The Book that Measured My Life and Growth

David and his nurse Peggoty. Drawing by Jessie Willcox Smith (1910)

My Happy Birthday! post for Charles Dickens, one of my all time favorite authors (who’d be 200 if he was alive today)! Given that my grandmother is edging close to a 100, it doesn’t feel that old really!

My love affair with Dickens began with my 10th birthday, when a bachelor friend of my parents’, who had been invited to my birthday party, handed me the first thing that came his way: an unabridged version of Dicken’s David Copperfield.  Recently, when I asked a 10 year old if he had read David Copperfield, he said, “No, but I’ve seen him on T.V. He’s cool!”  I realized he was talking about the magician!

But Dicken’s David Copperfield was really my childhood magician.  I was mesmerized with my gift.  It was a big, thick book with small print, and no pictures, and that as far as I was concerned was an ‘adult’ book, my first, and I was very eager to read it.  My mother would find me laboring over it, sometimes with a dictionary at hand, and at one point she said, “Do you understand all of it?”  And apparently, (I don’t remember this) I told her “I love the death scenes!”

Many years later, I did realize that that almost all the death scenes in David Copperfield are not only extremely poignant, but they are each a turning point in David’s life and relationships.  In fact the book begins with David describing his birth this way: “I was a posthumous child. My father’s eyes had closed upon the light of this world six months, when mine opened on it.”

But what David Copperfield eventually became to my life is harder to describe.  I sometimes call it (him?) the measure of my life’s growth.  Over the last 30 years, I have read David Copperfield many times.  And each time, my reading would be different, from the first time when I read it at 10.  And I realized that each time, my reading was a reflection of my growth in time, of where I was in life.  

This was particularly significant for me, because as I realized much later in life, I never had the other measures of growth that people have.  Mine has been a nomadic life.  Like I once told someone: in 40 years, I’ve lived on 2 continents, in 20 towns and cities, and 44 postal addresses.  I never returned to live in a house.  I have never known neighborhoods, houses, trees, people, the way people do, and measure their growth against them.  You know like people say — I returned to my house and suddenly it felt so small, even though when I was small it felt so big.  Or neighbors who saw them playing in the sand-pit say, “when you were this high you used to….”  I never had any of these measures of growth and life in my life.   But I don’t feel shortchanged.  For what I did have…do have…are my own measures of growth and continuity, like the phenomenal David Copperfield.

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2 Comments

  1. Many literary critics place Great Expectations at the top of Dickens’s novels, and one or two like Bleak House or another novel, but if I remember correctly from Ackroyd’s biography, Dickens’s favorite was David Copperfield. Thanks for your thoughts, Rita.

    Reply
    • Rita Banerji

       /  February 16, 2012

      thank you for the comment Don. True, Dickens used to say that David was his favorite child!

      Reply

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