Charles Dickens, David Copperfield: Ch. 1

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I Am Born

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life,d or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.

In consideration of the day and hour of my birth, it was declared by the nurse, and by some sage women in the neighbourhood who had taken a lively interest in me several months before there was any possibility of our becoming personally acquainted, first, that I was destined to be unlucky in life; and secondly, that I was privileged to see ghosts and spirits; both these gifts inevitably attaching, as they believed, to all unlucky infants of either gender, born towards the small hours on a Friday night.

I need say nothing here, on the first head, because nothing can show better than my history whether that prediction was verified or falsified by the result. On the second branch of the question, I will only remark, that unless I ran through that part of my inheritance while I was still a baby, I have not come into it yet. But I do not at all complain of having been kept out of this property;d and if anybody else should be in the present enjoyment of it, he is heartily welcome to keep it.

I was born with a caul,w which was advertised for sale, in the newspapers, at the low price of fifteen guineas.h Whether sea-going people were short of money about that time, or were short of faith and preferred cork jackets,w I don't know; all I know is, that there was but one solitary bidding, and that was from an attorney connected with the bill-broking business,h who offered two pounds in cash, and the balance in sherry, but declined to be guaranteed from drowningd on any higher bargain. Consequently the advertisement was withdrawn at a dead loss—for as to sherry, my poor dear mother's own sherry was in the market thend—and ten years afterwards, the caul was put up in a raffle down in our part of the country, to fifty members at half-a-crown a head,h the winner to spend five shillings. I was present myself, and I remember to have felt quite uncomfortable and confused, at a part of myself being disposed of in that way. The caul was won, I recollect, by an old lady with a hand-basket, who, very reluctantly, produced from it the stipulated five shillings, all in halfpence, and twopence halfpenny short—as it took an immense time and a great waste of arithmetic, to endeavour without any effect to prove to her. It is a fact which will be long remembered as remarkable down there, that she was never drowned, but died triumphantly in bed, at ninety-two. I have understood that it was, to the last, her proudest boast, that she never had been on the water in her life, except upon a bridge; and that over her tea (to which she was extremely partial) she, to the last, expressed her indignation at the impiety of mariners and others, who had the presumption to go 'meandering' about the world. It was in vain to represent to her that some conveniences, tea perhaps included, resulted from this objectionable practice. She always returned, with greater emphasis and with an instinctive knowledge of the strength of her objection, 'Let us have no meandering.'

Not to meander myself, at present, I will go back to my birth.

I was born at Blunderstone, in Suffolk,h or 'there by', as they say in Scotland. I was a posthumous child. My father's eyes had closed upon the light of this world six months, when mine opened on it. There is something strange to me, even now, in the reflection that he never saw me; and something stranger yet in the shadowy remembrance that I have of my first childish associations with his white grave-stone in the churchyard,d and of the indefinable compassion I used to feel for it lying out alone there in the dark night, when our little parlour was warm and bright with fire and candle, and the doors of our house were—almost cruelly, it seemed to me sometimes—bolted and locked against it.

X [d] Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my…

Writing & Reading

To know if he is the hero of his own life requires his writing his life to understand his role in it. As David conceives it, to write an autobiography is far more than a chronicle or inert retrospection. It is an active part of his life that will illuminate from a late perspective what he could not have known at the time. Writing his life produces a chronicle and something greater, an excavation and discovery. …

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X [d] that part of my inheritance while I was still…

Manners & Morals

Money, as David's very name indicates (field of coppers, or pennies), plays a large part in the novel, and especially inheritance, as it does in many other 19th-century novels, beginning with Jane Austen. Inheritance is a critical feature of middle-class and upper-class life, with huge consequences for the women of a family and for the so-called cadets, that son or those sons other…

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X [w] caul,

A membrane from the amnion covering the head of the foetus at  birth.  The superstition held that possession of a a caul protected one against drowning. 

X [h] at the low price of fifteen guineas.

Money

Hardly low, as any Victorian reader knew. Adams in The Complete Servant (1825) writes that with an annual income of £100 or 95 guineas (a guinea is 21 shillings, a £ is 20 shillings), which we learn is Mrs. Copperfield's income, a widow or other unmarried lady may keep a young maid-servant at a salary of 5-10 guineas per year (and £3-6 for a girl of all work in a lower middle-class household). 

X [w] cork jackets,

Life-jackets.

X [h] the bill-broking business,

People

Bill-brokers bought and sold IOU's and other indebtedness, often buying the note from the creditor and then would either sell it or seek to collect on it from the debtor who signed the note and received money that would have to be repaid at often exorbitant interest. 

X [d] drowning

Losing money, but the image is consonant with cork jackets and with central events in the novel.

X [d] for as to sherry, my poor dear mother's own s…

Throughout, David who knows all that has happened up to this point, anticipates events without being specific as to how or when they occurred. We know that something happened to his mother—her sherry was being sold off, presumably because she had died—but we don't know when this occurred. Such disclosure allows David to express his current feelings of grief or remorse as he recalls…

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X [h] half-a-crown a head,

A half-crown was one-eighth of a pound (20 shillings) or 2 shillings and sixpence, a crown being 5 shillings. Dickens is playing with the notion of how immediately and predatorily things of the body are converted into cash.

X [h] Blunderstone, in Suffolk,

Places

Dickens has changed the name from Blundeston, a village near Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, a North Sea port at the mouth of the River Yare. 

Suffolk borders on Norfolk to the north, Cambridgeshire to the west, and Essex to the south, and the North Sea. The land is flat with large wetlands. Dickens was drawn to it as a setting, because it resembled "the marsh country" of Chatham, where h…

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X [d] my first childish associations with his white…

Writing & Reading

"[A]ssociations," those images that occupy the vacant space between our knowing something but having no empirical evidence of it, become an intricate and determining network over the course of the novel.

The opening of Great Expectations builds on David's experience of the only way the child has, in an era before photography, of conjuring up images of his father and mother:…

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