Film Review: The Muppet Christmas Carol

The Muppet Christmas Carol is, I contend, the definitive cinematic version of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol. It is, certainly, the one I’m most familiar with. (I’ve only actually read the Carol once, and I may have seen a non-Muppet version once, but I can’t be sure.) If you haven’t seen it (and if not, why not?), the Muppets’ retelling features the Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens himself, narrating the tale, Rizzo as his comedic assistant, Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit (with Miss Piggy as his wife, natch) and a surprisingly committed Michael Caine as Scrooge.

It’s delightful to me mostly because it’s so much better than it needed to be. Let us remember that this is essentially a sentimental children’s puppet show from 1992. With an array of catchy tunes. And yet. We have the Great Gonzo reciting large chunks of actual Dickens prose, and explaining the concept of omniscient narration to boot. We have Michael Caine playing Scrooge as if he’s on the stage at the RSC. (The moments before the ghosts of Marley and Marley appear are utterly convincing, Caine’s face registering the frozen terror we’ve all experienced on hearing an unexplained bump in the night – all the more horrifying because it’s real this time.) We have Scrooge declaring that all the poor people should die and “decrease the surplus population!” which is a hell of a line to include in a kids’ film, and also, terrifyingly, something that a Brexiter on the Internet might plausibly say.

I also think it captures the positive aspects of Dickens’ humanity wonderfully. Like his characters, the Muppets are larger than life, and as such they embody and perform the exuberance and vitality of city life; the unexpected moments of community we in the West often find at Christmas (the strangers who wish you a merry Christmas on a country walk; Christmas tableaux in windows in a rural village). Dickens and the Muppets is an inspired combination – and adding musical numbers only makes it better: Dickens was a performer as well as a writer, and fascinated by all things theatrical; I like to think he would have enjoyed the vivaciousness of this retelling, which brings everything in London to life, even the vegetables.

What the film misses, though, is Dickens’ reformist anger, his glimpses into the grimy underbelly of Victorian society. That would be a bit of a drag on an upbeat Christmas film, to be sure, but it doesn’t help that most of its references to Scrooge’s general misanthropy are either in song (“He charges folks a fortune for his dark and draughty houses/Us poor folk live in misery/(It’s even worse for mouses!)”) or undermined by broad and slapstick humour (“Do you remember when we evicted an entire orphanage? I remember those little tykes standing in the snowbank, clutching their little frostbitten teddy bears!”). It certainly isn’t anarchic or anti-establishment, words that keep cropping up in reference to the Muppets; it may have some dark moments, but they’re there to cast the film’s joyous, consolatory ending into greater contrast. Ultimately this is a film about reintegrating a rich man who refuses to act like one into his proper place in society, rather than actually upending the power imbalance between Scrooge and, say, Bob Cratchit.

Complete social reform is probably out of scope for a film like this; to be fair, it’s also out of scope for the original Carol, which nevertheless at least acknowledges the systematic existence of a struggling underclass (there’s a short scene which the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge in which a couple fear bankruptcy because they cannot pay him a debt they owe him). It’s still a lovely, warm-hearted thing to watch at Christmas, and a brilliant, accessible way to introduce young people to the original text.

Review: The Reading Cure

TW: eating disorder.

The Reading Cure is journalist Laura Freeman’s account of how reading helped her recover from anorexia. Although there are a couple of harrowing chapters, the book as a whole is far more positive than I think I expected, as Freeman finds the courage through reading to change her attitude to food, bit by bit.

She’s very clear that anorexia isn’t really a thing you “recover” from, that it’s taken her years to get as far as she has, and that she’ll probably never be comfortable with eating loads of food. It’s an honest, clear-eyed look not at anorexia itself, which has become sensationalised to some extent, but at what happens afterwards, the long and intensely less storyable process of eating healthily again.

There are setbacks: after Dickens’ cosy toast-and-tea suppers and treasured bars of chocolate with the war writers comes the clean eating movement, which sees Freeman restricting her flowering diet back down to “healthy”, “permitted” foods. There are delvings into darkness: her reading of Virginia Woolf, who similarly struggled with eating and with her mental health, leads Freeman to fear that she’ll meet the same lonely end as that writer; but, at the same time, she draws courage from Woolf’s determination.

One caveat: Freeman’s experience is very definitely middle-to-upper-class. Her parents are comfortably able to look after her for a year in their London townhouse; she’s able to afford books while early in her career as a freelance journalist; she goes on holiday to far-flung destinations. I’m not saying it’s, like, a jetsetting lifestyle, and she’s open about the privilege she has – but this is far from a universal account of recovery from anorexia.

As a book about food, food writing and our relationships with both – extreme or otherwise – it’s thoughtful and fascinating, and I found myself in tears more than once. I’m so glad I picked this up at the library.

Doctor Who Review: The Shakespeare Code

So…there are good episodes of Doctor Who, and there are not-so-good episodes.

The Shakespeare Code is a less-good one. But for Davies-era Who, “less-good” tends to translate into “campy fun” as opposed to “poorly-plotted mess”, which is what Moffat-era “less-good” looks like.

Got all that?

Unsurprisingly, The Shakespeare Code sees Martha and the Doctor meeting Shakespeare. In particular, they’re about to solve the mystery of Love’s Labours Won, a real-world lost Shakespeare play which may or may not ever have existed. The episode’s Big Bad is a trio of alien witches called the Carrionites, whose magic (it’s hand-waved as Science, but for all intents and purposes it’s magic) is based on the power of words. They’re intent on using the Bard to write a spell (in the form of a play) to free the rest of their people from the vortex where they’re trapped, so they can then take over the world.

It’s extremely campy indeed. The actors playing the witches are clearly having a lot of fun hamming them up in classic Macbeth-y prosthetic masks, shrieking rhyming doggerel at the rest of the cast. There’s lots of jokes where the Doctor quotes Shakespeare at Shakespeare. Ooh, and Shakespeare is bi! Which may even be historically accurate!

(well…sort of. Elizabethan conceptions of sexuality and same-gender relationships were unsurprisingly rather different from ours, so the label “bisexual” is probably not completely accurate. Still: it’s a concept that’s immediately understandable to modern audiences in the context of a 45-minute space drama, which is probably the most important thing in terms of queer representation. Also: I always forget, and always re-relish, how accessible Davies-era Who is to queer audiences. It just kind of…takes our existence as read? In a way that even Chris Chibnall’s work doesn’t really? And there is SO little mainstream media that does that, let alone mainstream media from 2007.)

There’s also some surprisingly good (or at least convincing) Shakespeare pastiche going on – although, at the same time, for a story about the power of words, the witches’ doggerel is cringe-inducing. As a result, The Shakespeare Code is an episode heavy on the spectacle but light on meaning and theme; the plot’s rudimentary at best and draws some rather hackneyed lines between grief and genius.

Oh, and the concept of genius itself feels rather old-fashioned, too: Shakespeare was brilliant, but he was also a hack – much like that other beloved British writer, Charles Dickens. Roberts is revealing his motivations here: the only work this episode is supposed to be doing is Having Shakespeare In It, because bringing Shakespeare and the Doctor together sounds like fun.

It is fun. It’s just not very good.

Review: Barnaby Rudge

Ah, Barnaby Rudge. I didn’t really like Barnaby Rudge.

It’s Dickens’ fifth novel, a relatively early effort by his prolific standards. It’s also one of only two historical novels written by him (the other is A Tale of Two Cities). It tells the tale of the Gordon Riots: several days of anti-Catholic chaos and violence in the streets of London in 1780, stirred up by a Lord George Gordon in the wake of anti-discrimination laws passed in 1778 restoring certain civil rights to Catholics. Our Hero, sort of, is the titular Barnaby, a young man with learning disabilities (although of course Dickens phrases it rather differently), who gets caught up in the riots.

There’s also a semi-Gothic plot with feuding fathers and estranged lovers and ‘orrible murder in the dark, but Dickens isn’t very good at Gothic, he tends too much towards ideals of order and justice and things being tied up neatly, so it’s all a bit half-hearted.

It’s probably telling that the only reason most people know about the Gordon Riots nowadays is through Dickens (I mean, try searching “Gordon riots”; Google immediately suggests you search “Gordon riots Dickens” instead): it’s not something that’s remained in the popular memory, possibly because anti-discrimination laws are not a thing we associate with the late eighteenth century. And so Barnaby Rudge feels, at least to this modern reader, a bit…irrelevant? It is so specific as a novel, so interested in this particular moment in history, that it’s hard to engage meaningfully. There are, of course, parallels to be made with prominent modern-day demagogues fanning the flames of Islamophobia and general racism, but they are not parallels that feel all that pressing.

Perhaps that’s because of the overheated tone of the novel as a whole: there’s like a million chapters describing the riots themselves, and it’s all very fire and brimstone, people drinking boiling spirits in their sectarian frenzy, running through flames so they can destroy prisons, that kind of thing. It doesn’t quite work – it’s so hyperbolic that we don’t feel the shock of it as I think Dickens means us to.

There’s also a relatively small cast of characters, compared to what we usually get from Dickens, and I think that too reduces our stake in the society the novel depicts. A couple of love affairs, some petty revenge, a mysterious stranger who turns out to be a common criminal – none of it seems to matter against this vast Miltonic background of hellfire and mob rule. I didn’t find myself caring about anyone in the way I’ve cared about Lizzie Hexam or poor Wal’r or even Esther Summerson. Apart from Grip, the raven. Or, perhaps, briefly, Barnaby, who nevertheless isn’t allowed to do anything in his own story. It’s not about him, because he doesn’t change – he’s just the object of people’s pity, including the reader’s.

Doubtless I’m missing something: I read this at the back end of 2018, when plenty of Other Shit was going on. Still, I don’t think I’m going to be tempted to re-visit Barnaby Rudge.

2018 Roundup

Behold, from deep in the Valley of the Christmas Holidays, a roundup post…

I’m going to try and post a bit more regularly in 2019. Starting next week, that is.

My Favourite Things of 2018

Book: The Stone Sky – N.K. Jemisin. The Stone Sky made me cry in Stansted Airport. The last book in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, it is not a happy book. It is not one I’ll return to for comfort or reassurance. It is just stunningly good.

TV: Doctor Who: The Tsuranga Conundrum. I’ve been really terrible at reviewing TV on the blog this year: it’s basically just been Doctor Who. But what a series of Doctor Who! Tsuranga encapsulates everything I love about it. It is hopeful, inclusive and searching, a story that asks us to reimagine what Doctor Who is and what it’s for.

Film: Jupiter AscendingYeah, the film reviewing has fallen a bit by the wayside this year, too. And I’m pretty bad at seeing films, anyway. So let’s go with Jupiter Ascending, a film from the Wachowski sisters that is absolutely bizarre, utterly gorgeous to look at and contains Eddie Redmayne.

Spreadsheet time!

  • I read 76 books in 2018 – ten short of my total of 86, dammit.
  • The longest book I read was Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Earth, which at 1069 pages is technically three novels in one, and probably one of my favourite books of 2018. Meanwhile, the shortest was Jorge Luis Borges’ A Universal History of Iniquity, at a slim and forgettable 105 pages. Overall, I read 30,048 pages – unsurprisingly not quite as good as last year’s 30,893 (although, not that far off…)
  • The oldest book I read in 2018 was Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge, published in 1841. The average age of the books I read in 2018 was 42, down from last year’s 44. (I’m pretty sure this average is dragged down quite a lot by my annual Tolkien reread.)
  • Genre: The genre split of my reading has shifted quite a lot this year – I relied much more on the local library than I have in previous years, and the SFF section only goes so far. So: 36% of my reading was fantasy, down from 45% last year; 21% was science fiction, the same as last year. 17% was lit fic, significantly up from 9% last year, and 12% was non-fiction, again significantly up from last year’s 6%. The rest was split between historical, contemporary, crime and humour (all the annoying interchangeable categories, in other words).
  • 9% of the books I read in 2018 were re-reads – down from last year’s 11%, which is great.
  • 53% of the books I read in 2018 were by women – up from last year’s disappointing 46%.
  • And 24% of the books I read in 2018 were by authors of colour, another increase on last year’s 18%.

Ten Books That Would Make Good TV

  1. The Dark Tower series – Stephen King. A Dark Tower TV series is already in the works, but given it’s associated with the decidedly lacklustre film I have basically no confidence it will be any good. The whole series is crying out to be televised, with a prestige TV budget: the battle of Jericho! Blaine the Mono and the waste lands! The desert, and the man in black. Roland of Gilead weeping. It would be fucking fantastic. Someone get it done, please. (I can’t believe there wouldn’t be an audience for it, given King’s readership.)
  2. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien. Does Peter Jackson do television? Yes, I know he made an unholy mess of The Hobbit (STILL NOT OVER IT), but The Silmarillion is another kind of beast altogether: properly epic and wonderful in the way the Lord of the Rings films are. It wouldn’t work as a film (please don’t do this, anyone, or I will cry) because there’s like a million characters and no overarching plot except for “everyone dies and everything is shit”, but it could make for beautiful TV.
  3. Lirael – Garth Nix. Only, I’m imagining like a version where Lirael stays in the Library and has magical monster-of-the-week adventures with the Disreputable Dog and gradually learns to make friends and accept herself and it would be wholesome and wonderful and full of books.
  4. Perdido Street StationChina Mieville. I know, I know, I wrote a whole post a couple of weeks ago about how Mieville doesn’t work on TV and it should never happen again, but on a purely superficial level I think New Crobuzon would be amazing on screen, if it was done properly. Plus, the novel has that sprawling Dickensian quality that would give a TV series time to explore the world properly while, y’know, having a plot.
  5. The Discworld series – Terry Pratchett. There was a series called The Watch that was happening a while ago. Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge claims it is still happening. I’m hoping a) that it does happen and b) that it is not shit. (The films are fairly shit, but it is pretty fun seeing Discworld come to life, however underfunded it is.)
  6. A Madness of Angels – Kate Griffin. This is another one that would work really well as a monster-of-the-week show, carried by its wise-cracking protagonist and BBC special effects that are dodgy enough to look a little bit real. (See also Doctor Who.)
  7. Soulless – Gail Carriger. Steampunk and vampires and werewolves, oh my! (Seriously, this book is obsessed by scenery. If anything was written for TV it’s this.)
  8. The Temeraire series – Naomi Novik. Temeraire is adorable, and the books are really fascinated by relationships in a way that I think would work well on TV. You could flesh out the arcs of some of the supporting characters, and it would be like Downton Abbey but with dragons. And naval battles.
  9. Night Film – Marisha Pessl. For obvious reasons, this would work well on screen: I mean, it’s literally about film. And you could translate some of the novel’s narrative tricks pretty well into TV. I can also see how a TV adaptation could be disastrous, though.
  10. Green Earth – Kim Stanley Robinson. It would be like The West Wing, except with climate change! And lord knows climate change could do with raising its profile.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Films

Have I really never done this post before? OK, then…

  1. Les Miserables, dir. Tom Hooper. This is the one with Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman and (mmm) Eddie Redmayne. The first time I saw it I was so wonderstruck I nearly walked in front of a taxi. The music is a cut above that of most musicals, the story is an acknowledged heart-breaker, and I will never see a better Marius than Eddie Remayne, though I admit he is not really a singer.
  2. The Return of the King, dir. Peter Jackson. This film has a gazillion endings, and they are all perfect, and then comes that most wonderful of songs, Annie Lennox’s “Into the West”. There are things Jackson gets wrong (*side-eyes Faramir’s truncated character arc), but in essence the film captures the heart of the books in a way that’s sadly rare for book-to-film adaptations.
  3. The Fellowship of the Ring, dir. Peter Jackson. You can see how this list is going to go down, can’t you? (Though the Hobbit films are an abomination against all that is good and holy.) I love the lightness of Fellowship, our introduction to hobbits who are still (relatively) carefree, the character dynamics of the Fellowship which we don’t see in later films. Fellowship is still an adventure. They’ve yet to slog through the battlefields of the second film in the trilogy…
  4. The Two Towers, dir. Peter Jackson. This is really only here for completeness’ sake: Towers is my least favourite book in the trilogy just as it’s my least favourite film of the three. Helm’s Deep bores me. Frodo and Sam walk through the same carbon-fibre set of rocks about a zillion times. Andy Serkis’ Gollum, though, is a masterpiece.
  5. Stardust, dir. Matthew Vaughn. Stardust is based on Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, so naturally it is secretly sexist. (It’s totally OK to kidnap an injured woman if she turns out to be your True Love.) But, oh, how delightfully fluffy this film is! Its Fairyland is wild and dangerous and strange but not too strange, and it’s full of everything you want to find in Fairyland: princes and witches and weird bloody necklaces and desperate horseback rides and magical markets and epic landscapes, unscrupulous merchants and captive princesses and sky pirates and Babylon candles. It’s funny and magical and I love it with all my fannish heart.
  6. The Matrix, dir. the Wachowski sisters. I like The Matrix because it is cool. That is all. I love the cyberpunk aesthetic. I think bullet time looks awesome. I like the way the hackers’ handles all have deeper meanings. The soundtrack is perfect. Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss both look very attractive in their badass cyberpunk outfits. And the film manages to pull off “and the World was Saved by Love” with style.
  7. Cloud Atlas, dir. the Wachowski sisters. Cloud Atlas was controversial among the critics, but I was already a fan of the novel, so I was halfway there. I came out of the cinema after watching Cloud Atlas feeling like I did when I finished the book: like I’d glimpsed some overarching structure to the universe, that there was some ambitious and elusive truth amid the disconnected flashes of experience that make up all our histories.
  8. The Social Network, dir. David Fincher. The Social Network is carried by Jesse Eisenberg, an astonishingly high-energy actor who specialises in making arseholes supremely watchable. Plus, the screenwriter is Aaron Sorkin, he of The West Wing, and the film zings with his swift, intelligent, witty dialogue.
  9. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, dir. Russell T. Davies. This is my favourite Shakespeare adaptation: gloriously camp and colourful, diverse and carnivalesque, a flash of bright left-wing hope against the thunderclouds of Trump and Brexit and irreversible climate change. I cried at the end, so defiantly triumphant was it.
  10. The Muppet Christmas Carol, dir. Brian Henson. YES, I am a grown English student and I still watch this every Christmas (much to the disgruntlement of my sister, who is naturally much cooler than I am). It’s so Christmassy and delightful! And is surprisingly faithful, in story and in spirit (no pun intended), to Dickens’ original.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Classics

  1. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. This was my first Dickens, and so it retains a special place in my heart. It’s sprawling, melodramatic, often sentimental, sometimes angry, and altogether wonderful. And it features one of Dickens’ most spirited heroines: Lizzie Hexam.
  2. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen. I also love Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, but Pride and Prejudice takes the crown because of Elizabeth’s spirit, and because Jane and Bingley are simply charming.
  3. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. This is a remarkable novel that smushes together Dickensian caricature and Gothic menace. Threatening, ponderous, hypnotic.
  4. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley. Every politician should read this. It’s a stark warning about the consequences of social isolation, the folly of oppression, and the perils of hubris.
  5. Paradise Lost – John Milton. Milton’s verse is a revelation (hah): resonant, spirited and grand, and surprisingly accessible to a modern reader.
  6. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe. Much like Titus Groan, this is a novel that draws you into its melodramatic world and won’t let go: a lush and richly described work full of foreshadowings and pathetic fallacies and moustache-twirling villains.
  7. Evelina – Fanny Burney. Burney was a sort of proto-Jane Austen, and her first novel is her best: an epistolary tale of a young woman in London for the first time, it combines social comedy with, um, high melodrama. (There is definitely a theme to this post.)
  8. The Tempest – William Shakespeare. My favourite Shakespeare play varies wildly depending on the version I’ve seen most recently. But The Tempest is definitely up there for its elegiac tone, and the way its action takes place in strange boundary states, between the sea and the land, between the city and the wilderness, between life and death.
  9. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad. I’ve only read this once, at university: but I loved the lush menace of Conrad’s writing, the gathering sense of dread as we advance along the Congo.
  10. Morte Darthur – Thomas Malory. I’m a sucker for Arthurian stories, and though Malory’s Arthurian cycle was by no means the first version of the Once and Future King’s story (or the best), it’s certainly been one of the most influential on Western literature.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

My Top Ten “Gateway” Books

  1. The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien. As with, I suspect, many other people, The Hobbit was my gateway into The Lord of the Rings, a book that, almost uniquely, sits deep in my psyche. And so it was a gateway, too, into a fandom and a way of writing and thinking and into a shared code of story.
  2. The Madwoman in the Attic – Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. This was my gateway into feminist thinking, and into serious, weighty literary criticism in general. It showed me what you can do with criticism, the anger you can wield with it and the worlds you can create.
  3. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. A gateway into the Gothic, a mode which holds so much interest for me, deep and dark and ambiguous and strange.
  4. The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon. This was the book that made me realise that postmodernism is actually pretty cool, definitely more cool than Modernism.
  5. Havelok the Dane – Anonymous. Havelok the Dane is a thirteenth-century narrative poem about, er, a Dane called Havelok who…invades Britain or something? I can’t even really remember what happens in it. Anyway, I read this a couple of weeks before I started at university, in a vague panic because I didn’t get the reading list when I was supposed to get it, and just being utterly enchanted because it was so Tolkien-y and fairy tale-esque. And it was that that made me choose to study Middle English instead of Old English in my first year, so I got to read lots of other wonderful works like it, including several Arthurian romances, and overall I had a great insight into a literary period that doesn’t get studied very often.
  6. Saga Volume 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. This was my first graphic novel, and I couldn’t really have asked for a better introduction. It’s punchy and fearless and full of emotional truth.
  7. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. So this was my gateway into proper grown-up fantasy, really: fantasy in which worldbuilding is metaphor and metaphor is worldbuilding, in which our world is always half-glimpsed in the strangenesses of another one.
  8. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. I was quite lucky that this was my first Dickens novel: it’s sentimental and sprawling and right up my street, and it’s why I continue to read Dickens novels. (To be fair, there’s only been one real dud among the ones I’ve read.)
  9. The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova. This made me properly want to go to university and study things in dusty old libraries.
  10. Steampunk Your Wardrobe – Calista Taylor. I mean, I still haven’t made anything from this book, but it was my first steampunk reference book, so to speak. I now have three, and intend to collect lots more!

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: David Copperfield

This review contains spoilers.

Famously, David Copperfield was Dickens’ favourite of his novels. Possibly equally famously, it’s quite recognisably autobiographical.

Conflating these things is dangerous, of course. And just because some things in the novel are autobiographical doesn’t mean all or most of it is. But I couldn’t help reading it in the light of Claire Tomalin’s biography Dickens: A Life, which I read the Christmas before last, and specifically in the light of the fact that Dickens was, to put it crudely if punningly, a bit of a dick.

So. David Copperfield is narrated in first person by its eponymous hero, whose early childhood is as elysian as all remembered childhoods are; he lives with his adoring mother (widowed on the eve of his birth) and an equally adoring female housekeeper, Peggotty. That’s until his mother marries the odious Mr Murdstone, who turns out to be emotionally abusive and financially grasping. He sends David away to school, and then, after the narratively inevitable death of David’s mother, to work in a bottle factory. Oppressed by this life, David flees to the doubtful embrace of his fearsome aunt Betsy Trotwood, who takes him under her wing, sends him to a decent school and generally sets him on the path of genteel, middle-class poverty.

I think David is supposed to be a sympathetic, nay laudable, protagonist: fair-minded, right-thinking and generally well-intentioned. Mine is a resistant reading, then: I found him, like his creator, a misogynist pig.

David Copperfield is in part a kind of relationship sandbox for its hero: it’s full of couples who are functional or dysfunctional in various ways which, conveniently, David gets to witness and in some cases take part in, so he can learn for himself What Makes a Good Spouse. Although David’s assumptions about these relationships aren’t always correct, I think they are supposed to be reasonable assumptions from the evidence he has – and, for reasons I’ll go into later, I think whether they’re reasonable is as important to Dickens as whether they’re right. This is important because David is judgemental, unsympathetic and, usually, contemptuous about the relationships he witnesses.

So. The functional relationships in the novel (spoilers, obviously):

  • Mr and Mrs Micawber – Mr Micawber, David’s landlord during the time he works in the bottle factory is terrible with money and constantly in debt. Mrs Micawber’s family have disowned her for marrying him, and they are constantly having children they can’t afford to feed. This should, according to most narrative logic, be a disaster. In fact, Mrs Micawber is devoted and forgiving – not uncomplainingly so, which would be sickening, but in a kind of pragmatic, bustling way that speaks of a genuinely robust relationship despite their incompetence with reference to accepted financial social codes.
  • Peggotty and Barkis – another relationship that seems based in comfortable companionship rather than romantic devotion. We don’t actually get much of a look at this relationship, which is surprising given how important Peggotty is to David.
  • Agnes and David – Agnes is the person David ends up with at the end; she is, of course, radiant, angelic, intelligent, emotionally competent and patient. Although this reads like an idealised relationship, I think it’s actually supposed to be more friendship-based than David’s other entanglements.

And the dysfunctional relationships:

  • Doctor and Mrs Strong – Doctor Strong is David’s teacher at the school his aunt sends him to. Everyone (meaning David and Aunt Betsy’s alcoholic lawyer Mr Wickfield) thinks Mrs Strong is in love with her cousin, Jack Maldon. Not having an affair or anything; just in love. David is horrified that she should have socially unapproved feelings, notwithstanding the fact that she is much younger than her husband, who seems to be more of a father figure to her in that creepy Victorian paternalistic way. David and Mr Wickfield turn out to be wrong.
  • Mr Murdstone and David’s mother – obviously, being David’s mother’s second husband, Mr Murdstone is emotionally abusive, because women marrying again are always monsters or mistaken, even though marriage often gives women the social status and/or finances they need to survive.
  • David and Dora – a particularly shitty one. Dora is David’s first wife (men not being subject to the same rules re remarriage). She is described pretty much entirely in terms of how David sees her: enchanting, pretty, tinkly-laughed, frivolous. She turns out to be totally useless at being a wife: she can’t manage servants or do the accounts or support David emotionally, for the very good (though unacknowledged by Dickens) reason that she’s been taught to be ornamental all her life and has never had to apply herself to anything. No wonder she’s confused. In any case, just as David has learned his lesson she dies of feebleness, apparently, leaving him free to select someone more worthy. Oh, and she asks David to call her “child-wife”, which, eww.
  • Em’ly and Steerforth – this one is the worst. Steerforth is one of David’s friends from school, so devilishly handsome and charismatic that even David wants to sleep with him a little bit. Em’ly is a fisherman’s daughter, the niece of Peggotty’s brother, who David meets as a child and is, even into adulthood, bewitching, charming, and (fatally) flirtatious. She is seduced by Steerforth, and at a stroke her life is ruined: her fiance leaves her and she’s renounced by everyone who once knew her. I’ve no doubt that this is an accurate representation of what might happen to a fallen woman of her class; but neither Dickens or David seem to have an ounce of sympathy for her, who was almost certainly promised marriage by Steerforth (which of course he did not intend to provide), and who’s been damned by an act that men could do with impunity. Look at Tess of the D’Urbevilles, after all, about a woman of a not dissimilar social class living in similar times under similar circumstances: Hardy has more sympathy for his heroine in one page than Dickens and David have in the entire book. David at one point muses that it might be better for Em’ly to be dead than ruined.

For Dickens, the secret to a successful relationship seems to be equality: equality of intelligence, age and social standing. It takes David the whole novel to learn this.

This is important because in a wider sense the novel is about David finding out who he is supposed to be and where he is supposed to fit in the world. Just as he tries out different relationships through his social circle, he tries out different roles in life: manual labourer, lawyer, writer, breadwinner, unmasker of villains. It’s significant that, at the end of the novel, a ship heads for Australia, to the new society taking shape there: it carries the Micawbers and Em’ly with her uncle, people who no longer have a place in England’s body politic. And what I think is meant to be a particularly existentially terrifying moment comes when David, during some research for his writing, visits a model prison, again towards the end of the novel. There he finds Uriah Heep, a particularly odious specimen of humanity who has throughout the novel been blackmailing Mr Wickfield, taking advantage of his alcoholism to gain power over him; Uriah’s famous refrain is, “I’m very umble, sir,” when of course he means nothing of the sort. Also in the prison is Steerforth’s manservant, ostensibly arrested for petty theft, although narratively he is obviously in prison for his role in Em’ly’s seduction. The manservant’s schtick is respectability; the kind of disapproving correctness (so I imagined) you get off waiters in expensive restaurants. Both are commended by the prison guards as model prisoners; though we, and David, know they are anything but. They are actors, taking advantage of the role society’s marked out for them and playing it so very perfectly that it becomes subversion. And they are dangerous because they know their power; and they are terrifying because they are absolutely products of their society.

My point is that, in a wider sense, David Copperfield is a novel about the body politic, and where people fit, correctly, into it. That’s why, after all, it’s so important that David marry the right person; because marriage and the nuclear family is the cornerstone of England’s bourgeois body politic in Dickens’ time. And that’s why it’s important that the women of the novel aren’t really characters in their own right (the exceptions are the delightfully proto-feminist Betsy Trotwood, who dresses masculinely and refuses to marry, and Peggotty, who exists, it seems, to serve David); they’re ciphers, seen only through David’s eyes, existing only insomuch as they affect the men around them. (Poor Em’ly’s fiance! His heart is broken and he will never marry now! Never mind that Em’ly is considered worse than dead by her society.) In Dickens’ society, women exist only for men: to uphold and serve the body politic and allow men to learn and have stories and actual lives. In Dickens Land, a woman will only ever be a supporting character.