Judging from a few recent blog posts and twitter updates I’ve seen, a lot of us have fallen into reading slumps lately. I blame my own partly on a phase of duty reading: I was sampling books with an eye to assigning them for a course, which means a lot of them were books I would probably not have picked up otherwise, and while that can lead to some exciting discoveries, it can also just be frustrating, which is what I was finding. As a result I was putting down a lot of books unfinished, which always makes me feel a bit shabby. I have had some fun with a couple of lighter books, including Cotillion, but I’ve been hoping for a book to exhilarate and challenge me the way, say, The Once and Future King, The Paper Garden, or the Patrick Melrose novels did last summer, and this summer seems to have been light on that kind of reading. I thought May Sarton’s The Magnificent Spinster might be the magic bullet, but I’m about half way through and frankly, it’s kind of dull and prosy so far.
What a fool I’ve been. It turns out that the solution was right there next to my reading chair all this time: the handsome Oxford World’s Classics edition of David Copperfield I’ve ordered for my fall class on the 19th-century novel. This too is duty reading — or, properly, rereading, as of course I haven’t made it this far without having read it before (including out loud to my husband, years ago when this was the kind of thing we did). But I haven’t read it in a long time, and I’ve also never actually assigned it for a course. My go-to teaching Dickens has been Great Expectations (it’s very good, after all, plus it’s short, for Dickens), with Hard Times a frequent alternate and Bleak House a favorite in terms when I’m not also assigning Middlemarch. Oh, and once or twice, A Tale of Two Cities. But I finally felt kind of tired of Great Expectations, and I did Bleak House last term, and it seemed like a good time to mix things up a little, so I put David Copperfield on the book list for next term and on my summer reading list so I could get started on my class prep. It’s been sitting there looking reproachfully at me for weeks (I mean, look at that cover — it practically screams “you’re not doing your duty!”) and I’ve puttered away at it a little, but only yesterday did I put everything else aside and just read it for a few hours — and I feel all my reading mojo coming back.
I’ve never been personally passionate about Dickens the way I am about George Eliot. If for some strange reason I had to choose between them, no question: she gets my vote. But happily, as I’ve said before, literary greatness is not a zero-sum game, and it’s also not something for which there are or need to be common measures or standards. (There are also people who don’t think either of these writers is great — and while I feel kind of sorry for those people, I’m sure they are perfectly happy with their Proust or their Henry James or their Virginia Woolf or their precious Jane Austen, and we’ll just leave them be.) For me personally, Dickens is fabulous precisely for all the things he does that aren’t what Eliot does, and that’s the magic of it all. Dickens is fantastic at being Dickens, and if you get caught up in that Dickensian spirit (which, I know, not everybody does) it’s sheer delight. And sheer horror. And sheer pathos. And … well, you get the point — his is not a particularly subtle world, but gosh, it’s such a lot of fun.
That’s what I’m recovering with the help of David Copperfield: the sense that reading is about how fun it all can be. Even if you aren’t a Dickens-lover, I think you have to admit that his books radiate delight in words and stories and imagination. Their excess is not a mistake: it’s the point. As Nick Hornby says, these days we seem to take it as given that “spare is good,” but why?
Where would David Copperfield be if Dickens had gone to writing classes? Probably about seventy minor characters short, is where.
What a loss that would be! Not a loss to the tautness of the storyline or the unity of the themes, but if that’s what you’re reading Dickens for, you need a little re-education. (OK, yes, I don’t want to underestimate the unity of his themes, but brilliantly coherent as they can be, both conceptually and aesthetically, still, I think we all get the point long before we’re done with the novels.) Hornby’s example is a great one: “Dickens being Dickens, he finds a bit part for a real rogue of a secondhand clothes merchant, a really scary guy who smells of rum and who shouts things like ‘Oh, my lungs and liver’ and ‘Goroo!’ a lot.”
One thing I’d forgotten is just how laugh-out-loud funny David Copperfield is. I cherish Eliot’s humor, but my marginalia in Middlemarch, though it frequently includes little smiley faces, rarely says “LOL.” There are a few really funny bits in Great Expectations (Joe’s hat on the chimney piece being one) — none, though, in Hard Times. Aunt Betsy and the donkeys, though? Hilarious! Barkis’s courtship of Peggotty? Spit-take warning: not safe for e-readers! Mr. Dick and Charles the First — irresistible.(illustration by ‘Phiz,’ scanned by Philip Allingham)
And in contrast, while I hadn’t forgotten how pathetic David’s early childhood is, I hadn’t read about it since I had children of my own, and his loneliness and abandonment and desperate yearning for love hit me really hard this time:
I was not actively ill-used. I was not beaten, or starved; but the wrong that was done to me had no intervals of relenting, and was done in a systematic, passionless manner. Day after day, week after week, month after month, I was coldly neglected. I wonder sometimes, when I think of it, what they would have done if I had been taken with an illness; whether I should have lain down in my lonely room, and languished through it in my usual solitary way, or whether anybody would have helped me out.
And the suspense! Dickens loves his foreshadowing, and it’s pretty heavy-handed, but the mounting sense of dread is still wonderfully effective:
‘I’m not afraid in this way,’ said little Em’ly. ‘But I wake when it blows, and tremble to think of Uncle Dan and Ham and believe I hear ’em crying out for help. That’s why I should like so much to be a lady. But I’m not afraid in this way. Not a bit. Look here!’
She started from my side, and ran along a jagged timber which protruded from the place we stood upon, and overhung the deep water at some height, without the least defence. The incident is so impressed on my remembrance, that if I were a draughtsman I could draw its form here, I dare say, accurately as it was that day, and little Em’ly springing forward to her destruction (as it appeared to me), with a look that I have never forgotten, directed far out to sea.
The light, bold, fluttering little figure turned and came back safe to me, and I soon laughed at my fears, and at the cry I had uttered; fruitlessly in any case, for there was no one near. But there have been times since, in my manhood, many times there have been, when I have thought, Is it possible, among the possibilities of hidden things, that in the sudden rashness of the child and her wild look so far off, there was any merciful attraction of her into danger, any tempting her towards him permitted on the part of her dead father, that her life might have a chance of ending that day? There has been a time since when I have wondered whether, if the life before her could have been revealed to me at a glance, and so revealed as that a child could fully comprehend it, and if her preservation could have depended on a motion of my hand, I ought to have held it up to save her. There has been a time since-I do not say it lasted long, but it has been-when I have asked myself the question, would it have been better for little Em’ly to have had the waters close above her head that morning in my sight; and when I have answered Yes, it would have been.
This may be premature. I have set it down too soon, perhaps. But let it stand.
And the betrayal, all the more devastating because we, like David, have been warned:
I was up with the dull dawn, and, having dressed as quietly as I could, looked into his room. He was fast asleep; lying, easily, with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school.
The time came in its season, and that was very soon, when I almost wondered that nothing troubled his repose, as I looked at him. But he slept-let me think of him so again-as I had often seen him sleep at school; and thus, in this silent hour, I left him.
-Never more, oh God forgive you, Steerforth! to touch that passive hand in love and friendship. Never, never more!
Looking at these excerpts, I can readily see why (to paraphrase Miss Jean Brodie) people who don’t like this sort of thing don’t like this sort of thing. It’s too much! It’s sentimental, and manipulative, and he uses exclamation points! But I’m loving it. What a relief! Like David, I am once again “reading as if for life.”