Writing That Scene: Villette

In the format of a non-traditional critique, Writing That Scene examines the fundamentals of what it takes to make 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 their own “problem scenes” with fresh eyes. In my own experience, hearing what other writers and readers think of some of my own writing scenes has 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 last week’s scene, click here.

Author: Charlotte Brontë

Scene location: First third of the book

Genre: General Fiction

Narrative Style: First Person, Unreliable Narrator

Villette:

Dr. John, meantime, standing by the bed-side, was slowly drawing on his gloves and watching his little patient, as her eyes closed and her rosy lips parted in coming sleep. I waited till he should depart as usual, with a quick bow and scarce articulate “good night.”

Just as he took his hat, my eyes, fixed on the tall houses bounding the garden, saw the one lattice, already commemorated, cautiously open; forth from the aperture projected a hand and a white handkerchief; both waved. I know not whether the signal was answered from some viewless quarter of our own dwelling; but immediately after there fluttered from the lattice a falling object, white and light—billet the second, of course.

“There,” I ejaculated involuntarily.

“Where?” asked Dr. John with energy, making direct for the window. “What is it?”

“They have gone and done it again,” was my reply. “A handkerchief waved and something fell:” and I pointed to the lattice, now closed and looking hypocritically blank.

“Go, at once; pick it up and bring it here,” was his prompt direction, adding, “Nobody will take notice of you. I should be seen.”

Straight I went. After some little search, I found a folded paper, lodged on the lower branch of a shrub; I seized and brought it direct to Dr. John. This time, I believe not even Rosine saw me.

He instantly tore the billet into small pieces, without reading it. “It is not in the least her fault, you must remember,” he said, looking at me.

Whose fault?” I asked. “Who is it?”

“You don’t yet know, then?”

“Not in the least.”

“Have you no guess?”

“None.”

“If I knew you better, I might be tempted to risk some confidence, and thus secure you as guardian over a most innocent and excellent, but somewhat inexperienced being.”

“As a duenna?” I asked.

“Yes,” said he abstractedly. “What snares are round her!” he added, musingly: and now, certainly for the first time, he examined my face, anxious, doubtless, to see if any kindly expression there would warrant him in recommending to my care and indulgence some ethereal creature, against whom powers of darkness were plotting. I felt no particular vocation to undertake the surveillance of ethereal creatures; but recalling the scene at the bureau, it seemed to me that I owed him a good turn: if I could help him then I would, and it lay not with me to decide how. With as little reluctance as might be, I intimated that “I was willing to do what I could towards taking care of any person in whom he might be interested.”

Author Perspective: This is one of the many scenes pertaining to the love triangle in the plot. Lucy Snowe, the narrator, has always loved Dr. John, but he does not return her love. However, we are not to know, at this point in the narration, that she cares so deeply for him, or that she has known him from childhood.

Villette: (My comments in blue)

Dr. John, meantime, standing by the bed-side, was slowly drawing on his gloves and watching his little patient, as her eyes closed and her rosy lips parted in coming sleep. [I waited till he should depart as usual, with a quick bow and scarce articulate “good night.” I liked this way of indicating her expectation: “a quick bow and scarce articulate ‘good night’” is a great way to show that she is ignored and unimportant to Dr. John.]

[Just as he took his hat, my eyes, fixed on the tall houses bounding the garden, saw the one lattice, already commemorated, cautiously open; This intrigued me. She knows that he is taking his hat, yet her eyes are “fixed” on the tall houses out the window. It’s subtle, but it is another instance of her unreliability, her denying what she is actually doing and feeling. She may have seen him go for his hat and pointedly turn away from the cold farewell that is coming, but she doesn’t say that at all. For all we are to know, she is just looking out the window, as cold to him as he is to her.] forth from the aperture projected a hand and a white handkerchief; both waved. I know not whether the signal was answered from some viewless quarter of our own dwelling; but immediately after there fluttered from the lattice a falling object, white and light—billet the second, of course.

[“There,” I ejaculated involuntarily. I liked the “involuntarily” part, but I don’t think you need “ejaculated.” You could just use “said.”]

“Where?” asked Dr. John with energy, making direct for the window. “What is it?”

[“They have gone and done it again,” was my reply. I liked this line. “Gone and done it again.” Perfect condescension!] “A handkerchief waved and something fell:” and I pointed to the lattice, now closed and looking [hypocritically blank. Nice choice of modifier. She is defending her comment to a man who is very interested in the subject at hand, and the lattice is feigning innocence and failing to support her.]

“Go, at once; pick it up and bring it here,” was his prompt direction, adding, [“Nobody will take notice of you. I should be seen.” Ouch, what a comment to say. But again, in keeping with your goal, you don’t have Lucy’s reaction to this. Just make sure, later, when we know that she loves Dr. John, you show us the inner responses she must be having.]

Straight I went. After some little search, I found a folded paper, lodged on the lower branch of a shrub; I seized and brought it direct to Dr. John. This time, I believe not even Rosine saw me.

He instantly tore the billet into small pieces, without reading it. “It is not in the least her fault, you must remember,” he said, looking at me.

Whose fault?” I asked. “Who is it?”

[“You don’t yet know, then?”

“Not in the least.”

“Have you no guess?”

“None.” I like how he expects her to know his secret. Very natural.]

[“If I knew you better, I might be tempted to risk some confidence, and thus secure you as guardian over a most innocent and excellent, but somewhat inexperienced being.” In the spirit of keeping back information, this description is beautifully vague. Nice job!]

“As a duenna?” I asked.

[“Yes,” said he abstractedly. “What snares are round her!” he added, musingly: Personally, I try to avoid adverbs with dialogue tags: things like “abstractedly” and “musingly.” In this case, if you really want them, I’d pare it down to just one, not both. We should know Dr. John well enough to know how he says such a comment as “What snares are round her!”] and now, certainly for the first time, [he examined my face, anxious, doubtless, to see if any kindly expression there Again, you don’t tell us all that is going on. Lucy will surely be wondering, while he closely examines her face, if he will recognize her, but the narration avoids any hint of this. You may want to drop some hints about her knowing him, or the readers may feel gypped of any chance to make this connection themselves, but the secrecy is very consistent.] would warrant him in recommending to my care and indulgence [some ethereal creature, against whom powers of darkness were plotting. I like the metaphor here.]

I felt no particular vocation to undertake the surveillance of ethereal creatures; but recalling the scene at the bureau, it seemed to me that I owed him a good turn: if I could help him then I would, and it lay not with me to decide how. [With as little reluctance as might be, I intimated that “I was willing to do what I could towards taking care of any person in whom he might be interested.” Again, good job downplaying the “reluctance,” which must be huge, to watch over the young woman who is her rival.]

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 2015 Andrea Lundgren

5 thoughts on “Writing That Scene: Villette

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