David was born in the "Rookery," in Blunderstone, Suffolk, England, on a Friday just as the clock began to strike midnight. This was thought to be an unlucky omen by some women of the neighborhood and by the nurse who attended his birth. A few hours before David's birth, however, Mrs. Copperfield is unexpectedly visited by Miss Betsey Trotwood, an aunt of David's father whom Mrs. Copperfield has never met. Miss Trotwood, "the principal magnate of our family," is a domineering woman who immediately takes charge of the household and insists that the expected child will be a girl; she declares that the new baby girl will be named Betsey Trotwood Copperfield. "There must be no mistakes in life with this Betsey Trotwood," she says. "I must make that my care."
Already agitated by the impending birth of this new baby, and by the death of David's father six months before, Mrs. Copperfield is further troubled by the abrupt appearance and manner of Miss Trotwood. She becomes ill with labor pains, and Ham, the nephew of the servant, Peggotty, is sent to get the doctor, Mr. Chillip. The mild-mannered Chillip is astonished, as is everyone else, by the brusqueness of Miss Trotwood. Later, when he tells her the baby is a boy, she silently but swiftly puts on her bonnet, walks out of the house, and vanishes "like a discontented fairy."
In Chapter 2, David recalls his home and its vast and mysterious passageways, the churchyard where his father is buried, Sundays in church, and his early life with his youthful, pretty mother and the kindly, capable Peggotty.
One night, after David learned to read, he is reading a story to Peggotty, and he asks, "if you marry a person, and the person dies, why then you may marry another person, mayn t you?" Almost immediately afterward, his mother enters the house with a bearded man whom David resents at once. After the stranger's departure, David hears an argument between his mother and Peggotty about the man. Peggotty insists that the man, Mr. Murdstone, is not an acceptable suitor.
About two months later, Peggotty invites David to spend a fortnight with her at her brother's place at Yarmouth. David is eager to go, but he asks what his mother will say. "She can't live by herself, you know," he insists. Young as he is, he does not realize that he is being sent away deliberately. His mother has a tearful farewell with him. As David and Peggotty drive off in a cart, David looks back. He sees Mr. Murdstone come up to his mother and apparently scold her for being so emotional.
The first chapter is typical of the Victorian novelistic style, especially its long sentences and frequent digressions. The second paragraph is a long single sentence containing eighty-nine words (many sentences are longer). This chapter, and indeed the entire novel, frequently wanders from the main story line. The fourth paragraph of the book is a long digression on David's being born with a caul (a membrane that covers the head of a new-born child and was thought to bring good luck) and on his family's attempt to dispose of it profitably. After a lengthy detour, David pulls himself back to his narrative with an admonition to himself not to "meander." These stylistic features were the result of the publishing practices prevalent at Dickens' time. Books were first published serially in magazines and writers were paid by the word; hence, they included as many words as possible, even if the story became rambling and excessively wordy.
The first chapter also illustrates Dickens' handling of characterization. Dickens is often criticized for creating caricatures rather than characters in his works, of producing people who are one-dimensional and unreal. Both Miss Trotwood and the doctor are described extravagantly, but it must be remembered that this burlesque produces a humorous effect, and most readers of the time accepted the "overdone" quality, preferring entertainment to realism. David's mother and the servant girl, Peggotty, are described with greater restraint.
The character of Mr. Murdstone is strongly caught in Chapter 2. His name itself, compounded of "murder" and "stone," is typical of Dickens' device of creating an artificial name to reflect a person's character. As this chapter ends, the lines are drawn — David and Peggotty are hostile to Mr. Murdstone; Mrs. Copperfield, on the other hand, flattered and naive, is grateful for his attentions.