Portents and Signs

He was the meekest of his sex, the mildest of little men. He sidled in and out of a room, to take up the less space. He walked as softly as the Ghost in Hamlet, and more slowly.

I revisited Chapter 1 of David Copperfield, intending take another look at the similarities and contrasts of the chapter’s two primary characters, Clara Copperfield and Betsey Trotwood. What I noticed in the second reading, though, is something that passed right by me during my first reading: Dickens has crammed this chapter full of Portents. Now I love a good prophesy to get my interest up, but most writers content themselves with a single one. Here is abundance: Hamlet (Senior) is conjured up, Betsey Trotwood’s “presentiment” plays a role, and we also hear about the prophesies of the women of the neighborhood.

The image of the Ghost in Hamlet is used to humorously characterize the doctor, timid Mr. Chillip, but the dark shadowy thing on the battlements of Elsinor is stalking right beside the doctor, and he is not amusing in the least.

Bringing Hamlet into the beginning of the story (although disguised as a joke) is the darkest portent — dead father, weak mother, and a son at the mercy of an evil stepfather. No happenstance was involved in this choice of image, I think.

The prophesies made by the women of the neighborhood are that the child born near midnight on a Friday is destined to be unlucky and have the ability to see ghosts and spirits. We are told that the second part of the prophesy has not come about by the time that David is telling the story, but as for the first part, well, that’s a teaser: stay with me, reader, and you’ll find out!

When Clara goes into labor and the doctor and nurse arrive, Miss Betsey herself is described as “an unknown lady of portentous appearance.”  That may be; but the really interesting portent is not Miss Betsey herself, but the one that has brought her here.

Any number of reasons could have been devised to prompt Miss Betsey to visit Clara Copperfield: interest (reluctant or not) in Clara’s well-being, respect for her deceased nephew, simple curiosity, a legal matter, a family matter, or some such thing. It would not be hard to bring about a meeting between these two women.

But it was for none of the reasons above that Miss Betsey comes to the Rookery. She comes because she has had a presentiment that the baby will be a girl. And she sees this baby girl as the one who will be a new version of herself, who will face the choices she did, and be protected from making the wrong choices.

It makes her a sympathetic and memorable character, and her eccentricities become only secondary. We know something true and deep about her. It was an inspired way to bring her to the Rookery.


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