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by Charles Dickens
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes
David Copperfield is notable for its autobiographical element, not only in the wretched days of childhood at the wine merchant's, but in the shorthand-reporting in the House of Commons. In the preface to the 1867 edition, Dickens wrote, "like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield."
For more works by Dickens, see The Index
I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night, at Blunderstone, in Suffolk. I was a posthumous child.
My father's eyes had been closed upon the light of this world six months when mine opened upon it. Miss Betsey Trotwood, an aunt of my father's, and consequently a great-aunt of mine, arrived on the afternoon of the day I was born, and explained to my mother (who was very much afraid of her) that she meant to provide for her child, which was to be a girl.
My aunt said never a word when she learnt that it was a boy, and not a girl, but took her bonnet by the strings in the manner of a sling, aimed a blow at the doctor's head with it, put it on bent, walked out, and never came back. She vanished like a discontented fairy.
The first objects that assume a distinct presence before me, as I look far back into the blank of my infancy, are my mother, with her pretty air and youthful shape, and Peggotty, my old nurse, with no shape at all, and with cheeks and arms so red and hard that I wondered the birds didn't peck her in preference to apples.
I remember a few years later, a gentleman with beautiful black hair and whiskers walking home from church on Sunday with us; and, somehow, I didn't like him or his deep voice, and I was jealous that his hand should touch my mother's in touching me - which it did.
It must have been about this time that, waking up from an uncomfortable doze one night, I found Peggotty and my mother both in tears, and both talking.
"Not such a one as this Mr. Copperfield wouldn't have liked," said Peggotty. "That I say, and that I swear!"
"Good heavens!" cried my mother. "You'll drive me mad! How can you have the heart to say such bitter things to me, when you are well aware that out of this place I haven't a single friend to turn to?" But the following Sunday I saw the gentleman with the black whiskers again, and he walked home from church with us, and gradually I became used to seeing him and knowing him as Mr. Murdstone. I liked him no better than at first, and had the same uneasy jealousy of him.
It was on my return from a visit to Yarmouth, where I went with Peggotty to spend a fortnight at her brother's, that I found my mother married to Mr. Murdstone. They were sitting by the fire in the best parlour when I came in.
I gave him my hand. After a moment of suspense, I went and kissed my mother. I could not look at her, I could not look at him; I knew quite well he was looking at us both. As soon as I could creep away, I crept upstairs, and cried myself to sleep.
A word of encouragement, of pity for my childish ignorance, of welcome home, of reassurance to me that it was home, might have made me dutiful to him in my heart henceforth, instead of in my hypocritical outside, and might have made me respect instead of hating him.
Miss Murdstone arrived next day; she was dark, like her brother, and greatly resembled him in face and voice. Firmness was the grand quality on which both of them took their stand.
I soon fell into disgrace over my lessons. I never could do them with my mother satisfactorily with the Murdstones sitting by; their influence upon me was like the fascination of two snakes on a wretched young bird.
One dreadful morning, when the lessons had turned out even more badly than usual, Mr. Murdstone seized hold of me and twisted my head under his arm preparatory to beating me with a cane. At the first stroke I caught the hand with which he held me, in my mouth, between my teeth, and bit it through. He beat me then as if he would have beaten me to death. And when he had gone, I was kept a close prisoner in my room, and was not allowed to see my mother, and was only permitted to walk in the garden for half an hour every day. Miss Murdstone acted as gaoler, and after five days of this confinement, she told me I was to be sent away to school - to Salem House School, Blackheath.
I saw my mother before I left. They had persuaded her I was a wicked fellow, and she was more sorry for that than for my going.
I was doing my second term at school when I was told that my mother was dead, and that I was to go home to the funeral.
I never returned to Salem House. Mr. Murdstone and his sister left me to myself, and I could see that Mr. Murdstone liked me less than ever. At odd times I speculated on the possibility of not being taught any more or cared for any more, and growing up to be a shabby, moody man, lounging an idle life away about the village.
Peggotty was under notice to quit, and thought of going to live with her brother at Yarmouth; but as it turned out, she didn't do this, but married the old carrier Barkis instead.
"Young or old, Davy dear, as long as I am alive, and have this house over my head," said Peggotty to me on the day she was married, "you shall find it as if I expected you here directly. I shall keep it every day, as I used to keep your old little room, my darling."
The solitary condition I now fell into for some weeks was ended one day by Mr. Murdstone telling me that I was to be put into the business of Murdstone and Grinby.
"You will earn enough to provide for your eating and drinking, and pocket money," said Mr. Murdstone. "Your lodging, which I have arranged for, will be paid by me. So will your washing, and your clothes will be looked after for you, too. You are now going to London, David, to begin the world on your own account."
"In short, you are provided for," observed his sister, "and will please to do your duty."
So I became, at ten years old, a little labouring hind in the service of Murdstone and Grinby.
Murdstone and Grinby's warehouse was at the waterside, down in Blackfriars, and an important branch of their trade was the supply of wines and spirits to certain packet ships. A great many empty bottles were one of the consequences of this traffic, and a certain number of men and boys, of whom I was one, were employed to rinse and wash them.
When the empty bottles ran short, there were labels to be pasted on full ones, or corks to be fitted to them, or finished bottles to be packed in casks.
There were three or four boys, counting me. Mick Walker was the name of the oldest; he wore a ragged apron, and a paper cap. The next boy was introduced to me under the extraordinary name of Mealy Potatoes, which had been bestowed upon him on account of his complexion, which was pale, or mealy.
No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship, and compared these associates with those of my happier childhood, with the boys at Salem House. Often in the early morning, when I was alone, I mingled my tears with the water in which I was washing the bottles, and sobbed as if there were a flaw in my breast, and it were in danger of bursting.
My salary was six or seven shillings a week - I think it was six at first, and seven afterwards - and I had to support myself on that money all the week. My breakfast was a penny loaf and a pennyworth of milk, and I kept another small loaf and a modicum of cheese to make my supper on at night.
I was so young and childish, and so little qualified to undertake the whole charge of my existence, that often of a morning I could not resist the stale pastry put out for sale at half price at the pastry-cooks' doors, and spent on that the money I should have kept for my dinner. On those days I either went without my dinner, or bought a roll or a slice of pudding.
I was such a child, and so little, that frequently when I went into the bar of a strange public-house for a glass of ale or porter to moisten what I had for dinner, they were afraid to give it me.
I know I do not exaggerate the scantiness of my resources or the difficulties of my life. I know that if a shilling were given me at any time, I spent it in a dinner or a tea. I know that I worked from morning until night, a shabby child, and that I lounged about the streets, insufficiently and unsatisfactorily fed. I know that, but for the mercy of God, I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond.
Arrangements had been made by Mr. Murdstone for my lodging with Mr. Micawber - who took orders on commission for Murdstone and Grinby - and Mr. Micawber himself escorted me to his house in Windsor Terrace, City Road.
Mr. Micawber was a stoutish, middle-aged person, in a brown surtout, with no more hair upon his head than there is upon an egg, and with a very extensive face. His clothes were shabby, but he wore an imposing shirt-collar. He carried a jaunty sort of a stick, with a large pair of rusty tassels to it; and an eyeglass hung outside his coat - for ornament, I afterwards found, as he very seldom looked through it, and couldn't see anything when he did.
Arrived at his house in Windsor Terrace - which, I noticed, was shabby, like himself, but also, like himself, made all the show it could - he presented me to Mrs. Micawber, a thin and faded lady, not at all young.
"I never thought," said Mrs. Micawber, as she showed me my room at the top of the house at the back, "before I was married that I should ever find it necessary to take a lodger. But Mr. Micawber being in difficulties, all considerations of private feeling must give way."
I said, "Yes, ma'am."
"Mr. Micawber's difficulties are almost overwhelming just at present," said Mrs. Micawber, "and whether it is possible to bring him through them I don't know. If Mr. Micawber's creditors will not give him time, they must take the consequences."
In my forlorn state, I soon became quite attached to this family, and when Mr. Micawber's difficulties came to a crisis, and he was arrested and carried to the King's Bench Prison in the Borough, and Mrs. Micawber shortly afterwards followed him, I hired a little room in the neighbourhood of that institution.
Mr. Micawber was in due time released under the Insolvent Debtors' Act, and it was decided that he should go down to Plymouth, where Mrs. Micawber held that her family had influence.
My own mind was now made up. I had resolved to run away - to go by some means or other down into the country, to the only relation I had in the world, and tell my story to my aunt, Miss Betsey. I knew from Peggotty that Miss Betsey lived near Dover, but whether at Dover itself, at Hythe, Sandgate, or Folkstone, she could not say. One of our men, however, informing me on my asking him about these places that they were all close together, I deemed this enough for my object; and after seeing the Micawbers off at the coach office, I set off.
It was on the sixth day of my flight that I reached the wide downs near Dover and set foot in the town.
I had walked every step of the way, sleeping under haystacks at night.
Fortunately, it was summer weather, for I was obliged to part with coat and waistcoat to buy food. My shoes were in a woeful condition, and my hat - which had served me for a nightcap, too - was so crushed and bent that no old battered saucepan on the dunghill need have been ashamed to vie with it. My shirt and trousers, stained with heat, dew, grass, and the Kentish soil on which I had slept, might have frightened the birds from my aunt's garden as I stood at the gate. My hair had known no comb or brush since I left London. In this plight I waited to introduce myself to my formidable aunt.
As I stood there, a lady came out of the house, with a handkerchief over her cap, a pair of gardening gloves on her hands and carrying a great knife. I was sure she must be Miss Betsey from her walk, for my mother had often described the way my aunt came to the house when I was born.
"Go away!" said Miss Betsey, shaking her head. "Go along! No boys here!"
I watched her as she marched to a corner of the garden, and then, in desperation, I went softly and stood beside her.
"If you please, ma'am - if you please, aunt, I am your nephew."
"Oh, Lord!" said my aunt, and sat flat down in the garden path.
"I am David Copperfield, of Blunderstone, in Suffolk, where you came when I was born. I have been very unhappy since my mother died. I have been taught nothing and put to work not fit for me. It made me run away to you, and I have walked all the way, and have never slept in bed since I began the journey."
Here my self-support gave way all at once, and I broke into a passion of crying.
Thereupon, my aunt got up in a great hurry, collared me, and took me into the parlour. The first thing my aunt did was to pour the contents of several bottles down my throat. I think they must have been taken out at random, for I am sure I tasted aniseed water, anchovy sauce, and salad dressing. Then she put me on the sofa, and, acting on the advice of a pleasant-looking, grey-headed gentleman, whom she called "Mr. Dick," heated a bath for me.
After that I was enrobed in a shirt and trousers belonging to Mr. Dick, tied up in two or three great shawls, and fell asleep.
That was the beginning of my aunt's adoption of me. She wrote to Mr. Murdstone, and he and his sister arrived a few days later, and were routed by my aunt.
Mr. Murdstone said, finally, he would only take me back unconditionally, and that if I did not return there and then his doors would be shut against me henceforth.
"And what does the boy say?" said my aunt. "Are you ready to go, David?"
I answered "No," and entreated her not to let me go. I begged and prayed my aunt to befriend and protect me, for my father's sake.
"Mr. Dick," said my aunt, "what shall I do with this child?"
Mr. Dick considered, hesitated, brightened, and rejoined, "Have him measured for a suit of clothes directly!"
"Mr. Dick," said my aunt, "give me your hand, for your commonsense is invaluable." She pulled me towards her, and said to Mr. Murdstone, "You can go when you like; I'll take my chance with the boy!"
When they had gone my aunt announced that Mr. Dick would be joint guardian of me, with herself, and that I should be called Trotwood Copperfield. Thus I began my new life, in a new name, and with everything new about me.
My aunt sent me to school at Canterbury, and, there being no room at the school for boarders, settled that I should board with her old lawyer, Mr. Wickfield.
My aunt was as happy as I was in this arrangement. For Mr. Wickfield's house was quiet and still; and Mr. Wickfield's little housekeeper was his only daughter, Agnes, a child of about my own age, whose face, so bright and happy, was the child likeness of a woman's portrait that was on the staircase. There was a tranquility about the house, and about Agnes, a good, calm spirit, that I have never forgotten and never shall.
The school I now went to was better in every way than Salem House. It seemed to me so long, however, since I had been among any companions of my own age, except Mick Walker and Mealy Potatoes, that I felt very strange at first. Whatever I had learnt had so slipped away from me that when I was examined about what I knew, I knew nothing, and was put in the lowest form of the school.
But I got a little the better of my uneasiness when I went to school the next day, and a good deal the better the day after, and so shook it off, by degrees, that in less than a fortnight I was quite at home, and happy among my new companions.
"Trot," said my aunt, when she left me at Mr. Wickfield's, "be a credit to yourself, to me, and Mr. Dick, and Heaven be with you! Never be mean in anything; never be false; never be cruel. Avoid these vices, Trot, and I can always be hopeful of you. And now the pony's at the door, and I am off!"
She embraced me hastily, and went out of the house, shutting the door after her. When I looked into the street I noticed how dejectedly she got into the chaise, and that she drove away without looking up.
I first saw Uriah Heep on the day my aunt introduced me to Mr. Wickfield's house. He was then a red-haired youth of fifteen, but looking much older, whose hair was cropped as close as the closest stubble; who had hardly any eyebrows and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown. He was high-shouldered and bony; dressed in decent black, with a white wisp of a neck-cloth; buttoned up to the throat; and had a long, lank, skeleton hand.
Heep was Mr. Wickfield's clerk, and I often saw him of an evening in the little round office reading, and from time to time strayed in to talk to him. He told me, one night, he was not doing office work, but was improving his legal knowledge.
"I suppose you are quite a great lawyer?" I said, after looking at him for some time.
"Me, Master Copperfield?" said Uriah. "Oh, no! I'm a very 'umble person.
I am well aware that I am the 'umblest person going, let the other be where he may. My mother is likewise a very 'umble person. We live in a 'umble abode, Master Copperfield, but have much to be thankful for. My father's former calling was 'umble; he was a sexton."
"What is he now?" I asked.
"He is a partaker of glory at present, Master Copperfield," said Uriah Heep. "But we have much to be thankful for. How much have I to be thankful for in living with Mr. Wickfield!"
I asked Uriah if he had been with Mr. Wickfield long.
"I have been with him going on four years, Master Copperfield," said Uriah, "since a year after my father's death. How much I have to be thankful for in that! How much have I to be thankful for in Mr.
Wickfield's kind intention to give me my articles, which would otherwise not lay within the 'umble means of mother and self!"
"Perhaps, when you're a regular lawyer, you'll be a partner in Mr. Wickfield's business, one of these days," I said to make myself agreeable; "and it will be Wickfield and Heep or Heep late Wickfield."
"Oh, no, Master Copperfield," returned Uriah, shaking his head, "I am much too 'umble for that!"
It must have been five or six years later, when I was in London, that Uriah recalled my prophecy to me.
Agnes had noticed as I had noticed, long before this, a gradual alteration in Mr. Wickfield. He sat longer and longer over his wine, and it was at such times, when his hands trembled, and his speech was not plain, that Uriah was most certain to want him on some business.
So it came about that Agnes had to tell me that Uriah had made himself indispensable to her father.
"He is subtle and watchful," she said. "He has mastered papa's weaknesses, fostered them, and taken advantage of them, until papa is afraid of him."
If I was indignant to hear that Uriah had wormed himself into such promotion, I restrained my feelings when we met, for Agnes had bidden me not to repel him, for her father's sake, and for her own.
"What a prophet you have shown yourself, Master Copperfield!" said Uriah, reminding me of my early words. "You may not recollect it; but when a person is 'umble, a person treasures such things up. But the 'umblest persons, Master Copperfield, may be instruments of good. I am glad to think I have been the instrument of good to Mr. Wickfield, and that I may be more so. Oh, what a worthy man he is; but how imprudent he has been!"
When the rascal went on to tell me confidentially that he "loved the ground his Agnes walked on," and that he thought she might come to be kind to him, knowing his usefulness to her father, I had a delirious idea of seizing the red-hot poker out of the fire and running him through with it. However, I thought of Agnes, and could say nothing. In the end all the evil machinations of Uriah Heep were frustrated by my old friend Mr. Micawber, who, visiting Canterbury on the chance of something suitable turning up, and meeting me in Heep's company, was subsequently engaged by Heep as a clerk at twenty-two and sixpence per week.
It was only after Micawber had found that Uriah Heep had forged Mr. Wickfield's name to various documents, and had fraudulently speculated with moneys entrusted by my aunt, amongst others, to his partner, that he turned upon him and denounced him, and accomplished what he called "the final pulverisation of Keep."
Mr. Micawber being once more "in pecuniary shackles," my aunt, so grateful, as we all were, for the services he had rendered, suggested emigration to Australia to him; he at once responded to the idea.
"The climate, I believe, is healthy," said Mrs. Micawber. "Then the question arises: Now, are the circumstances of the country such that a man of Mr. Micawber's abilities would have a fair chance of rising? - I will not say, at present, to be governor or anything of that sort; but would there be a reasonable opening for his talents to develop themselves? If so, it is evident to me that Australia is the legitimate sphere of action for Mr. Micawber."
"I entertain the conviction," said Mr. Micawber, "that it is, under existing circumstances, the land, the only land, for myself and family; and that something of an extraordinary nature will turn up on that shore."
But the defeat of Heep and Micawber's departure belong to the days of my manhood. Let me look back at intervening years.
My school-days! The silent gliding on of my existence - the unseen, unfelt progress of my life - from childhood up to youth!
Time has stolen on unobserved, and I am the head boy now in the school, and look down on the line of boys below me with a condescending interest in such of them as bring to my mind the boy I was myself when I first came here. That little fellow seems to be no part of me; I remember him as something left behind upon the road of life, and almost think of him as of someone else.
And the little girl I saw on that first day at Mr. Wickfield's, where is she? Gone also. In her stead, the perfect likeness of the picture, a child likeness no more, moves about the house; and Agnes - my sweet sister, as I call her in my thoughts, my counsellor and friend - the better angel of the lives of all who come within her calm, good, self-denying influence - is quite a woman.
It is time for me to have a profession, and my aunt proposes that I should be a proctor in Doctors' Commons. I learn that the proctors are a sort of solicitors, and that the Doctors' Commons is a faded court held near St. Paul's Churchyard, where people's marriages and wills are disposed of and disputes about ships and boats are settled.
So I am articled, and later, when my aunt has lost her money, through no fault of her own, but through the rascality of Uriah Heep, and I seek Mr. Spenlow to know if it is possible for my articles to be cancelled, it is, I am assured, Mr. Jorkins who is inexorable.
"If it had been my lot to have my hands unfettered, if I had not a partner - Mr. Jorkins," says Mr. Spenlow. "But I know my partner, Copperfield. Mr. Jorkins is not a man to respond to a proposition of this peculiar nature. Mr. Jorkins is very difficult to move from the beaten track."
The years pass. I have come legally to man's estate. I have attained the dignity of twenty-one. Let me think what I have achieved.
Determined to do something to bring in money, I have mastered the savage mystery of shorthand, and make a respectable income by reporting the debates in Parliament for a morning newspaper. Night after night I record predictions that never come to pass, professions that are never fulfilled, explanations that are only meant to mystify. I have come out in another way. I have taken, with fear and trembling, to authorship. I wrote a little something in secret, and sent it to a magazine, and it was published. Since then I have taken heart to write a good many trifling pieces. My record is nearly finished.
Peggotty, a widow, is with my aunt, and Mr. Dick is in the room.
"Goodness me!" said my aunt, "who's this you're bringing home?"
"Agnes," said I.
We were to be married within a fortnight. It was not till I had told Agnes of my love that I learnt from her, as she laid her gentle hands upon my shoulders and looked calmly in my face, that she had loved me all my life.
Let me look back once more, for the last time, before I close these leaves. I have advanced in fame and fortune. I have been married ten years, and I see my children playing in the room. Here is my aunt, in stronger spectacles, an old woman of fourscore years and more, but upright yet, and godmother to a real, living Betsey Trotwood. Always with her, here comes Peggotty, my good old nurse, likewise in spectacles. A newspaper from Australia tells me that Mr. Micawber is now a magistrate and a rising townsman at Port Middlebay.
One face is above all these and beyond them all. I turn my head and see it, in its beautiful serenity, beside me. So may thy face be by me, Agnes, when I close my life; and when realities are melting from me, may I still find thee near me, pointing upward!
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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