Week Six: Double Trouble, or Blue Fly Thinking

Blimey, we’re straight into it this week aren’t we? No drawn out introduction, no scenic descriptions, just right on with the scene as if the week’s interval hadn’t happened. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the TV tradition of a recap before each new episode – from this point forward Dickens is assuming anyone reading knows the story and there’s no need to lead them in gently. So straight in it is, and what we get is a court report featuring some typical Dickensian descriptive names: the defence, Stryver, certainly is striving to acquit his client, while the devious Barsad is missing a vital “T” from his name. The chapter’s title, “a disappointment” is wonderfully ironic given that the disappointment in question is that a man is NOT killed, much to the annoyance of the blue flies hanging around looking for carrion – remind me again, is this scene set in England or France?

For those of us left wondering what week what any of this had to do with the story we’d been reading up to then, Dickens puts in some links back to the events of book one. The accused, Darnay, was on the mailcoach the same time that Lorry received the message from Jerry, and on the return boat from France along with Lorry and the Manettes. Dickens expressed frustration with the constraints of writing ATOTC in such small parts, and you can see why here. This week and last week’s instalments work much better together than apart – the abrupt ending last week, matched with the equally abrupt beginning this week; the linking of the scene to the story thus far being delayed until this week; and the use of Jerry as framing device for the two parts together, opening last week and closing this week – all these point to Dickens’s powers being thwarted by the format.

Incidentally, did you note the repetition of a previous episode, when the apparently devil-may-care Carton shows sudden compassion for MM – “Don’t you see she will fall!” – just as the impartial Madame Defarge, who sees nothing, was the one to rush for Dr Manette’s possessions when he cried out for them in part four? Both these characters, hiding their compassion behind a cool exterior, make a welcome change from MM who gushes forth like a torrent much to the detriment of the poor accused. For someone who first calls the prisoner a gentleman, and tries to explain how “kind and good” he was, she nonetheless drops him in it through her naïve telling of the whole truth – why oh why does she mention the joke about George Washington? After her moment of strength on meeting her father, Dickens is plunging the character back into the role of damsel in distress, with little to no sense of worldly knowledge. That, to me, justifies the chapter’s title of “a disappointment”.

Countering that disappointment, is the very intriguing strand in this week’s instalment of the doubles of Carton and Darnay, “so like each other in feature, so unlike each other in manner”. The double in literature is an area of personal interest; while Dickens’s hero Shakespeare had used the device of the lookalike several times for comic effect, in more recent years across the continent it had become a horror device; the idea had already featured in E.T.A Hoffman’s The Devil‘s Elixirs (1815), which hinges upon the idea of the double as does his later story The Doppleganger (1821), in turn inspired by Jean Paul’s Siebenkas (1796-7). The double also featured in James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), and later in Dostoevsky’s The Double (1846). In each of these stories the double is a crime against nature, looking like the hero but thwarting his every move: the evil twin. Compared to these extreme examples, Carton and Darnay seem rather tame, but, like these other literary doubles, the fascination lies in the contrast of similarity in appearance with opposition in spirit and morality. I eagerly anticipate the development of this theme.

Of the rest of this week’s ATYR, while Proctor’s continuation of trade songs reminds us in its reference to busy bees of the blue flies, it is the second article “The confessor’s handbook” which I think reflects best on ATOTC, with some some nice links to the courtscene in the writer’s considerations of the “penitent’s moral guilt” and the observation of the justice system:

Just as well might an attorney be supposed to be duly educated for the business of his profession by an abstract reverence for the principles of justice, and the possession of personal integrity!”

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About Pete Orford

I'm an English lecturer at the University of Buckingham, with a research background in both Dickens and Shakespeare; I am also a father of three, with a research background in dinosaurs and moshi monsters. I'm Chief Investigator for The Drood Inquiry (www.droodinquiry.com).

16 thoughts on “Week Six: Double Trouble, or Blue Fly Thinking

  1. I like your exploration of famous doubles in literature. Sometimes one tends to think that Dickens is going overboard with the coincidences again, when actually (at least in this case) he’s just following a well-established and significant tradition! 🙂

  2. I’ve been off to exhibitions again, this time to the Bodleian in Oxford which has a number of documents relating to Dickens and his time on public viewing until late October. The display on Crime and Punishment caught my eye, given the theme of this week’s instalment, and in particular a letter from Dickens to The Times dated 14 November 1849, following the public hanging of George and Maria Manning (of whom the latter, I have subsequently read, has been suggested as an inspiraton for Madame Hortense in Bleak House). In the letter Dickens does not call against capital punishment itself, but more specifically the public spectacle that had been made of executions, hoping to prompt “support to a measure making the infliction of capital punishment a private solemnity within the prison walls”. Dickens’s reason for this was because of the despicable and deplorable behaviour of the crowd, much like the blue flies watching Darnay’s case this week:

    “I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun. The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it, faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks and language, of the assembled spectators. When I came upon the scene at midnight, the shrillness of the cries and howls that were raised from time to time, denoting that they came from a concourse of boys and girls already assembled in the best places, made my blood run cold […] When the sun rose brightly – as it did – it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as fashioned in the image of the Devil. When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgment, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world, and there were no belief among men but that they perished like the beasts.

    I have seen, habitually, some of the worst sources of general contamination and corruption in this country, and I think there are not many phases of London life that could surprise me. I am solemnly convinced that nothing that ingenuity could devise to be done in this city, in the same compass of time, could work such ruin as one public execution, and I stand astounded and appalled by the wickedness it exhibits.”

    Powerful stuff.

  3. Thanks, Pete, for drawing our attention to the rich seam of contemporary literature dealing with doubles and doppelgängers. The idea of the doppelgänger, a supernatural, haunting double of a person that usual presages misfortune, seems particularly apt in a story concerned with haunting, resurrection and the ways in which alternate places and states (London/Paris; Life/Death; Justice/Injustice) are imbricated. Thinking back to the dualism of the illustrated wrapper for the first monthly part, which features two women in balance on either side of the title, there is a tantalising hint that perhaps the wonderfully fearsome Madame Defarge (MD?!) and the (rather less terrifying) MM are more alike than they first seem. Perhaps MD’s small act of charity hints at a MM aspect of her personality? Regarding MM’s ‘mistake’ on the witness box: in this instalment, MM is, in her own way, just as threatening and dangerous as MD.

    • I love your inclusion of mistake in inverted commas – are you suggesting MM is not as innocent as she seems? More disturbingly, I misread MD as DM for a second there, which has now doomed me to picture Madame Defarge as Dangermouse for some time to come (“she’s the best, she’s the tops, wherever there is knitting she’ll be there”….) – good grief.

      Having just said below about the distinction between the supernatural and the real in Dickens’s shorter fiction and novels, I’m left wondering now I’m looking back over your comments on haunting and resurrection – it’s actually rather a gothic tale isn’t it? When you then look at the spectral figure of Miss Havisham, followed by the resurrection of Harmen in Our Mutual Friend, and of course the unfortunate Edwin Drood, you can look retrospecively at ATOTC as a further step from jolly comedies, to city drama, to this final stage of urban gothic.

      • I’m loving your Dangermouse/Madame Defarge mash-up!

        Hazel and I have been talking a lot about MM and Hazel began to formulate a brilliant theory about MM as a terrifying goddess, rather like the ‘negro’ one on the mirror, before whom the characters abase themselves. Spoilers, though!

        On the DJO site, we’re just uploading headnotes to the ‘Uncommercial Traveller’ series in All the Year Round, which began only a few months after TOTC finished its serialised run. They, too, are deliciously Gothic and are awash with corpses: ‘The Shipwreck’ (28 January 1860), which is the first number, is a grisly account of the mass burial of shipwreck victims (including some of Dickens’s cousins-by-marriage); and ‘Travelling Abroad’ (7 April 1860) sees Dickens irresistibly drawn to the Paris morgue. In this piece, he recounts seeing an ‘old grey man lying all alone’, which perhaps reflects the same pathos he shows for Mr Manette. Also, Miss Havisham was probably based on the White Woman of Berners Street, a mentally ill woman, dressed in bridal white, who had been jilted and wandered this particular street. The idea of a Gothicised landscape, besmirched with death, doesn’t seem quite so fanciful then!

  4. I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that the suspicion that I’ve been entertaining for some time, that Dickens is plotting this very awkwardly, has been definitely confirmed this week. OK, the dialogue in court is lively, but even there one finds odd jumps:for instance, we’ve just got going on a cross-examination of Lorry when the Attorney-general suddenly exclaims “Miss Manette!” and Lorry disappears. Reading it in the original magazine, I wondered if something had been omitted and went to check in my old Chapman and Hall edition– but no, that’s how it was. Then there is the “wigged gentleman” who has been “looking at the ceiling”. He looks just like the defendant, apparently, but doesn’t reveal/realise this until the case is well advanced – and no one else notices this until he throws the screwed-up piece of paper. Am I missing something here? It seems to me that while CD lays certain things on with a trowel – e.g. those repetitive blueflies – other more crucial matters are not so obvious.
    I’m sorry, this is simply not top-grade Dickens (so far). I went and dipped into Bleak House a couple of days ago, just to reassure myself of what Dickens was really capable of …

    • The practicalities of the double are troubling, to say the least. I was reading about some film adaptations of ATOTC yesterday (as part of another project, I swear – it’s just coincidence. Anyway…) and it hammered home the difficulties of presenting this particular scene on screen, given that there is yet to be a film where Darnay and Carton actually look alike, yet alone identical. Returning to the previous cries of “theatrical”, there is certainly a suspension of disbelief needed on the part of the cinema audience, more akin to that which you might expect of a theatre audience, in accepting the two characters as doubles, and it seems that the same is true to an extent of Dickens’s original text as well – like Gina says, he’s going overboard with the coincidences a bit, threatening his unwritten rule of leaving the supernatural and uncanny to his shorter fiction and grounding his longer works in the realm of realism (although granted, Dickens’s many caricatures and anthropomorphism always leave some wiggle room in his depiction of the real).

      You’re right, there’s definitely signs of strain in the writing, which if we’re feeling generous, we could attribute to the punishing weekly schedule and format issue which Dickens created for himself, or if we were feeling meaner point towards his turbulent personal life as a potentially negative impact upon his professional capabilities at this point. that said, Dickens on a bad day can still be pretty amazing, and on the whole I’m enjoying the story so far. I guess we just take the rough with smooth.

      • Great point, Pete! I remember watching an ITV production of TOTC in the 80s and being utterly confused as to why everybody through Darnay and Carton looked alike when they so obviously weren’t! It’s fascinating how this idea was carried through from Little Dorrit (in which several characters are potential doubles for Amy) to Great Expectations (ditto for Pip) and then on to the complex haunting of John Harmon by himself in Our Mutual Friend.

    • I see your point, jrsd, but I feel rather differently about it. Although ATOTC is my favorite novel, I’ve never paid such careful attention to its structure before this — I love how much I’m learning from all of you about something I thought I already knew so well! — and I’m finding the way Dickens introduces these characters, and emphasizes different ones at different times, fascinating. Maybe this is something of a far-fetched comparison, but it reminds me a bit of Ravel’s “Bolero”! Instead of main themes being introduced up front, you get a slow build, with one section being introduced at a time.

      • Yes, it’s really fascinating to wait a week and then really feel the force of the transitions from one set of characters, or one scene, to another. It really reminds me of the famous passage in Oliver Twist in which Dickens says life, like a good melodrama, consists of sometimes outlandish shifts of scene and mood — from grief to joy in the space of one day — rather like the white and pink in a piece of streaky bacon.

  5. I like your point about Parts 5 and 6 probably being better read together. I’ve been on holiday so have done just that! As for practicalities in film/TV productions, it’d be possible (now at least) to have one actor play both roles. A double part launched the career of the legend that is Lindsey Lohan… 😉

    • …not to mention Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. However, the technical potential for doubling on film has been around for quite some time (Laurel and Hardy certainly used the technique). When ATOTC was filmed in 1935, one of the actors (Colman I think) was wary when first offered a part because he assumed he’d have to double. So in this instance and subsequent adaptations, directors have made the conscious decision not to double the part, despite the dependance on identical physical attributes in this scene.

      • I’d heard that about Colman too. Pretty ironic, since he then went on to play doubles in “The Prisoner of Zenda.” 🙂

  6. I’m afraid I’m still struggling, a week behind and not enjoying it at all now. I found the whole court scene very confusing and couldn’t really get interested when I didn’t know or understand who was being tried. I’ll try to read this week’s later on in the week and hope it picks up.

    • The forced pace can be offputting, can’t it. When I’m reading a novel I can skim through boring bits and get on to the next part, but when you’re reading it week by week like this it enforces increased attention on each part, which can be hugely beneficial as we’ve seen from the many insights people have had that they’d have otherwise missed, but can be equally detrimental if you hit a point where you’re not enjoying it. It would be interesting to see how initial sales compared to final sales to see how audience figures grew or shrank. Still, keep in there, the pace will pick up!

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