Dickens shines after dark
AFEW weeks ago my two children and I reached a milestone: we finished reading David Copperfield . Or, rather, I finished reading David Copperfield aloud to them, a task that took nearly 18 months. In the Modern Library edition we used, Charles Dickens’s novel occupies 821 pages. That implies we averaged about 1.6 pages a night. In reality, we often interrupted our reading, sometimes for a couple of weeks. This meant we were experiencing vast chunks of the story in real time, when it would take us a few weeks’ worth of bedtimes to read about a few weeks’ worth of David’s eventful life. But, of course, the novel, which covers about 40 years’ worth of events, eventually overtook us.
I certainly didn’t realise, in setting out, that the project would take us so long. And I didn’t realise how much I would learn: about my kids, about David Copperfield and about myself.
The first question that probably occurs to you, especially if you are a parent, is whether I had to bludgeon my children into listening quietly to 821 pages worth of dense Victorian realism.
Yes and no. There would often be a good deal of grumbling on the evenings when I announced that we were going to have about five pages, or 20 minutes, of DC before bed. Part of the reason for the insubordination was that my daughter passed from childhood into adolescence in the course of our long reading. As that happened, there were times I feared we weren’t going to make it to page 200, never mind 821.
Among the things that particularly seemed to irritate my daughter as she made the passage from 12 to 14 — and as David Copperfield made the passage from beloved child to despised stepchild, to forlorn orphan, to famous author — was my use of the abbreviation DC. But despite numerous stand- offs, we made it through to the end of Dickens. Perhaps Dickens helped us make it through adolescence.
As for the story, my daughter was impatient with the criminal and legal subplots, especially those involving the stage villain Uriah Heep, despite the rather affecting accent and facial mannerism I developed for him. But even if she wouldn’t admit it, she was captivated by the romantic material, as David meets and marries his ‘‘ child- bride’’, Dora, then gravitates towards his ‘‘ sister- bride’’, Agnes, following Dora’s death.
My nine- year- old son’s issues were not with the activity of reading David Copperfield but rather with the arrangement of our bodies on the double bed. If it was his turn to be in the middle, he was quiet and attentive; on his nights on the outer, he was disruptive: a reminder that sibling rivalry can affect a second child more than a first, even though it is the second child who has intruded on the first’s terrain.
What was most notable about his reaction, however, was that for a boy who has shown a stronger interest in motorsport and video games than in reading, his ability to recall the book’s hundreds of characters and episodes was stunning. Indeed, by the time we came to our second autumn in the book, his sister and I were able to play a game called ‘‘ dead or alive?’’ with him: ‘‘ Mr Barkis?’’ ‘‘ Dead.’’ ‘‘ Miss Murdstone?’’ ‘‘ Alive.’’ ‘‘ Ham?’’ ‘‘ Dead.’’ ‘‘ Little Emily?’’ ‘‘ Missing.’’ And so on. Part of what made the process of watching David Copperfield enter my kids’ minds and memories so interesting is what our slow reading taught me about the book itself: that, although it is far from Dickens’s best novel, it ranks as one of the most profound studies of memory and the interweaving of memory and imagination.
If I had known in the past that memory was Dickens’s theme in David Copperfield , I had forgotten it during the 40 or so years since my last reading. Again and again, David as narrator comes back to what he remembers, and to how and why. It is through the window of memory that the book ranks alongside Great Expectations as a psychological study. For example, there is David’s memory of the last time he sees his poor young mother, before she and her newborn are driven to an early death by the Murdstones. She is standing at the gate, waving to him as he returns to his boarding school: I was in the carrier’s cart when I heard her calling to me. I looked out, and she stood at the garden- gate alone, holding her baby up in her arms for me to see. It was cold still weather; and not a hair of her head, nor a fold of her dress, was stirred, as she looked intently at me, holding up her child. So I lost her. So I saw her afterwards, in my sleep at school — a silent presence near my bed — looking at me with the same intent face — holding up her baby in her arms. Later, David learns from his old nurse about the details of his mother’s and baby brother’s death. His response, and the wilful revision of memory it involves, brings the psychological drama of the earlier remembered scene to life. From the moment of my knowing of the death of my mother, the idea of her as she had been of late had vanished from me. I remembered her, from that instant, only as the young mother of my earliest impressions, who had been used to wind her bright curls round and round her finger, and to dance with me at twilight in the parlour . . . It may be curious, but it is true. In her death she winged her way back to her calm untroubled youth, and cancelled all the rest.
The mother who lay in the grave, was the mother of my infancy; the little creature in her arms, was myself, as I had once been, hushed for ever on her bosom. It’s hard to say how the experience of reading a work of classic Victorian realism, so slowly, in early life will stay with my children. But I was struck when, just the other day, my daughter referred to another girl as her ‘‘ confidential friend’’: the standard Victorian phrase Dickens uses to describe the awful Miss Murdstone’s official position in Dora’s life.
However, I firmly believe the experience has shown my kids something it may otherwise have taken them years to understand: that a story made of words, in the hands of a writer of genius, can turn into a world.
review@ theaustralian. com. au