Dickens’s eighth novel, his favorite, has an intimate relationship to his own story: “C. D.” becomes “D. C.” Some months before he began it, he had sat down to write the story of his childhood degradation for the first and only time in his life. The experience was too painful and Dickens abandoned the autobiographical attempt. Yet the material found its way, often word for word, directly into the first-person fiction of David Copperfield, which, as Dickens puts it semijokingly in the subtitle, the hero “never meant to be published on any account.”
Fatherless David Copperfield’s idyllic relationship to his pretty and childlike mother is utterly ended by her second marriage. Austere Mr. Murdstone lives up to the fairy-tale model of the wicked stepparent, whipping the terrified boy when he stammers over impossibly long sums, sending him away to school (where he meets and worships handsome Steerforth), and finally depriving David of his inheritance when his mother dies in childbirth, consigning him instead to the hell of Murdstone and Grinby’s (that is, Warren’s) factory. Comfort, however, is provided by the feckless, wordy, self-important Mr. Micawber, a masterly comic transformation of Dickens’s own father, with whom the lonely boy takes lodgings. Micawber suffers the same fate of imprisonment in debtors’ prison but remains convinced that his luck will change.
Meanwhile, an important subplot centers on the seafaring folk David meets through his devoted nurse, Peggotty: her brother Daniel, whose house is an upturned boat, the stalwart fisherman Ham, and Little Em’ly, the reckless and beautiful girl who is eventually seduced and ruined by Steerforth, David’s idol. Steerforth’s treatment of Little Em’ly is only partially redeemed by his death in a storm at sea, which also kills Ham, who had hoped to marry Little Em’ly.
When Micawber departs in search of his fortune, David also leaves London in quest of love and family. Robbed even of his clothes, he walks the long miles to Dover, where his is rewarded by the half-unexpected affection of his cantankerous and eccentric Aunt Betsy. She provides the schooling proper to a gentleman at Dr. Strong’s academy and sets David on the path to becoming a successful professional writer. The text pays little attention to his work; however, his romantic life looms far larger. David enters into an unsuitable marriage to sweet, frivolous, luxurious Dora Spenlow, who calls herself his child-wife.
On her deathbed—tragic but inevitable, given her inadequacies—Dora commends David to the woman who will be her successor, Dr. Strong’s daughter, Agnes, an incarnation of the Victorian ideal of the domestic angel, and, as such, somewhat lifeless and unbelievable. Embedded in this development is a hint at Dickens’s dissatisfaction with his own marriage and his desire for escape. Yet several hurdles must be negotiated before David can be safely delivered into the haven of a proper Victorian marriage. Dr. Strong and Agnes must be rescued from the clutches of the reptilian, mock-humble Uriah Heep, largely through the agency of Micawber. Little Em’ly must be found and rescued; old Daniel Peggotty finally immigrates with her to Australia—a treatment of the taboo fallen woman theme that was radical and humane for its time, and which reflects the lessons that Dickens learned in his ten-year involvement with a home for fallen women, Urania Cottage.