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David Copperfield, Carlylean Hero

Heroes, Charlotte Bronte, autobiography

These are the Book Club resources for David Copperfield. Everyone has access to the introduction and a short version of the video. Paid subscribers can learn about Dickens’s autobiography, his anti-feminist reaction to Jane Eyre, use of the present tense, and how David Copperfield as a self-made man is an example of Thomas Carlyle’s theory of the heroic. The video is not a recording of the session but specially made for this post.

The video outlines the ideas which are given below in (much) more detail, with quotes from a range of critics, to introduce the spectrum of responses to this remarkable novel. As far as I know, there is no detailed scholarly work that traces the detail of Carlyle’s idea in Copperfield. If anyone knows of any such work, I would be grateful to know about it. To unlock the full video and essay, subscribe now.

The next book club will be about Mrs. Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, a suitable follow-on from Copperfield. We will meet in mid-July, date tbc—suggestions welcome in the comments. Gaskell is our primary focus, but I also strongly recommend The Brontë Myth by Lucasta Miller. And of course, re-reading Jane Eyre, one of the all time great novels. As I said to someone who questioned Emily’s talents recently, the Brontës are five-star geniuses and I won’t hear another word about it.


  1. Introduction. Is David Copperfield the most Victorian of nineteenth century novels?

  2. Copperfield as Dickens’s autobiography, the relationship between Dickens’ life and David Copperfield to see how autobiographical the novel was.

  3. Literary influence, the literary influences of Jane Eyre as an “autobiographical novel” and the use of the present tense.

  4. David Copperfield as Carlylean hero, a discussion of the way Carlyle’s theory of the heroic is encoded in the novel, demonstrating the influence of Samuel Johnson on the novel and showing that Agnes is the lynchpin of this idea.

If you are interested in reading more about David Copperfield, do look at the essays on Rachel’s blog, All the (Dickensian) Year, written by Rachel, Boze, and members of the Dickens Chronological Reading Club.


Is David Copperfield the most Victorian of nineteenth century novels? It has so many essential elements of Victorianism. The self-made man, the angel in the house, the spinster aunt, the anxious marital secret, the nasty brutish step-father, sexual hypocrisy, ruined innocence, labouring children, class division, class hatred, snobbish hypocrisy, the rising to dominance of the middle-class, apple-faced ruralism, nostalgia for the pre-steam engine age, commerce and trade, country lawyers with scheming clerks, silly wives with little dogs, wicked servants, humble servants, financial ruin, emigration, financial recovery, port towns, London, loyal daughters, good Christian men, mental health problems and unsympathetic relatives, eccentricity, a sensible submissive wife with a wise heart, the rich dissolute friend who brings evil to beautiful women, closed societies who scorn the weak, mercy and charity, anonymous city life, indignation, consternation, poetic justice, sentimentality, and the ever present influence of Thomas Carlyle.

Copperfield is Dickens’s last book that is predominantly comic: after 1850, Carlyle’s influence on Dickens turns him into a darker, more pessimistic writer, something which made Bleak House and Little Dorritt less popular with the critics. This is the last time we see the Dickens of high-days and holidays, whose view of life is essentially optimistic and beneficent, before social evils crowd his work like an irremovable smell. After Copperfield, Dickens is always attacking something, often bitterly. Carlyle’s influence on Copperfield is more optimistic: it makes this a novel of the heroic man-of-letters and the rising Victorian middle-class that casts off the Byronic idea of a Romantic hero.

These ideas are set in the opening line, Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life… Life, here, has two meanings. First, the actual life Copperfield lives. This is directly related to our lives: we might all want to become the hero of our own lives. But life also meant biography, such as in Forster’s Life of Dickens. David Copperfield is a fictional autobiography. 

In this fictional autobiography, Dickens uses the material of his own life and the ideas of his literary hero Thomas Carlyle, to present the story of a development of a neglected child into a hero as a man-of-letters.

Paid subscribers get access to the full video, the rest of the detailed notes, can come to the Book Club meetings, and receive occasional additional essays. You can also join the conversation over at the discussion thread.

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C19th Literature
A book club where you learn about great literature
Henry Oliver