Thursday, November 03, 2022

Mr. Micawber


From the project Gutenberg online David Copperfield,
a facsimile of the 1869 illustrated edition.

David Copperfield, published in 1849, is an undisputed classic. While I have read it before, I just read it again, and again found it very very long but wonderful, masterful, unimaginably great. I remembered a great deal, but found many fascinating features of the plot and the characters that I recalled only when reading. 

I reread this novel because I was curious to know it better, and also because I wanted to know how Barbara Kingsolver’s new publication, Demon Copperhead, had used Dickens’ material. The answer is, Kingsolver’s work borrowed much more than I recognized when I was reading it, because I had forgotten so many details of Dickens’ characters. I don’t feel like writing a comparison, though. I’m sure someone else will do that. In my recent write-up of her book, I mentioned some of these things.

What can I say about David Copperfield that could possibly be new, after all the years of people saying things about it? Dickens is most admired for his characters and dialog, for a type of intense pathos contrasting with very funny scenes, and for a deep look at the social problems of his era. I love the way he writes these things. The dialog is very different from modern novels, as the characters really speak at length and in a very individualized way, in some cases involving language that reveals their social class and local origin, In some cases this includes dialect words that Dickens explains parenthetically, suggesting that even his readers at the time wouldn’t have known them. Some characters have one special phrase in their speech, and repeat it often, but the individualization goes much further than that. 

Although it’s been done before, I decided to focus on just one character: Mr. Micawber, whom David Copperfield first encountered when he was a mistreated child, and continues to meet as he matures. (If you aren’t familiar with the story, it is a first-person account of Copperfield’s life from his birth through near-middle age.)  For most of the novel, Micawber is a constantly unsuccessful businessman, who finds new opportunities to fail in business or professional life, while he pawns or sells the family property to support them. He repeatedly says he is sure that something will turn up:

“I have known him come home to supper with a flood of  tears, and a declaration that nothing was now left but a jail; and go to bed making a calculation of the expense of putting bow-windows to the house, ‘in case anything turned up’, which was his favourite expression. And Mrs. Micawber was just the same.” (Chapter 11)

Micawbar’s debts, as implied here, sometimes cause him to be thrown out of his rented quarters along with his brood of children and his loyal wife who repeats the statement “I will never desert Mr. Micawber.” When the Micawbers have money, they even entertain well. On one occasion, we learn:

“We had a beautiful little dinner. Quite an elegant dish of fish; the kidney-end of a loin of veal, roasted; fried sausage-meat; a partridge, and a pudding. There was wine, and there was strong ale; and after dinner Mrs. Micawber made us a bowl of hot punch with her own hands.” (Chapter 17).

After being a very predictable character most of the way through the novel, however, Mr. Micawber does something totally unexpected and courageous: obtaining evidence to rescue David Copperfield’s dear friend and mentor Mr. Wickfield, who has been blackmailed and scammed by the throughly disgusting character Uriah Heep. (Dickens is much admired for creating this incredibly hideous and physically and morally revolting personality!)

Micawber, through all his experiences, is best known for this statement:

"‘My other piece of advice, Copperfield,’ said Mr. Micawber, ‘you know. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and—and in short you are for ever floored. As I am!’ To make his example the more impressive, Mr. Micawber drank a glass of punch with an air of great enjoyment and satisfaction, and whistled the College Hornpipe." (Chapter 12)

Besides his memorable views about his pecuniary misfortunes, on several occasions Micawber shares the noted drink of punch with David Copperfield. In fact, on these occasions, he mixes the punch, using lemons, boiling water, and some rum. After mixing the punch, he often drinks several glasses of it, and considers it a kind of patriotic thing to do: he refers to "the ingredients necessary to the composition of a moderate portion of that Beverage which is peculiarly associated, in our minds, with the Roast Beef of Old England. I allude to—in short, Punch." (Chapter 57) 

The Micawber family with David Copperfield, seated around a table set for making punch.
Here’s how he did it on one occasion that David Copperfield describes:

"I informed Mr. Micawber that I relied upon him for a bowl of punch, and led him to the lemons. His recent despondency, not to say despair, was gone in a moment. I never saw a man so thoroughly enjoy himself amid the fragrance of lemon-peel and sugar, the odour of burning rum, and the steam of boiling water, as Mr. Micawber did that afternoon. It was wonderful to see his face shining at us out of a thin cloud of these delicate fumes, as he stirred, and mixed, and tasted, and looked as if he were making, instead of punch, a fortune for his family down to the latest posterity." (Chapter 28)

Dickens is an amazing writer, though a modern reader has to adjust to the length and depth of his descriptions, the long-windedness of the dialog, and the incredibly enormous number of characters that make up his work. If you consider that his novels were published in serial form — David Copperfield  appeared over two years in 20 installments — reading the novel is really like binge watching an old TV series with two seasons of 10 episodes each!

Blog post © 2022 mae sander


My name is Erika. said...

I love Dickens. I haven't read this book for years, but you are so right about how readable Dickens still is now, even if this one is a long one.

Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

I have not read a Dickens novel since leaving University. One day I shall have to return to the classics.

Iris Flavia said...

I must admit I never read it. Oh, I have so many books in row, it seems it´ll have to wait till I retire! Not even kidding...

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

I've never read this but it sounds like something I would enjoy.

Valerie-Jael said...

David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities are my fave books from Dickens. I often re-read a few chapters randomly chosen, and each time I learn something new. Valerie

Jeanie said...

I haven't read Dickens in years and I'm trying to think if I ever read David C. or if I just saw the Masterpiece Theatre and other adaptations. I loved your in-depth look at this character. What a thoughtful post!

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Dickens' characters are unique and surprising, just like people in real life. I came to Dickens late in life, and I still have several books of his that I want to read before I turn in my library books for the last time.

JoAnn said...

Thank you for sending me the link to this review! I'm hoping to read to read DC within the next couple of month... looking forward to it!