Virginia Woolf, “David Copperfield,” The Nation & the Athenæum, August 22, 1925. pp. 

LIKE the ripening of strawberries, the swelling 
of apples, and all other natural processes, new 
editions of Dickens—cheap, pleasant-looking, 
well printed—are born into the world and call for no 
more notice than the season's plums and strawberries,
save when by some chance the emergence of one of these 
masterpieces in its fresh, green binding,* suggests an 
odd and overwhelming enterprise—that one should read 
“David Copperfield” for the second time. There is 
perhaps no person living who can remember reading 
“David Copperfield” for the first time. Like “Robinson 
Crusoe” and Grimm's “Fairy Tales” and the Waver-
ley Novels, “Pickwick” and “David Copperfield”
are not books, but stories communicated by word of 
mouth in those tender years when fact and fiction merge, 
and thus belong to the memories and myths of life, and 
not to its æsthetic experience. When we lift it from 
this hazy atmosphere, when we consider it as a book, 
bound and printed and ordered by the rules of art, 
what impression does “David Copperfield” make upon 
us? As Peggotty and Barkis, the rooks and the work-
box with the picture of St. Paul's, Traddles who drew 
skeletons, the donkeys who would cross the green, Mr. 
Dick and the Memorial, Betsey Trotwood and Jip and 
Dora and Agnes and the Heeps and the Micawbers once 
more come to life with all their appurtenances and pecu-
liarities, are they still possessed of the old fascination, or 
have they in the interval been attacked by that parch-
ing wind which blows about books and, without our 
reading them, remodels them and changes their features 
while we sleep? The rumour about Dickens is to the 
effect that his sentiment is disgusting and his style 
commonplace; that in reading him every refinement 
must be hidden and every sensibility kept under glass; 
but that with these precautions and reservations, he is 
of course Shakespearean; like Scott a born creator; like 
Balzac prodigious in his fecundity; but, rumour adds, it 
is strange that while one reads Shakespeare and one 
reads Scott, the precise moment for reading Dickens 
seldom comes our way.

This last charge may be resolved into this—that 
he lacks charm and idiosyncrasy, is everybody's writer 
and no one's in particular, is an institution, a monu-
ment, a public thoroughfare trodden dusty by a million 
feet. It is based largely upon the fact that of all great 
writers Dickens is both the least personally charming 
and the least personally present in his books. No one 
has ever loved Dickens as he loves Shakespeare and 
Scott. Both in his life and in his work the impression 
that he makes is the same. He has to perfection the 
virtues conventionally ascribed to the male; he is self-
assertive, self-reliant, self-assured; energetic in the ex-
treme. His message, when he parts the veil of the 
story and steps forward in person, is plain and forcible; 
he preaches the value of "plain hardworking qualities," 
of punctuality, order, diligence, of doing what lies before 
one with all one's might. Agitated as he was by the 
most violent passions, ablaze with indignation, teeming 
with queer characters, unable to keep the dreams out
of his head at night, nobody appears, as we read him, 
more free from the foibles and eccentricities and charms 
of genius. He comes before us, as one of his biographers 
described him, "like a prosperous sea captain," stalwart, 
weatherbeaten, self-reliant, with a great contempt for 

* “The Uncommercial Traveller,” “Reprinted Pieces,” and
“Christmas Stories.” (Macmillan. 4s. 5d. each.)

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the finicky, the inefficient, or the effeminate. His sym-
pathies indeed have strict limitations. Speaking 
roughly, they fail him whenever a man or woman has 
more than two thousand a year, has been to the univer-
sity, or can count his ancestors back to the third genera-
tion. They fail him when he has to treat of the mature 
emotions—the seduction of Emily, for example, or the 
death of Dora, whenever it is no longer possible to keep 
moving and creating, but it is necessary to stand still 
and search into things and penetrate to the depths of 
what is there. Then, indeed, he fails grotesquely, and 
the pages in which he describes what, in our convention,
are the peaks and pinnacles of human life, the explana-
tion of Mrs. Strong, the despair of Mrs. Steerforth, or 
the anguish of Ham, are of an indescribable unreality—
of that uncomfortable complexion which, if we heard 
Dickens talking so in real life, would either make us blush 
to the roots of our hair, or dash out of the room to 
conceal our laughter. ". . . tell him then," says 
Emily, "that when I hear the wind blowing at night, I 
feel as if it was passing angrily from seeing him and 
uncle, and was going up to God against me." Miss 
Dartle raves—about carrion and pollution and earth-
worms, and worthless spangles and broken toys, and how 
she will have Emily "proclaimed on the common stair." 
The failure is akin to that other failure to think 
deeply, to describe beautifully. Of the many men who 
go to make up the perfect novelist and should live in 
amity under his hat, two—the poet and the philosopher
—failed to come when Dickens called them.

But the greater the creator the more derelict the 
regions where his powers fail him; all about their fertile 
lands are deserts where not a blade of grass grows,
swamps where the foot sinks deep in mud. Neverthe-
less, while we are under their spell these great geniuses 
make us see the world any shape they choose. We 
remodel our psychological geography when we read 
Dickens; we forget that we have ever felt the delights 
of solitude, or observed with wonder the intricate emo-
tions of our friends, or luxuriated in the beauty of 
nature. What we remember is the ardour, the excite-
ment, the humour, the oddity of people's characters;
the smell and savour and soot of London; the incredible 
coincidences which hook the most remote lives together; 
the city, the law courts; this man's nose, that man's 
limp; some scene under an archway or on the high road; 
and, above all, some gigantic and dominating figure, so 
stuffed and swollen with life that he does not exist singly 
and solitarily, but seems to need for his own realization 
a host of others, to call into existence the severed parts 
that complete him, so that wherever he goes he is the
centre of conviviality and merriment and punch-
making; the room is full, the lights are bright; there 
are Mrs. Micawber, the twins, Traddles, Betsey Trot-
wood—all in full swing.

This is the power which cannot fade or fail in its 
effect—the power not to analyze or to interpret, but to 
produce, apparently without thought or effort or calcu-
lation of the effect upon the story, characters who exist 
not in detail, not accurately or exactly, but abundantly 
in a cluster of wild and yet extraordinarily revealing 
remarks, bubble climbing on the top of bubble as the 
breath of the creator fills them. And the fecundity and 
apparent irreflectiveness have a strange effect. They 
make creators of us and not merely readers and spec-
tators. As we listen to Micawber pouring himself