David Copperfield, 1913 Silent Film (review)

David Copperfield (1913 film) British, Kenneth Ware, 3 Davids (child, youth, adult), silent, a contender for the title of first British feature film, black and white

See here for a full listing of adaptations.


Notable Because

This is the fourth film adaptation of DC we know of. I am not altogether certain of this: I lack access to Bolton’s archives, for example. But as far as I can tell, that is the case, and thus the 1913 DC is the earliest adaptation from which footage survives. What luck, then, that we have about half of it! An hour and four minutes, out of an original runtime of over two hours. One wonders how, actually. The BFI’s synopsis is useful in several other respects (that run-time figure, for example, and it also hosts some clips), but doesn’t give the history of their holding.

The 1913 DC is either the first or second British attempt at filming the novel, and the film also has a serious claim to being the first British feature-length film. In that respect alone it’s deeply significant to British film history, and of course it’s very interesting that people rushed to undertake Dickens’ material and this particular novel so early, when the book poses several challenges to adaptation. Perhaps there’s an answer as to why in these productions’ very earliness: it may have been too soon for the makers to have a sense (whether conventional wisdom on this subject is true or not) of the limitations of their medium.

This is possibly the only surviving silent film treatment of the book (I’ve yet to find the ‘22 and ‘24, but then I don’t really know where to look). The BFI draws attention to director Bentley’s other Dickensian work, which does significantly contextualise this production:

“The choice of subject was a natural one for Bentley, who had made something of a career as a Dickensian character actor before turning his hand to directing. It was this that had drawn him to the attention of producer Cecil Hepworth, also an ardent Dickens fan. But the subject was also strategically useful – and of a kind with other early feature films – in being based on a well-known, tried-and-trusted source. Given the extra investment required from producers and exhibitors to make these long films, a ‘prestige’ subject with built-in audience appeal was desirable.”

Built-in audience familiarity and appeal, I’ll give them, but I’m slightly wary of describing Dickens as a ‘prestige’ subject at this stage. I’m not altogether certain this isn’t a back-reading of a cultural position that actually took significant time and labour to establish. ‘Dickens’ was, by the 1910s, both a network of associations and memes very active in popular consciousness and somewhat in intellectual disrepute, if we’re to believe Chesterton about the ascendency of Wilde’s deeply hostile reading. It’s my impression that the generality of people considering Dickens literary, an appropriate subject of study and pillar of the ‘national canon’, came rather later, crucially after enough time had passed to enable people to re-envision the actual man as middle class, pastless and apolitical. The posthumous closure of his surviving publishing and political endeavours may have been necessary to his re-appraisal.

At the end of this review I will include a large number of pictures I took of this film. They are crude phone affairs, but as I’m not sure whether this information is readily available to international scholars in any other form, and as I really don’t think any legal issues can possibly still exist, I offer them.



This film, or what’s left of it, is available for free at all BFI Mediatheques. I believe you can also purchase some kind of online membership from the BFI and thus view it elsewhere.


Major Changes from Book

The most phatic possible thing to say is that this film is ‘much shorter’ than the book. And yet the film does feel abridged. Perhaps this is because it covers so many of the book’s plot points in a contracted fashion, then really slows down to give us some scenes in full. Some, though not all, of this queer pacing can be attributed to the loss of half of the original footage. Strangely, given this severe editing, the cuts aren’t obvious. The story holds together: given my unfamiliarity with films from this era, I attributed any little inconsistencies to silent film’s conventions. I didn’t even realise this wasn’t the full film until I turned to write this summary. I do think it’s editing at work. Someone must have made this version to run at this length. It holds together too well to be anything but a cut. Possibly the BFI did this, in order to present the film as a complete and approachable artefact. Yet given the unedited condition of the Mediatheque’s ‘66 DC episode 3, I really can’t imagine them doing so (and if they did, they really ought to have said as much!).

Thus I’m not certain whether, in the original cut, we would have seen David interacting with Steerforth as a schoolboy (he may have been in the classroom scene, undeclared, but the film didn’t call attention to this in any fashion). In the version I saw, David accidentally re-meets Steerforth as a young man in a pub when they’re forced to share a bench and David recognises him. This is our introduction to the character. Upon returning from Yarmouth, David “immediately falls foul of Mr Murdstone, who sends him away from his mother to school”. It seems likely that this was the case even before any cuts were made, because this text comes from an intertitle. I suppose people could have added new intertitles while making cuts–I’m not sure whether this was a common practice. Either way, in the version I saw (and very possibly also in the original version), Dickens’ rather delicate depiction of Murdstone’s gendered emotional abuse has become an energetic and colourful Incident.

David’s coming to live with Betsey takes quite a different shape in this version as well. A title card tells us that “[a]fter many happy years spent with my Aunt at Dover, I am sent to Mr Wickfield, at Canterbury, to finish my education.” The nature of this education is necessarily vague, as is much about David’s move to London. Presumably the director wanted to establish a relationship between David and Betsey, and without description to do so, instead gave them time. What the text could describe quite easily, the film must enunciate to make believable. This way of breaking up the story also gives the film a chance to shift from a child David to an adolescent David, and to give its three David actors each a fair amount of time. Because David comes to Canterbury as an adolescent, he can’t know Agnes and Uriah when he’s young. The nature of their interactions thus shifts considerably. Coming so belatedly, David also can’t associate with the Strongs–and not having to include their arc is perhaps another purpose served by skipping his school days. Dickens himself ‘montages’ over some of David’s youth, but not before establishing Canterbury and the relationships associated with that period very firmly.

The film leaves us alone with Agnes and Uriah, as we never were in the book. Uriah’s canonically mercenary pursuit of Agnes here becomes quite lusty, in a Snidely Whiplash fashion. Steady Agnes becomes the sort of woman who’d slap him. It’s interesting that this reworking of the novel’s Sedgewickian erotic triangulation assigns Agnes David’s aggressive physical defense. David is shown to be aggressive in this adaptation at another point, so it’s not done to spare him that, or to negate the text’s violence by assigning it to a more sympathetic perpetrator.

Perhaps the most remarkable alteration is this film’s decision to–fairly strongly, I think–characterise Uriah via the visual conventions of anti-Semitic stereotype. His omnipresent white neck-cloth becomes a tallit, with the fringe sticking out at the bottom of his waistcoat. Of course this red-headed, mercenary, anti-social invader in the bosom of the bourgeoisie has long attracted some anti-Semitic associations (Dr Katz reminded me of a relevant article, “‘red-headed animal’: Race, Sexuality and Dickens’s Uriah Heep”), but to actually film that reading and literalise those connotations is as odd a project as the 1921 Astra Nielsen female-Hamlet. Perhaps the very earliness of this project enables what I think of as the sort of out-there take one arrives at when there are already many standard versions. Or perhaps this is simply visual language initially derived from anti-Semitic tropes, which has now come to be rather freer-floating, serving as a disassociated signifier of conniving evil. In terms of physicality, this production stages Uriah something like the vampire in Nosfertau. Is this derived from stage conventions, I wonder?

The overriding impression one gets (and I suspect this has a lot to do with pacing) is of a version of DC that eschews the text’s Proustian affects and arrives at melodrama. I don’t mean that in an entirely negative sense. This plot is, however, undeniably simplified. Uriah’s slow, spidery scheme becomes “Uriah steals the deeds belonging to Betsey Trotwood on which she had hoped to raise money.” These financial bawlderisations, like this Uriah’s pantomime-villain postures, undermine the threat Uriah poses and to confuse the nature of that threat. I’ve not seen such a bald rendering of Uriah’s misappropriations since the Dancy Hallmark adaptation’s ‘jewel theft’. The intertitles can have a slightly childish tone, and the source text’s coincidences are rendered bluntly. Uriah and David meet Micawber while walking in the street. The difference between this versions of events and the text’s isn’t very great, but you can see how Micawber’s pausing and double-taking when David is sitting in a house with a large window to the main street for a few hours is that slight bit more natural. The difference between melodrama and novelistic registers derives from just such nuances and small degrees of temporal slack.

When this film shows something that the book, due to being grounded in David’s POV, can’t, it largely does so to emphasize its chosen themes and to ensure audiences’ comprehension–to shore up the limited exposition its intertitles can offer. We see much more of Steerforth and Emily’s courtship, and we also see their actual flight. We see an officer deciding to track a desperate, incoherent Emily, and we see Rosa confronting her before David arrives. Emily is played like Mad Ophelia here.

Per the BFI analysis, “[t]he relatively small number of intertitles shows that some knowledge of the story was assumed (although missing material in the BFI National Archive’s print does create some confusion).” It makes you consider what each production’s audience knew about this text beforehand, and the degree to which all of them rely on received ideas of this story, the Dickensian and Victoriana. At what point do adaptations of DC stop assuming audiences know the book? At what point do they come to rely on the general audience’s primary knowledge of Dickens coming to them via adaptations? One must also consider the degree to which this knowledge, at various points, consisted of generalities, which are often lazy and serve the interests of cultural hegemonies, versus specific knowledge of these characters, incidents and plots.

Major Differences From and Commonalities With Other Adaptations

I’m quite unclear on how popular this adaptation was, and whether large audiences and/or the people making successive adaptations would have heard about or seen it. The point at which you can start expecting modern film-makers  to have access to earlier adaptations is also unclear to me. Would you say the 80s, with VHS? Did BBC insiders making an adaptation even have access to previous BBC serials? How often were things like this re-screened, or television serials re-run? The Hollywood film must have had a market penetration and thus an influence unrivaled by other adaptations for years.

The film’s youngish, pretty Betsey is rather surprising. For all she intimidated young Clara, though she’s his aunt Betsey could very well be almost of an age with David Senior, and thus only in her late 40s when David comes to live with her. She’s usually played older by later adaptations, and costumed, styled etc. more like Judi Dench’s character in Cranford than like Gillian Anderson’s in Bleak House.

As I said of this production in my review of the ‘66, “[t]he ways the silent film forces the creative team to pay close attention to the text are interesting, and I believe they parallel the Italian production’s efforts to do the work to reimagine the text for an audience that they don’t presume in some sense ‘already knows’ the writer, period, and to some extent the story.” This production goes for Chaplinesque physical comedy. It includes the book’s waiter scene, which no other production does. We also spend a lot of time with David alone, on long roads and against vast architecture and natural landscapes. In the absence of words, the child’s smallness and vulnerability evoke considerable pathos. We also see David being told his mother’s died, and the scene dwells on his reactions. And as I said, the film gives more time to Steerforth and Emily, probably at least in part so that plot details the film considers crucial are very clear. The logic of this decision could be analogous to that behind David’s spending ‘happy years’ with Betsey.

The BFI write-up speaks of the use of ‘real book settings’ as the director’s gimmick, but those settings do a ton of work for this production. You can also see the deep appeal of shooting the ‘real places’ from a book. This film offers a literary tourism appeal none of the others can, seeking to help you understand and connect with the text. Other adaptations aren’t interested in mediating and deepening that relationship. They are films in  their own right; this is a dramatisation of the book. No other DC does as much with physical culture as this one.

No other DC I’ve seen uses three Davids, either (child, adolescent and young man). There are almost always two, just as I’ve only ever seen one Uriah (and very often, one rather than two Steerforths). It’s quite surprising to see this actively brawling young David pitching back against the cruel boys he works with at the factory, even if it’s cognisant with the text. This is the David who’d pick fights with the insulting butcher’s boy out of pride, the one who still has a trace of Nicholas Nickleby about him. Yet most productions want to flatten David’s period of poverty into one of abjection, to make him more of a one-note victim.


Focuses, and the Production’s Points of Anxiety

The production’s medium affects its focuses in very decided ways. If this is in some sense intended as a ‘visualisation’ of the novel rather than an independent dramatic product, we can see the appeal of its very representational strategy, which is interested in hitting the book’s beats and staging a variety of tableaux. The production makes a startlingly ambitious attempt to cover a ton of plot elements, perhaps more than any other adaptation. In so doing, and because of other questions of register, it sacrifices depth and becomes a pictorial, and again, at times melodramatic treatment of the material. Again, this may be the cuts talking. For me, the film works best where it takes its time. I’ll discuss this point more in the following Material Culture section, but I don’t recall another DC to which settings and props are so important.

The age of the production also shows through in its plotting. Like some early play versions, the 1913 film is more concerned with Little Emily than almost anything else (Dickens Day 2018 will feature a paper on the early importance of this narrative element to theatrical stagings, if you care to learn more). Dr Katz reminded me that when Dickens himself adapted DC for readings, he pulled out the parallel stories of David-Dora and Steerforth-Emily: two love arcs, one tragic and one comic. This decision could have guided theatrical treatments. Due to this focus, the 1913 production stages more desire between Emily and Steerforth in order to support its seduction arc. It also performs a similar intensification and simplification on Uriah and Agnes’s relationship.

To me, focusing overmuch on Emily feels almost like ‘misunderstanding’  the text. But I wonder how much our understanding of, for example, the ‘core’ of Shakespeare plays has shifted with time? I’ve started to think about how differently period drama is staged than Shakespeare, in terms of what a production is conceived of as doing and what a staging is conceived of as drawing out of a text. That’s work I’ve almost never seen a period drama consciously do? What does a given DC have to say to the original, to our relationship with that text, and to the world?

In terms of my thesis-related research concern, this production generates charm largely via its humour. There’s not much nuance to the romance, and while the material culture elements are very strong they’re not in themselves staged with the fascination of, say, Howl’s titular moving castle. They don’t generate charm via their specificity. The adaptations other key source of charm is perhaps the Davids: a handsome young man with silent film’s hypermobile and dramatic expressiveness, and before that, a winning chubby-cheeked child, at turns poignantly alone in the world, indignant and bemused.


Settings and Material Culture

In so many ways, this production benefits from its temporal proximity to the source text. I had no idea what a Dickensian stage coach would have looked like (the huge size surprised me), much less what the process of loading and unloading it might have involved. The look of the Peggotys’ boat house, the cork life-vests, the whole process of the shipwreck rescue operation and the information-loaded clothing all derive, I feel, from people involved in the production having any embodied memory of what these things looked like, and how the patterns of work involving them went. My interest isn’t merely academic: these processes added a really unaccustomed richness and unfamiliarity to the familiar visual language of what we now think the Victorian era was like. I wasn’t watching with an eye to this, but Dr Katz suggested one might ask how informed by the original illustrations this production’s visuals were. My sense is that the production might not actually be calling back to that work, because Edwardian audiences often considered the original illustrations coarse and cut or replaced them, not seeing them as part of the coherent artifact of the text.

A silent movie relies a great deal on actors’ movement, but it relies perhaps equally on environments. These do so much work here. As I said in the my review of the ‘66, the “1913 does a better job [than the ‘66 of] showing the Micawber’s waning fortunes via having the environment change as they pawn their belongings.” The Wickfield house perhaps too grand in some respects, but overall the houses are all distinct, and all ‘speak’. I think settings in this film do more than they do in most modern movies. The 1913’s settings not only generate striking tableaux, they also do a great deal to generate mood.

Further Research

The BFI has been very bad about citing its sources. (That’s rich for me to say, but this has been an unpaid blog post, so you know what you’re getting.) To find out more, I might start by contacting the BFI or the person who wrote their analysis of this production, Bryony Dixon, to find out how she came by her information. One might also try looking up this director and producer, and also coming at it via the angle of early British film history.


Some shots from a funny short film the BFI had on Dickens’ London, which for some reason had several characters riding the bus together in probably the most ambitious crossover event of all time.

David Copperfield, 1966 BBC series with Ian McKellen (review)


David Copperfield (1966 tv miniseries) British, Ian McKellen, BBC (second BBC miniseries), black and white

See here for a full listing of adaptations.


Notable Because

This was the fifth tv serial treatment of the novel, and the second BBC adaptation. I believe it to be the earliest BBC adaptation we have surviving footage from. It features a very early performance from Ian McKellen as David and a campy cameo from Patrick Troughton, who plays a pawnbroker.



The BFI holds episodes 3, 8, 9 and 11. Episode three is available for free and without appointment at BFI Mediatheque suites around the UK. This is a curious copy, with multiple takes (and actor eyerolls when these are requested of them). At one point director Joan Craft can be heard–not exactly impolitely, but shortly–telling everyone to shut up.

The last three surviving episodes can only be found at the BFI archives in London. One must make an appointment, and there is a small fee (about £20 total when we visited, though this rate may well prove ephemeral). These are screening copies, without the third episode’s production ephemera (so better or worse, depending on what you’re watching for). The technician who set us up was a friendly man who almost encouraged us to bring in drinks and the like, so long as we were reasonably careful. He was very surprised there were only these few scattered episodes left. Apparently the BBC’s carelessness towards posterity is only legendary in Doctor Who circles.


Major Changes from Book

This adaptation is perhaps unusually interested in what it means to make a filmic version of David Copperfield. It’s particularly invested in portraying things the book cannot show you, both due to the restrictions contingent on David’s narration and those that arise from Victorian narrative conventions. If you have to trade away Dickens’ prose and the charms and insights derived from David’s interiority in order to film DC, the ‘66 recognises this as a loss and attempts to recoup something by showing scenes David could not have been privy to, or could not have related in quite this manner.

This allows you to look at David, who is handsome in this version in a way Dickens only very obliquely suggests in the text, and who’s also amusing. Reading the book attentively, putting in that work, allows you to enjoy David at a remove from his first person narration in a similar fashion. Indeed I’d argue that David himself is one of the book’s key sources of pleasure: he lives a charmed life, and is crafted to charm you by a man desperate to do so. But it’s interesting that roughly contemporaneously with this adaptation, a major essay suggesting that David was quite a good character in his own right rocked Dickensian literary studies. Duh? And yet it was considered quite a claim. Sometimes I think immediate Dickensian reception was fairly sound, as in they could fucking read the texts with basic aptitude, and then there was a generation or two where, in a sort of Bloomian rebellion against a literary pater familias, with perhaps five exceptions (Freud, Woolf, Eliot, Chesterton and Peake, and even those vary in degree, with Freud and Woolf at least feeling obliged to be a bit ashamed of liking him as much as they do), people got immensely stupid about him.

The filmic gaze thus easily accesses something that apparently eluded many contemporary readers. Rather than playing a straight man, in this version David is as funny as most of the other characters, wailing that he ‘is the destroyer!!’ who’s killed Dora when she swoons during the (here-staged) proposal scene (this is from a later scene in the book*). We also see their wedding–my guess is that filmic convention seemed to demand it.

We also see Agnes’ longing glances when David’s back is turned: a vision of female desire that David, and perhaps Dickens, were unwilling to look too directly at. (One hesitates to attribute this unusual degree of embodiment for Agnes to this production’s female director–it seems over-simplistic, and possibly even like a reductive way of discussing Craft’s contribution. And yet…) But it’d be unjust to attribute an endemic Victorian inability to reckon with the moral, intelligent, desiring female to Dickens specifically. In general, this production is willing to stage and invested in showing all kinds of things a Victorian novel wouldn’t have shared with a reading public: sometimes even things that the people who comprise the series’ small social gatherings, had they been real, would never have spoken of even among themselves.

We see Dora and a doctor discuss her pregnancy. The Wickfields, Heeps and David discuss David’s coming child. Uriah offers his toast to Agnes directly after they’ve drunk Mrs Copperfield and child–a sequence of events that seems to link David’s acquisition of family (and associated material success) with Uriah’s envious acquisitiveness. We see more of Dora’s birthing drama, and Betsey makes direct allusions between this scene and David’s own birth. David is in the room directly after Dora’s stillbirth, touching and comforting her.

Of course Dickens only told us Scrooge’s niece by marriage was pregnant in Christmas Carol by saying she was a little out of breath and having her illustrated so as to hide her stomach. Such was the Victorian taboo against discussion of pregnancy that this absence signified. Of course David would have shanked himself before telling Uriah Heep that his wife (which she wasn’t, when that dinner table conversation happened in the book) was expecting, but this aspect of Victoriana doesn’t really interest this adaptation team.

The timeline of the proposal, and of David and Dora’s subsequent marital upsets, is a little addled here, as is the manuscript publishing timeline. David writes a full novel out before anything else, and this novel is accepted by a published during his engagement–in fact in this adaptation, this sale enables him to marry. He’s no longer working for Dora’s father, who consequently need not die, but rather simply a Mr Spenlow.


Major Differences From/Commonalities With Other Adaptations

Director Joan Craft helmed both this production and the BBC’s subsequent 1974 DC, as well as many, many other Dickens adaptations. This thorough little write-up gives some context in that regard, and also provides a few clips. There are so many commonalities between these that we might almost consider the ‘74 a revival of the same production, this time in colour (besides, the BBC may well have already gotten rid of the bulk of the ‘66’s episodes by 1974). This fits neatly with something I’ve long thought: that up until perhaps the 90s in some cases, the primary analogue for BBC production was live theatre rather than film, radio shows, comics, etc. You can tell from the camera angles, for example: the last episode of Blake’s 7 not only works like a Greek tragedy, that shooting gallery set is a stage. The BBC has always expected its audiences to be trained on and familiar with the conventions of live theatre, in a way American television (with its audiences’ comparatively impoverished access to a developed theatre culture) never did. It still engages in such training: look at CBBC’s Shakespeare plays, which not only introduce the material but are deeply invested in teaching small children how plays work.

The ‘74 DC feels like a theatrical restaging of a production because in many ways, it is exactly that. The casting choices (rather ill-defined features for Uriah, for example, which his thinness might well have suggested sharpness) and script decisions are particularly well-preserved, which is especially striking considering how few other adaptations take these lines. Script writer Vincent Tilsley also worked on The Prisoner, and “[g]ave up writing for television, and became a psychotherapist, when his six-hour drama ITV Sunday Night Theatre: The Death of Adolf Hitler (1973) was cut down to less than 2 hours.” Per this write-up, Tilsley is already revising his ’56 script here. The 1974 script is by Hugh Whitemore. I’m honestly surprised they wrote a whole new script for that, given how akin the final products are, and wonder about the extent to which they edited the ‘66 version versus attempted to recreate their last two attempts without:

1. script drafts, which the BBC is not in the habit of saving for some god-forsaken reason,
2. easy-to-view previous editions, or
3. Tilsley’s being active and willing to play ball.

Is the ‘74 production in some ways an attempt to remember the ‘66? Rosa makes a violent vow concerning Emily to David in both, and David and Mr Dick have an almost-verbatim-from-the-book chat about Betsey in both as well.

‘What do you consider me, sir?’ asked Mr. Dick, folding his arms.
‘A dear old friend,’ said I. ‘Thank you, Trotwood,’ returned Mr. Dick, laughing, and reaching across in high glee to shake hands with me. ‘But I mean, boy,’ resuming his gravity, ‘what do you consider me in this respect?’ touching his forehead.
I was puzzled how to answer, but he helped me with a word.
‘Weak?’ said Mr. Dick.
‘Well,’ I replied, dubiously. ‘Rather so.’


Uriah hadn’t arrived in the plot by episode three, and was absent from it in eight and nine. Thus we only really get a sense of what the ‘66 is doing with him from episode eleven–not much to go on, unfortunately. This version suggests Micawber’s complicity in keeping mum about Heep’s business more than others. David is outright alarmed by Micawber’s working for Uriah. This Mrs Heep is as cringing as her son, whereas for example the Dancy 2000 staging chooses to make her bemused and dimmer than Uriah. In the 2000 DC, Mrs Heep is venal (lusting after Uriah’s horde of ‘stolen jewels’), but no longer possibly involved in the intricacies of and an active participant in Uriah’s scheming. The book, of course, leaves room for her being entirely aware of and engaged in her son’s stratagems.

As the previous section implied, with David’s coming child being toasted in the scene where Uriah ‘plucks a pear before it’s ripe’, this adaptation collapses several conversation between the two. This is not altogether unusual–most adaptations try to cram the slap in without staging Strong, or avoid the discussion over coffee that ends in David contemplating homicide with a fire poker while retaining Uriah’s sinister, mocking hints that he’s tilting at Agnes. However the ‘66 is rather special in that it attempts to retain the foundation school conversation, which to my thinking is Uriah’s key ‘villain speech’, an almost Shakespearean monologue about motivation that underscores the political and class dimensions of the novel’s key antagonism. Most adaptations get rid of this because they don’t think it worth working to preserve. They’re ultimately not interested in Dickens as a complex or political writer. This feeds into a popular conception of him as schmaltzy, which even adaptors often indulge in as though they weren’t themselves perhaps its chief architects.

This staging doesn’t do fabulously by the foundation school conversation. It cramming a few lines from that intense, intimate rant into a moment where Uriah is attempting to do something different–to taunt, rather than to reach out for a vicious kind of empathy. But at least it’s there, in some form? That’s more than I can say for so many adaptations? We also get, in perhaps another such collapsing, Uriah touching David here in a way he does more markedly in other scenes. Most adaptations forgo this aspect of their interaction, even though it is canon, probably because the gestural language of the Victorians reads as too effeminate to cinematic audiences. Honestly I expect the relative earliness of this adaptation is responsible for what we get of it here (I’ve written elsewhere on the creeping cinematic advance of the Not Gays, starting from perhaps the late 80s).

This production (and the ‘74) is unusually focused on Dora’s incapacity for Victorian lower-middle-class marriage and David’s reactions to proofs of this. Dora lisps here, saying w for r (again, a neat choice derived from the act of filming DC). Betsey explicitly compares her to Clara. Lines from Hamlet crop up in David’s proposal, and again when he reads to Dora to ‘improve her mind’. Dora and David reach more of a resolution on these points in this version than in many others (perhaps a necessary corollary to their being unusually dwelt on). I think most filmings avoid this arc because if done in part rather than in full, it can come off as unduly nasty to both husband and wife, or require too stark a choice as to who your sympathy ought to belong to.

Some scattered notes: episode three shows us more of the road journey than most other depictions. Because we lack all the episodes, it’s very difficult to determine whether the ‘66 maintains any of the Strongs’ plot. We actually see Spenlow’s ‘hidden partner’, Jorking.


Focuses/The Production’s Points of Anxiety

Dr Katz and I were rather hoping that McKellen’s performance as David would be definitive. While it was pleasant, and while the production enabled David to be more of character here than he’s often allowed to be, we weren’t captivated. ‘Captivated’ is precisely what a good David ought to leave you. People’s strong affective responses to Dickens as a person (which did change considerably as he aged and grew more prominent) could be a very good guide as to what you’re going for. Ultimately we’re left without a quintessential rendition of the part, and instead with proof that a great many fine actors have come into fully their talent with age, experience and the presence these can lend them (aspects of craft that female actors are so seldom given comparable opportunities to develop and display).

Work and Class

In addition to putting emphasis on David, the ‘66 is particularly interested in David’s work. This gives an unusual depth to his airy fate to ‘be a writer’ (a business that, for Dickens himself, was anything but the stuff of Romantic contemplative retreat). Nor is David alone in labour. Agnes can make pie, and does. (Why, they’re twinned, fated–) Alone together, Agnes She and Dora talk about the work of running a house.

Now, would Agnes be able to make pie, or choose to do it? The Wickfields surely must have had servants. Agnes explicitly has a governess. The text doesn’t say more about this woman than that she exists, or mention any of her co-workers. Dickens conspicuously removes service from this fictionalised autobiography at the point in his own life when his family was closer to being in it than relying on even its most rudimentary forms (and in urban Victorian Britain, service broadly-considered wasn’t a luxury so much as fundamental to even working class life–with a narrow band of exceptionality, essentially you served or were served).

And of course, the Dickens family was in service. Charles’ grandmother, living during his childhood, was a housekeeper who married another member of the staff of a great house. She’s possibly the model for Mrs Runcible in Bleak House: certainly the offspring of a housekeeper ending up rootless or making incredibly good according to their character and arbitrary fate can’t help being a commentary on his own family. Perhaps the most important self-refashioning in Copperfield is Dickens’ reimagining himself and, without outright lying, suggesting to the world that he was, despite his Cockney accent and chav mannerisms, what his readers imagined him to be: reared middle-class.

Service in the novel signifies. Peggotty is integrated into the household, David considers her being relegated to ‘service’ spheres of the house and then banished a betrayal of her and a violation of his family. Clara Copperfield has a murky, under-elaborated past as a nursery-governess who married well and rose. Then we have a long period without service, with strangely few examples thereof. Betsey’s maid-companion Janet occupies an ambiguous sphere. David’s unservicable urban landlady both serves him and is an independent businesswoman with power over him. Service finally re-enters the novel after David’s marriage, in a way that coincides with its re-entry into Dickens’ actual life. CD and DC both started doing better around this time–David’s sudden plunge into poverty re-aligns him with Charles’ experience.

I suspect David buys Dora the infamous cookery book because, even at his most economically vulnerable, he imagines Dora be able to buy sensibly, supervise and possibly help prepare food (rather than, as she suggests, turning the entire enterprise over to others**). Though the Wickfield’s service arrangements are vague (and for that matter, where does Uriah actually live during David’s school years, as opposed to taking his tea?), the canonical Agnes is probably not in the habit of regularly cooking. The ‘66 chooses to have Mr Wickfield’s ‘little housekeeper’ make pie as a sort of synecdoche for her managerial competence. It wants to preserve ‘Agnes as worker’, though the considerable effort involved in running a home is more difficult to convey, and less sympathetic, than home-cooking.

When servants re-enter this adaptation, it heavily plays up the farce, using David’s absence from some scenes to show us the servants’ unvarnished exchanges. It dwells more on the servants’ drama more than the book does, wich is quite something given that they’re adapting such a substantive text. The low comedy interval gives David a chance to be comical himself, but this adaptation’s Betsey also says quite frankly that David ought to put the servants in their place.

Despite what Dr Katz feels is a dimmer than usual Micawber, who couldn’t wind up a judge, this production’s Micawbers make an real effort to recognise David as a child. In fact, I think a lot of productions have a go at this. Micawber’s treating David like a small adult is somehow too uncomfortable for modern stagings, and David’s youthful competence won’t quite do either. Here Mrs Micawber suggests that David go to Betsey, rather than the scheme being his own. They discuss and explicitly nix David’s going to Peggotty in this production: a possibility this version of the narrative is conscious of and anxious to foreclose. We also see Betsey and Peggotty explicitly arriving at their housekeeping arrangement, an aspect of the endgame most productions let slip, either because the idea of Peggotty’s returning to service strikes the makers as uncomfortable or because the resolution of her arc and Betsey’s isn’t particularly important to them. The ‘66 further draws a stark contrast between Steerforth’s mother’s desire to exact concessions in exchange for her son’s forgiveness, which runs somewhat counter to the license society permits men of James’s class, and Mr Peggotty’s yearning to forgive and regain Emily, which likewise contravenes social expectations that a fallen woman’s family will join in judging and punishing her.

Ultimately the ‘66 is very concerned with class, but not in a focused way. It wants not only to do more with class material than other adaptations, but to patch what it sees as holes in the textual narrative. Yet it’s not very good at catching the source text’s key class-predicated arcs, or at establishing its own through-line on these themes. What we have is a great deal of nebulous anxiety-activity, emerging at several stages in the production process, and a seeming lack of conversation and agreement on approach from the principal creatives. The result is lightly reminiscent of Robert Graves’ execrable, obsessive treatment of class in The Real David Copperfield.

Women’s Lib

Betsey’s husband is another key site of anxiety for both this production and the ‘74. I’m forced to attribute this attention to the rise of second-wave feminism. The ‘66 gives us a scene where Betsey is alone with her textually domestically violent former husband. He’s snuck into her home, and signals that she shouldn’t make any noise to alert the others of his unexpected presence. The staging almost enters a Night of the Hunter horror register. In this version Betsey owns up to David’s accusations (and Mr Dick’s, through him) immediately, telling David “it is no fancy” of Mr Dick’s that a man is bothering her.

Betsey heavily uses the third person to describe herself here. This seems at once a piece of repetitious Dickensian verbal characterisation and an act of distancing and dissociation. Psychologically, it strikes a note of uncomfortable truth. Yet the ‘66 and ‘74 are more sympathetic to Betsey’s relationship with her husband and to the man himself than any other adaptations, erasing his violence and turning his irresponsibility and addiction into a tragedy. Betsey’s given a firm cause for not liking boys, as if she needed an elaborate, over-justified and time-limited excuse. Once again, it’s as if the writer and director disagreed with one another as to how to read this relationship (and repeated that fight eight years later, with a second writer!).


Settings/Material Culture

The density of objects in the staging’s homes is very Victorian, but the production doesn’t do much financial signalling via these. The houses suffer from the Victorian generalism that defines most modern productions, whereby social and regional distinctions collapse to the degree that Betsey’s house looks rather like the Micawbers’. Alternatively, modern productions can have almost parodic ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ modes, with no allowance for a family’s taste, gradations of means, etc. (Think about how a modern poor Western home doesn’t look like a bare shack–it had a whole array of signifiers and paraphernalia.)

The Christmas tree Dora’s aunts busy themselves with is narrowly period, though a bit on-trend for these old women. The tinsel, I am almost certain, is absolutely impossible (see, for example, the Geffrey Museum’s Christmas displays of festive middle class urban homes). A later production would, I think, be more inclined to either omit this depiction of Christmas or play it up hard, given that as Dickens recedes from the public imaginary and his associative linkages as drain away from so many other things, they pool around Christmas by default.

Everyone drinks wine in this DC, never tea or anything else. The boat-house is, per canon, upside down in the ‘66, as in the 1913. I’m not sure whether this holds in the ‘74. Modern versions tend to lose this detail, as it makes the house look less recognizable as a boat and thus less fantastic. (The more modern you get, the less you can assume an audience knows the details of this text.) The grid-iron cooking scene where Mr Micawber shows his quality is apparently so important that, even though the ‘66 has lost this whole original sequence of events, it’s been repurposed for another dinner.

The 1913 does a better job showing the Micawber’s waning fortunes via having their environment change as they pawn their belongings. The ways the silent film forces the creative team to pay close attention to the text are interesting, and I believe they parallel the Italian production’s efforts to do the work to reimagine DC for an audience that they don’t presume ‘already knows’ the writer, period, and to some extent the story.


Further Research

If I do long-form research on versions of DC, or if you want to know more about this lacuna-riddled mini-series, the place to go to find out about this version (and the ‘74) is the BBC Written Archives. You might be able to get scripts, stills, audio recordings and correspondence related to the production by searching both it and the files relating to the principal creatives during the relevant years. The BBC archives have no neat publically accessible listing of their contents: you have to bother a librarian, have her talk you through their holdings, then schlep out there.



* “‘My own! May I mention something?’
‘Oh, please don’t be practical!’ said Dora, coaxingly. ‘Because it frightens me so!’
‘Sweetheart!’ I returned; ‘there is nothing to alarm you in all this. I want you to think of it quite differently. I want to make it nerve you, and inspire you, Dora!’
‘Oh, but that’s so shocking!’ cried Dora.
‘My love, no. Perseverance and strength of character will enable us to bear much worse things.’ ‘But I haven’t got any strength at all,’ said Dora, shaking her curls. ‘Have I, Jip? Oh, do kiss Jip, and be agreeable!’
It was impossible to resist kissing Jip, when she held him up to me for that purpose, putting her own bright, rosy little mouth into kissing form, as she directed the operation, which she insisted should be performed symmetrically, on the centre of his nose. I did as she bade me—rewarding myself afterwards for my obedience—and she charmed me out of my graver character for I don’t know how long.
‘But, Dora, my beloved!’ said I, at last resuming it; ‘I was going to mention something.’
The judge of the Prerogative Court might have fallen in love with her, to see her fold her little hands and hold them up, begging and praying me not to be dreadful any more.
‘Indeed I am not going to be, my darling!’ I assured her. ‘But, Dora, my love, if you will sometimes think,—not despondingly, you know; far from that!—but if you will sometimes think—just to encourage yourself—that you are engaged to a poor man—’
‘Don’t, don’t! Pray don’t!’ cried Dora. ‘It’s so very dreadful!’
‘My soul, not at all!’ said I, cheerfully. ‘If you will sometimes think of that, and look about now and then at your papa’s housekeeping, and endeavour to acquire a little habit—of accounts, for instance—’
Poor little Dora received this suggestion with something that was half a sob and half a scream.
‘—It would be so useful to us afterwards,’ I went on. ‘And if you would promise me to read a little—a little Cookery Book that I would send you, it would be so excellent for both of us. For our path in life, my Dora,’ said I, warming with the subject, ‘is stony and rugged now, and it rests with us to smooth it. We must fight our way onward. We must be brave. There are obstacles to be met, and we must meet, and crush them!’
I was going on at a great rate, with a clenched hand, and a most enthusiastic countenance; but it was quite unnecessary to proceed. I had said enough. I had done it again. Oh, she was so frightened! Oh, where was Julia Mills! Oh, take her to Julia Mills, and go away, please! So that, in short, I was quite distracted, and raved about the drawing-room.
I thought I had killed her, this time. I sprinkled water on her face. I went down on my knees. I plucked at my hair. I denounced myself as a remorseless brute and a ruthless beast. I implored her forgiveness. I besought her to look up. I ravaged Miss Mills’s work-box for a smelling-bottle, and in my agony of mind applied an ivory needle-case instead, and dropped all the needles over Dora. I shook my fists at Jip, who was as frantic as myself. I did every wild extravagance that could be done, and was a long way beyond the end of my wits when Miss Mills came into the room.
‘Who has done this?’ exclaimed Miss Mills, succouring her friend.
I replied, ‘I, Miss Mills! I have done it! Behold the destroyer!’—or words to that effect—and hid my face from the light, in the sofa cushion.”

** “‘Now suppose, my pet, that we were married, and you were going to buy a shoulder of mutton for dinner, would you know how to buy it?’
My pretty little Dora’s face would fall, and she would make her mouth into a bud again, as if she would very much prefer to shut mine with a kiss.
‘Would you know how to buy it, my darling?’ I would repeat, perhaps, if I were very inflexible.
Dora would think a little, and then reply, perhaps, with great triumph:
‘Why, the butcher would know how to sell it, and what need I know? Oh, you silly boy!’
So, when I once asked Dora, with an eye to the cookery-book, what she would do, if we were married, and I were to say I should like a nice Irish stew, she replied that she would tell the servant to make it; and then clapped her little hands together across my arm, and laughed in such a charming manner that she was more delightful than ever.”

Bone Swans, by C.S.E. Cooney (review)


C. S. E. Cooney’s Bone Swans collects four previously published short stories and one purpose-built novella. The book won the World Fantasy Award in 2016. Every story demonstrates solid craftsmanship, and I do not like any of them. In part this is my fault, and yet I don’t believe a mere mismatch is wholly to blame.

Read full article here.

The Worst Witch (2017 tv series) (review)


In the (ongoing) 2017 CBBC series The Worst Witch, Mildred Hubble is the only girl at the prestigious Cackle’s Academy who hails from a non-witching family. She squeaked in to the school, and due to her unusual background she struggles to catch up with classmates whose lives have been inundated with magic since their births. Mildred is sweet and far from stupid, but she’s also a tiny disaster-magnet who stumbles from one catastrophe to the next. Her best friends, Maud Spellbody and Enid Nightshade, help see her through, while causing a few problems of their own. Mildred adores Cackle’s and the general camaraderie of the girls, which even her on-going feud with a classmate, the insecure and thus obnoxious Ethel Hallow, can’t spoil for her. The members of the teaching staff have their own dramas, and all the characters get caught up in the seemingly perpetual struggle to defend the school against forces that would repossess it, outright destroy it, or subject it to a much-needed magical Ofsted inspection.

Read full review here.


Canterbury: architecture and David Copperfield plot locations

For my birthday last year, my partner and I took a day trip to Canterbury. I was interested in the historical sites, because a portion of David Copperfield is set there, and simply because I’d never been. Sorry for occasional thumbs in the pictures! I was shielding the lens against a powerful glare, and editing photos on WordPress can be excruciating, sometimes impossible.



The city walls are fairly imposing, on a York scale. You come in from the train station via a bridge that leads you over both the road and them. In the 19th century, more English towns would have had walls of this type, so these would have been a little less remarkable.

The walls are part of a fortification system that includes (the ruins of) Canterbury Castle:


This is another bit of the wall, which we passed as we were leaving town:

Nearby the wall where we entered, we find a church and graveyard:


Heading up into town, around the Cathedral and towards the imposing main gates, these are some of the Victorian and older buildings. Note the overhanging walls that press out into the street. When Dickens describes the Wickfield house’s leaning nosiness, I believe he means that the building physically leans, but the effect here is similar, and I find if difficult to believe Dickens wasn’t influenced by this quite prominent aspect of Canterbury’s architecture. Dickens knew Kent and Canterbury quite well, after all, on one occasion giving some visiting acquaintances a thorough impromtu walking tour of the place.

Note also those columns in the last pic, which lead onto a sort of roofed market you see a lot in older English towns. (And maybe the rest of Europe too, but I can’t speak to it.)

Here are similar markets in Faversham, also in Kent, and in Ledbury, Herefordshire.



The impressive main city gate, connected to a bridge over the smallish River Stour, and more examples of that tiered architecture:


The below bookshop (at least at present) is generally considered a strong contender for the Wickfield house, its ‘lean’ coming both from the tiers and a slant caused by ageing and subsidence processes. Note the carved supports, especially in the context of what David says about the beam-ends reminding him of Uriah Heep. I assumed Dickens just meant a pattern in the wood grain, but no!


One shot of the inside of this building (the uncarpeted stairs–the operating bookstore and watching staff made taking more awkward to the point of implausibility), and more architectural details from a similar house down the lane:

This inn, across the River Stour and a short distance outside the walls, is other strong contender for the ‘Wickfield House’ title:

Personally I think Dickens fused the size and layout of this house with the location and features (including beam-ends) of the first.

Canterbury features several variations of that heavily black and white palate. This is actually more Victorian than Tudor. With timber, wattle and daub construction at least, Tudors tended to leave the timber bare, and Victorians to tar it that stark, contrasting black.



More buildings on this street:

This is King’s School, across the street from probably-the-most-direct-inspiration-for-the-Wickfield-house (i.e. property one). It’s also directly behind the cathedral, which is the centre of Anglican practice. Indeed it sort of overlaps with it, the grounds bleeding into one another. King’s School has a strong claim to being the oldest continually-practicing school and school building in the world, and was also almost certainly the model for Dr Strong’s establishment.


Some small details of Canterbury Cathedral (a massive, Gormenghastian complex). Including dogs, both seeing-eye and sculpted:

A more historically low-income part of town along the River Stour, still proximate but less central. Dickens might have imagined the Heeps living in this sort of building, though he positions it more along a main thoroughfare, with that strange immediate accessibility off the street (which I don’t fully understand):

The old police station, where Traddles suggests they could send Uriah to be held if he won’t keep to his room while they sort out his embezzlement scheme:

The other side of that massive main city gate (which the police station is right next to):

These are the ruins of a massive razed monastery, but unfortunately you can’t really get in to look at them. Perhaps there’s a special tour I didn’t see–nothing looked on when we were there.


Greyfriars House, a queer little place built on a bridge over a creek that’s served many religious and other purposes over the centuries:

Assorted architecture funtime:




(Note the strange Accidental BDSM pet shop.)

Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter (review)


Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter is an anime series based on the book of the same title by Astrid Lindgren, the beloved Swedish children’s author most famous for her Pippi Longstocking books. The title character grows up in a remote fort deep in the forest, the darling of her father Mattis’s band of robbers. The forest contains a variety of fantastical creatures, animals, and significant environmental threats, but the greatest, most plot-shaping dangers arise from people: Mattis’s feud with another robber chieftain and both clans’ long war with the forces of law and order. After initially distrusting Birk Borkason, the opposing clan leader’s son and heir, Ronja befriends and becomes very close to him. The two children vow to treat one another as brother and sister, and when they choose to uphold that vow over the objections of their families, the children must strike out on their own and survive in the woods as best they can.

Read the full article here.