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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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.