The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

X. Dickens

§ 11. David Copperfield

The opus majus, however, above glanced at, was given to the world in the old monthly form by itself, though its first part did not appear till a month or two after the first number of Household Words. Of his own interest in David Copperfield, the author has made no secret—hardly any of the autobiographical reasons of that interest. But, to all “men of feeling,” in something more than the sense of Sterne and Mackenzie, the main appeal of the book must lie in a fact which Dickens could not be expected to indicate—which, probably, he did not consciously recognise. Copperfield is not only partly what Dickens was, but, to a much larger extent, what Dickens could not be and would have liked to be. The early sufferings and the early successes were there; but the interval between them had no counterpart in fact. The liberal education at the Wickfield’s and Mr. Strong’s which succeeds the Murdstone and Grinby purgatory, the position at Doctors’ Commons and the society which it opened, the other “liberal education” of the successive loves, “calf” and real, for Miss Shepherd, Miss Larkins, almost Rosa Dartle, Dora and Agnes, very different from the shadowy and unfelt amorosities of the earlier books; the true boy’s worship of Steerforth—whatever reserves may be made as to Steerforth himself—and the rest, had been denied to him or very partially given hitherto: now they flourished. From this “lived” or “would-have-been-lived” character of the book comes its unique freedom from what has been unkindly but intelligibly called the pantomime character of much of the author’s work. Even Mr. Dick, much more Miss Betsey, is free from this, and it only appears (if there) in mere side sketches like that of “Hamlet’s Aunt,” of no importance to the story. Nobody, save those unfortunate persons before referred to who are untouched by the comic spirit altogether, can say “Let us have no more of this foolery” to any part of David Copperfield; though the comic spirit is sufficiently present, from Mr. Chillip’s first appearance at the Rookery to his last in the coffee room. On the other side, the position is, perhaps, a little more assailable. Although there was, perhaps, no reason for making Dora quite so silly in life, it must be an excessive, and, probably, rather an affected, cynicism which finds her death mawkish. But it may be allowed that the triangle of Dr. Strong, his wife and her admirer is handled rather unintelligibly, and that Uriah Heep, though not to be spared, has a little too much of the old type villain about him. Few people now consider Rosa Dartle an entire success, and the whole Steerforth and little Em’ly business is open to the other old charge of melodrama. But Mr. Micawber (though the success may have been obtained a little in the teeth of the fifth commandment) is an unsurpassed triumph; most of the pure comedy is first rate; the chapter “I Fall into Captivity” has, in anything like its own kind, no superior in fiction; and, almost throughout, the reality of interest felt by the author exalts all his powers and keeps down all his foibles. There is, in short, hardly any possibility of denying that David Copperfield is Dickens’s most varied and, at the same time, most serious and best sustained effort—one to be accepted “with all faults” on its side and with all gratitude on the reader’s.