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May 11, 2009

CAAF: In response; David Copperfield's paradise lost

I like the Graham Greene letter that Terry quoted this morning as I know what Greene means, and I feel like the opening chapters of David Copperfield are something that regularly should be exclaimed about. They must be among the most beautiful and sustained performances of music-making ever to happen in a novel; so rapturous and psalm-like, never a word out of place. A sample from Chapter 2., the "I Observe" chapter: "There is nothing half so green that I know anywhere, as the grass of that churchyard; nothing half so shady as its trees; nothing half so quiet as its tomb-stones. The sheep are feeding there, when I kneel up, early in the morning in my little bed in a closet within my mother's room, to look out at it; and I see the red light shining on the sun-dial, and think within myself, 'Is the sun-dial glad, I wonder, that it can tell the time again?'" As Greene says, they're "perfect."

I'd argue that contrary to Greene's expectations, Dickens never mis-steps once for the novel's first ten chapters. But at Chapter 11 the tone shifts to something more ordinary. It clearly is a deliberate choice by Dickens, and one appropriate to the plot: It occurs at the point that the young Copperfield, having lost his mother, is being sent by the dreadful Murdstones out into the world to work; and it's only fitting that as he's ejected from childhood, the language of childhood would end. You couldn't call it "a mistake" but I never reach it without experiencing a feeling of deflation.

Here is the close of Chapter 10, which sounds in the same magical key as the novel's beginning:

Behold me, on the morrow, in a much-worn little white hat, with a black crape round it for my mother, a black jacket, and a pair of hard stiff corduroy trousers--which Miss Murdstone considered the best armor for the legs in that fight with the world which was now to come off--behold me so attired, and with my little worldly all before me in a small trunk, sitting, a lone lorn child (as Mrs. Gummidge might have said), in the post-chaise that was carrying Mr. Quinion to the London coach at Yarmouth! See how our house and church are lessening in the distance; how the grave beneath the tree is blotted out by intervening objects; how the spire points upward from my old playground no more, and the sky is empty!

And then Chapter 11 opens and the music is over:

I know enough of the world now, to have almost lost the capacity of being much surprised by anything; but it is a matter of some surprise to me, even now, that I can have been so easily thrown away at such an age. A child of excellent abilities, and with strong powers of observation, quick, eager, delicate, and soon hurt bodily or mentally, it seems wonderful to me that nobody should have made any sign in my behalf. But none was made; and I became at ten years old, a little laboring hind in the service of Murdstone and Grinby.

Posted May 11, 2009 1:54 PM

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