A Serial Reading of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield

Registration is now closed. A Newberry Library Adult Education Seminar (8 sessions, February 9 to March 30). Registration begins January 18, 2023.

Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield is one of the Victorian era’s most beloved books, filled with memorable characters, entertaining plot twists, social critique, and poignant insights. This class invites participants to immerse themselves in the world of the novel by reading it in consecutive parts reflecting the original publication schedule. As we work our way through the novel, our spoiler-free discussions will also feature film excerpts and other visual media.

Materials List
David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens. Penguin Classics Edition. ISBN 978-0140439441
Other materials will be made available online and brought to the seminar sessions.

  • For the first session, please read only chapters 1-3, but please do not read the introduction.

Seminar Description
David Copperfield originally appeared in serial installments from May 1849 to November 1850, a period that saw some of the most historic changes in the Victorian era. This seminar employs the format of “serial reading” in order to explore the literary, cultural, and autobiographical dimensions of Dickens’s novel.

Our literary focus will be on Dickens’s use of the “older David” as narrator, and the sophisticated interplay of memory, representation, and multiple voices in the installments. While dozens of topics for discussion of cultural issues will emerge in the novel, we will particularly note the influence that Victorian popular culture had on Dickens at this time, as well as Dickens’s subsequent influence on popular culture, including early cinema. David Copperfield is also Dickens’s most autobiographical novel, and in the seminar we will be able to trace those aspects of the fictional hero’s life and work that reflect the author’s own struggles and triumphs.

Dickens divided David Copperfield into 20 monthly installments of three or four chapters each, and these installments will form the basis of our seminar readings. We will begin with two sessions that consider very brief portions of the novel (one serial installment each, in fact). Thereafter, each session asks participants to read roughly 100 pages (three of the original installments), starting and stopping according to Dickens’s original arrangement. The purpose of this schedule is not to have seminar participants recreate a Victorian reader’s experience (although we will discuss those experiences), but to help us focus on the details of the narrative from the very beginning of our experience with the novel.

Sessions will also include spoiler-free excerpts from critical materials and tips on what to look for in subsequent installments. These tips include suggestions for noting particular plot points, character changes, and specific “must-read” sections, among other hints for active reading. PowerPoint slides will serve to highlight some of the historical, artistic, and literary references in the novel, offering a kind of “annotated novel” experience prompted each week by the text of David Copperfield itself. Slides will also highlight the Newberry Library materials relevant to the novel. Throughout the seminar will also view and discuss spoiler-free scenes from several of the film adaptations of David Copperfield.

Web Resources (supplemental)
David Copperfield: all of the original serial installments, digitized

Films (supplemental)
1935: David Copperfield (MGM, 131 mins). Directed by George Cukor. Starring Freddie Bartholomew, W. C. Fields, Lionel Barrymore, and Maureen O’Sullivan. Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play.
1999: David Copperfield (BBC series, 186 mins). Directed by Simon Curtis. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Bob Hoskins, and Maggie Smith. Hulu, Amazon, BritBox.
2019: The Personal History of David Copperfield (Lionsgate, 120 mins). Directed by Armando Ianucci. Starring Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie, and Ben Wishaw. Hulu, Apple TV, Disney+, Amazon.

Books (supplemental)
Charles Dickens: A Life, by Claire Tomalin. Penguin, 2011.
Dickens: A Biography, by Juston Kaplan. Johns Hopkins, 1988.
The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London, by Judith Flanders. Thomas Dunne, 2012.

Session One: 2/9/23
Chapters 1-3
Theme: The Two Davids

Session Two: 2/16/23
Chapters 4-6
Theme: Memories and Representation

Session Three: 2/23/23
Chapters 7-15
Theme: Victorian Education

Session Four: 3/2/23
Chapters 16-24
Theme: The Moving Image

Session Five: 3/9/23
Chapters 25-34
Theme: On Dickens’s Life

Session Six: 3/16/23
Chapters 35-43
Theme: Economics and Culture

Session Seven: 3/23/23
Chapters 44-53
Theme: The Importance of Character(s)

Session Eight: 3/30/23
Chapters 54-64 (end)
Theme: The Nature of Conclusions

Image: Detail from the half-title page of Fred Barnard’s Illustrations for David Copperfield, Household Edition (1872).