Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, and spent the first ten years of his life in Kent, a marshy region by the sea in the east of England. Dickens was the second of eight children. His father, John Dickens, was a kind and likable man, but his financial irresponsibility placed him in enormous debt and caused tremendous strain on his family. When Charles was ten, his family moved to London. Two years later, his father was arrested and thrown in debtors’ prison. Dickens’s mother moved into the prison with seven of her children. Only Charles lived outside the prison in order to earn money for the struggling family. He worked with other children for three months pasting labels on bottles in a blacking warehouse, where the substance people used to make boots black was manufactured. His experiences at this warehouse inspired passages in David Copperfield.
After an inheritance gave John Dickens enough money to free himself from his debt and from prison, Charles attended school for two years at Wellington House Academy. He became a law clerk, then a newspaper reporter, and finally a novelist. His first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1837), met with huge popular success. Dickens was a literary celebrity throughout England for the rest of his life.
In 1849, Dickens began to write David Copperfield, a novel based on his early life experiences. Like Dickens, David works as a child, pasting labels onto bottles. David also becomes first a law clerk, then a reporter, and finally a successful novelist. Mr. Micawber is a satirical version of Dickens’s father, a likable man who can never scrape together the money he needs. Many of the secondary characters spring from Dickens’s experiences as a young man in financial distress in London.
In later years, Dickens called David Copperfield his “favourite child,” and many critics consider the novel to be one of his best depictions of childhood. Dickens’s other works include Oliver Twist (1837–1839), Nicholas Nickelby (1838–1839), and A Christmas Carol (1843). Perhaps his best known novel, Great Expectations (1860–1861) shares many thematic similarities with David Copperfield. Dickens died in Kent on June 9, 1870, at the age of fifty-eight.
David Copperfield is set in early Victorian England against a backdrop of great social change. The Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had transformed the social landscape and enabled capitalists and manufacturers to amass huge fortunes. Although the Industrial Revolution increased social mobility, the gap between rich and poor remained wide. London, a teeming mass of humanity lit by gas lamps at night and darkened by sooty clouds from smokestacks during the day, rose in dark contrast to Britain’s sparsely populated rural areas. More and more people moved from the country to the city in search of the opportunities that technological innovation promised. But this migration overpopulated the already crowded cities, and poverty, disease, hazardous factory conditions, and ramshackle housing became widespread. Dickens acutely observed these phenomena of the Industrial Revolution and used them as the canvas on which he painted David Copperfield and his other urban novels.