Choicest Cuts: Bleak House (Part One)

Written By: Jan Jacob Mekes - Nov• 23•13

Welcome to the first edition of Choicest Cuts, a feature that’s all about the best bits from books I’ve read, with some writing advice sprinkled in. If you were expecting something about actual meat as opposed to literary victuals, I have to disappoint you, because I don’t eat meat. Also, don’t expect this to be a very regular feature at all, just something I’ll do whenever I feel like it (i.e. the next one may be months, years, or decades away, but just revel in the present, okay?). Now, with that out of the way, the first book I’m discussing is Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.

I didn’t love the book, but then I didn’t hate it either. A bit too many things, plots, and characters going on for my tastes, and it does show at times that Dickens was furiously writing against deadlines. But then, this is not a book review, this is about interesting quotes from the book, so let’s just dive right in, shall we?

Pianoforte in Court

Eighteen of Mr. Tangle’s learned friends, each armed with a little summary of eighteen hundred sheets, bob up like eighteen hammers in a pianoforte, make eighteen bows, and drop into their eighteen places of obscurity.

This shows just how creative you can get with metaphors. Barristers with their black and white getups, moving about as if they possess no soul whatsoever… comparing them to a pianoforte just seems so outlandish, but when you think of it, it makes perfect sense.

Abbreviations

It can be tough to use abbreviations in one’s writing, but it’s even tougher to invent some of your own and make them understandable. In this particular letter, Dickens succeeds in that very well:

Our clt Mr. Jarndyce being abt to rece into his house, under an Order of the Ct of Chy, a Ward of the Ct in this cause, for whom he wishes to secure an elgble compn, directs us to inform you that he will be glad of your serces in the afsd capacity. We have arrngd for your being forded, carriage free, pr eight o’clock coach from Reading, on Monday morning next, to White Horse Cellar, Piccadilly, London, where one of our clks will be in waiting to convey you to our offe as above. We are, Madam, Your obedt Servts,

There’s a bunch of missing vowels there, but I’m pretty sure you understood it perfectly.

Romanticism

Now, I think there’s nothing wrong with a bit of hankering for the past. Particularly if that past is really a non-existent one. Consider this example:

She had stopped at a shop over which was written KROOK, RAG AND BOTTLE WAREHOUSE. Also, in long thin letters, KROOK, DEALER IN MARINE STORES. In one part of the window was a picture of a red paper mill at which a cart was unloading a quantity of sacks of old rags. In another was the inscription BONES BOUGHT. In another, KITCHEN-STUFF BOUGHT. In another, OLD IRON BOUGHT. In another, WASTE-PAPER BOUGHT. In another, LADIES’ AND GENTLEMEN’S WARDROBES BOUGHT. Everything seemed to be bought and nothing to be sold there. In all parts of the window were quantities of dirty bottles—blacking bottles, medicine bottles, ginger-beer and soda-water bottles, pickle bottles, wine bottles, ink bottles; I am reminded by mentioning the latter that the shop had in several little particulars the air of being in a legal neighbourhood and of being, as it were, a dirty hanger-on and disowned relation of the law. There were a great many ink bottles. There was a little tottering bench of shabby old volumes outside the door, labelled “Law Books, all at 9d.”

I believe that in a time where the real world is more and more moving into the direction of the clinical and sterile aesthetic often seen in science fiction films (with notable exceptions such as the excellent Blade Runner), we appreciate clutter more and more. Who doesn’t love a bunch of miscellaneous bottles with handwritten labels and colourless liquids? Or a collection of sea shells, or old leather-bound volumes, a quill, parchment, tea leaves, and I could go on and on and on… cosy mystery writers in particular, take note!

Visual Communication

“I—certainly—did—NOT,” said Coavinses, whose doggedness in utterly renouncing the idea was of that intense kind that he could only give adequate expression to it by putting a long interval between each word, and accompanying the last with a jerk that might have dislocated his neck.

As a writer, it’s easy to get so hung up on words that we forget people communicate non-verbally as well. And you don’t have to limit yourself to simple hand gestures either, feel free to have some of your characters twitching if you like, even to the point of nearly-dislocated necks.

The Growlery

Don’t be afraid to invent words. And if you do, don’t be afraid to use them like any other word! Have a look at this introduction of the so-called growlery:

“Sit down, my dear,” said Mr. Jarndyce. “This, you must know, is the growlery. When I am out of humour, I come and growl here.”

Dickens not just introduces a new word, he gives a definition right away as well, in a very natural manner. The growlery makes several appearances later on in the book, and since it’s such a well-designed word, it just sticks in your mind, and you know exactly what it is, without any further explanations other than the initial one.

Poetry in Prose

Just because you’re writing prose, doesn’t mean your writing can’t be poetic as well. This is just one of the examples in Bleak House demonstrating that:

I am a School lady, I am a Visiting lady, I am a Reading lady, I am a Distributing lady; I am on the local Linen Box Committee and many general committees; and my canvassing alone is very extensive

Fashion Ideals

and the niece still cherishes her figure, which, however tastes may differ, is unquestionably so far precious that there is mighty little of it.

Very funny, great use of the multiple meanings/uses of the word “precious” here.

Writing in Dialects

Lia London wrote an interesting piece about writing with an accent, in which she advises writers not to take it too far. On the other hand though, if you keep it just within reasonable limits, writing as your characters speak can spice things up rather interestingly, as for instance in this sentence:

“Air you in the maydickle prayfession yourself, sir?” inquires the first.

What’s he saying? Maydickle? What does that… oh, I see… hee hee. See? It’s actually pretty funny. Particularly if you can use words like “maydickle”.

Verbal Diarrhoea

Yes, sorry, I couldn’t describe Mrs Piper’s (by the way, you’ll notice it says “Mrs.” in the quote, that’s because I read an American edition of the book, apparently) way of speaking in any other way. Here:

Why, Mrs. Piper has a good deal to say, chiefly in parentheses and without punctuation, but not much to tell.

We probably all know someone who speaks like that, and if so, we know how incredibly apt the comparison is.

Paraphrasing

It’s something you may not do all that often, paraphrasing dialogue. Internal monologue? Yeah, sure. But 99 times out of 100, what a character says is between quotation marks. Even if it isn’t, have you ever thought of trying out this device of retelling a character’s words in their own language?

Name, Jo. Nothing else that he knows on. Don’t know that everybody has two names. Never heerd of sich a think. Don’t know that Jo is short for a longer name. Thinks it long enough for HIM. HE don’t find no fault with it. Spell it? No. HE can’t spell it. No father, no mother, no friends. Never been to school.

It works really well here, in this setting of a cross-examination.

Silly Names

Charles Dickens is the King of Silly Names, or at least names that are wildly unrealistic while at the same time saying something about the character itself. He takes it to extreme lengths in this example:

Then there is my Lord Boodle, of considerable reputation with his party, who has known what office is and who tells Sir Leicester Dedlock with much gravity, after dinner, that he really does not see to what the present age is tending. A debate is not what a debate used to be; the House is not what the House used to be; even a Cabinet is not what it formerly was. He perceives with astonishment that supposing the present government to be overthrown, the limited choice of the Crown, in the formation of a new ministry, would lie between Lord Coodle and Sir Thomas Doodle—supposing it to be impossible for the Duke of Foodle to act with Goodle, which may be assumed to be the case in consequence of the breach arising out of that affair with Hoodle. Then, giving the Home Department and the leadership of the House of Commons to Joodle, the Exchequer to Koodle, the Colonies to Loodle, and the Foreign Office to Moodle, what are you to do with Noodle? You can’t offer him the Presidency of the Council; that is reserved for Poodle. You can’t put him in the Woods and Forests; that is hardly good enough for Quoodle. What follows? That the country is shipwrecked, lost, and gone to pieces (as is made manifest to the patriotism of Sir Leicester Dedlock) because you can’t provide for Noodle!

My point? Don’t be afraid to play around a bit. I’m sure Dickens had plenty of fun writing this particular segment, and it shows.

Make Some Noise

Writing music or sounds into your story is probably one of the most challenging things there are. You can always refer to an existing piece of music and hope the reader is familiar with it, like Tolstoy did with The Kreutzer Sonata, but there are more subtle ways to insert [musical] sounds into your story. Consider this:

“And he told me,” he said, playing little chords where I shall put full stops, “The Coavinses had left. Three children. No mother. And that Coavinses’ profession. Being unpopular. The rising Coavinses. Were at a considerable disadvantage.”

It’s such a clever way of using punctuation. Of course, it might not work if you’ve got an omniscient narrator, but in this case, Esther (the character narrating in this particular chapter) has free reign to break the fourth wall and use full stops for tiny bits of piano music. If you have a first-person narrator, be sure to use all the tools they have at their disposal.

More Romanticism

It was delightful weather. The green corn waved so beautifully, the larks sang so joyfully, the hedges were so full of wild flowers, the trees were so thickly out in leaf, the bean-fields, with a light wind blowing over them, filled the air with such a delicious fragrance! Late in the afternoon we came to the market-town where we were to alight from the coach—a dull little town with a church-spire, and a marketplace, and a market-cross, and one intensely sunny street, and a pond with an old horse cooling his legs in it, and a very few men sleepily lying and standing about in narrow little bits of shade. After the rustling of the leaves and the waving of the corn all along the road, it looked as still, as hot, as motionless a little town as England could produce.

Ah, how beautiful. Now, excuse me while I go look at some Kinkade pictures. (Yes, I actually like those, and no, I don’t care if they’re kitsch.)

Keep Out!

On one side of it was the terrible piece of ground in dispute, where Mr. Boythorn maintained a sentry in a smock-frock day and night, whose duty was supposed to be, in cases of aggression, immediately to ring a large bell hung up there for the purpose, to unchain a great bull-dog established in a kennel as his ally, and generally to deal destruction on the enemy. Not content with these precautions, Mr. Boythorn had himself composed and posted there, on painted boards to which his name was attached in large letters, the following solemn warnings: “Beware of the bull-dog. He is most ferocious. Lawrence Boythorn.” “The blunderbus is loaded with slugs. Lawrence Boythorn.” “Man-traps and spring-guns are set here at all times of the day and night. Lawrence Boythorn.” “Take notice. That any person or persons audaciously presuming to trespass on this property will be punished with the utmost severity of private chastisement and prosecuted with the utmost rigour of the law. Lawrence Boythorn.”

Ha! Doesn’t that sound like one of those little visual gags from a Looney Tunes episode, or just about any old cartoon, really (Scrooge McDuck’s Money Bin, seen below, is another example)? Things like this show that comedy is really something universal, and not just limited to our times.

Money Bin

Picture originally found here

How de do?

This is another good example of writing how characters speak.

“Ho! It’s you!” cries the old gentleman. “How de do? How de do?”

Because some people just do not say “How do you do?” No, they say “How de do?” Like a boss.

Pet Names

Now, this has caused my darling child—I didn’t mean to use the expression to you, Esther,” Caddy apologized, her face suffused with blushes, “but I generally call Prince my darling child.” I laughed; and Caddy laughed and blushed, and went on. “This has caused him, Esther—” “Caused whom, my dear?” “Oh, you tiresome thing!” said Caddy, laughing, with her pretty face on fire. “My darling child, if you insist upon it!

It’s not really even the pet name itself (“my darling child”) that’s really original, it’s the use of it in a conversation that seems extremely natural. This is what good friends do, tease each other good-naturedly. A perfect way of showing affection and companionship between two of your own characters.

Elaborate Language

You can easily go overboard trying to stitch too much brocade onto your language, but sometimes it does work well. Imagine if, for the next sentence, Dickens had just written “Mrs Chadband refused to listen.”

Mrs. Chadband composes herself grimly by the fire and warms her knees, finding that sensation favourable to the reception of eloquence.

It just wouldn’t have been the same, now would it?

The Lady is a Piano

Sometimes you just come up with the most outrageous metaphors, and it just cracks you up. If it seems too outrageous, don’t just delete it. Because it might just work, like in this case:

Mrs. Snagsby replies by delivering herself a prey to spasms, not an unresisting prey, but a crying and a tearing one, so that Cook’s Court re-echoes with her shrieks. Finally, becoming cataleptic, she has to be carried up the narrow staircase like a grand piano.

At this point I’m actually wondering if Charles Dickens has some sort of obsession with piano metaphors. Oh well. All this talk of pianos has made me feel like eating popcorn… on a piano. So why don’t we do just that, and I’ll post the remaining quotes along with my comments on a second part? See you then!

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3 Comments

  1. lia says:

    Wow! I just started doing a very much simpler version of this with indie books on my site (I’ll use Struglend for sure eventually), but you’re blowing me out of the water with this analysis. Excellent work and very interesting.

    And…. I like silly names. But I think you know that. Blandthorpe Fargenstropple says hello!

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    • Thanks! I’m looking forward to your analysis of Struglend Tales – great that you’re doing this with indie books! And yeah, The Fargenstropple Case had some great names. :)

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  2. […] the previous episode, it’s time to look at some more quotes from Bleak House and see how you can use them to […]

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