I couldn’t tell you what my number one favourite book of all time is but a strong contender must be ‘David Copperfield’ by Charles Dickens.
It’s a book written by a wonderful wordsmith and is rich in powerful and subtle images.
A lot of Dickens’ characters display their personal characters and traits through their names. Uriah Heep and Mr Murdstone for instance. Even when we are yet to be introduced to these fictional people we can understand a lot about them from the sound of their names. This is how Dickens works, giving us numerous hints and pointers to who these people are and what they are like.
James Steerforth though is something of an exception. He is my favourite character from within Dickens’ pages and he is neither a Heep nor a Murdstone; neither a Pickwick nor a Bumble. Apart from David Copperfield himself, he is the most human of Dickens’ creations. He is kind but can be unpleasant, caring and yet selfish, thoughtful but also unfeeling. In short, as Mr Micawber might say, he is full of human contradictions.
The best part in the book probably, for me at any rate, is the storm when David returns to Yarmouth. Dickens builds the storm slowly and each word and phrase adds a new layer to the sense of danger and foreboding and when Copperfield is finally reunited with his old friend Steerforth at the height of the storm’s ferocity, death comes between them and Steerforth is sadly drowned. Dickens reveals this in a unique way for he does not tell the reader Steerforth is dead. He leaves the reader to realise this themselves and in the process makes the reader almost at one with the narrative.
Throughout the book, Dickens mentions in passing about Steerforth’s habit of sleeping with his head on his arm. It’s referred to many times in the narrative almost as matter of non interest. Something unimportant that the reader doesn’t really need to know, but when David Copperfield spies someone aboard a stricken ship trapped in the fierce storm who evokes some faint remembrance for him, a tiny warning bell is set off.
Finally, when the body of a drowned man is brought ashore and lies mutely on the sand, his head upon his arm, we know just from that simple bit of information, without the author telling us anything more, that Steerforth is dead. The prompts and clues that Dickens has hinted at have paid off for the reader in the most satisfying of ways.
I’ve returned to this wonderful book time and time again, to enjoy that unique almost religious feeling, that communion with the thoughts of a man who died in 1870, over a hundred and forty years ago, yet whose frozen thoughts live on in the pages of his books.
As long as people read books, Charles Dickens and his characters will live on.