Writing That Scene: A House to Let, Part One

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.

Over the next few weeks, I wanted to look at A House to Let, a short story project by Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskill and Adelaide Anne Procter, in which Dickens and Collins wrote the first chapter, Gaskill the second, Dickens the third, Procter the fourth, and Collins the fifth. All focus on a particular house and its history and why it has remained available for rent for so long, but the narratives are highly individualistic, great examples of how an author’s individuality comes to light, even when dealing with the same topic and themes.

If you are interested in sharing a scene of your own for a future post, click on the Writing that Scene Submission link. Or, you can suggest a scene from another writer’s work for us to analyze. To see last week’s scene, click here.

Author: Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins

Scene location: The beginning of the book

Genre: General Fiction

A House to Let: “Over the Way” (Original Scene Text)

I had been living at Tunbridge Wells and nowhere else, going on for ten years, when my medical man—very clever in his profession, and the prettiest player I ever saw in my life of a hand at Long Whist, which was a noble and a princely game before Short was heard of—said to me, one day, as he sat feeling my pulse on the actual sofa which my poor dear sister Jane worked before her spine came on, and laid her on a board for fifteen months at a stretch—the most upright woman that ever lived—said to me, “What we want, ma’am, is a fillip.”

“Good gracious, goodness gracious, Doctor Towers!” says I, quite startled at the man, for he was so christened himself: “don’t talk as if you were alluding to people’s names; but say what you mean.”

“I mean, my dear ma’am, that we want a little change of air and scene.”

“Bless the man!” said I; “does he mean we or me!”

“I mean you, ma’am.”

“Then Lard forgive you, Doctor Towers,” I said; “why don’t you get into a habit of expressing yourself in a straightforward manner, like a loyal subject of our gracious Queen Victoria, and a member of the Church of England?”

Towers laughed, as he generally does when he has fidgeted me into any of my impatient ways—one of my states, as I call them—and then he began,—

“Tone, ma’am, Tone, is all you require!” He appealed to Trottle, who just then came in with the coal-shuttle, looking, in his nice black suit, like an amiable man putting on coals from motives of benevolence.

Trottle (whom I always call my right hand) has been in my service two-and-thirty years. He entered my service, far away from England. He is the best of creatures, and the most respectable of men; but, opinionated.

“What you want, ma’am,” says Trottle, making up the fire in his quiet and skilful way, “is Tone.”

“Lard forgive you both!” says I, bursting out a-laughing; “I see you are in a conspiracy against me, so I suppose you must do what you like with me, and take me to London for a change.”

For some weeks Towers had hinted at London, and consequently I was prepared for him. When we had got to this point, we got on so expeditiously, that Trottle was packed off to London next day but one, to find some sort of place for me to lay my troublesome old head in.

Author’s Point of View: Beginning the work for all four authors, Dickens and Collins must draw the right sort of readers in (those who will enjoy the entire work, not just their portions), so this must represent the piece, as a whole, while setting the tone for the other two authors who follow.

A House to Let: “Over the Way” (My comments in blue)

I had been living at Tunbridge Wells and nowhere else, [going on for ten years, This is grammatically unnecessary; it would normally be “going on ten years” or “for ten years” but combining the two creates a colloquial dialect for the main character, telling us a great deal about her just by mixing expressions.] when my [medical man Interesting term. Makes one think of a medicine man, and hardly sounds flattering to the doctor]—very clever in his profession, and [the prettiest player I ever saw in my life of a hand at Long Whist, which was a noble and a princely game before Short was heard of Very nice! We catch the opinionated nature of the woman, and the fact that her doctor has social qualities to recommend him, however little she thinks of his professional qualities, despite her offhand compliment]—said to me, one day, as he sat feeling my pulse [on the actual sofa which my poor dear sister Jane worked before her spine came on, and laid her on a board for fifteen months at a stretch Effective use of description to, again, give us a feel for the character. Just the sort of story an older woman might tell.][the most upright woman that ever lived I like the play on words here. Fun!]—said to me, “What we want, ma’am, is a fillip.”

“Good gracious, goodness gracious, Doctor Towers!” says I, quite startled at the man, [for he was so christened himself: I’m assuming “for so he was christened himself” refers to Phillip, the word she mistakes (or does she?) when he says “fillip,” but some readers might see this as a clumsy way of introducing the name “Doctor Towers.”] [“don’t talk as if you were alluding to people’s names; but say what you mean.”

“I mean, my dear ma’am, that we want a little change of air and scene.”

“Bless the man!” said I; “does he mean we or me!”

“I mean you, ma’am.”

“Then Lard forgive you, Doctor Towers,” I said; “why don’t you get into a habit of expressing yourself in a straightforward manner, like a loyal subject of our gracious Queen Victoria, and a member of the Church of England?” This entire section almost sounds like a woman fishing for a marriage proposal, making us wonder just how old she actually is.]

Towers laughed, as he generally does when he has fidgeted me into any of my impatient ways—[one of my states, as I call them I like that she has classified them to her own satisfaction]—and then he began,—

“Tone, ma’am, Tone, is all you require!” He appealed to Trottle, who just then came in with the coal-shuttle, looking, [in his nice black suit, like an amiable man putting on coals from motives of benevolence. Instead of a man who does it to serve his employer? And I like how she compliments his suit, which she doubtless provided, as was typical in Victorian times: not a livery, but the cloth bought and given as a Christmas gift, usually.]

Trottle (whom I always call my right hand) has been in my service two-and-thirty years. He entered my service, far away from England. [He is the best of creatures, and the most respectable of men; but, opinionated. Grammatically speaking, the comma and semicolon are wrong, but they do give the pauses of her thoughts, as she adds item after item to the list of what she things about him.]

“What you want, ma’am,” [says Trottle, Again, nice way to hint at dialect and the woman’s tone of voice by using “says” instead of “said.” Technically, you are switching out of past tense, but it is just the sort of thing that happens when moderately educated people tell a story or when they aren’t paying attention to their grammar.] making up the fire in his quiet and skilful way, “is Tone.”

[Lard The spelling gives us the dialect, again, but it does also look like the word “lard.” You might want to rethink this.] forgive you both!” says I, bursting out a-laughing; “I see you are in a conspiracy against me, so I suppose you must do what you like with me, and take me to London for a change.”

[For some weeks Towers had hinted at London, and consequently I was prepared for him. The woman acted startled at the beginning of this scene, but this reveals that she already knew that such a conversation was coming. This certainly tells us something about the sort of woman we’re dealing with.] When we had got to this point, we got on so expeditiously, that Trottle was packed off to London [next day but one, to find some sort of place for me to lay my troublesome old head in. Again, the choice of words is perfect. “Next day but one” is very colloquial in England at this time, and her “troublesome old head” sounds like a woman waiting for someone to contradict her, complimenting her out of necessity. Great job!]

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

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