The first thing that strikes me about this opening section of the novel is the sheer busy-ness of it. Though we might at the end be swept up by questions of who has been recalled to life, who has been immured for 18 years, the opening chapters begin by provoking questions about state religion and superstition, international relations – between England and France, and England and America, and questions of the relations between past and present. They also produce, as do many of Dickens’s novels, a pervading sense of overwhelming violence, both in terms of the personal danger that attends the travellers on the mail coach, but also the state violence that, whether in Britain or in France, is meted out on the slightest pretext. Added to that is the really chilling sense of chapter 3’s opening lines about isolation, secrets and loneliness: ‘A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this.’ Suspending all knowledge of what’s to come, which I agree with Pete is a tricky business, it is this section of the opening part that has made the biggest impression on me so far, and has done much to create the feel of almost visceral discomfort and foreboding that the opening section creates.
It’s very jarring then to read on to WIlkie Collins’s piece on credulous believers in advertisements, which is the next piece in All the Year Round, and which opens with the words: ‘I HAVE much pleasure in announcing myself as the happiest man alive.’ Does anyone have any thoughts about this juxtaposition?