It must be more than LV years since I last read this, enough time to cloud over all but the main thread of the plot, enhanced as it has been by TV and film–which have served only to replace faces–formerly imagined–with those of some unremembered director’s choice and so left me free to read and digest more of the detail than I had understood before.
To me this opening is more like that which one would expect of a “psychological thriller.” There is a time, could be past or present, when mists are hiding the reality of what is happening underneath. The time is slowly revealed as Dickens expresses his view of the absolute monarchy in France and the deferential kingdom of Great Britain where both establishments are totally unaware that Death, in the guise of Woodman and Farmer, is slowly proceeding under a fog and change is on the way.
The opening paragraph I find refreshing. Dickens is making the point that the best and the worst, wisdom and foolishness etc. don’t depend on absolutes but are comparative and are applied to circumstances only insofar as they accepted by each individual as being so: “……in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” A caution to the reader that the following tale could be seen from two entirely different points of view. Not many authors would admit to as much.
The rest of the chapter sets out time and place(s) and is a vehicle for his lashing out at Methodists and Catholics, contrasting the Cock-lane ghost against a “..dirty procession of monks..” throwing in Joanna Southcott for good measure. The penal codes of England and France at the time are tried and found wanting.
Having vented his spleen he uses the imagery of Woodman and Farmer to provide an impending sense of Doom in which “…myriads of small creatures—the creatures of this chronicle among the rest—(are to journey) along the roads that lay before them.”
Having set the historical background the tale moves into a real mist on a miserable night on Shooters Hill. Passengers have to walk huddled together but wary of one another, distrust clings to the air and finds expression in the description of the armoury of the coach guard. Tension rises as the coach, pulled by reluctant horses the coachman doesn’t trust (…. the horses had three times already come to a stop, besides once drawing the coach across the road, with the mutinous intent of taking it back to Blackheath.” and ” …….as to which cattle he (the coachman) could with a clear conscience have taken his oath on the two Testaments that they were not fit for the journey.) reaches the top of the hill and the tension is broken but only for a brief period, enough to draw breath before the tension is raised higher. Out of the mist horse beats are heard. Everyone tenses again. Under threat of extinction a character emerges from the fog. He is recognised by one of the passengers which heightens the apprehension of the rest. The guard is bribed to allow Mr Lorry to read Jerry’s note (nothing like cash to grease the wheels of suspicion) and the tension is released once more.
The message “Wait at Dover for Mam’selle”–obscure in itself–provokes a mysterious reply–“Recalled to Life”– which changes the mood into one of deep brooding on its meaning. The coach rumbles on through the night and the coachman and guard debate what the reply could have meant (which is Dickens telling his reader that they have to think too.) Brooding on the reply punctuates Jerry’s return to Tellson’s Bank via a string of ale-houses. His concern is passed on to his horse, “…..the shadows of the night took such shapes to him as arose out of the message, and took such shapes to the mare as arose out of her private topics of uneasiness. They seemed to be numerous, for she shied at every shadow on the road.” and the journey becomes a Night-Mare?
The nightmare continues inside the coach as the night shadows descend on the passengers. Between fits of dozing and sudden wakefulness the bank passenger rifles the vaults of his mind and his bank where secrets are buried and dead accounts are shelved. The thoughts of someone long buried haunts him and he tries to remember what the intombed unfortunate might look like but he can’t and the idea appalls him. Eighteen years buried alive is all he can think of and his imagined conversations roil through his head as the wheels of the coach roll him onward toward Dover and the solution of the mystery.
As dawn breaks the mists and shadows of night are dispersed and the world becomes clear but it only increases his concern over the man who has been buried alive for eighteen years and is, like some old forgotten charter or account in his bank vault, to be taken out and revived.
I’ve never looked at it this way before and find myself amazed by the way Dickens has projected the edge of the seat feeling Hitchcock used so effectively.