My sincere thanks to Phil Davis, Professor of English at Liverpool University and editor of The Reader magazine who launches the Dickens and I... series here with this wonderful piece.
In his recent programme on Dickens, Armando Iannucci spoke of his experience of looking at the manuscript of David Copperfield in the V & A as being like that of a boy visiting a sweetshop. What is on offer though is something more than just sweeties.
Here is just one little example of watching Dickens in the act of writing. At the beginning of chapter 11, Dickens writes as the older David thinking back to the time when he was sent away from home, aged only ten, to work at his step-father’s warehouse:
I know enough of the world now, to have almost lost the capacity of being much surprised by anything; but it is a matter of some surprise to me that I can have been so easily thrown away at such an age.
This is the manuscript’s first version. But then in the very midst of writing it Dickens added between ‘to me’ and ‘that I can have been’ one little phrase: ‘even now’. ‘It is matter of some surprise to me, even now’ - creating an adult vulnerable to his own memories and a writer vulnerable to his own words. ‘No one,’ confessed Dickens in his Preface to the 1850 edition, ‘can ever believe this Narrative, in the reading, more than I have believed it in the writing.’ ‘Even now, famous and caressed and happy,’ he wrote of his own equivalent childhood trauma of being sent out to work at the blacking shop by his own parents, actually at the age of twelve, ‘I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life’ ‘Even now’ once again: it is one of Dickens’s sensitive little pressure-points.
it seems wonderful to me that nobody should have made any sign in my behalf. But there was nobody to make any, and none was made . . .
It is at the proof stage this time that Dickens delicately subtracts rather than adds, taking out ‘there was nobody to make any’:
But none was made; and I became, at ten years old, a little labouring hind in the service of Murdstone and Grinby.
That little comma-ed off phrase ‘at ten years old’ is another of those time-thoughts that was a later pained insertion. Yet when you see it in the manuscript, in the momentariness of Dickens’s own handwriting, from Dickens’s own secret autobiography, it is moving that what was inserted so apparently incidentally in the writer’s sentence was so central to the man’s existence.
But that is precisely Dickens’s craft: for those who dismiss him as just a popular Victorian serial-writer, please notice his care with small matters of language precisely for the sake of large emotional effects. The older David looks back at the younger almost as if he were now helplessly in place of the father that child never really had. Yet at the same time the man is also the hurt product of that childhood. This is the attentive reading which the manuscript shows Dickens was looking for.
Phil didn't ask for his own books to be included on this post but I have taken the liberty....
The Victorians 1830-1880, vol 8 in Oxford English Literary History series, Oxford: OUP 2002.
Why Victorian Literature Still Matters, Oxford; Wiley Blackwell 2008
Bernard Malamud; A Writer's Life, Oxford; OUP 2007
Shakespeare Thinking, London: Continuum, 2006