Monday 12 August 2013

A Dickensian Master Class in First Person Narration

Christmas edition of All Year Round (1863)
I recently read Charles Dickens’s Mrs Lirriper’s Lodgings (1863) for the first time. Initially published in a Christmas edition of Dickens’s publication – All Year Round – this first person story, narrated by landlady Emma Lirriper, forms the introduction to a series of stories about her lodgers by other writers, including Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Collins (brother of Wilkie, who had married Dickens’s daughter Kate in 1860). Mrs Lirriper is a charming, believable and funny narrator, and the story displays all Dickens’s artistry in crafting a first person voice. Before approaching novel-length first person narrators – Esther in her half of Bleak House (1852-3), David in David Copperfield (1850) – it could help students to unpack what Dickens does in a shorter piece with a first person speaker. And, as a writer, reading Dickens while paying attention to his narrative techniques, is always a brilliant way to learn.

1. Not getting too ‘literary’: Letting your narrator sound too much like a ‘writer’ (especially when they are meant to be unused to writing like Emma Lirriper) ruins believability. And yet you don’t want to write badly or put off readers. Dickens deals with this issue deftly. The mood needed for the arrival of the Edson couple needs to be a sombre one – given later events – for the success of the story. But it would be out of character for Mrs Lirriper to launch into a lengthy description. This technique is unavailable in this type of narration. To get around this Dickens inserts discussion of the weather into the course of Emma’s story, incorporating details which readers will interpret as indicating a certain mood into the very fabric of the story:

‘I well remember that I had been looking out of the window and had watched them [the Edsons] and the heavy sleet driving down the street together looking for bills.’

The sleet shares its position, even grammatically with the story’s characters and Dickens is able to convey mood without extraneous passages of description. Another easy way to show your narrator is ‘unused’ to writing is to use long sentences more frequently. Ever the fan of a long sentence, even when writing in third person, Dickens does this even more here. Take the full sentence which the quote above comes from:

‘It was the third year nearly up of the Major’s being in the parlours that early one morning in the month of February when Parliament was coming on and you may therefore suppose a number of impostors were about ready to take hold of anything they could get, a gentleman and a lady from the country came in to view the Second, and I well remember that I had been looking out of the window and had watched them and the heavy sleet driving down the street together looking for bills.’

Mrs Lirriper tells everything we need to know for the narrative – the relation this incident bears to her previous topic (the arrival of the Major), the time of year and day at which it took place (early and in February), her own state of mind (suspicious at possible ‘impostors’), and what she knew of the couple at the time (i.e. not much). As we have seen above, the sentence also includes narrative markers of the mood which the story is designed to create, framed as the artless result of Mrs Lirriper’s natural approach to storytelling, not as a Dickensian intrusion. However, by piling these details (all of which point to sophisticated narrative) into multiple clauses, which take a while for us to unpack, Dickens maintains our faith in Emma Lirriper as a real non-literary narrator.

2. Have your narrator make mistakes: Whatever the character of a first person narrator, you often find they are fond of digression. Mrs Lirriper pulls herself up repeatedly (‘But it was about the Lodgings that I was intending to hold forth-’) for going off topic, when, of course, Dickens’s ‘real’ topic is what these digressions reveal about his narrator as character. A narrator needs to be unaware that they are the writer’s subject and so self-reproach about digression is a helpful shortcut to creating this effect. Digression and correction are also valuable tools for making your narrative resemble speech patterns – something Dickens employs masterfully for humorous effect:

‘Norfolk is a delightful street to lodge in – provided you don’t go lower down’

Emma’s correction here is not just a dig at the woman who provides lodgings at the other end of the street – the whole section following goes on to suggest the street is less than delightful. Another instance is when, talking of her adopted grandson, she tells us he was ‘always good and minding what he was told (upon the whole)’. A narrator’s self –correction and even contradiction bizarrely confirms their honesty to a reader.

3. Give your narrator markers of an individual voice: In real life, people repeat themselves – they have favoured words and phrases. So does a Dickensian narrator. The trick is not overdoing it. Mrs Lirriper uses set phrases of set people. Mr Lirriper (deceased) is always referred to as ‘a handsome figure of a man’; her grandchild is ‘a remarkable boy’. Repetition gives us familiarity with her character. It can also serve for emphasis – as when Emma uses the word ‘mope’ (and variants) to describe the behaviour of the Major seven times in the course of one page. Another easy way of individuating a narrator’s voice is to have them use colloquialisms, which will further distinguish them from the typical third person narrator. Mrs Lirriper tells us ‘my mind had been all in a maze’ and complains of ‘the mud and mizzle’. But, importantly, she also demonstrates an awareness that her language is not always suited for a literary narrative:

‘a thought which I think must have been doing about looking for an owner somewhere dropped into my old noddle if you will excuse the expression.’ [emphasis mine]

It is this awareness which ensures that Dickens story doesn't appear parodic.

4. Handling simile and metaphor. This is obviously linked to the avoidance of the literary I dealt with in Point 1. Dickens has several strategies for introducing literary comparisons without undermining first person narrative coherence. The first option is to source your objects of comparison from within the speaker’s realm of experience:

‘he wrote and wrote and wrote with his pen scratching like rats behind the wainscot.’

Another is to show your narrator is aware when their comparisons don’t quite come off or need clarification:

‘in summer we were as happy as the days were long, and in winter we were as happy as the days were short’

Emma is not a writer. She is more literal. And so she modifies an existing comparison, hoping to promote clarity. A final (and comedic) strategy is to have your narrator lose sight of their own comparison, digress without completing a simile or metaphor:

‘Girls as I was beginning to remark are one of your first and your lasting troubles, being like your teeth which begin with convulsions and never cease tormenting you from the time you cut them till they cut you, and then you don’t want to part with them which seems hard but we must all succumb or buy artificial, and even where you get a will nine times out of ten you get a dirty face with it and naturally lodgers do not like good society to be shown in with a smear of black across the nose or a smudgy eyebrow.’

This comparison begins clearly. Servant girls and teeth are both trouble – painful to obtain but then dreadful to lose. But Mrs Lirriper gets so wrapped up talking about teeth, Dickens has her forget they are part of a metaphor (‘we must all succumb and buy artificial’). When she returns to talk of the girls, she forgets the teeth all together. Their dirty faces have no point of comparison within the world of dental hygiene.

Conclusion: Near the close of her story, Mrs Lirriper quotes the Major: "Spoken Madam’ says the Major ‘like Emma Lirriper." Examining how Mrs Lirriper speaks and why this is central to the story is vital for unpacking Dickens’s methods.

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  1. Excellent article :-) I've recently completed work on my own novel written in the first person, and set in the late 19th century. I certainly tried to adhere to all of the points you mention. I did manage to get around the first one a little bit, by having my narrator fancy himself as an aspiring writer though :-)

    One thing that you touch on with having the narrator make mistakes is the idea of the unreliable narrator. This is notoriously hard to manage without leading your reader, as subtle allusions to the narrator's prejudices and mental state are very difficult to convey, especially when the book is set in a different time period and culture from one's own. For me, Dickens' contemporary, Wilkie Collins, is the king of the unreliable narrator, and it was from the Moonstone that I took most of my cues.

    For my own endeavours, I tried to write a flawed character who sees himself as a strong and good man. His failures are almost always put down to the interference of others. He honestly records other characters making disparaging remarks about him, but contextualises those comments as coming from bitter, jealous or beaten men.

    It's a rare person indeed who can set his ego aside entirely when remembering personal actions, and therefore the ego has to be at the heart of narration.

  2. This is all really interesting - thank you!

    I think all 1st person narrators are "unreliable" in a sense because of the centrality of his/her ego. It's a question of degree. With Mrs L having digs at the other landlady you forgive her as you would a friend for telling a white lie. You notice it but it doesn't shake your overall faith. I may come back to a less straightforwardly trustworthy narrator (possibly from Collins) in a later post for comparison.

    In terms of crafting a 1st person voice would you say any of these things were specifically 19th century or would you approach a modern speaker in the same way as a writer?