In the format of a non-traditional critique, Writing that Scene examines the fundamentals of what it takes to capably convey a scene to one’s readers. The opinion expressed is my own, and other readers’ opinions may and will differ.

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Author: Henry James

Scene location: First third of the book

Genre: General Fiction

The Portrait of a Lady: (Original Scene Text)

Seated towards nine o’clock in the dim illumination of Pratt’s Hotel and trying with the aid of two tall candles to lose herself in a volume she had brought from Gardencourt, she succeeded only to the extent of reading other words than those printed on the page—words that Ralph had spoken to her that afternoon. Suddenly the well-muffed knock of the waiter was applied to the door, which presently gave way to his exhibition, even as a glorious trophy, of a card of a visitor. When this memento had offered to her fixed sight the name Mr. Caspar Goodwood she let the man stand before her without signifying her wishes.

“Shall I show the gentleman up, ma’am?” he asked with a slightly encouraging inflexion.

Isabel hesitated still and while she hesitated glanced at the mirror. “He may come in,” she said at last; and waited for him not so much smoothing her hair as girding her spirit.

Caspar Goodwood was accordingly the next moment shaking hands with her, but saying nothing till the servant had left the room. “Why didn’t you answer my letter?” he then asked in a quick, full, slightly peremptory tone—the tone of a man whose questions were habitually pointed and who was capable of much insistence.

She answered by a ready question, “How did you know I was here?”

“Miss Stackpole let me know,” said Caspar Goodwood. “She told me you would probably be at home alone this evening and would be willing to see me.”

“Where did she see you—to tell you that?”

“She didn’t see me; she wrote to me.”

Isabel was silent; neither had sat down; they stood there with an air of defiance, or at least of contention. “Henrietta never told me she was writing to you,” she said at last. “This is not kind of her.”

“Is it so disagreeable to you to see me?” asked the young man.

“I didn’t expect it. I don’t like such surprises.”

“But you knew I was in town; it was natural we should meet.”

“Do you call this meeting? I hoped I shouldn’t see you. In so big a place as London it seemed very possible.”

“It was apparently repugnant to you even to write to me,” her visitor went on.

Isabel made no reply; the sense of Henrietta Stackpole’s treachery, as she momentarily qualified it, was strong within her. “Henrietta’s certainly not a model of all the delicacies!” she exclaimed with bitterness. “It was a great liberty to take.”

“I suppose I’m not a model either—of those virtues or of any others. The fault’s mine as much as hers.”

As Isabel looked at him it seemed to her that his jaw had never been more square. This might have displeased her, but she took a different turn. “No, it’s not your fault as much as hers. What you’ve done was inevitable, I suppose, for you.”

Author’s Point of View: We have heard a great deal about Caspar Goodwood, but this is the first scene we see him, and it is the only scene we shall see him in for the first half of the book. The character has to make a lasting impression on the reader with only this one scene and the other characters’ interspersed comments.

The Portrait of a Lady: (Original Scene Text)

[Seated towards nine o’clock in the dim illumination of Pratt’s Hotel and trying with the aid of two tall candles to lose herself in a volume she had brought from Gardencourt, I like how quickly you sketch the scene. We later learn there is a mirror in the room, and chairs, but the primary focus is setting the stage on what she is doing] [she succeeded only to the extent of reading other words than those printed on the page—words that Ralph had spoken to her that afternoon. Fascinating idea, to read words like that; she is undoubtedly hearing them in her head, but they have made such an impression that they’ve superseded the physical words of the book.]

Suddenly the [well-muffed knock of the waiter was applied to the door, which presently gave way to his exhibition, even as a glorious trophy, of a card of a visitor. Great description! Instead of just “Suddenly there was the waiter’s knock on the door,” we have “well-muffed,” a knock “applied,” and the door giving way to an exhibition, a trophy that she doesn’t want.] When this memento had offered to her fixed sight the name Mr. Caspar Goodwood she let the man stand before her without signifying her wishes.

[“Shall I show the gentleman up, ma’am?” he asked with a slightly encouraging inflexion. I like how you gave this minor character an opinion on the situation. While most dialogue tags don’t need clarification, this is a great example of one that does, as we’d otherwise miss the fact that he feels he is aiding a pleasant rendezvous.]

[Isabel hesitated still and while she hesitated glanced at the mirror. Nice use of description to delay an answer, which we, as readers, are awaiting.]“He may come in,” she said at last; and waited for him not so much smoothing her hair as girding her spirit.

[Caspar Goodwood I don’t think you have to use his full name, but since you are trying to cement his identity in the readers’ minds, it doesn’t hurt to reuse it here.] was accordingly the next moment shaking hands with her, but saying nothing till the servant had left the room. “Why didn’t you answer my letter?” he then asked in a [quick, full, slightly peremptory tone—the tone of a man whose questions were habitually pointed and who was capable of much insistence. Again, some might argue that you don’t need to describe his tone so much, but since he hardly gets “screen-time,” as it were, we need to learn as much about him from the encounter as we can. I think your description does this well.]

[She answered by a ready question, I don’t think you need this. Answering his question with a question implies some level of readiness, without explaining it.] “How did you know I was here?”

“Miss Stackpole let me know,” said Caspar Goodwood. “She told me you would probably be at home alone this evening and would be willing to see me.”

“Where did she see you[—to tell you that?”Nice use of a dash to set off the last of the sentence, indicating the first sign of mental preoccupation on her part.]

“She didn’t see me; she wrote to me.”

[Isabel was silent; neither had sat down; they stood there with an air of defiance, or at least of contention. This sentence has a lot of semicolons. They aren’t wrong, but I think they could be separate sentences without the loss of any effect.]

“Henrietta never told me she was writing to you,” she said at last. [“This is not kind of her.” I really liked this phrase. It tells us so much about Isabel: she is in a position to comment on, to censure and judge the behavior of her friend while those around her cannot judge her.]

“Is it so disagreeable to you to see me?” [asked the young man. You needn’t label every bit of dialogue. Unless the dialogue tag adds something, in a scene between two people, they can frequently be dropped.]

“I didn’t expect it. I don’t like such surprises.”

“But you knew I was in town; it was natural we should meet.”

“Do you call this meeting? I hoped I shouldn’t see you. In so big a place as London it seemed very possible.”

“It was apparently repugnant to you even to write to me,” her visitor went on.

Isabel made no reply; [the sense of Henrietta Stackpole’s treachery, as she momentarily qualified it, was strong within her. I like the wording her. “Momentarily qualified it” suggests that, later, she will see things in a calmer and different light, and that she knows this.] “Henrietta’s certainly not a model of all the delicacies!” [she exclaimed with bitterness. This is another dialogue tag you could omit. We already know that her tone has bitterness from the sentence that precedes it and the words she uses.] “It was a great liberty to take.”

“I suppose I’m not a model either—of those virtues or of any others. [The fault’s mine as much as hers.” I like how you used the situation to show an aspect of Mr. Goodwood’s character, his willingness to bear the fault himself (or perhaps his pride that none shall be slighted in this enterprise but himself?). Very nice!]

As Isabel looked at him it seemed to her that [his jaw had never been more square. This might have displeased her, but she took a different turn. Nice use of description. Not only does it tell us something about his physical features, but it indicates how Isabel views those features—square jaws displease her, which further demonstrates her fastidiousness.] “No, it’s not your fault as much as hers. What you’ve done was inevitable, I suppose, [for you.” Again, great use of words. These two suggest so much: his actions are different from others, and from herself, and as such he is in a category all to himself (and not necessarily in a positive way).]

You’re welcome (and encouraged) to share your own comments, keeping a tone of constructive criticism in mind so we can all learn from this project together. And feel free to disagree with any and all of the advice and comments I gave. Thanks!

Comments Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by Duke Negro, Creative Commons

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