Week Six’s Work: Visual Description -
Representing a Crowd
Write a description of a crowd, either as a starting point for a story/poem et al, or a part of ongoing work where you need one.
The danger in representing a crowd is to overdo things and mention too much. A crowd has a lot of people. You have to convey that by picking out only a very few people. Even if you do this successfully, it’s no good unless the way you represent the crowd feeds into the narrative itself. It must not be mere background, or even worse description for descriptions (i.e. vanity’s) sake.
The passage below from Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Miss Brill’ shows a crowd primarily because that is what Miss Brill is looking for, to belong to, because she’s lonely. It also illustrates the routine of her life, her need to eavesdrop, as we see elsewhere in the story, and her need to deceive herself about her appearance, why she goes, why she eavesdrops, and about the way in which there’s ‘something funny about’ here, and that she too has come out of a room like a ‘cupboard’.
So the crowd scene is motivated. It illustrates several facets of her loss.
The actual description uses the technique we’ve talked about of picking one one significant detail. They by not just flowers but ‘a handful of flowers’, and the beggar’s situation as a whole through the one detail ‘tray fixed to the railing’. We don’t need to know how scruffy he (or she) was, hear his/her voice, get an idea of the range of flowers on sale. The boys are characterised by the ‘silk bows under their chins’, the sense of family outing captured beautifully by the ‘tiny staggerer’. The mother is represented by her high steps compared to those of a hen.
The old people sat on the bench, still as statues. Never mind, there was always the crowd to watch. To and fro, in front of the flower-beds and the band rotunda, the couples and groups paraded, stopped to talk, to greet, to buy a handful of flowers from the old beggar who had his tray fixed to the railings. Little children ran among them, swooping and laughing; little boys with big white silk bows under their chins, little girls, little French dolls, dressed up in velvet and lace. And sometimes a tiny staggerer came suddenly rocking into the open from under the trees, stopped, stared, as suddenly sat down "flop," until its small high-stepping mother, like a young hen, rushed scolding to its rescue. Other people sat on the benches and green chairs, but they were nearly always the same, Sunday after Sunday, and—Miss Brill had often noticed—there was something funny about nearly all of them. They were odd, silent, nearly all old, and from the way they stared they looked as though they'd just come from dark little rooms or even—even cupboards!
Katherine Mansfield: Miss Brill