David Copperfield

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A novel by Dickens, published 1849–50. ‘Of all my books,’ wrote Dickens, ‘I like this the best.’ It is (in some of its details) Dickens's veiled autobiography.

David Copperfield is born at Blunderstone in Suffolk, soon after the death of his father. His mother, a gentle, weak woman, marries again, and her second husband Mr Murdstone, by cruelty disguised as firmness and abetted by Miss Murdstone his sister, drives her to an early grave. Young Copperfield, who has proved recalcitrant, is sent to school, where he is bullied by the tyrannical headmaster Creakle, but makes two friends in the brilliant and fascinating Steerforth and the good‐humoured plodding Traddles. Thence he is sent to menial employment in London, where he lives a life of poverty and misery, enlivened by his acquaintance with the mercurial and impecunious Mr Micawber and his family. He runs away and walks penniless to Dover to throw himself on the mercy of his aunt Betsey Trotwood, an eccentric old lady. He is kindly received and given a new home, which he shares with an amiable lunatic, Mr Dick. Copperfield continues his education at Canterbury living in the house of Miss Trotwood's lawyer Mr Wickfield, whose daughter exercises a powerful influence on the rest of his life. He then enters Doctors' Commons, being articled to Mr Spenlow, of the firm Spenlow and Jorkins. Meanwhile he has come again into touch with Steerforth, whom he introduces to the family of his old nurse Clara Peggotty, married to Barkis the carrier. The family consists of Mr Peggotty, a Yarmouth fisherman, his nephew Ham, and the latter's cousin Little Em'ly, a pretty, simple girl whom Ham is about to marry. The remaining inmate of Mr Peggotty's hospitable home is Mrs Gummidge, another dependant and a widow. Steerforth induces Em'ly to run away with him. Mr Peggotty sets out to find her, following her through many countries, and finally recovering her after she had been cast off by Steerforth. The latter's crime also brings unhappiness to his mother and to her protégée Rosa Dartle, who has long loved Steerforth. The tragedy finds its culmination in the shipwreck and drowning of Steerforth, and the death of Ham in trying to save him.

Meanwhile Copperfield marries Dora Spenlow, a pretty empty‐headed child, and becomes famous as an author. Dora dies after a few years of married life and Copperfield, at first disconsolate, awakens to a growing appreciation and love of Agnes Wickfield. Her father has fallen into the toils of a villainous and cunning clerk, Uriah Heep, who under the cloak of fawning humility has obtained complete control over him and nearly ruined him. Uriah also aspires to marry Agnes. But his misdeeds, which include forgery and theft, are exposed by Micawber, employed as his clerk, with the assistance of Traddles, now a barrister. Uriah is last seen in prison, under a life sentence. Copperfield marries Agnes. Mr Peggotty, with Em'ly and Mrs Gummidge, is found prospering in Australia, where Mr Micawber, relieved of his debts, appears finally as a much‐esteemed colonial magistrate.


Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century).

Reference entries

Charles Dickens (1812—1870) novelist