NOVEL WRITING 101. LEARN FROM DICKENS -- (GOD LOVE HIM!)
If you can't catch PBS TV's "MASTERPIECE Theater" production of "Bleak House", (said to be his best novel,) you can buy the SHOW on VHS or DVD. This "true-to-the-NOVEL" TELEPLAY is VIRTUALLY a course in novel writing! Start here:
DICKENS 101 SECRETS OF GREATNESS TUTORIAL starts at https://www.writersinspire.org/content/charles-dickens-master-storyteller
The FIRST SCENE of the teleplay BLEAK HOUSE is just like the novel. It is the courtroom and the noise of an active, probate session with bewigged judges. That COURT, the CHANCERY is almost a character --but it is truly the villain of the piece, as DICKENS clearly LOATHES IT so. And he should know. He was a court reporter taking down all events in shorthand at age 16. HE FOUND IT UGLY And to make it more ominous and horrific, his first phrases in the novel are about the pea soup fog swirling around the court bldg and around every other darn thing in London. He's selling that fog so hard we know it's a metaphor.
Apparently the CHANCERY took so long to do ordinary probate work and cost so much in fees, --that there never was a fortune to be inherited at the end of the matter! Every participant got bilked by the judge/ court/ lawyers' attached to the court. So THE CHANCERY COURT is the true, "BLEAK HOUSE", not the country manor where our characters will stay while they wait for the Court to decide if they inherit or not. The villain is ominously, the repellent fogged over BLEAK HOUSE that we meet in the first scene. And Dickens comes right out and tells us that it is full of greedy sinners and is hell on earth. He's not subtle, and this in the first three pgs!
As DICKENS always has a long suffering hero, he picks ESTHER SUMMERSON for his. A young woman and an orphan, who knows nothing of her birth. She's been raised by an odious guardian, an old bible thumper spinster who never smiled and kept telling Esther she was lower than dog turds.
Esther narrates some of the chapters, using the 'first person voice'. In formal, English fashion, she introduces herself. The next chapter however, returns to third person narration. This is unusual for Dickens, to switch voices. The novel starts in third person omniscient then goes to Esther, then reverts to third person narration. She's the only character to have a voice so this becomes a CINDERELLA STORY with an ethical, long-suffering FEMALE PROTAGONIST, ESTHER, the orphan 'nobody' as guardian calls her. And in ENGLAND at that time, being a somebody was everything! The entire country was in grim survivalism and only name, family, connections, education, job or an annual stipend kept anyone from starving on icy, foggy streets. Everyone is 'seeking their fortune,' women via marriage,men via connections, jobs. This is pre-socialism, which we have in USA today, and all over the 'first' world.
We see immediately that Esther's smart and spiritual which manifests as her being restrained when insults are thrown her by that nasty pilgrim who raised her. She is PLAIN as a washboard in the FILMED VERSION but as spiritual as an Audrey Hepburn. The camera picks up her goodness. As the story starts, she is very ill treated! This is true of other Dickens heroes OLIVER TWIST and DAVID COPPERFIELD, Little Dorit and the whole blessed lot really. Except Sydney Carton.
Well, back to BLEAK! A letter arrives & Esther learns that she will accompany the two young wards of the Jarndyce family (ADA and Richard Carstone, first cousins,) as they prepare to go to London for the JARNDYCE WILL being PROBATED. It's absolute Writer = God serendipity, There's no reason for her to be there. Except Dickens needed her with these bookends.
Next we meet a handsome, mysterious clerk of the court, (NEMO, Latin for NO MAN, maybe that's where JULES VERNE got the name as Verne came later??) and NEMO is carrying Jarndyce documents which he must copy. He is a self employed freelance copyist who sits in his cold garret, creating gorgeous calligraphy for the contracts they used then, handsome, tortured looking, a GABE BYRNE type, aging poorly for lack of food and mebbe some suspicious opium habit. He owes his landlord a few mos. of rent so he sells his military medals. But on the other side of the ledger, he very kindly takes care of a starving street sweeper boy regularly.
Back to the YOUNG WARDS, ADA and Richard who are but some of the possible inheritors of the huge Jarndyce fortune. They come to London and with Esther will stay at the lovely country home of a distant relative, also a potential heir, a 50 yr old potential heir, JOHN JARNDYCE, a kindly man who wants them all to stay at his rural home near London. Kind of Connecticut to Manhattan.
There is one more wing of the Jarndyce family that could be a candidate for this fortune is a couple. The Dedlocks. LADY DEDLOCK seems to be the other Central woman character (X Files actress GILLIAN ANDERSON) playing an enigmatic, tortured beauty, married to a rich very old man LESTER (written LEICESTER for some weird reason,), & she is bored to death, UNHAPPY as HELL & without hope. The will in question (J died super rich,) is brought, as they're relatives; she spots the handwriting, in particular, a letter 'J' with peculiar flourish in the tail. She faints dead away.
Lawyer Tulkinghorn (CHARLES DANCE, best SNOOTY villain in Brit flicks,) sees something is up with her when she faints studies the document, goes to find out who copied it. (No Xeroxes for leg. papers in those days). Finds NEMO but by that time, sadly, he's dead having OD'd on opium. The landlord shows Lawyer the garret, quickly grabs the 8 pounds sterling on the desk saying 'he owed it to me,' then landlord looks in the trunk sees ribbon tied love letters, puts them in his pocket. Laywer doesn't see that.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Ada and Richard socialize with John Jarndyce and his friends including a DOCTOR, who falls for Esther right off. He gives her flowers.
The 'weenie' in the plot ..the payoff, the motor that generates tension is that a huge sum of money will go to some of the Jarndyce. Heirs. Maybe these two whom we like already. The young man is a student in pre med, but a kindly couple dining at the house wherethey're staying in London says 'nah, not for you. and he says you know I didn't want the med career,' But what I found interesting was that there are angelic, knowledgeable, truth telling people who appear here and there, like angels, helping the main characters. AND THERE are demonic, profiteering people all about, at the table, with very weird quirks. ONE, the Cockney servant with a minor Lawyer's aid job is GUPPY, who brings the two kids to London and who is taken with ESTHER! He's in LOVE with her but darkly, like a stalker. He even proposes, she is sickened, but is polite sends him on his way but he still waits out side the house where they stay all the time! GUPPY is my favorite character. He's a funny, greedy slime and the actor playing hims is insanely good! Look in dictionary under weasel, there he is.
DICKENS loved creating a moving wallpaper in the background made of of SMALL demons. For instance, there is a parasitical, fop, lame wit, Oscar Wilde type charmer SLIMPOLE who lives at John Jarndyce's. He is no more than 35, but shamelessly lives off his fifty yr old kindly host. Slimpole claims to have no understanding of money or work, calls himself "an utter child who couldn't figure out a job", but he's smart enuf to scam decent John Jarndyce, and is just an eyebatting ne'r do well wastral.
Esther who is just a servant at the dinner table, pays the bailiff when SLIME POLE faces the FUZZ. He owes 25 POUNDS, a fortune then. She is in shock, murmurs that it's her life savings. She keeps the Bailiff from hauling him from the dinner table, straight off to jail. Host John J. next day repays Esther. So, examples of writer's skill: telling events which distinguish the louse from the hero, the demon from angel which Dickens does regularly.
We cut back to the aristocrats. GILLIAN ARMSTRONG (from the X Files) plays LADY DEADLOCK. We hear her saying to a pretty servant girl in her reedy, royal epicene accents, 'take care that they don't spoil you by flattery.' meaning boys. Deft, as it shows something that happened to her, once. This stands out as nothing has been said to or from or by Gillian in her scenes to this point, just her focusing on the letter "J" studying the man's love letters with the J funny and then fainting dead away as she realizes she knows this copyist. That girl servant comes to work for lady D.
DICKENS does SIDE CHARACTERS well. There's an HYPOCRITICAL bourgeois chubby WOMAN MISS JELLBY, running what she tries to describe as an AFRICAN charity but which we quickly see is exploiting the third world slaves of cheaply grown coffee. We meet her for a moment as she dithers on about Africans, her house is chaos, a total mess, her kids are her slaves running the biz and they HATE HER GUTS. A DEFT portrayal of an odious person in a few lines! DICKENS hated her. Shes like a Santa Monica liberal Democrat Perrier Pure, but candy covered dung, really.
Lawyer TULKINGHORN (CHARLES DANCE plays him,) senses that LADY DEDLOCK has interest in the handwriting, tells her that he found the clerk! That this mystery man NEMO the scribe died of opium and there are no other details. He lets slip that he had interviewed a beggar boy sweeping that intersection on that street. Lady D. goes in veil, finds and pays the kid sweeping that corner and the boy shows her the garrett where NEMO LIVED. And the grave. She pays him well.
Have been talking to vendors about buying the novel used, at Abebooks. Which allows you to query the vendors directly. My great, great grandmother was Sarah Dickens and her uncle was Charles Dickens, so I'm interested in Dickens. He's also worn well for the Ages as far as keeping his name and reknown very high. Many of his novels are on BEST l00 lists though his narration couldn't compete with Frederick Forsythe today.
MIDDLE MARCH is another novel the list makers of 100 top novels features, by George Elliot a woman. But Bleak House is the best written DICKENS novel voters say. So I google it and lo, the entire novel is free online. https://www.planetebook.com/bleak-house/ . No buck a book at ABEBOOKS where shipping is two bucks...FREE. You gonna read it?
A really good analysis of the story in the context of all of Charles Dickens' works, will be found at:
SOME OF THE FEATURES OF DICKENS WRITING (I hesitate to call them tricks,) that ADD TO
his NOVELS' MERIT and might do the same for yours:
A REALLY NASTY VILLAIN- Not little ones, not any of those minor demon characters he salts and peppers the manuscript with, but always something bigger. It was the FRENCH REVOLUTION in TALE OF TWO CITIES. THE ORPHANAGE and SOCIETY ITSELF in OLVER TWIST. THE POORHOUSE in LITTLE DORIT. Then the folks who run them are villains. Yet he spreads more acid in /across the faces of many sub characters who flit by. SECONDARY VILLAINS.
ENTWINED CHARACTERS.- Intricate braids. They are introduced, then go away, they pop up, hide, then pop up again. These secondaries affect primaries as well as the story. He tends to assign them the causational story left turns. How'd he do it? We know he wrote serials. The pages were published as they came off his pen. Now, I figure that he must have made NOTES and hung them on the wall at his DESK! He plotted the BRAIDS. He planned ahead like a chessbrain because why would we meet people in the first act who are going to show up as 'very important' in the fifth act? How did he know what these two people would be doing in the tenth act?
ANGELS AND DEMONS - Billy Wilder used to say he'd learned to use farce-ical characters as secondaries from Ernst Lubitsch. They both had zany, comic relief people salting and peppering the action of even a romance. MIDNIGHT, (Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, Barrymore) ARISE MY LOVE, (Ray Milland & Colbert,) NINOTSCHKA (Garbo and Mel Douglas) with a trio of Ruski comics as aides to Garbo, are examples.
Dickens features Wilderesque comical and very amusing and even weirdly interesting second and third tier chracters. They show up during the main characters' perambulations around London, or at meal time. As characters go from house to house, they meet other families and we go into their drawing rooms. Dickens takes care at describing the family life, the family unit and these new arrivals. They all will be categorized as either angels or Demons.
THE ANGELS are saintly, work with and for the poor. They give our main characters fantastic advice. They are long suffering, and often, themselves are victims of a nearby demon. Angels can be so nice that Dickens cannot restrain himself from starting a romance with a primary character. For Esther there's Doctor Woodcourt who is very white bread but who still works for free for the very sick in the slums. He falls instantly for the very balanced, feet on ground homely Esther and sends her flowers when he's shipped off to sea for three yrs. She presses them in a book and misses him. For Dickens lovers, it's always a case of instant love at first sight.
The Demons are either hypocritical (Dickens really hated that one,) egomaniacal, spendthrift, greedy, thieving, porkers, face-stuffing, or just plain 'common'. GUPPY is a common Cockney who's all over BLEAK HOUSE, proposing to Esther when she shows no interest and never has, waiting under her window like a stalker. (The performance that this NON-Cockney actor gives beats all and alone is worth price of VHS!!) As for other demons in other novels, well, SCROOGE in CHRISTMAS CAROL is greed personified!
AN ACCURATE "VOICE" He gives you the sound of their English and from words chosen, sound of speech you will deduce their station and education. There were many sounds, from Cockney street to the very tones of the Royals, still heard today, the clipped nasal well born patois. The lower case if well bred, follow the rules of respect observing ritual titles like 'mlady, 'mlord. Some don't of course.Or some use them so much they are clearly read as obsequious climbers.
ACCURATE PICTURES OF THE CITY and the MANNERS and the ECONOMY, ACCURATELY CAPTURING THE TIMES.. Dickens does some of this, maybe even a lot. But not enough. Babies die in infancy. Children are employed in grim work. The crossing sweeper boy is a case in point. Dickens assumes you know that kids clean the horse poop off every crossing in London for tips. Guess he didn't realize his novels would outlast the horse and carriage and we wouldn't know any of that. The website tells you.
Dickens' friend George Gissing tells us that readers wept when kindly characters died of hunger, of cold, or being ostracized or jailed. We know this changed his readers. They demanded more of their King. English laws changed in the wake of this one author's life, favoring the indigent, and it's probable that everywhere he was translated, the legal system evolved. So the most important thing Dickens did which you can do as a writer is awaken compassion. Make the reader weep and for the right character. Robinton Mistry does this in his books. Get "A FINE BALANCE" used.
BOOKS YOU WILL ENJOY: POOL's "What Dickens Knew, What Jane Austen Ate" used for a buck at abebooks. "LONDON LIFE IN THE l8th CENTURY" by Dorothy George. And ONLINE, DIckens top groupie and friend also,a contemporary, author George Gissing, wrote THE IMMORTAL DICKENS THE ENTIRE BOOK is ONLINE, ready to read, this second! https://www.ebooks.com/en-us/95941237/the-immortal-dickens/george-gissing/?_c=1
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OTHER BBC SERIES of worth, "DOWNTON ABBEY. " It's on Masterpiece Theater, carried by PBS system.
Just been announced that Shirley MacLaine is joining Downton Abbey for series 3:
Recently BRITS have been watching series imported from Denmark and France by the BBC, with subtitles. The first was a Danish crime story in 20 one-hour episodes featuring a tough female detective, called 'The
Killing'. The BBC bought it for a song because they thought not many people would watch it with subtitles. But it proved a surprise hit on BBC 4, with a devoted and growing following. So they bought the follow-up, 'The Killing 2', and paid a lot more for it. Also they showed a French policier (cop show) set in the parts of Paris the
tourists don't see, starring a tough female detective as well. Called 'Engrenages' - 'Spiral': Three series so far
They've also been watching re-runs of the Swedish series 'Wallander', and currently another Danish series which is not a detective story, but about Danish politics, the story of a woman who becomes Prime Minister (actually the real Danish Prime Minister is female). Ten one-hour episodes, two to go. Called 'Borgen', which means fortress or castle and is apparently what the Danes call their Parliament building.
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