Choicest Cuts: Bleak House (Part Three)

Sorry about not posting last week – my internet was down because some diggers (treasure hunters?) with machinery decided it would be fun to hit a cable. I’m completely back now though, or at least until I get my new PC some time next week, which will mean another short period of absence from the interwebz. Right now though, here’s my final selection of quotations from Bleak House.

A Beautiful Day

The birds sang delightfully; the sparkles in the fern, the grass, and trees, were exquisite to see; the richness of the woods seemed to have increased twenty-fold since yesterday, as if, in the still night when they had looked so massively hushed in sleep, Nature, through all the minute details of every wonderful leaf, had been more wakeful than usual for the glory of that day.

Ah, can’t you just picture it now? What I like about this quote is that Dickens describes Nature (with a capital N) as sleeping and waking, as if to serve the furtherance of the glory this day holds for the human Thespians walking the stage of life.

Horror Without Horror

Sure, you can approach a scary story as if it were the screenplay of a B movie from the early 20th century, with lots of monsters, zombies, vampires, and what not… and it could work really, really well. But it’s not necessary. Poe is one of the authors who brilliantly demonstrates this, creating an atmosphere of horror without a variety of grotesque monsters and buckets of blood. There’s some of that in his works, yes, but most of it plays on our own psychology, and how we perceive the world around us and are sometimes scared by it. This is one of the only instances in Bleak House where Dickens does that, and he does it masterfully:

Now the moon is high; and the great house, needing habitation more than ever, is like a body without life. Now it is even awful, stealing through it, to think of the live people who have slept in the solitary bedrooms, to say nothing of the dead. Now is the time for shadow, when every corner is a cavern and every downward step a pit, when the stained glass is reflected in pale and faded hues upon the floors, when anything and everything can be made of the heavy staircase beams excepting their own proper shapes, when the armour has dull lights upon it not easily to be distinguished from stealthy movement, and when barred helmets are frightfully suggestive of heads inside. But of all the shadows in Chesney Wold, the shadow in the long drawing-room upon my Lady’s picture is the first to come, the last to be disturbed. At this hour and by this light it changes into threatening hands raised up and menacing the handsome face with every breath that stirs.

Gives me the shivers.

Nailing Your Accents

This is yet another example of Dickens striking the voice of a character just perfectly, without sacrificing readability:

A languid cousin with a moustache in a state of extreme debility now observes from his couch that man told him ya’as’dy that Tulkinghorn had gone down t’ that iron place t’ give legal ‘pinion ’bout something, and that contest being over t’ day, ‘twould be highly jawlly thing if Tulkinghorn should ‘pear with news that Coodle man was floored.

How do you achieve that? Well, I’d suggest watching lots of films or TV series, listen to how people in real life talk, and… when you’re done writing, read it yourself. Better yet, read it aloud to yourself. That way, you can check if it’s not just a clever reproduction of inflections and vocal mannerisms, but readable to boot.

Narrators Can Be Unreliable

It doesn’t have to be anything as drastic and dramatic as Humbert Humbert in Lolita, but narrator characters aren’t perfect… if only because they’re human. They might forget things. That’s one of the things that weirded me out in Bleak House a bit, the fact that Esther seems to remember everything so well. However, there’s an exception to that:

I had not once looked up. I had not seen the visitor and had not even appeared to myself to hear the conversation. It surprises me to find that I can recall it, for it seemed to make no impression on me as it passed. I heard them speaking, but my mind was so confused and my instinctive avoidance of this gentleman made his presence so distressing to me that I thought I understood nothing, through the rushing in my head and the beating of my heart.

Here, Dickens reminds us that Esther is human after all. Of course, she then proceeds to recall the entire conversation in great detail anyway… My point being, if you’re using one of your characters as a narrator, make them realistic, although not to the point of frustrating the reader by withholding important information (except when that’s part of how your plot’s constructed).

Poetic Prose

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, right reverends and wrong reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.

That last sentence there might just be the most beautiful, or at the very least the most memorable, of the entire book. I’m not even going to comment on it any further, because good wine needs no bush.

Stared into Stone

It is a dull street under the best conditions, where the two long rows of houses stare at each other with that severity that half-a-dozen of its greatest mansions seem to have been slowly stared into stone rather than originally built in that material.

Okay, this metaphor is so brilliant that it’s making me giddy. It reminds me that personification can be a beautiful thing, and that I should probably use it more often in my own writing. That is, if I can hope to come up with something even half as brilliant as this example.

The Verge of Change

Railroads shall soon traverse all this country, and with a rattle and a glare the engine and train shall shoot like a meteor over the wide night-landscape, turning the moon paler; but as yet such things are non-existent in these parts, though not wholly unexpected. Preparations are afoot, measurements are made, ground is staked out. Bridges are begun, and their not yet united piers desolately look at one another over roads and streams like brick and mortar couples with an obstacle to their union; fragments of embankments are thrown up and left as precipices with torrents of rusty carts and barrows tumbling over them; tripods of tall poles appear on hilltops, where there are rumours of tunnels; everything looks chaotic and abandoned in full hopelessness.

If you can recognize a fissure in time, a break with the past and movement into the future as it happens, and you can describe it properly, as Dickens did here… go for it! Nothing paints a picture of the changing nature of history quite like it. Of course, it helps if you’re writing about something that already happened, so you can both look back on what came before and how things will change afterwards.

Making Sense

Most of us have fives senses. The brilliant thing is you can use them all in writing, because the only limitation is your imagination. Consider:

Upon this wintry night it is so still that listening to the intense silence is like looking at intense darkness.

Not only does Dickens bring two senses to the fore here, he also cross-pollinates, as it were. Describing sound as sight is just one of the tricks writers can pull quite easily, but to great effect.

More Three-dimensionality

People in real life have mannerisms. Literary characters are no different in that respect. Like the inimitable Inspector Bucket here:

A servant came to the door to announce Mr. Bucket, which was quite unnecessary, for Mr. Bucket was already looking in over the servant’s shoulder.

Little jokes like this, a policeman who took the liberty of coming in before being announced, add flavour to the whole universe of your story, and give your characters something extra: a human dimension.

Repeat When Necessary

If you’re like me, you’ll likely cringe when reading the same word used twice in one sentence. It often sticks out like a sore thumb, but sometimes, rather than reaching for that find-and-replace tool, you can actually force an idea into the reader’s mind by using a word quite often in a row. Here:

He comes to a gateway in the brick wall, looks in, and sees a great perplexity of iron lying about in every stage and in a vast variety of shapes—in bars, in wedges, in sheets; in tanks, in boilers, in axles, in wheels, in cogs, in cranks, in rails; twisted and wrenched into eccentric and perverse forms as separate parts of machinery; mountains of it broken up, and rusty in its age; distant furnaces of it glowing and bubbling in its youth; bright fireworks of it showering about under the blows of the steam-hammer; red-hot iron, white-hot iron, cold-black iron; an iron taste, an iron smell, and a Babel of iron sounds.

The many instances of the word “iron” at the end are not at all jarring, and that’s because they’re accompanied not just by solid adjectives, but the whole ending of this sentence is set up by a resounding description of the ironworks, a description that pounds home its words like a hammer striking red hot iron. Play with your words, your descriptions, and match them up with what they’re trying to say.

And… that was actually my final quote. I don’t know when I’ll be doing something like this again; probably when I’m going to read another classic work on my Kindle (so I can easily highlight passages, and I don’t have to worry about copyright), but I don’t know when that’ll be.  I hope you enjoyed reading these first three parts of Choicest Cuts, and if you have a suggestion for a future book I might tackle in this fashion, let me know, please!

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