David Copperfield as an Autobiographical Novel
It has been recognized that David Copperfield is Dickens’s autobiography. As Hugh Walker remarks:
“The pen which wrote David Copperfield was often dipped in his own blood”.
This dictum is correct. The hero David Copperfield has undergone all the trials and tribulations which Charles Dickens had undergone in his personal life. The other critic E. Johnson has elaborated the autobiographical element in David Copperfield in his book Charles Dickens-His Tragedy and Triumph. The autobiographical element in this novel has admittedly enhanced (increased) the literary quality of this novel.
The circumstances of David’s childhood-his posthumous birth and the Murdstones-are pure fiction and have no parallel in Dickens’s life, but Dickens drew on his own experiences for the account of David’s boyish Church-going (Chapter II and IV); the lessons with his mother (Chapter (IV); the secret reading of Smollett, Fielding, Goldsmith Defoe, etc. (IV); and some aspects of the coach journey to London (V)
In the novel, relationships, places and times are changed in the use of these episodes. In London John Dickens soon got into debt. To help matters Mrs. Dickens tried to start a school but could get no pupils. In February 1824, John Dickens was taken to the Marshalsea prison and the family stayed on in Gower Street, pawning everything. Mr. Micawber is modeled on Dickens’s father whom he resembles in his lack of money, magniloquence, fondness for making punch, and his large family. The novelist’s father was as extravagant and improvident as Mr. Micawber. Mrs. Micawber, like Mrs. Dickens, tries to start a school, with the same lack of success. The Micawbers also pawn everything till they are left “camping” in a bare house before finally joining Mr. Micawber in prison – which is changed from Marshalsea to the King’s Bench; David, like Charles, has a lodging near enough to pay visits. Mr. Micawber, too, draws up a petition to the king and Hopkins is there to read it out.
The miseries of David at Murdstone and Grinby’s are the miseries of Charles Dickens in the blacking factory. Mr. Quinion is James Lamert and Mick Walker and Mealy Patotoes are Bob Fagin and Poll Green David’s life in London was similar to Charles, but the blacking bottles of real life are changed to wine bottles in the novel and Charles did not run away from the factory as David did from Murdstone and Grinby’s.
Dickens was twelve years old when he went to the Wellington House Academy. Salem House is, undoubtedly, modeled on Wellington House Academy, and Creakle on Jones, though the cruelties are somewhat exaggerated in the novel. The ages are different-David was only eight or nine when he went to Salem House and David was a boarder. David’s feelings when he went to school again at Doctor Strong’s (Chapter XVI) must have been precisely those of Dickens when he went to school after the blacking factory.
In 1827 Dickens left school to go into a lawyer’s office as an office boy, not as an articles pupil. David goes into a lawyer’s office after leaving school, but he is articled.
Disliking the work of lawyers offices, Dickens set to work at learning shorthand with the idea of becoming a Parliamentary reporter. After Miss Trotwood announces the loss of her property (XXXIV) David learns shorthand with the intention of earning money as a Parliamentary reporter (XXXVI). There is no parallel in Dickens’s work and David’s at Doctors Commons.
In 1830, whilst at Doctors’ Commons, Dickens fell in love with Maria Beadnell and the affair lasted three years though there was no formal engagement, and it finally came to nothing. Maria had a confidante in a certain Miss Mary Anne Leigh.
This experience is, undoubtedly, portrayed in David’s falling in love with Dora with the difference that David married Dora. When Dickens did eventually marry, his marriage was a failure because of mental incompatibility and the David-Dora episode Dickens telescoped his early love affair with Maria and the failure of his own married life later on. Maria’s confidante is paralleled in Miss Julia Mills.
While working as reporter for The Morning Chronicle Dickens began to write for magazines, under the pseudonym Boz. His first story, A Dinner at Poplar Walk, was published in The Monthly Magazine, December, 1833. David, too whilst working as a Parliamentary reporter, has to say-
“I have come out in another way. I have taken with fear and trembling to authorship. I wrote a little something, in secret, and sent it to a magazine, and it was published in the magazine. Since then, I have taken heart to write a good many trifling pieces. Now, I am regularly paid for them” (XLIII).
Dickens married Catherine Hogarth in April 1836. She was the daughter of George Hogarth, editor of the Evening Chronicle. Her sister, Mary Hogarth, for whom Dickens had a great admiration died in 1837 at the age of 17. Dickens’s wife proved impractical and incompatible in temperament to him, and they eventually separated in 1858, but there was no divorce. Dickens drew on the experience of his own marriage for the mental incompatibility of David and Dora, but there is no other resemblance.
In his description of Agnes; the perfect woman, Dickens probably had in mind his sister in law, Mary Hogarth
Some of Dickens’s work was done abroad. In 1844 he visited Italy, and in 1846 Switzerland, where he wrote Dombey and Son. In Chapter L VIII David mentions his travels in Italy and his settling down to write in Switzerland. The reason for his travels has no parallel in Dickens’s life. David Copperfield is Charles Dickens life.
Some biographers have gone so far as to say that David is Dickens. But we need not identify them so closely. Dickens made some parallel between the two and used this to bring in ideas and descriptions of some of his own personal experiences. The autobiographical details are thus not thrust in obtrusively but are part and parcel of the whole story.
David Copperfield is the masterpiece of Charles Dickens. He has successfully blended the fictitious elements with autobiographical ones. The great artist has deliberately falsified and softened the harshness of reality so that it would appear a work of art rather than documentation of facts. In the novel there is fact and fiction, reality and imagination and truth and falsehood all fused together. He does not wish to present the bare facts since it would disgrace his parents and would mean humiliation for himself. Under the cloak of affection, he has endeavored to present the facts of his life very artistically. Hence this novel is a source of inspiration and entertainment for even the future generation.