Week Three – Tastes and Smells of Saint Antoine

Oh wow! The pace has really accelerated. I was really surprised at the amount of movement and action here in comparison to the single scene of instalment of week two. This part opens with what is the most memorable image of the novel for me, the wine-stained streets and mouths, the feverish, famished licking, and even chewing, of the wooden wine casks. While there is so much to say about this weekly part, the thing that really stand out for me is the way that Dickens conveys a sensory experience of the district, so that we can almost taste and smell its pungency:

“There was no drainage to carry off the wine, and not only did it all get taken up, but so much mud got taken up along with it, that there might have been a scavenger in the street, if anybody acquainted with it could have believed in such a miraculous presence.”

It’s cheating a bit as the full horror/bodily revulsion of this section was drawn out by a discussion with an MA group who talked about the composition of the ‘mud’ on a street with no drainage. Here is a populace who will scoop up and eat excrement, so desperate are they for the rare sustenance of the wine. I think ‘mud’ here is anticipating the ‘dust’ of Our Mutual Friend, where all kinds of waste is made valuable and variously re-consumed.

It seems to me that this part also is overlaying the concerns of Revolutionary France onto very present 1859 concerns with sanitation. Dickens’s regular readers would have surely thought about the description of the contaminated air of Tom All Alone’s, the London slum of Bleak House, when reading these descriptions of the streets and buildings:

“Such a staircase, with its accessories, in the older and more crowded part of Paris, would be bad enough now; but, at that time, it was vile indeed to unaccustomed and unhardened senses. Every little habitation within the great foul nest of one high building—that is to say, the room or rooms within every door that opened on the general staircase—left its own heap of refuse on its own landing, besides flinging other refuse from its own windows. The uncontrollable and hopeless mass of decomposition so engendered, would have polluted the air, even if poverty and deprivation had not loaded it with their intangible impurities; the two bad sources combined made it almost insupportable. Through such an atmosphere, by a steep dark shaft of dirt and poison, the way lay.”

I’ll be interested to see if we get some material on public health, sanitation and the cholera epidemics in other sections of HW during the serialisation.

What do you make of the appeal to all the senses in the novel?

And does anyone have other thoughts about the way that Dickens explores the current concerns of 1859 via the history of the 1790s?

I’ve not even mentioned the marvellous introduction of Monsieur and Madame Defarge . . .

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About Holly Furneaux

Holly is a Reader in Victorian Literature at the University of Leicester. She has written variously on Dickens, including a book, Queer Dickens: Erotics, Families, Masculinities. For more details of her work, and her current research on the Military Man of Feeling, see her staff page:http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/english/people/hollyfurneaux

8 thoughts on “Week Three – Tastes and Smells of Saint Antoine

  1. Thank you for this wonderful post, Holly. The almost cannibalistic hunger of the Parisian populace is a viscerally disturbing image, extending and intensifying the previous instalments’ atmosphere of decay, ruination and death, and it’s clear where Dickens’s sympathies lie as he wallops the reader with his radical, and very angry, historical analysis of the terrible failings of the Ancien Regime. This may be an overly-strained comparison, but these images of oral consumption remind me of the experience of consuming a text, which is often conveyed with allusions to food and oral ingestion: we are hungry/ravenous/desperate to consume/gorge/binge on parts/chunks/segments of the serialised text. Carlyle called the weekly parts of A Tale of Two Cities ‘teaspoons’, which implies the frustration of having to consume small bites of something delicious. We know that Dickens was fascinated by oral rapacity and cannibalism: Household Words features many pieces on the ill-fated Northwest Passage expedition of Sir John Franklin (1845), which ended with the starving crew resorting to cannibalism. Dickens was horrified that these explorers resorted to eating human flesh; he vociferously insisted that they died stoically and ‘manfully’ of starvation and launched a violently racist attack on the Inuit eyewitnesses. Later volumes of All the Year Round, particularly volume 7, are replete with wilderness survival stories and battles against starvation in hostile physical surroundings. In this instalment of A Tale of Two Cities, we encounter a survival story in which the heart of a great European city is as cruel, inhospitable and unendurable as any wilderness.

  2. Rather a cosmopolitan issue this one. After the movement of the main story to France, we then learn about the Romans and meet a Lebanon Sheik. I see the Occassional Register draws attention to “the crowned heads of Europe, now paralysing the nations by their murderous resolution to go at war with each other”, an interesting commentary given ATOTC’s occupation in this issue with pre-revolutionary France and the approaching bloodshed across the channel.

    Also, hats off to Carlyle for the perfectly apt teaspoon analogy (and to Ben for bringing it to our attention).

  3. The analogy of the consumption of the text with the voracious appetite of Parisian populace makes me think of Britta Martens’ work on Dickens’ depictions of the crowds outside the Paris Morgue in one of Dickens’s Uncommercial pieces (‘Travelling Abroad’, I think, but don’t quote me on that!) Dickens seems to feel both a curious affinity with the Parisian mob and at the same time a deeply-felt revulsion, which is interesting.

  4. While reading this last chapter, my mind kept going to Henry Mayhew’s “London Labor and London Poor.” Although 60 years goes between the two (not to mention that they both describe separate countries and one is fictional) I could t help but feel as though the sad street people of this chapter were the same ones Mayhew interviews in London later. I have visited Mexico several times and sadly, found these people yet again. Children in torn “I love NYC” t-shirts selling gum on the streets f

    • For pennies. I was able to take some positives from this reading and that was namely in the rich sensory descriptive Dickens gives (as you mentioned.) To some of us who have never had to deal with such a low level of poverty, reading about it here really does make you feel as if you are facing this sadness and hunger dead on for yourself. *sorry for the two posts…computer malfunction*

  5. I liked MrBooley’s imagining last week of the circumstances under which a typical week’s copy of All the Year Round might travel around a household – from the first perusal by the paterfamilias to its eventually being passed around among the servants below stairs (but how many of them would actually be able to read?). So this week, being rather late to record my reaction, I am imagining that business affairs have meant I wasn’t able to take the time to read any of the latest ATYR until Monday evening. But it was worth the wait – as others have already noted, this chapter begins with Dickens operating at full capacity. The paragraph with the repetitive “Hunger” motif is particularly resonant, I agree.
    I haven’t got a lot to add to what’s already been observed about this chapter – again, a long one compared to the first three chapters – except to express frustration that we have to stop when we get to the shoemaker and have to wait for further revelations next week. I would guess that we are going to have more of the Defarges in subsequent episodes. But what of the other three men who go up the stairs to the top floor? Are we going to meet them again?
    I have a question, though. Can anyone explain the reference to “the fabulous mill which ground old people young”? By chance I have recently read the new novel by the Northern Ireland writer Glenn Patterson, entitled The Mill for Grinding Old People Young. It’s set in Belfast in the early part of the nineteenth century and gets its title from the name of the inn where the fictional hero meets the love of his life, an exiled Polish girl. Apparently, there really was a pub with that name on the outskirts of Belfast, but Patterson doesn’t offer any explanation for its being so named. Anyone better informed than me?
    I have only been able to read one other article in this issue so far – but it was quite an interesting one: “Rome and Turnips”, about the Roman ruins at Wroxeter/Uriconium and excavations there. It was at least as long as, if not longer than, the ATOTC chapter, and I note it was written by Henry Morley. Wasn’t he one of Dickens’s closest collaborators on the magazine? One can certainly find echoes of CD’s style in what he writes – and even (coincidentally?) the phrase “blood and wine ran in the streets” occurs as he imagines dispossessed native tribes overrunning the Roman settlement in its last days (it’s on p.57, second column). I’ve been to Wroxeter, and its remains today are indeed extensive – just like Morley, I was impressed by the hypocausts. I wonder if A.E. Housman had read this or something similar before he wrote, in “On Wenlock Edge” (I quote from memory): “Today the Roman and his trouble / Are ashes under Uricon”?

  6. I was wondering about the mill myself and came up with this quote from Pasco:
    “The story of the mill seems to derive from a popular rhyme of the industrial age – “The spinning jennies whirl along, / Performing strange things, I’ve been told, sir / For twisting fresh and making young / All maids who own they’re grown too old, sir”
    This isn’t the first time Dickens uses the image. I have just finished reading “The Paper-mill” HW Vol I No 23 pg 529 which he wrote along with Lemon and contains these lines:
    “It is like the Mill of the child’s story, that
    ground old people young. Paper! White,
    pure, spick and span new paper, with that
    fresh smell which takes us back to school”
    Though I haven’t read it, I am told he uses it in Edwin Drood.

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