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David Copperfield | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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David Copperfield | 10 Things You Didn't Know


David Copperfield, published serially in 1849–50 and one of Charles Dickens's best-loved novels, tells the story of young David, whose life from childhood to maturity closely mirrors Dickens's own. Like many of Dickens's novels, David Copperfield focuses on the social imbalance between rich and poor, often making the point that poverty can ennoble more easily than wealth.

Russian writer Leo Tolstoy pronounced it "a delight," and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud gave the novel to his fiancée when they got engaged. David Copperfield's myriad richly drawn characters have enchanted readers for well over a century and a half.

1. David Copperfield was Dickens's favorite novel.

Dickens wrote a preface to David Copperfield in which he described his sad feelings at finishing the novel. He said:

It would concern the reader little, perhaps, to know how sorrowfully the pen is laid down at the close of a two-years' imaginative task...Of all my books, I like this the best. It will be easily believed that I am a fond parent to every child of my fancy, and that no one can ever love that family as dearly as I love them. But, like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is DAVID COPPERFIELD.

2. Dickens had at least a dozen different titles for David Copperfield.

When it was first published in serial form, David Copperfield was titled The Personal History, Adventures, Experience & Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery. (Which He Never Meant to be Published on any Account.) In addition, Dickens had used or considered at least 12 other titles for the novel, including Mag's Diversions: Being the Personal History of MR THOMAS MAG THE YOUNGER and The Copperfield Survey of the World as It Rolled.

3. David Copperfield is the most autobiographical of Dickens's novels.

Critics see many parallels between the events in the novel and those of Dickens's own life. Creakle, the school headmaster in the novel, bears similarities to the headmaster in Dickens's school. David's experiences working in a factory reflect Dickens's own labors as a child. Mr. Micawber, imprisoned for debt in the novel, is like Dickens's own father, also imprisoned for debt. Even the initials of the main character's name, D.C., are those of Dickens, transposed.

4. The character Uriah Heep is said to have been based on fairy-tale author Hans Christian Andersen.

Dickens met Andersen, the author of tales such as "The Little Mermaid" and "The Emperor's New Clothes," in 1847. Andersen was very impressed with Dickens; Dickens was less taken with the Danish writer. A decade later Andersen came, uninvited, to stay with Dickens. He found the house too cold, forced Dickens's son to shave him in the mornings, and generally irritated his hosts with both his complaints and his adulation.

Dickens's daughter wrote in a letter, "He was a bony bore, and stayed on and on," and Dickens himself put a note on the door of the room he'd left that said, "Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks — which seemed to the family AGES!" The effect Andersen had on the family is said to have been immortalized in the character of Uriah Heep, the pernicious, blackmailing moneylender in David Copperfield.

5. Dickens named his daughter after a character in David Copperfield.

Dickens's daughter Dora was born while he was writing David Copperfield. He loved the character Dora Copperfield in his novel and decided to name the child after her. Dora Copperfield dies in childbirth in the novel. Sadly, Dora Dickens did not live long either; she died at only eight months old, after having convulsions. Dickens wrote about her illness in a letter to his wife, who was away, "You would suppose her quietly asleep. But I am sure she is very ill, and I cannot encourage myself with much hope of her recovery. I do not—and why should I say I do, to you my dear!—I do not think her recovery at all likely."

6. David Copperfield is one of only two Dickens novels written in the first person.

By the time David Copperfield was published, Dickens had published eight other novels, all with third-person narrators. David Copperfield was written with a first-person narrator, which reflected the personal and autobiographical nature of the novel. Great Expectations, published almost a decade later, is also narrated in the first person.

7. The name Uriah Heep came to symbolize a particular kind of villainy.

In David Copperfield, Uriah Heep is a skinny, pale moneylender whose obsequious fawning and wicked blackmail schemes have made him a favorite villain among readers. In fact, his character is so universally despised that the name Uriah Heep has come to mean someone who is hypocritical in his false humility.

8. Writer Virginia Woolf thought David Copperfield was the best of Dickens's novels.

Modernist writer Virginia Woolf was a huge fan of David Copperfield. Though in an essay on the book, she claimed Dickens lacked charm and was "everybody's writer and no one's in particular," she made an exception for David Copperfield. About it she wrote:

Though characters swarm and life flows into every creek and cranny, some common feeling—youth, gaiety, hope—envelops the tumult, brings the scattered parts together, and invests the most perfect of all the Dickens novels with an atmosphere of beauty.

9. The character Uriah Heep was the inspiration for the name of a heavy metal band.

The band Uriah Heep was formed between 1967 and 1969. Originally called Spice, it featured five musicians playing British rock but evolved into more of a heavy metal sound. The name change, which happened in 1969, was suggested by their manager. The band explained that the name Uriah Heep was "based on the 'orrible little character from Charles Dickens' David Copperfield—Dicken's name being everywhere around Christmas '69 due to it being the hundredth anniversary of his death."

10. The shipwreck in David Copperfield may have been inspired by one of several that took place around the time of publication.

Chapter 55 of David Copperfield is titled "Tempest" and features a terrible shipwreck. In 1849, when the novel's earlier chapters were published, there were at least 13 shipwrecks on England's coasts, most avidly reported in the British newspapers. Dickens would doubtless have read about these wrecks. In 1850, when Chapter 55 was published, there were several more wrecks, some very close to the seaside resort where Dickens was staying. The Sarah was lost in February with everyone onboard; and the Brig struck the sands at Bristol—all men were saved except the captain, who would not leave the ship.

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