How David Copperfield was reborn as Demon Copperhead

THE harbour town of Broadstairs has been making the best of the mixed British summer. Children splash in the gentle surf while adults stroll along The Parade, browsing food stalls, enjoying the views and ozone-rich air. This seaside idyll might not be the kind of place you’d expect to inspire a book about pain, poverty and addiction.

But that’s precisely what has happened: not once, but twice.

In 1849, while holidaying in Fort House – now known as Bleak House – Charles Dickens began writing David Copperfield, his eighth and most autobiographical novel, and a coruscating attack on Victorian society. Fast-forward 170 years, US novelist Barbara Kingsolver sat at a desk in the same room and was struck by Dickens’ spectral muse.

She began writing Demon Copperhead, now the literary sensation of the year, ­having picked up gong after gong: the Pulitzer Prize, the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the oldest literary prize in the world, the James Tait Black Prize. And it in turn has thrown the spotlight back on the 19th-century storyteller, whose vast influence is still growing in the 21st century.

In 2018, Kingsolver saw an advert for Bleak House, a castellated pile overlooking the quaint harbour and Stone Bay.

Then a B&B working the Dickens’ connection (it’s private now), it was, she said, “very much set up as if he were still living there”. That autumn, she sat in Dickens’ room and “felt the presence of his outrage”.

As if the whiskery writer was looking over her shoulder, she realised she wanted to “let the child tell the story. I thought, ‘Well, I will. Thank you, Mr Dickens’.”

The book was born and Copperfield became red-haired hero Demon Copper­head, an ill-fated boy in the Appalachian mountains, centre of the US opioid crisis. Back in America, Kingsolver made a spreadsheet and plotted her novel alongside Dickens’ original.

As well as deploying Copperfield’s initials and five-syllable name, she transplanted each scene to the grim Appalachian present.

Dickens’ shoe-blacking factory became a Breaking Bad-style drugs lab; Mr Creakle’s Salem House morphed into Creaky’s tobacco farm; Mr Micawber became Mr McCobb and Uriah Heep creepy sportsman U-Haul.

“I had Charles right here at my elbow and we just had such a good time,” said Kingsolver.

READ MORE: Meghan accused of ‘taking on Charles Dickens’ after cancelled Netflix series

The 68-year-old has written 17 books – 10 bestsellers – and sold more than five million copies. Born and brought up in the Kentucky hills, where the country kids were scorned by the town children, she wore hand-me-downs and often went hungry. “My whole adult life I’ve lived with this condescension, this unspoken judgement that people like me, from the part of the world I’m from, with my accent and my background, don’t belong,” she has said.

It was at the end of a UK book tour that she visited Bleak House for a weekend. She had been struggling to find a way into a story about Appalachia and the children orphaned by opioids, and she was allowed to sit in Dickens’ study where he wrote.

“There was a lot of evidence of David Copperfield around and I began to wonder, what was it about that book? And he started telling me: orphans, poverty…” she recalled.

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“This kid with red hair called Copperhead appeared in my mind…I found my notebook and started writing.” Dickens fans will ­
spot parallels throughout. But there’s another effect of Demon Copperhead: that Kingsolver has brought Dickens’ social ­concerns back to centre-stage.

For all the picturesque Dickens TV adaptations – carriages, chirpy sweeps, top hats and Christmas cheer – Dickens was a chronicler of poverty and a social reformer whose work has had an impact to this day.

A Kingsolver effect has already been noticed by Ken Nickoll of Broadstairs’ Dickens House Museum, who is celebrating the museum’s 50th anniversary – it began in 1973 with a production of David Copper­field. Ex-journalist Nickoll has recently ­written a Dickens town trail, and will shortly publish a book about the writer in this ­ town where there are reminders of ­him everywhere.

Among others, Dickens often stayed in The Royal Albion Hotel on the High Street, while the museum itself once belonged to Mary Pearson Strong, the model for Copperfield’s Betsey Trotwood, constantly at war with the town’s donkey touts. With so many Dickens-related sites, one house on Fort Road, opposite the inevitable Old Curiosity Shop cafe, has put up a jokey plaque: “Charles Dickens Never Lived Here.” But as Nickoll says ­ of Dickens’ visits: “They were the happiest years of his life.”

The museum is a picture of 19th-century gentlemanly comfort with an array of Dickens’ belongings: his writing box, mahogany sideboard and prints by his most famous illustrator, Phiz (HK Browne). Broadstairs was a place, says Nickoll, “where Dickens’ kids could explore and have the sort of ­childhood that he had experienced, before it was taken away from him”.

Yet even here, Dickens was haunted by his upbringing.

“He saw his father in debt and himself sent to Warren’s blacking factory to work at the age of 12,” Nickoll continues. “That’s similar to what happens to David Copperfield and, in Dickens’ case, it was a rat-infested factory on the banks of the Thames. There he experienced terrible hunger, mixed with desperate people, and saw things a 12-year-old boy shouldn’t see.” Nickoll says the writer was “devastated” by the experience. “Although his father paid off the debt and came out ­of prison, his mother wanted him to stay at the factory,” he adds. “And he never forgave her – or him.”

So even during stays at the resort, the writer had an eye for the less fortunate.“On one trip Dickens walked on the beach and found an abandoned child,” says Nickoll. “Moved by her plight, he got in touch with a nearby workhouse and made all the arrangements for the child to be looked after.”

In London – where the writer spent most of his life – the Charles Dickens Museum in Bloomsbury is even more comfortable: two grand conjoined Georgian houses filled with Dickens’ memorabilia and room sets. Here he made his home in 1837 with wife Catherine when he was just 24, describing it as a “frightfully first-class family mansion”.

Yet in the midst of this splendour, explains museum director Cindy Sughrue – who is preparing to celebrate its centenary in 2025 – Dickens would leave his comfort zone to explore the less salubrious parts of town.

“He was so obsessive about social issues that he was compelled to go out and talk to people,” says Sughrue. “It became a core part of his writing method: to meet real ­people in the places that even the police wouldn’t go.” Every day, often after dark, he restlessly walked the streets. “Even though he was wealthy at a young age, he came ­
from a modest background,” explains Sughrue. “He was accessible. The people he met didn’t see him as aloof and they told him their stories.”

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Indeed, there’s a case that Dickens pioneered modern investigative journalism.

“Until that point, journalists relied on informants,” says Nickoll. “Not Dickens. For the first time, he went out and gathered material himself.” With this intense activity, no wonder Dickens needed respite.

“London was his ‘magic lantern’ that gave him inspiration,” says Nickoll.

“But he also needed to go away, clear his mind and lungs, and take the salt water in Kent.” This double life enabled him to be prolific, helped by a highly regimented approach that would probably now, says Sughrue, “be called obsessive compulsive disorder. He needed his things placed on his desk in a very particular way and was very prescriptive about what the children did”.

Sughrue believes Kingsolver’s novel will bring readers back to Dickens the reformer and social chronicler. Despite being transplanted to the US, she says, it remains true to Dickens’ concerns. “It’s a fascinating testament both to Dickens’ exceptional craft – in that the same structure and characters can be transposed to a very different place and time – and also to the timeless qualities of Dickens’ insights into human nature. That emotion is what makes him such a great writer. He’s not imagining it: he experienced these things and fictionalised them.

“He saw gangs of pickpockets within walking distance of his home, so characters like Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger were true to life.”

As a social reformer, commentator and critic, Dickens realised his writing could draw attention to contemporary issues, providing a spotlight on real lives.

“Even Queen Victoria admired Oliver Twist – while her prime minister at the time, Lord Melbourne, said he ‘didn’t want to dwell on poverty’,” says Sughrue. Indeed, Dickens directly affected government policy, supporting ragged schools and charities, some of which ­still exist today, including Great Ormond Street Hospital.

While adaptations often gloss over Dickens’ grittier bits, he wasn’t averse to sweetening the literary pill. “He was also a socialite and celebrity who made popular stage appearances and wrote in affordable monthly editions about the working classes,” adds Sughrue. “People could relate to that.” But Dickens’ vital concern was to bring social realities to public attention in literary form, just as Kingsolver has done.

After taking apart and reassembling Copperfield, she hymned it as a “masterclass…Learning all the tricks that he used to get the gentle Victorians, who didn’t want to think about poverty and orphans, to look ­­­at those kids and wait for the next chapter”.

As Sughrue says of both David and Demon: “The overarching message is that no ­one is beyond redemption. And we all can do something to make the world a bit lighter.” Or as Demon puts it: “Charles Dickens, seriously old guy, dead and a foreigner, but Christ Jesus did he get the picture on kids and orphans getting screwed over and nobody giving a rat’s ass. You’d think he was from round here.”

  • Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (Faber, £9.99) is out now. Visit or call 020 3176 3832. For the Broadstairs’ Dickens Museum and Dickens Trail, visit and

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