books that I've read - that it's up to those who have the liberty to be kind, generous, and patient to be kind, generous, and patient with everyone they can.
Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. Modern Library Classics. New York: New York.