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How I Built Myself a House Analysis



Author: Prose of Thomas Hardy Type: Prose Views: 547

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My wife Sophia, myself, and the beginning of a happy line, formerlylived in the suburbs of London, in the sort of house called a Highly DesirableSemi-detached Villa.But in reality our residence was the very opposite ofwhat we wished it to be.We had no room for our friends when they visitedus, and we were obliged to keep our coals out of doors in a heap against theback-wall.If we managed to squeeze a few acquaintances round our tableto dinner, there was very great difficulty in serving it; and on such occasionsthe maid, for want of sideboard room, would take to putting the dishes in thestaircase, or on stools and chairs in the passage, so that if anybody elsecame after we had sat down, he usually went away again, disgusted atseeing the remains of what we had already got through standing in theseplaces, and perhaps the celery waiting in a corner hard by.It was thereforeonly natural that on wet days, chimney-sweepings, and those cleaning timeswhen chairs may be seen with their legs upwards, a tub blocking a doorway,and yourself walking about edgeways among the things, we called the villahard names, and that we resolved to escape from it as soon as it would bepolitic, in a monetary sense, to carry out a notion which had long been in ourminds.This notion was to build a house of our own a little further out of townthan where we had hitherto lived.The new residence was to be right andproper in every respect.It was to be of some mysterious size andproportion, which would make us both peculiarly happy ever afterwards-thathad always been a settled thing.It was neither to cost too much nor toolittle, but just enough to fitly inaugurate the new happiness.Its situationwas to be in a healthy spot, on a stratum of dry gravel, about ninety feetabove the springs.There were to be trees to the north, and a pretty view tothe south.It was also to be easily accessible by rail.Eighteen months ago, a third baby being our latest blessing, we beganto put the above-mentioned ideas into practice.As the house itself, ratherthan its position, is what I wish particularly to speak of, I will not dwell uponthe innumerable difficulties that were to be overcome before a suitable spotcould be found. Maps marked out in little pink and green oblongs clinging toa winding road, became as familiar to my eyes as my own hand. I learned,too, all about the coloured plans of Land to be Let for Building Purposes,which are exhibited at railway stations and in agents' windows-that sketchesof cabbages in rows, or artistically irregular, meant large trees that wouldafford a cooling shade when they had been planted and had grown up-thatpatches of blue showed fishponds and fountains; and that a wide straightroad to the edge of the map was the way to the station, a corner of whichwas occasionally shown, as if it would come within a convenient distance,disguise the fact as the owners might.After a considerable time had been spent in these studies, I began tosee that some of our intentions in the matter of site must be given up. Thetrees to the north went first. After a short struggle, they were followed bythe ninety feet above the springs. Sophia, with all wifely tenacity, stuck tothe pretty view long after I was beaten about the gravel subsoil. In the end,we decided upon a place imagined to be rather convenient, and ratherhealthy, but possessing no other advantage worth mentioning. I took it on alease for the established period, ninety-nine years.We next thought about an architect. A friend of mine, who sometimessends a paper on art and science to the magazines, strongly recommended aMr Penny, a gentleman whom he considered to have architectural talent ofevery kind, but if he was a trifle more skilful in any one branch of hisprofession than in another, it was in designing excellent houses for familiesof moderate means. I at once proposed to Sophia that we should think oversome arrangement of rooms which would be likely to suit us, and then callupon the architect, that he might put our plan into proper shape.I made my sketch, and my wife made hers. Her drawing and diningrooms were very large, nearly twice the size of mine, though her doors andwindows showed sound judgment. We soon found that there was no suchthing as fitting our ideas together, do what we would. When we had come tono conclusion at all, we called at Mr Penny's office. I began telling him mybusiness, upon which he took a sheet of foolscap, and made numerousimposing notes, with large brackets and dashes to them. Sitting there withhim in his office, surrounded by rolls of paper, circles, squares, triangles,compasses, and many other of the inventions which have been sought outby men from time to time, and perceiving that all these were the realitieswhich had been faintly shadowed forth to me by Euclid some years before, itis no wonder that I became a puppet in his hands.He settled everything ina miraculous way.We were told the only possible size we could have therooms, the only way we should be allowed to go upstairs, and the exactquantity of wine we might order at once, so as to fit the winecellar he had inhis head.His professional opinions, propelled by his facts, seemed to floatinto my mind whether I wished to receive them or not.I thought at thetime that Sophia, from her silence, was in the same helpless state; but shehas since told me it was quite otherwise, and that she was only a little tired.I had been very anxious all along that the stipulated cost, eighteenhundred pounds, should not be exceeded, and I impressed this again uponMr Penny."I will give you an approximate estimate for the sort of thing we arethinking of," he said."Linem." (This was the clerk.)"Did you speak, sir?""Forty-nine by fifty-four by twenty-eight, twice fourteen by thirty-oneby eleven, and several small items which we will call one hundred and sixty.""Eighty-two thousand four hundred-""But eighteen hundred at the very outside," I began, "is what-""Feet, my dear sir-feet, cubic feet," said Mr Penny."Put it down atsixpence a foot, Linem, remainders not an object.""Two thousand two hundred pounds." This was too much."Well, try it at something less, leaving out all below hundreds, Linem.""About eighteen hundred and seventy pounds.""Very satisfactory, in my opinion," said Mr Penny turning to me."What do you think?""You are so particular, John, " interrupted my wife."I am sure it isexceedingly moderate: elegance and extreme cheapness never do gotogether."(It may be here remarked that Sophia never calls me "my dear" beforestrangers.She considers that, like the ancient practice in besieged cities ofthrowing loaves over the walls, it really denotes a want rather than anabundance of them within.)I did not trouble the architect any further, and we rose to leave."Be sure you make a nice conservatory, Mr Penny," said my wife;"something that has character about it. If it could only be in the Chinesestyle, with beautiful ornaments at the corners, like Mrs Smith's, only better,"she continued, turning to me with a glance in which a broken tenthcommandment might have been seen."Some sketches shall be forwarded, which I think will suit you,"answered Mr Penny pleasantly, looking as if he had possessed for someyears a complete guide to the minds of all people who intended to build.It is needless to go through the whole history of the plan-making.Abuilder had been chosen, and the house marked out, when we went down tothe place one morning to see how the foundations looked.It is a strange fact, that a person's new house drawn in outline on theground where it is to stand, looks ridiculously and inconveniently small. Thenotion it gives one is, that any portion of one's after-life spent within suchboundaries must of necessity be rendered wretched on account of bruisesdaily received by running against the partitions, doorposts, and fireplaces. Inmy case, the lines showing sitting-rooms seemed to denote cells; the kitchenlooked as if it might develop into a large box; whilst the study appeared toconsist chiefly of a fireplace and a door. We were told that houses alwayslooked so; but Sophia's disgust at the sight of such a diminutivedrawing-room was not to be lessened by any scientific reasoning. Six feetlonger-four feet then-three it must be, she argued, and the room wasaccordingly lengthened.I felt rather relieved when at last I got her off theground, and on the road home.The building gradually crept upwards, and put forth chimneys.Wewere standing beside it one day, looking at the men at work on the top,when the builder's foreman came towards us."Being your own house, sir, and as we are finishing the last chimney,you would perhaps like to go up," he said."I am sure I should much, if I were a man," was my wife's observationto me. "The landscape must appear so lovely from that height."This remark placed me in something of a dilemma, for it must beconfessed that I am not given to climbing. The sight of cliffs, roofs,scaffoldings, and elevated places in general, which have no sides to keeppeople from slipping off, always causes me to feel how infinitely preferable aposition at the bottom is to a position at the top of them.But as my housewas by no means lofty, and it was but for once, I said I would go up.My knees felt a good deal in the way as I ascended the ladder; butthat was not so disagreeable as the thrill which passed through me as Ifollowed my guide along two narrow planks, one bending beneath each foot. However, having once started, I kept on, and next climbed another ladder,thin and weak-looking, and not tied at the top.I could not help thinking, asI viewed the horizon between the steps, what a shocking thing it would be ifany part should break; and to get rid of the thought, I adopted the device ofmentally criticising the leading articles in that morning's Times; but as theplan did not answer, I tried to fancy that, though strangely enough itseemed otherwise, I was only four feet from the ground.This was a failuretoo; and just as I had commenced upon an idea that great quantities offeather-beds were spread below, I reached the top scaffold."Rather high," I said to the foreman, trying, but failing to appearunconcerned."Well, no," he answered; "nothing to what it is sometimes (I'll justtrouble you not to step upon the end of that plank there, as it will turnover); though you may as well fall from here as from the top of theMonument for the matter of life being quite extinct when they pick you up,"he continued, looking around at the weather and the crops, as it were.Then a workman, with a load of bricks, stamped along the boards, andoverturned them at my feet, causing me to shake up and down like the littleservant-men behind private cabs.I asked, in trepidation, if the bricks werenot dangerously heavy, thinking of a newspaper paragraph headed "FrightfulAccident from an Overloaded Scaffold.""Just what I was going to say.Dan has certainly too many there,"answered the man."But it won't break down if we walk without springing,and don't sneeze, though the mortar-boy's hooping-cough was strongenough in my poor brother Jim's case," he continued abstractedly, as if hehimself possessed several necks, and could afford to break one or two.My wife was picking daisies a little distance off, apparently in a state ofcomplete indifference as to whether I was on the scaffold, at the foot of it, orin St George's Hospital; so I roused myself for a descent, and tried the smallladder. I cannot accurately say how I did get down; but during thatperformance, my body seemed perforated by holes, through which breezesblew in all directions. As I got nearer the earth, they went away. It may besupposed that my wife's notion of the height differed considerably from myown, and she inquired particularly for the landscape, which I had quiteforgotten; but the discovery of that fact did not cause me to break aresolution not to trouble my chimneys again.Beyond a continual anxiety and frequent journeyings along the sides ofa triangle, of which the old house, the new house, and thearchitect'sofficewere the corners, nothing worth mentioning happened till the building wasnearly finished. Sophia's ardour in the business, which at the beginning wasso intense, had nearly burned itself out, so I was left pretty much to myselfin getting over the later difficulties. Amongst them was the question of aporch. I had often been annoyed whilst waiting outside a door on a wet dayat being exposed to the wind and rain, and it was my favourite notion that Iwould have a model porch whenever I should build a house. Thus it was veryvexing to recollect, just as the workmen were finishing off, that I had nevermentioned the subject to Mr Penny, and that he hadnot suggestedanythingabout one to me."A porch or no porch is entirely a matter of personal feeling and taste,"was his remark, in answer to a complaint from me; "so, of course, I did notput one without its being mentioned. But it happens that in this case it wouldbe an improvements feature, in fact.There is this objection, that the roofwill close up the window of the little place on the landing; but we may getventilation by making an opening higher up, if you don't mind a triflingdarkness, or rather gloom.My first thought was that this might tend to reduce myself and familyto a state of chronic melancholy; but remembering there were reflectorsadvertised to throw sunlight into any nook almost, I agreed to theinconvenience, for the sake of the porch, though I found afterwards that thegloom was for all time, the patent reflector, naturally enough, sending itsspot of light against the opposite wall, where it was not wanted, and leavingnone about the landing, where it was.In getting a house built for a specified sum by contract with a builder,there is a certain pit-fall into which unwary people are sure to step-thisaccident is technically termed "getting into extras." It is evident that theonly way to get out again without making a town-talk about yourself, is topay the builder a large sum of money over and above the contractamount-the value of course of the extras.In the present case, I knew verywell that the perceptible additions would have to be paid for.Commonsense, and Mr Penny himself perhaps, should have told me a little moredistinctly that I must pay if I said "yes" to questions whether I preferred onewindow a trifle larger than it was originally intended, another a trifle smaller,second thoughts as to where a doorway should be, and so on.Then came ahost of things "not included-a sink in the scullery, a rain-water tank and apump, a trap-door into the roof, a scraper, a weather-cock and four letters,ventilators in the nursery, same in the kitchen, all of which workedvigorously enough, but the wrong way; patent remarkable bell-pulls; a royalletters extraordinary kitchen-range, which it would cost exactly threepencethree-farthings to keep a fire in for twelve hours, and yet cook any joint inany way, warm up what was left yesterday, boil the vegetables, and do theironing.But not keeping a strict account of all these expenses, and thinkingmyself safe in Mr Penny's hands from any enormous increase, I wasastounded to find that the additions altogether came to some hundreds ofpounds.I could almost go through the worry of building another house, toshow how carefully I would avoid getting into extras again.Then they have to be wound up.A surveyor is called in fromsomewhere, and, by a fiction, his heart's desire is supposed to be that youshall not be overcharged one halfpenny by the builder for the additions.Thebuilder names a certain sum as the value of a portion-say double its worth,the surveyor then names a sum, about half its true value.They then fight itout by word of mouth, and gradually bringing their valuations nearer andnearer together, at last meet in the middle.All my accounts underwent thisoperation.A Families-removing van carried our furniture and effects to the newbuilding without giving us much trouble; but a number of vexing littleincidents occurred on our settling down, which I should have felt moredeeply had not a sort of Martinmas summer of Sophia's interest in the affairnow set in, and lightened them considerably.Smoke was one of ournuisances.On lighting the study-fire, every particle of smoke came curlinginto the room.In our trouble, we sent for the architect, who immediatelyasked if we had tried the plan of opening the register to cure it.We had not,but we did so, and the smoke ascended at once.The last thing I rememberwas Sophia jumping up one night and frightening me out of my senses withthe exclamation: "O that builder!Not a single bar of any sort is there to thenursery-windows.John, some day those poor little children will tumble out ntheir innocence-how should they know better?-and be dashed to pieces. Why did you put the nursery on the second floor?" And you may be sure thatsome bars were put up the very next morning.





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