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The story traces the life of David Copperfield from childhood to maturity. David was born in Blunderstone, Suffolk, near Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England, in 1820, six months after the death of his father. David spends his early years with his mother and their housekeeper, Peggotty. When he is seven years old his mother marries Edward Murdstone. David is given good reason to dislike his stepfather and has similar feelings for Murdstone's sister Jane, who moves into the house soon afterwards. Murdstone attempts to thrash David for falling behind in his studies. David bites him and soon afterwards is sent away to a boarding school, Salem House, with a ruthless headmaster, Mr. Creakle. There he befriends James Steerforth and Tommy Traddles.
David returns home for the holidays to learn that his mother has given birth to a baby boy. Shortly after David returns to Salem House, his mother and her baby die, and David returns home immediately. Peggotty marries a man named Mr Barkis. Murdstone sends David to work for a wine merchant in London – a business of which Murdstone is a joint owner. Copperfield's landlord, Wilkins Micawber, is sent to debtors' prison (the King's Bench Prison) and remains there for several months before being released and moving to Plymouth. No one remains to care for David in London, so he decides to run away.