Her initials in hard brass nails

I am about a quarter through David Copperfield.

I have been tremendously impressed with Dickens’ powerful characterization. I think every writer who is serious about the craft at least knows that you should create a character on the page — using only words — as vividly as possible. You want to create an individual that the reader can see and instantly understand, even though more development may follow as the story goes on.

Well, I am dazzled by this paragraph:

It was Miss Murdstone who was arrived, and a gloomy-looking lady she was, dark, like her brother, whom she greatly resembled in face and voice; and with very heavy eyebrows… She brought with her two uncompromising hard black boxes, with her initials on the lids in hard brass nails. When she paid the coachman she took her money out of a hard steel purse, and she kept the purse in a very jail of a bag which hung upon her arm by a heavy chain, and shut up like a bite.

Peggotty is characterized by her warm hugs that put so much pressure on her dress that her buttons in back fly off — it’s a humorous, exaggerated sort of image that works fine: we get the idea that she’s generous both in proportions and hugs. It’s also a little, well, unbelievable (nothing wrong with that). In contrast, the vignette of Miss Murdstone is totally believable: the hard boxes with the brass nails, the purse with the chain handles, and the metallic snap closure. The purse is commonplace: you can go to the department store and buy one that fits the description today. But when Dickens associates the boxes and the purse with Miss Murdstone, we get a sharp understanding of her personality. That is wonderful writing, especially the words “shut up like a bite.”

I notice also how economical this characterization is. A page of description would be more diffuse and less powerful, and much less memorable.

A reader who is not a fiction writer might not consciously notice the superb craft in this passage, but I am sure it is part of the pleasure of the reading experience for all, not just writers.

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