Writing That Scene: Middlemarch

In the format of a non-traditional critique, Writing That Scene examines the fundamentals of what makes a scene powerful and memorable for readers. The opinion expressed is my own, and other readers’ opinions may differ.

The goal is to provide an opportunity for authors to learn from each other and to see “problem scenes” with fresh eyes. In my own experience, hearing what other writers and readers thought of some of my scenes helped give me a fresh perspective, getting me thinking “What if…” and pointing out possibilities I hadn’t even considered.

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 the last scene featured, click here.

Author: George Eliot

Scene location: Near the beginning of the book

Genre: General Fiction

Narrative Style: Third Person Omniscient

Middlemarch:

Early in the day Dorothea had returned from the infant school which she had set going in the village, and was taking her usual place in the pretty sitting room which divided the bedrooms of the sisters, bent on finishing a plan for some buildings (a kind of work which she delighted in), when Celia, who had been watching her with a hesitating desire to propose something, said—

“Dorothea, dear, if you don’t mind—if you are not very busy—suppose we looked at mamma’s jewels to-day, and divided them? It is exactly six months to-day since uncle gave them to you, and you have not looked at them yet.”

Celia’s face had the shadow of a pouting expression in it, the full presence of the pout being kept back by an habitual awe of Dorothea and principle; two associated facts which might show a mysterious electricity if you touched them incautiously. To her relief, Dorothea’s eyes were full of laughter as she looked up.

“What a wonderful little almanac you are, Celia! Is it six calendar or six lunar months?”

“It is the last day of September now, and it was the first of April when uncle gave them to you. You know, he said that he had forgotten them till then. I believe you have never thought of them since you locked them up in the cabinet here.”

“Well, dear, we should never wear them, you know.” Dorothea spoke in a full cordial tone, half caressing, half explanatory. She had her pencil in her hand, and was making tiny side-plans on the margin.

Celia colored, and looked very grave. “I think, dear, we are wanting in respect to mamma’s memory, to put them by and take no notice of them. And,” she added, after hesitating a little, with a rising sob of mortification, “necklaces are quite usual now; and Madame Poincon, who was stricter in some things even than you are, used to wear ornaments. And Christians generally—surely there are women in heaven now who wore jewels.” Celia was conscious of some mental strength when she really applied herself to argument.

“You would like to wear them?” exclaimed Dorothea, an air of astonished discover animating her whole person with a dramatic action which she had caught from the very Madame Poincon who wore the ornaments. “Of course, then, let us have them out. Why did you not tell me before? But the keys, the keys!” She pressed her hands against the sides of her head and seemed to despair of her memory.

“They are here,” said Celia, with whom this explanation had been long meditated and prearranged.

“Pray open the large drawer of the cabinet and get out the jewel-box.”

Author Perspective: This is the first scene where we actually see the sisters in action, rather than just hear about them, and thus it falls to this scene to show a lot of what we’ve been told (in modern fiction, the book might very well have opened with this scene).

Middlemarch: (My comments in blue)

[Early in the day Dorothea had returned from the infant school which she had set going in the village, I like the term, “set going.” It suggests so much more than “started” or “established”.] and was taking her usual place in the pretty sitting room which [divided the bedrooms of the sisters, This was interesting, as Celia and Dorothea are divided by so many things, their opinions different on so many subjects. Unlike many in this time period, they don’t even share a bed, and their rooms are divided. A nice way of making the layout of the room underscore the emotional relationship.] bent on finishing a plan for some buildings (a kind of work which she delighted in), when Celia, [who had been watching her with a hesitating desire to propose something, This is telling, but I think it works. Instead of showing her pick up her work, set it down, almost say something, then stop and start over again, this lets you get right to the point, which is what happens after she finally makes her request.] said—

[“Dorothea, dear, if you don’t mind—if you are not very busy—suppose we looked at mamma’s jewels to-day, and divided them? It is exactly six months to-day since uncle gave them to you, and you have not looked at them yet.” I liked the interjection about Dorothea’s being busy. It shows Celia’s uncertainty, and paired with the telling before the dialogue, it worked for me.]

[Celia’s face had the shadow of a pouting expression in it, the full presence of the pout being kept back by an habitual awe of Dorothea and principle; two associated facts which might show a mysterious electricity if you touched them incautiously. You could probably show this. Dorothea and her ideas of principle will be seen, in the very least, throughout the rest of your narrative, but this is third-person, omniscient narrator, so the narrator is seeing the almost-pout. Personally, I wanted to get to Dorothea’s response a little faster, but this could be a tactic to create suspense for that response, mirroring Celia’s own impatience.] To her relief, Dorothea’s eyes were full of laughter as she looked up.

“What a wonderful little almanac you are, Celia! [Is it six calendar or six lunar months?” I really liked this line. It showed Dorothea’s interest in study and learning, since most people wouldn’t think of teasing their sister by asking which kind of month had passed.]

[“It is the last day of September now, and it was the first of April when uncle gave them to you. Celia’s response is also a great “show.” She doesn’t enter into the higher-learning debate by responding to Dorothea’s question; she states the facts and lets her sister answer her question herself.] You know, he said that he had forgotten them till then. I believe you have never thought of them since you locked them up in the cabinet here.”

“Well, dear, we should never wear them, you know.” Dorothea spoke in a full cordial tone, half caressing, half explanatory. [She had her pencil in her hand, and was making tiny side-plans on the margin. Showing what Dorothea was doing hints at her mental preoccupation; she isn’t even giving Celia’s request her full attention. Nice!]

Celia colored, and looked very grave. “I think, dear, we are wanting in respect to mamma’s memory, to put them by and take no notice of them. And,” she added, after hesitating a little, with a rising [sob of mortification, This didn’t do anything for me, since I couldn’t figure out what a sob of mortification would look like. My guess is she is speaking quickly, in mortification?] [“necklaces are quite usual now; and Madame Poincon, who was stricter in some things even than you are, used to wear ornaments. And Christians generally—surely there are women in heaven now who wore jewels.” I liked the rush of dialogue that followed, and the arguments were very sweet.] [Celia was conscious of some mental strength when she really applied herself to argument. This is one “tell” I don’t think you need. The strength of her arguments are there, in her dialogue, for us to see, and the fact that she applied herself on this occasion is apparent in her having the keys Dorothea needs later in this scene.]

[“You would like to wear them?” exclaimed Dorothea, an air of astonished discover animating her whole person with a dramatic action which she had caught from the very Madame Poincon who wore the ornaments. “Of course, then, let us have them out. Why did you not tell me before? But the keys, the keys!” She pressed her hands against the sides of her head and seemed to despair of her memory. I liked this entire paragraph. Dorothea’s dramatic behavior and dialogue contrasts with her studious work and her simple language before this point.]

“They are here,” said Celia, with whom this explanation had been long meditated and prearranged.

[“Pray open the large drawer of the cabinet and get out the jewel-box.” It’s interesting that Dorothea relegates this task to her sister, even though it is her jewel-box, or at least, was given into her trust. It underscores the fact that Dorothea has no interest in the jewels and would rather remain at her work-table than rise and get the box. This also could be a sign of Dorothea’s selfishness, that she’d rather do the work she enjoyed than participate in something with her sister.]

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 2015 Andrea Lundgren

One thought on “Writing That Scene: Middlemarch

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s