Review: A House to Let by Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell and Adelaide Anne Procter

A House to Let, at less than 100 pages, is a collaboration between four 19th century authors which originally appeared as the Christmas edition of Charles Dickens’ weekly magazine, Household Words, in 1858.

The book is divided into six sections; the first, Over the Way, and the sixth, Let at Last, are joint efforts by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, and provide the framework for the story. The other four sections are individual contributions from Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, Adelaide Anne Procter and Wilkie Collins, in that order.

Over the Way introduces us to Sophonisba, an elderly woman who has never married but has two men vying for her attentions – one is her old admirer Jabez Jarber; the other is her servant, Trottle. When Sophonisba’s doctor advises a change of air and scene, she leaves her home in Tunbridge Wells and moves into new lodgings in London, where she immediately becomes obsessed with the house opposite – a house which has been vacant for many years and is permanently ‘to let’. Determined to discover why the house has remained empty for so long – and convinced she has seen an eye staring out from one of the windows – she asks Jarber and Trottle to investigate.

Over the Way and Let at Last are credited to both Dickens and Collins, but there’s no way to tell exactly which parts were contributed by which writer. The other four chapters, though, are each written in the distinctive style of their respective authors and each tell the story of a previous occupant of the house to let.

The chapter I liked the least was actually the one written solely by Dickens, Going Into Society. The story of a showman and a circus dwarf called Mr Chops, it was just too weird for me and was also quite difficult to read as it was written in dialect. It’s probably significant that I found the two Dickens/Collins collaborations much easier to read than this solo effort, as I’ve always thought Collins was a lot more readable than Dickens.

Three Evenings in the House, the contribution by Adelaide Anne Procter, whose work I was previously unfamiliar with, is in the form of a narrative poem. I’m not a big lover of poetry but luckily for me this was only thirteen pages long and quite easy to understand. Other than providing some variety though, I don’t think this chapter really added much to the story.

The Manchester Marriage
by Elizabeth Gaskell stands out as an excellent piece of writing: a tragic story of Alice Wilson, who is widowed when her husband is lost at sea. After marrying again, she and her new husband move into the house to let where further tragedy awaits them. This is good enough to work as a stand-alone short story (and according to the Biographical Notes, it was actually published separately in its own right). This and the Wilkie Collins contribution, Trottle’s Report, were my favourite chapters. Trottle’s Report is a typical Collins story, with unusual, quirky characters, a mysterious secret, and a slightly dark and gothic feel.

After exploring the histories of the various tenants of the house, the mystery is finally solved in the final chapter, Let at Last, which neatly ties up all the loose ends of the story.

If you like any of these four authors or Victorian fiction in general, then A House to Let is definitely worth reading. It also provides a good introduction to Dickens, Collins, Procter and Gaskell without having to commit yourself to one of their longer works.

Classics/Pages: 97/Publisher: Hesperus Press/Year: 2004 (originally published 1858)/Source: Library book