Wednesday, July 23, 2008
I'm not sure why I never read David Copperfield. Blame professors eager to shake up the Victorian canon. Sure, I knew the hackneyed first chapter title "I am born," and dutifully laughed alongside teachers who made fun of a narrator first person-izing his own birth. But David Copperfield was another generation's "Dickens novel," as Hamlet was another generation's "Shakespeare play." My Shakespeare was Lear, over and over, and my Dickensian narrator was Pip, over and over. At some point public opinion shifted to Great Expectations as THE Dickens to teach, probably because it is shorter, no doubt because Miss Havisham provides such a Sexual Revolution-era cautionary fable about the down side of letting your girl parts get too melancholic and cobwebby. Imagine my delight, then, to first encounter, in my mid-forties, the mannered yet modest cadences of young Copperfield, left alone in the world without parents, property, or prospects. Pennyless but for the unconditional love of his good nurse Peggoty and the gift of his own generous and self-improving heart.
I think I love him for his optimism. While the serialization of the novel means there are too many quirky-yet-heartwarming moments for my taste (the characterization and verbal tic equivalent of Disney's rolly-poly animals and birds with long lashes), there are enough brutal patriarchs and brutalized women that I appreciate David's faith that things will--must--get better. I thought when I opened the pages of the novel and began reading during my morning commute that I would sink into the rhythms of Victorian London, forgetting the sway and squeal of the train, the smell of the bodies of my fellow passengers, how tired and unready for the day I often feel. Instead the present and the past tumble together, and I am riding in a carriage through the dark passages of my own life, following the thread of a voice whose story leads ever upwards into a place of arrival, like the escalator I ride every day up, up from underground into the wide white bustle of the urban morning. I wonder, as David does, whether I will be the hero of my own life, even now, every day in the story where I find myself. And I can't help hoping, as I hear that wonderful narrative voice turning and rolling in my head, word piled on word, confident of a reader out there who can hear and be delighted by it still, that I will be.