David Copperfield begins in Blunderstone Rookery, a house in rural Suffolk. The rooks no longer nested on the property, but David’s father had liked the idea of living near a rookery. This home is an ideal setting in the years before his mother’s second marriage. After she marries Murdstone, it becomes a prison with Murdstone and his equally “firm” sister as keepers.
Before this second marriage David goes with his nurse, Peggotty, to her native region, the seacoast near Yarmouth. Yarmouth, Dickens told his friend, John Forster, was “the strangest place in the wide world.” It has miles of flat coast, an even sea, and marshes reaching toward the sea. Peggotty’s brother Dan’l lives in a small house that has a roof made from the bottom of a boat. Dickens had a lifelong fascination for the sea which figures prominently in several of his books, including Dombey and Son and Great Expectations. David and Em’ly spend many hours collecting seashells and stones along that coast. During the days he spends in Yarmouth he falls innocently in love with her. The sea dominates the lives of Dan’l and his fellow fishermen, and they believe that many of their deaths will take place as the tide ebbs. David pays several visits to Yarmouth as the novel continues.
En route to his first school, Salem House Academy, David sees London for the first time. He is awestruck, but his stay there is brief. Salem House is six miles outside the city at Blackheath. He becomes thoroughly acquainted with the capital less than two years later when employed at Murdstone and Grinby, where he washes and labels wine bottles. He comes to know the streets much more intimately. Later, having apprenticed himself to Mr. Spenlow in order to train as a proctor in the Commons and also as a parliamentary reporter, his knowledge of London is further increased. Dickens, thanks to similar experiences, knew London as few writers ever succeeded in doing. Even in his maturity, while working out his plots and characters, he would walk the streets late at night. The Murdstone and Grinby’s warehouse is by the Thames, but the river becomes a setting of the novel only later when the prostitute Martha Endell is saved by David and Dan’l Peggotty from committing suicide in it.
Betsy Trotwood’s cottage where David finally finds refuge is near the sea in Dover, and the novel briefly becomes a picaresque story as David walks from London to his aunt’s home. He lives for a short time only with his aunt and her protege Mr. Dick. Aunt Betsy soon arranges for David to attend school in Canterbury, the ancient cathedral city that is to the Anglican Church what Rome is to the Catholic Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the primate of the Anglican Communion, and his seat is here. Dickens captures the atmosphere of the city with its serenity and medieval beauty. The bells of the cathedral ring constantly. Even the rooks walk about as if they are an important part of the scene, as important as the towers themselves. It is a city of gardens as well, such as the one where Dr. Strong, David’s headmaster in his second school, takes daily walks while planning his dictionary.
After his education is finished, David goes back to London to establish himself in a career. Visits to Yarmouth and Canterbury occur several more times and Dickens does a masterful job of describing the great storm at Yarmouth when both Ham Peggotty and James Steerforth perish. Tolstoy believed it to be one of the finest episodes in fiction. Dickens’ flair for drama is seen at its best here.
Mourning the loss of Dora and the death of his school friend, Steerforth, Copperfield wanders in Europe, finally staying for an extended period in the Lausanne region in Switzerland. Dickens had visited Lausanne with his family in 1846, and loved the quiet town and the majestic Alps that formed its background. Here Dickens’ literary alter ego comes to terms with his losses, finds peace, and returns to England to resume his life.