Writing That Scene: A House to Let, Part Three

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 last few weeks, we’ve been looking at A House to Let, a short story project by Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Elisabeth Gaskill, and Adelaide Anne Procter. Dickens and Collins wrote the first chapter, Gaskill the second, Dickens the third, Procter the fourth, and Collins the fifth, yet they all focus on a particular house and its history and why it has remained available for rent for so long. Still, the narratives are very different, great examples of how an author’s individuality comes to light even when dealing with the same topic and themes as other writers.

If you are interested in sharing a scene from your own writing 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

Scene location: Beginning of the second chapter and its short story

Genre: General Fiction

A House to Let: “Going into Society”

At one period of its reverses, the House fell into the occupation of a Showman. He was found registered as its occupier, on the parish books o f the time when he rented the House, and there was therefore no need of any clue to his name. But, he himself was less easy to be found; for he had led a wandering life, and settled people had lost sight of him, and people who plumed themselves on being respectable were shy of admitting that they had ever known anything of him. At last, among the marsh lands near the river’s level, that lie about Deptford and the neighbouring market-gardens, a Grizzled Personage in Velveteen, with a face so cut up by varieties of weather that he looked as if he had been tattooed, was found smoking a pipe at the door of the wooden house on wheels. The wooden house was laid up in ordinary for the winter, near the mouth of a muddy creek; and everything near it, the foggy river, the misty marshes, and the steaming market-gardens, smoked in company with the grizzled man. In the midst of this smoking party, the funnel-chimney of the wooden house on wheels was not remiss, but took its pipe with the rest in a companionable manner.

On being asked if it were he who had once rented the House to Let, Grizzled Velveteen looked surprised, and said yes. Then his name was Magsman? That was it, Toby Magsman—which lawfully christened Robert; but called in the line, from a infant, Toby. There was nothing agin Toby Magsman, he believed? If there was suspicion of such—mention it!

There was no suspicion of such, he might rest assured. But, some inquiries were making about that House, and would he object to say why he left it?

Not at all; why should he? He left it, along of a Dwarf?

Along of a Dwarf?

Mr. Magsman repeated, deliberately and emphatically, Along of a Dwarf.

Might it be compatible with Mr. Magsman’s inclination and convenience to enter, as a favour, into a few particulars?

Mr. Magsman entered into the following particulars.

It was a long time ago, to begin with;–afore lotteries and a deal more was done away with. Mr. Magsman was looking about for a good pitch, and he see that house, and he says to himself, “I’ll have you, if you’re to be had. If money’ll get you, I’ll have you.”

Author’s Point of View: Once again, we are following one of the tenants of the house to let, so Dickens can go wherever his imagination takes him, even to dwarfs and showmen, but he has to set it up to seem believable, since this is more-or-less realism, not a fairy tale or fantasy.

A House to Let: “Going into Society” (my comments in blue)

[At one period of its reverses, the House fell into the occupation of a Showman. I like the choice of words. “Reverses” instead of “history” tells us that drama is a ‘foot, helped by “occupation” instead of possession. All together, great opening sentence.] He was found registered as its occupier, on the parish books of the time when he rented the House, and there was therefore no need of any clue to his name. But, he himself was less easy to be found; for he had led a wandering life, and [settled people had lost sight of him, and people who plumed themselves on being respectable were shy of admitting that they had ever known anything of him. I like how you quickly establish Jarber’s hunt for this man without more than a sentence.]

At last, among the marsh lands near the river’s level, that lie about Deptford and the neighbouring market-gardens, a [Grizzled Personage in Velveteen, with a face so cut up by varieties of weather that he looked as if he had been tattooed, was found smoking a pipe at the door of the wooden house on wheels. Great description! It’s quick and memorable, his location further demonstrating his mobile lifestyle.]

The wooden house was laid up [in ordinary for the winter, Was this supposed to be “in order” and we are demonstrating Jarber’s inability to use the right word? Or “in ordinary,” as in, “in regular service”? It seemed a bit confusing.] near the mouth of a muddy creek; and [everything near it, the foggy river, the misty marshes, and the steaming market-gardens, smoked in company with the grizzled man. In the midst of this smoking party, the funnel-chimney of the wooden house on wheels was not remiss, but took its pipe with the rest in a companionable manner. This really sets the tone for the piece. Instead of depicting the man as alone, in a lonely place, we are to see him in the midst of a smoking party with all sorts of, albeit inanimate, companions.]

[On being asked if it were he who had once rented the House to Let, Grizzled Velveteen looked surprised, and said yes. Then his name was Magsman? That was it, Toby Magsman—which lawfully christened Robert; but called in the line, from a infant, Toby. There was nothing agin Toby Magsman, he believed? If there was suspicion of such—mention it! Colorful indirect speech. You could turn this into direct speech–some would say that direct speech is more interesting–but since Jarber is recounting his story, it’s much more natural to summarize like this. Still, you’ve captured the cadences and dialect choices (and therefore unique spelling) of the man, which lends credibility to the story. It seems like everything has happened just as we’re being told, which prepares us for what’s to come.]

[There was no suspicion of such, he might rest assured. But, some inquiries were making about that House, and would he object to say why he left it? Grammatically incorrect, since you have a comma splice followed by “were making” instead of “being made,” but, again, this is how people talk, reinforcing the feeling that we’re hearing the exact and complete truth. I like it.]

[Not at all; why should he? He left it, along of a Dwarf.

Along of a Dwarf?

Mr. Magsman repeated, deliberately and emphatically, Along of a Dwarf.

Might it be compatible with Mr. Magsman’s inclination and convenience to enter, as a favour, into a few particulars? The decision to arrange this like direct dialogue, while keeping it as indirect dialogue is interesting. It lets Jarber avoid quoting anything or anybody, yet these lines seem exactly like what was being said by the parties involved, especially the ceremonious attempt of Jaber to get Mr. Magsman to talk.]

Mr. Magsman entered into the following particulars.

It was a long time ago, to begin with;—[afore lotteries and a deal more was done away with. I like how Mr. Magsman times things, not by historical events, but presumably by the elimination of ways for him to make money.] [Mr. Magsman was looking about for a good pitch, and he see that house, and he says to himself, “I’ll have you, if you’re to be had. If money’ll get you, I’ll have you.” This is your first line of direct quotation. I find it interesting that Mr. Magsman is comfortable with employing it in his story, even though Jarber will not do so, even though he just met the man and spoke with him a short while ago, while Magsman is quoting himself from a much earlier date. The way you’ve used indirect dialogue actually tells us something about our narrator and, by contrast, Mr. Magsman himself.]

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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