What the Dickens?

By Sarah Knapton, The Daily Telegraph, January 2022
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The novel of David Copperfield is often described as Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, cementing the author as one of England’s literary giants. Yet, according to new research, the book may also pay secret homage to two other Victorian luminaries — Sir Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday.

Academics now believe that Dickens was so enraptured by the scientific advances of the pair that he named his eponymous hero David ‘Davy’ after the Cornish chemist, while choosing Copperfield in recognition of Faraday’s electrical transformer invention.

On August 29 1831, Faraday wrapped copper wire around an iron ring and after passing an electric current through. It showed that it not only produced a magnetic field, but that electricity could be transmitted across space — opening the door for modern electrics.

Previously, scholars have had little to say about the name choice, other than noticing that the initials were a reverse of Dickens himself — believed to show Dickens’ close association with his central character. But researchers have started to suspect that the title was a subtle tribute to the pair, after finding letters between Dickens and Faraday.

Dr Jenny Bulstrode, lecturer in history of science and technology at University College London and the Royal Institution — where Faraday and Davy worked – first made the connection in her thesis. She wrote: “Dickens had attended Faraday’s public lectures through the 1840s and, in December 1850, he wrote to thank the copper wire web-weaving author of field theory for sharing his lecture notes with a copy of David Copperfield, published that year.”

Thomas W Hodgkinson — a writer at the London Institute for Mathematical Sciences, which is now based in Faraday’s former rooms at the Royal Institution — said: “Dickens came to Faraday’s lectures at the Royal Institution and all this stuff was going on at the time he was writing David Copperfield.

“The hero of the novel is addressed as ‘Davy’ throughout the book. And we know Dickens liked to encode the titles of his books. Oliver Twist is another example.”

Copperfield’s journey from humble beginnings to fame and fortune as an author may not only echo Dickens but also Faraday’s humble roots as the son of a blacksmith who rose to eminence.

Faraday was also keen to communicate and popularise science to the masses, which would have appealed to Dickens’ social activism, academics believe. In 1825, Faraday initiated the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, held annually at the organisation’s headquarters in London.

He also set up a series of Friday Evening Discourses to bring scientific topics to the general public, matching Dickens’ interest in marrying education with entertainment.

In May 1850, Dickens wrote to Faraday to request access to Faraday’s lecture notes, saying: “It has occurred to me that it would be extremely beneficial to a large class of the public, to have some account of your late lectures on the breakfast-table, and of those you addressed, last year, to children.”

Faraday sent his original notes to Dickens, who used them to co-author stories based on their themes.

The first was published in August 1850 and based on Faraday’s 1848 Christmas Lecture, The Chemical History of a Candle. Three months later, Dickens presented Faraday with a first edition of his new novel — David Copperfield.

Dickens even directly paid tribute to Faraday in the second story in the series, titled The Mysteries of the Tea Kettle.He wrote: “For it is not the least of the merits of that famous chemist and great man, Professor Faraday, that he delights to make the mightiest subject clear to the simplest capacity; and that he shows his mastery of Nature in nothing more than I in being thoroughly imbued with the spirit of her goodness and simplicity.”

Scholars at the Royal Institution believe there are also other clues in David Copperfiled which link the story back to the renowned scientists.

“It’s not only that the title of the book encodes the 19th history of Royal Institution,” added Mr Hodgkinson. “You also get the beached barge in with the Peggottys live, which may have been inspired by the work Davy and Faraday did together to protect the hulls of ships from corrosion. More broadly, though, it’s the sense of how obsolete the ‘two cultures’ debate was in the 19th century. This was a time when scientists and artists mingled freely, particularly at the Royal Institution. And both were all the better for it.”