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, Elisabeth 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: Elisabeth Gaskill

Scene location: Middle of the second chapter; climax of the short story

Genre: General Fiction

A House to Let: “The Manchester Marriage” (Original Scene Text)

The housemaid and cook sate below, Norah hardly knew where. She was always engrossed in the nursery, in tending her two children, and in sitting by the restless, excitable Ailsie till she fell asleep. Bye-and-bye, the housemaid Bessy tapped gently at the door. Norah went to her, and they spoke in whispers.

“Nurse! There’s some one down-stairs wants you.”

“Wants me! Who is it?”

“A gentleman—“

“A gentleman? Nonsense!”

“Well! A man, then, and he asks for you, and he rung at the front door bell, and has walked into the dining-room.”

“You should never have let him,” exclaimed Norah. “master and missus out—“

“I did not want him to come in; but when he heard you lived here, he walked past me, and sat down on the first chair, and said, ‘Tell her to come and speak to me.’ There is no gas lighted in the room, and supper is all set out.”

“He’ll be off with the spoons!” exclaimed Norah, putting the housemaid’s fear into words, and preparing to leave the room, first, however, giving a look to Ailsie, sleeping soundly and calmly.

Down-stairs she went, uneasy fears stirring in her bosom. Before she entered the dining-room she provided herself with a candle, and with it in her hand, she went in, looking round her in the darkness for her visitor.

He was standing up, holding by the table. Norah and he looked at each other; gradual recognition coming into their eyes.

“Norah?” at length he asked.

“Who are you?” asked Norah, with the sharp tones of alarm and incredulity. “I don’t know you:” trying, by futile words of disbelief, to do away with the terrible fact before her.

“Am I so changed?” he said, pathetically. “I daresay I am. But, Norah, tell me!” he breathed hard, “where is my wife? Is she—is she alive?”

He came nearer to Norah, and would have taken her hand; but she backed away from him; looking at him all the time with staring eyes, as if he were some horrible object. Yet he was a handsome, bronzed, good-looking fellow, with beard and moustache, giving him a foreign-looking aspect; but his eyes! There was no mistaking those eager, beautiful eyes—the very same that Norah had watched not half-an-hour ago, till sleep stole softly over them.

Author’s Point of View: This entire chapter is being read to the narrator by her friend, which allows the chapter to function practically as an independent short story. This chapter follows the life of one of the house’s previous tenants, a widower who remarried, and the scene is relating the return of a long-lost member of the family.

A House to Let: “The Manchester Marriage” (My comments in blue)

The housemaid and cook [sate below, The spelling is wrong, but it does suggest a dialect to the story, and is readable.] Norah hardly knew where. She was always [engrossed in the nursery, I like the choice of verb. Much stronger than “always up in the nursery.”] in tending her two children, and in sitting by the restless, excitable Ailsie till she fell asleep. [Bye-and-bye, Another nice use of terms to suggest a dialect and a relaxed, story-telling flavor.] the housemaid Bessy tapped gently at the door. Norah went to her, and they spoke in whispers.

“Nurse! There’s some one down-stairs [wants you.” This isn’t grammatically correct, as it should be “who wants you,” but it does support the tone you’ve established.]

“Wants me! Who is it?”

“A gentleman—“

“A gentleman? Nonsense!”

“Well! A man, then, and he asks for you, and he rung at the front door bell, and has walked into the dining-room.”

[“You should never have let him,” exclaimed Norah. “master and missus out—“

“I did not want him to come in; but when he heard you lived here, he walked past me, and sat down on the first chair, and said, ‘Tell her to come and speak to me.’ There is no gas lighted in the room, and supper is all set out.” I like how you quickly set up the nurse’s concerns and the situation without a great deal of exposition.]

“He’ll be off with the spoons!” exclaimed Norah, putting the housemaid’s fear into words, and preparing to leave the room, first, however, giving a look to Ailsie, sleeping soundly and calmly.

Down-stairs she went, uneasy fears stirring in her bosom. Before she entered the dining-room she provided herself with a candle, and with it in her hand, she went in, [looking round her in the darkness for her visitor. She has to hunt around for her visitor; fun!]

He was standing up, [holding by the table. Interesting choice of term. “Holding onto the table” is a much more typical way of wording this, but “by” draws attention to his vulnerability in this moment.] [Norah and he looked at each other; gradual recognition coming into their eyes. I would make the semicolon be a comma. Grammatically, it is more correct, and it doesn’t really make much difference.]

“Norah?” at length he asked.

[“Who are you?” asked Norah, with the sharp tones of alarm and incredulity. “I don’t know you:” I think I would put the two lines of dialogue together. Arranged as it is, it is a little clumsy to read.] trying, by futile words of disbelief, to do away with [the terrible fact before her. I like how you don’t tell us what the fact is, but state that it’s terrible.]

“Am I so changed?” he said, [pathetically. I don’t think you need this. With most adverbs in a dialogue tag, the words alone speak for themselves.] “I daresay I am. But, Norah, tell me!” [he breathed hard, I don’t usually like dialogue tags other than “said” or, at most, “asked,” but I think this one actually works.] “where is my wife? [Is she—is she alive?” Nice use of a dash. I can hear him say this.]

[He came nearer to Norah, and would have taken her hand; but she backed away from him; looking at him all the time with staring eyes, as if he were some horrible object. I don’t think you need to use so many semicolons. As I see it, they are stronger than commas and periods; not as strong as dashes and exclamations, but strong enough to where they shouldn’t be used in every line, or multiple times in the same line, when a comma could do just as well.] [Yet he was a handsome, bronzed, good-looking fellow, with beard and moustache, giving him a foreign-looking aspect; but his eyes! I really like the way you used a semicolon here. It sets off the last part beautifully, and the sentence in general is great, giving us his physical appearance in quick brushstrokes.] There was no mistaking those eager, beautiful eyes—[the very same that Norah had watched not half-an-hour ago, till sleep stole softly over them. Great way to reveal the family relationship that this man has without coming out and saying, “He was a long-lost family member.”]

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!

Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by Moya, Creative Commons

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