30 Authors in 30 Days: Author Michael Hurley on David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

30authors30 Authors in 30 Days is a first of its kind event aimed at connecting readers, bloggers, and authors. Hosted by The Book Wheel, this month-long event takes place during September and features 30 authors discussing their favourite recent reads on 30 different blogs. There are also some great prizes provided by GoneReading.com and BookJigs.

For the full schedule of participating authors and bloggers, visit The Book Wheel or join the Facebook group.  You can also follow along on Twitter with the #30Authors hashtag!

I’m excited to participate in this event and to host Michael Hurley here on The Book Musings, discussing his favourite classic by Charles Dickens. Thanks to Allison at The Book Wheel for organizing this great event!


A Novel by Charles Dickens

Review by Michael Hurley                      

Whenever I get too big for my britches and start taking my brilliant career as an author a little too seriously (by using words like “brilliant”), my preferred therapy is to dive into time-honored works by celebrated authors and remind myself why they are called “classics.” In my opinion there is no better therapist for this condition than Charles Dickens and no better treatment than his autobiographical novel, David Copperfield. 

David Copperfield is Dickens’ eighth novel and, according to the preface written by the author, his favorite. Mine too.  But before I dive into the characters and the plot, I’d like to spend a moment talking about why I read Dickens at all and why his works are the best example of that amorphous and much-hated descriptor, “literary fiction.”

Works of commercial, genre fiction are often linear tales in which the characters are helplessly adrift in, and pulled along by, a tide of events—and the swifter and straighter that tide, the better. The highest praise given to these books is that they are “page turners” or “propulsive reads,” because events are literally propelling the story: the fuse is lit, the gun is pulled, the car is crashed, the bodice is ripped, and the priceless jewel is stolen; the robbery scene is followed by the fight scene, the seduction scene, the explosion scene, the chase scene, and so on. Literary fiction is different.

David Copperfield by Charles DickensWorks of literary fiction are often circular or even stationary tales in which the story is propelled by the idiosyncrasies of the characters themselves, who may go nowhere and do nothing in particular.  The reader who picks up Dickens expecting to read Dan Brown or John Grisham or James Patterson or Danielle Steel will probably be about as happy about that as the Elvis fan who wanders into the Berlin Philharmonic by mistake. The common knock on literary fiction by readers of genre fiction is that the story “starts slow,” or “goes nowhere.” This is akin to saying a painting by Monet “starts slow” and could have been great if only it were a movie. The criticism completely misses the character of the work.

All of which is important to know before you start reading David Copperfield. Like a painting by Monet, the most beautiful and, ultimately, entertaining thing about this book is not where it’s taking you but what it’s showing you—not what happens in the plot but the wonderful prose and powerful imagery of Dickens’ writing, his well-mannered but piercing wit, and his keen eye for the nuances of human nature and the humor in ordinary life.

If you must know the plot before you give this book a chance, the plot can be summed up pretty handily: The story’s namesake, a young boy growing up in rural Victorian England, is cruelly mistreated by his stepfather and later orphaned. Writing in the first person, Dickens reveals how the boy is forced to make his own way in a world of unsavory characters, some of whom he mistakes for friends, but is aided and ultimately saved by friends whom he once mistook for adversaries. In classic Dickensian philosophy, characters who by society’s standards appear to be noble worthies are revealed as craven villains. The lowly are redeemed to great heights, but the working and upper classes alike must deal with their measure of tragedy and woe. Our boy realizes too late that the quiet, dutiful girl with a heart of gold is the one he should have married instead of the dimwitted, hot mess with the yappy dog appropriately named “Jip.” To help love along, Dickens conveniently kills off the bratty first wife through complications of a miscarriage, and our bonny lad gets to marry the second wife of his dreams. They quickly have a passel of adoring children, and his books start selling like hotcakes (this is Dickens, after all). As our hero reaches the end of the story, some 358,000 words later, he reflects on the goodness and kindness of those who sustained him in the storms of life.

If you want a gut-wrenching and utterly unpredictable plot, read Gone Girl. If you want writing so good you’ll want to hang it on the wall, they don’t make many who can wield a pen like Charles Dickens.  I leave you, therefore, with these murals:

When my thoughts go back, now, to that slow agony of my youth, I wonder how much of the histories I invented for such people hangs like a mist of fancy over well-remembered facts! When I tread the old ground, I do not wonder that I seem to see and pity, going on before me, an innocent romantic boy, making his imaginative world out of such strange experiences and sordid things!

. . . .

My advice is, never do tomorrow what you can do today. Procrastination is the thief of time. Collar him!

. . . .

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.

. . . .

“Trot,” said my aunt in conclusion, “be a credit to yourself, to me, and Mr. Dick, and Heaven be with you. . . . Never . . . be mean in anything; never be false; never be cruel. Avoid those three vices, Trot, and I can always be hopeful of you.

. . . .

[Y]ou have a long voyage, and a strange country, before you; but many men have had both, and many men will have both, to the end of time. The winds you are going to tempt, have wafted thousands upon thousands to fortune, and brought thousands upon thousands happily back.

. . . .

My school-days! The silent gliding on of my existence—the unseen, unfelt progress of my life—from childhood up to youth! Let me think, as I look back upon that flowing water, now a dry channel overgrown with leaves, whether there are any marks along its course, by which I can remember how it ran.

. . . .

I wish with all my soul I had been better guided . . . I wish with all my soul I could guide myself better!

. . . .

It’s in vain, Trot, to recall the past, unless it works some influence upon the present.

. . . .

Only be a loving child to me in my age, and bear with my whims and fancies; and you will do more for an old woman whose prime of life was not so happy or conciliating as it might have been, than ever that old woman did for you!

. . . .

I was much impressed by the extremely comfortable and satisfied manner in which Mr. Waterbrook delivered himself of this little word “Yes,” every now and then. There was a wonderful expression in it. It completely conveyed the idea of a man who had been born, not to say with a silver spoon, but with a scaling-ladder, and he had gone on mounting all the heights of life one after another, until now he looked, from the top of the fortifications, with the eye of a philosopher and a patron, on the people down in the trenches.

© 2014 by M. C. Hurley

About the Author

Michael HurleyMichael Hurley and his wife Susan live near Charleston, South Carolina. Born in Baltimore, Michael studied English at the University of Maryland and law at St. Louis University. Michael’s first book, Letters from the Woods, was a collection of essays, self-published in 2005, based on wilderness canoeing expeditions with his children. It was selected as a finalist in the Nature category for ForeWord magazine’s Book of the Year award. In 2013 Hachette Book Group published his memoir, Once Upon A Gypsy Moon, under their Center Street imprint. The Prodigal is his first novel.

You can learn more about Michael Hurley on his:

Michael is also the author of The Prodigal, which you can purchase on Amazon and Barnes & Noble

For more information on classics from Charles Dickens, check out Goodreads.

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  • This was so interesting to read. Any Dickens I have read, I have liked, especially Bleak House. But I haven’t yet read David Copperfield. Someday, I will get to it.

  • Jenny Milchman

    Thanks for recalling a classic for me…and for your distinction between literary and genre fiction (always a stumper).

  • Jennine G.

    So well written and informative! I just loved Mr. Hurley’s style in this piece. Makes me want to read his book!

  • Michael, I loved your description on what makes literary fiction different from other genres. Your review of David Copperfield also makes me want to read the book more now than I’ve ever wanted to. Thank you for writing it!

  • I read a number of Dickens novels when I was younger, but never David Copperfield. Thanks to Michael’s review I know that the next time I get a hankering to read Dickens, David Copperfield will be the one I pick up. I also LOVED his explanation of how literary fiction differs from other genres. Thanks for sharing, Melinda!

    • You’re welcome, Helen. I’m so glad to have hosted this piece written by M.Hurley and that explanation of the difference between literary and other genres – I’m so glad he has addressed that.

  • Isi

    Dickens, what a classic! A classic that I haven’t read, by the way.
    It’s enterely my fault: I always think of that but I feel I’m not ready.

    • Can I tell you a secret? I’ve only read one Dickens and I haven’t finished yet. I’m definitely going to be reading David Copperfield!

      • Isi

        Ohh now I don’t feel alone anymore 🙂
        I think I still need to find my “Dickens moment”

  • Even though this book is a classic, I love his review because it’s so unique. I haven’t read this one yet (isn’t it really long?) but maybe I’ll adjust my thoughts about it and add it to the Classics Club list (especially because I loved Michael’s book, The Prodigal, so I assume he has good taste!)

    Thank you so much for participating!

    • You’re welcome. I will definitely be reading The Prodigal, because I loved your review on it. I think his review of David Copperfield is so unique and of course I love that he included a description on the difference between literary fiction and other genres. It gives more insight into the reasons why he loved this particular novel.