David Copperfield and me

The new film directed by Armando Ianucci, The Personal History of David Copperfield, seems to have made quite a splash. Most of the comments from those who have seen the film have been very positive, but some eyebrows have been raised by the casting: in particular, by the fact that David Copperfield is played by an Indian actor, Dev Patel.

I’ve had quite a long relationship with the novel. When I first came to Britain, aged five, my parents, I remember, rented a television set because they thought it would help me learn English, and I remember one of the programmes back then being a Sunday afternoon serialisation of David Copperfield. Of course, I didn’t understand a word of English at the time, and, at that age, most probably wouldn’t have been able to follow it even if I did, but I remember my parents telling me it was a famous book by someone called Charles Dickens.

(Doing a bit of online research, I find that David was played in that series by a young Ian McKellen. Which seems like good casting, though, sadly, Mr McKellen isn’t of course Indian.)

And then, once my English had improved sufficiently, I used to buy, or, rather, I used to have bought for me, a weekly comic for children. Sparky, it was called. And, amidst the various comic characters it featured – Hungry Horace (who was always hungry, naturally), Pansy Potter the Strongman’s Daughter (who was very, very strong), and a rather inspired character called Keyhole Kate (who was forever looking through keyholes) – they did a comic strip serialisation of David Copperfield. (And no, as can be seen here, this isn’t a figment of my imagination: even children’s comics those days aimed both to entertain and to educate: it was a different age.) And this time, I did manage to follow the plot somewhat. But I think I was about 11 or 12 by the time I came to the novel proper – the original novel, with the original words as written by the original Charles Dickens.

And I loved it. Or, rather, I loved the first half of the novel – the chapters dealing with David’s childhood. Once David grew up, I found it boring, and after a couple of chapters, I decided to turn back and read the first half over again. And so it continued. The first half of David Copperfield I read over and over again. Those childhood chapters of David Copperfield became etched in my mind, but once I had cheered Aunt Betsey Trotwood telling the Murdstones to piss off (well, not in so many words, you understand…) there just didn’t seem much point reading on, to be honest.

I think I was about 18 or so when I read the entire novel for the first time, and, while there are certainly many things in the latter part of the novel that I wouldn’t have wanted to have missed, I couldn’t help feeling then – and feeling still – that it didn’t quite measure up to the childhood chapters. And while I know I have had occasion to fulminate elsewhere on this blog against that most deplorable habit of judging the literary quality of a work by how closely or otherwise one could “identify” with characters, I must confess that when I read (and re-read) those early chapters of David Copperfield, I find myself still identifying with David entirely. So powerfully have I identified with David over so many years, that, as far as I am concerned, David Copperfield is Indian, goddammit!

(For similar reasons, Jane Eyre is Indian too.)

I am very much looking forward to this film. It is so good to see some authentic casting at last.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Janet on January 28, 2020 at 4:55 pm

    Great casting, dream cast. Love Dev Patel. Not sure about Wishaw as Uriah Heep, but we’ll see. I suppose the measure of an actor is how much Heepiness he can summon despite the evidence of one’s senses. I’m going to just take it for granted there will be no Agnes in this Copperfield. The trailer implies a Doro 2.0, with pluck. Could never understand people who don’t like book–it’s so extraordinary. May be time for a re-read!


    • I thought Ben Wishaw was very Heep-like as Heep! One of the highlights of the show!
      And it was a good idea too to have the same actress play David’s mother and Dora, as I think it’s fairly clear from the novel that David is attracted to Dora because she is so like his mother!
      All in all, I thought it was good fun. Not a straight adaptation, as such, but a fantasia based on teh novel.


  2. Posted by alan on February 8, 2020 at 3:12 am

    As a child I recall reading an American novel where at the end the protagonist was identified as a Filipino, whereas until that point I suppose thought of him as American but frankly I couldn’t see what the literary point being made was unless it meant something in the American politics of the time.
    It made me reflect on my visual imagination, but I realised that when I read novels that, unless explicitly stated, the person I imagine and the physical landscape isn’t that well defined and ‘m quite happy with a series of semi-realised potentials, half formed amorphous figures.
    Do you more vividly see as you read?


    • I don’t actually think I’m a particularly visual person. Even when a character is physically described, I don’t carry the details in my mind as I read on. I find it more effective when the author communicates the feel of a character, or the feel of a place, rather than describe it in detail. In Bleak House, for instance, Dickens never gives us a physical description of the slum Tom all Alone’s, but he conveys a sense of the filth and the degradation of that place that is stronger than any physical description would have been.


  3. I’ve always felt the same – David’s childhood has always interested me far more than his adventures as an adult. I was quite young when I read DC for the first time and I remember that Mr Murdstone scared the hell out of me!


    • Oh, the Murdstones are scary. I love that moment we Miss Murdstone forst meets David – “Generally speaking, I don’t like boys. How do you do, boy?”

      But didn’t you cheer when Aunt Betsey tells the Murdstones where to get off?


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