Novels for When We Need Them the Most

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

On our way to my aunt’s memorial service in Acton, Massachusetts this past weekend, Julia and I listened to several chapters from David Copperfield, a book I haven’t read since the summer before I entered high school. I’m struck by how little of it I can recall, which is unusual for me because I generally have a great memory for books. I’m particularly surprised because David’s school experiences in the awful Salem House anticipate some of the unhappiness I was about to encounter at Sewanee Military Academy.

We were given a choice of novels, David Copperfield or Tale of Two Cities. Everyone else read (if they read the summer reading at all) Tale of Two Cities, probably because it is shorter. We had been told, however, that we couldn’t reread a novel, and as I had already read Dickens’ work about the French Revolution, I dutifully launched into the account of Copperfield’s life.

In the early chapters, the eight-year-old David is sent off to boarding school by his heartless stepfather. Along with the other boys, he receives daily canings and other harsh treatment from the loathsome Mr. Creakle.  As I say, I’m surprised that I remember none of the early chapters since, a year later, I was riveted by comparable school scenes in Jane Eyre. It must have been that I had not yet experienced the harsh words and hazing of Sewanee Military Academy and so was in ignorance, and even in some denial, as to what was about to happen. I didn’t foresee that I would be thrown against lockers and yelled at, that fault would be found with everything I did, that I would be made to march PTs (penalty tours)

Looking back, I can see myself as young David. I was the smallest boy in the entire school, just as David is. Like David, I was saved by stories.

In my case, I encountered fascinating stories in my English, French, and history classes.  In the first I read The Iliad and The Odyssey, in the second Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, and in the third accounts of kings and warriors from ancient and medieval Asia, northern Africa, and Europe.  I loved this reading as much as I disliked afternoon drills and Saturday morning inspections.

Literature is the only thing that keeps David going, given the wedge that his stepfather has driven between him and his loving but weak mother. Here is Dickens:

The natural result of [Murdstone’s harsh] treatment, continued, I suppose, for some six months or more, was to make me sullen, dull, and dogged. I was not made the less so by my sense of being daily more and more shut out and alienated from my mother. I believe I should have been almost stupefied but for one circumstance.

It was this. My father had left a small collection of books in a little room upstairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined my own) and which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time,-they, and the Arabian Nights, and the Tales of the Genii,–and did me no harm; for whatever harm was in some of them was not there for me; I knew nothing of it. It is astonishing to me now, how I found time, in the midst of my porings and blunderings over heavier themes, to read those books as I did. It is curious to me how I could ever have consoled myself under my small troubles (which were great troubles to me), by impersonating my favorite characters in them–as I did–and by putting Mr. and Miss Murdstone into all the bad ones–which I did too. I have been Tom Jones (a child’s Tom Jones, a harmless creature) for a week together. I have sustained my own idea of Roderick Random for a month at a stretch, I verily believe. I had a greedy relish for a few volumes of Voyages and Travels–I forget what, now–that were on those shelves; and for days and days I can remember to have gone about my region of our house, armed with the centre-piece out of an old set of boot-trees-the perfect realization of Captain Somebody, of the Royal British Navy, in danger of being beset by savages, and resolved to sell his life at a great price. The Captain never lost dignity, from having his ears boxed with the Latin Grammar. I did; but the Captain was a Captain and a hero, in despite of all the grammars of all the languages in the world, dead or alive.

This was my only and my constant comfort. When I think of it, the picture always rises in my mind, of a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life. Every barn in the neighborhood, every stone in the church, and every foot of the churchyard, had some association of its own, in my mind, connected with these books, and stood for some locality made famous in them. I have seen Tom Pipes go climbing up the church-steeple; I have watched Strap, with the knapsack on his back, stopping to rest himself upon the wicket-gate; and I know that Commodore Trunnion held that club with Mr. Pickle, in the parlor of our little village alehouse.

Peregrine Pickle, Roderick Random, Hugh Strap, Tom Pipes, and Commodore Trunnion are all characters in novels by the 18th century Scottish novelist Tobias Smollett, who was the subject of my Ph.D dissertation. Smollett had such a deep influence on Dickens that he named one of his children “Tobias Smollett Dickens.” My own Toby, my youngest son, wrote his M. A. thesis on Copperfield’s youthful reading and has some interesting things to say about it.

First of all, it would be more than impressive that the eight-year-old Copperfield would be able to read these novels, but Toby says that he would have encountered them in abridged versions, somewhat like Reader’s Digest condensed books. Toby tracked down these particular versions, which are books that Dickens himself owned as a boy before his father was thrown into debtors prison and the books had to be sold.

Dickens found solace is remembering these books as, in the most traumatic time in his life, he was forced to work ten hours a day pasting labels on bottles in a boot blacking factory. David Copperfield is his memory transmuted into literature. As it so happens, it also helps describe my own reliance on books.

There is something else I shared with the young Copperfield. David’s knowledge of books has some payoffs in Salem House and my love of books had a comparable payoff at SMA. In the novel, David recounts memories of the novels to his classmates, especially to Steerforth, whom he adores: 

‘Then I tell you what, young Copperfield,’ said Steerforth, ‘you shall tell ‘em to me. I can’t get to sleep very early at night, and I generally wake rather early in the morning. We’ll go over ‘em one after another. We’ll make some regular Arabian Nights of it.’

I felt extremely flattered by this arrangement, and we commenced carrying it into execution that very evening. What ravages I committed on my favourite authors in the course of my interpretation of them, I am not in a condition to say, and should be very unwilling to know; but I had a profound faith in them, and I had, to the best of my belief, a simple, earnest manner of narrating what I did narrate; and these qualities went a long way.

The drawback was, that I was often sleepy at night, or out of spirits and indisposed to resume the story; and then it was rather hard work, and it must be done; for to disappoint or to displease Steerforth was of course out of the question. In the morning, too, when I felt weary, and should have enjoyed another hour’s repose very much, it was a tiresome thing to be roused, like the Sultana Scheherazade, and forced into a long story before the getting-up bell rang; but Steerforth was resolute; and as he explained to me, in return, my sums and exercises, and anything in my tasks that was too hard for me, I was no loser by the transaction.

For me, my love of books led to me getting straight A’s for the first time in my life. As a result, I was allowed to wear a golden “honor cord” on my uniform. When I won the English award at the end of my first year, I was given a medal to pin on that uniform. Also that year, I participated in poetry reading competitions in Forensics and finished second in the regionals. All these served to bolster my self-esteem, which would otherwise have been very low.

Books, in short, come to our aid in all kinds of ways and in a wide variety of circumstances.

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