Week Four

Having fought my way through all the titles, subtitles, chapter titles etc. (the casual reader is not to be in doubt that this is A PROPERLY THOUGHT-OUT BOOK) the first thing I sense about this encounter is the effect of camera close-ups, and a sort of slow motion focus on the prisoner’s state of mind, as expressed in gestures, and the pantomime with the shoe. Not being expert in the effects of imprisonment, trauma, memory loss, etc. I’m not sure if what I am seeing is casebook genuine or a fantastic actor’s performance of the real thing. Does it matter? This is what we’ve come up into the tower to see.

I like this sense of cutting from a shot of Manette’s bulging forehead to that of his daughter. It’s the exterior, to be sure, but we strain to catch glimpses of the renewing mental activity within, the ‘concentrating expression.’ For some reason I’m thinking about G.H. Lewes’s celebrated critique of Dickens’s presentation of characters whose inner lives are so poorly imagined psychologically that they are like frogs whose brains have been removed for scientific purposes. Well, here we are shown a frog getting his brain back.

I’m taken aback at first by Miss Manette’s ‘Weep for it! Weep for it!’ One, because it sounds initially as though she’s taking him to task; two, because it really is pushing the limits of staginess: five times repeated, no variation. Isn’t it just a little de trop?  But the Lear-and-Cordelia echo is strong and the situation is promisingly reversed, and eventually it transpires she knows she has to force him to cry to restore memory, and Lorry and Defarge are there to shame any of the cynical amongst us (yes you too!) into ‘covering our faces’. And then good old Lorry helps us descend from the emotional pinnacle by blowing his nose a lot, and we’re out into the night.

A thought: does Madame Defarge knit in every single sentence in which she appears?

We pass from ‘a short grove’ of feeble lamps (Paris not yet gaslit) under the ‘great grove’ of stars–wonderful feeling of distance opening up as we leave the city; we can sense the trees without their even being mentioned.

‘Beneath that arch of unmoved and eternal lights: some, so remote from this little earth that the learned tell us it is doubtful whether their rays have even yet discovered it, as a point in space where anything is suffered or done: the shadows of the night were broad and black.’

This is such a fine sentence!

A real Miltonic perspective and cadence–though I can’t help hearing it in my head in the voice of Oliver Postgate… But look at the lovely distancing effect of the double colon, the apparent neutrality and sublimity of the scientific viewpoint undercut ironically by our sense that human deeds and suffering ought indeed to be at the centre of the Christian universe. Charley!

And then complete surprise: not only at coming to the end of the episode after a mere 8 columns but also to the end of the First Book, after only four installments. A short first act, before the interval: suspense and massive expectation building here.

As for the rest of this week’s mag–leaving aside the bathos of ‘Bungaree’ which I don’t quite know what to make of–tragic foreboding and the sense of impending conflict are soon resumed with ‘To Come’ (poem), then ‘Battle Array’, and there is a resonance too surely between the knitting Madame Defarge and the song of the four ‘sister spinners’ (pages 88-89), chanting while they spin the rope to hang a man with. And nice to finish up too first with the wintry piece about going to visit a Cistercian monastery ‘Out of the World’ (where the narrator witnesses a young Father Lawrence, dying of a heart attack–a sight to make Browning’s monk happy!–and is oppressed by a sense of being buried alive and/or returned to a primitive Catholic past), and then with another form of return to eighteenth-century London, following the ‘Ghost of Samuel Johnson.’

Looking across to my copy of The Daily News for 21st May (price threepence, courtesy of British Library 19thC newspapers), I see that the entirety of page 2 is given over to an account of a public meeting at the London Tavern, chaired by the Lord Mayor, ‘to consider the attitude which it becomes the English nation to assume in relation to the war in Italy.’ Hungarian freedom fighter and enemy of Austria, Lajos Kossuth is on the platform. If anyone thinks the speeches of characters in ATOTC are stagey, listen to this man: ‘Adversity is a great teacher, my lord, and the icy finger of time a mighty disenchanter. I have much suffered in the last ten years of my tempest-tossed life, but in compensation […] I have learnt with calm reflection to trace the law of concatenation between cause and effect which presides over the logic of history … (loud cheers)’ 12,000 words of this juiced-up rhetoric, with just the same sense of an audience as Dickens’s drama. ATOTC is surely wonderfully woven out of the fabric of its time?

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4 thoughts on “Week Four

  1. Okay, okay, this is one of those chapters which I think is going to divide the reading group – is it all a bit much, or is it a well-deserved pay-off after the previous three weeks build-up? Personally I’m more in the latter camp than the former, although I confess a successful staging would benefit from downplaying the emotion rather than emphasising it. My favourite moment in this chapter is by far Madame Defarge, steely, unemotional, knitting, who leaps into action to gather the Doctor’s shoe-making material, only to then return to her postion of objective observer “who saw nothing” – a sign of sentiment from the unsentimental speaks more than the outpourings of Manette and child.

    You’re right, it is a very short first act. With ten days to go until the first monthly part is due to go on sale, Dickens has allowed for that part to have a sense of completion in comprising the whole of the first book and also the conclusion to the unfortunate prisoner’s tale, which makes you wonder to what extent Dickens was writing to a weekly or monthly structure, and it’s nice to see the phrase “recalled” used at key points in this chapter as a closing framework to the first book. But has Dickens shot himself in the foot by wrapping this up so soon? Has he left enough loose ends requiring resolution to sustain interest for the next instalment?

  2. My favourtite moment in this instalment of ToTC was the glimpse of Madame Defarge ceaselessly knitting. Thanks so much for the connection to the ‘Spinners and Weavers’ trade song – what a marvellously eerie piece of writing, in which cloth prophetically anticipates the fate of those it comes into contact with. This piece is interesting on the absolute class divides between the wearers it is destined for – another image of a society completely separated by rank and wealth. It seems to romanticise the peasant wearers: “Honest flax” “sweet as hawthorn air/ Thou shall be the Peasant’s wear”. The material for carpeting “lordly rooms”, by contast, shall never cause comfort:
    “Dainty feet shall tread upon it,
    Not a peasant e’er shall don it;
    Not a beggar e’er shall bless it
    For its warmth, or child caress it.”

    I predict a riot!

    • Our comments crossed Pete – but we’re simultaneously enjoying the knitting – some shared reader response in action.

  3. I hope I won’t spoil the sublimity of the sentence copied below, on which I am in entire agreement with John, by expressing a worry about the validity of the science. If the lights i.e. stars are so far away that their rays have not yet discovered Earth, then we wouldn’t be able to see them. There are, however, undoubtedly stars in the Milky Way whose light hasn’t reached us because of the distance involved, so the beautiful concept still stands, though imperfectly (to my mind) expressed.
    ‘Beneath that arch of unmoved and eternal lights: some, so remote from this little earth that the learned tell us it is doubtful whether their rays have even yet discovered it, as a point in space where anything is suffered or done: the shadows of the night were broad and black.’

    (Not to worry, I’ve already sent this to Pedantry Corner.)

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