David Copperfield, Charles Dickens's eighth novel, came out in monthly magazine installments from May 1849 to November 1850. By the time this novel started to appear, Dickens had already published some of his most famous works, including The Pickwick Papers (1837), Oliver Twist (1839), Nicholas Nickleby (1839), and A Christmas Carol (1843). Dickens's fiction appeared regularly in the popular journals of the day, including Bentley's Miscellany and his own periodical, Household Words (which ran from 1850 to 1859). By 1850, at the age of 38, Dickens had established himself as a genuine literary celebrity (perhaps along the lines of today's J.K. Rowling).
Indeed, like J.K. Rowling, Dickens's main claim to fame is twofold: first, he writes enduring characters that everybody remembers – and we hope that, after exploring David Copperfield with us, you'll see why no one can forget Uriah Heep, even if you might want to. And second, Dickens is great at mixing humor with serious questions about social justice. For Rowling, that social conscience mostly deals with larger issues of right and wrong: how can we recognize and fight evil without becoming Dolores Umbridge? For Dickens, he depicts more specific injustices: cruelty to children, the mistreatment of women, and urban poverty and debt. Despite huge differences in setting, what the worlds of Harry Potter and David Copperfield share in common is a light touch with all of these heavy issues, which keeps us entertained even while provoking us to think.
So, anyway, let's get back to David Copperfield. Let us suppose that it's 1849, you're Charles Dickens, and everybody likes you. People are mobbing you for your autograph, you've made a fair amount of money, and everything seems to be coming up roses. What do you do next? Well, naturally, you decide to write an autobiography: everyone is so interested in you, so why not give them more of what they want? So Dickens starts up his autobiography, which soon feeds into the plot of his most personal novel, David Copperfield. Interestingly, though, David Copperfield is autobiographical-ish; it differs from Charles Dickens's own life in some key ways.
Dickens had a really painful early life. His father was thrown into debtors prison in 1822 in London, and young Dickens was sent to work at a blacking factory (where boot polish is bottled and labeled for sale) when he was ten years old. In 1824, tiny Dickens was rescued from the factory and sent to the Wellington Academy in North London, but the school was abusive, impoverished, and awful, and he left in 1826 at the age of 14. Dickens went on to work as a law clerk and then journalist, slowly clawing his way to fame and fortune (source: "Introduction" to David Copperfield. Edited by E.K. Brown. New York: Random House Modern Library College Editions, 1950.) All of these details, in varying order, make it into David Copperfield. However, Dickens' actual love life and marriage was quite different from what David Copperfield experiences. Dickens divorced his wife, Catherine Hogarth, in 1858.
So, yeah, lots of people call David Copperfield an autobiographical novel, but we have to be careful about assuming too much "truth" in this book – the "novel" part is as or more important than the "autobiographical" bit.
There's this boy, a kid from a small town. He's doing his best to grow up in tough circumstances: his father dies before he is even born, and his stepfather is a cold, abusive jerk. And then it gets worse: the boy's mother dies, leaving the kid completely alone in the world. Once his mother is gone, his stepfather doesn't even pretend to care about the kid's fate: he sends the boy to the Big City to get a job and fend for himself. Is this a summary of the latest Liftetime movie? Or of Precious: The Boy's Version? Nope, it's actually the first ten-odd chapters of Charles Dickens's David Copperfield.
Even though this novel was published over 150 years ago, we can't help but be struck by how contemporary David Copperfield feels. Sadly, the challenges of abusive parents and terrible poverty seem to transcend all ages. Dickens's description of the beating David suffers at the hands of his stepfather reaches across the ages to make us shudder, even now. After all, even though we are separated from Dickens by a big gap of time, we share the same human emotions – love, jealousy, resentment, anger, fear, and hope – that drive the plot of David Copperfield.
We're not going to pretend that there aren't some odd details here and there – like, it's tough to take the whole "fallen woman" thing very seriously nowadays. But David's early struggles with a broken home, and his later troubles falling out of love with his wife, seem just as familiar to us now as they would to Dickens's avid fans back in the day. It's a novel about an individual doing his best in bad circumstances. And it doesn't matter if it's 1850 or today: this kind of story never gets old.