This is surely one of the most oppressively haunting parts of this novel, and it’s very useful to be reading in our serial fashion in order to be able to visit it afresh to assess exactly how this mood is achieved. The very quietness and shelter of Soho Square is deeply oppressive, stultifying and lifeless, but on this reading I’ve been most struck by the ways in which material objects generate a sense of horror and dislocation. Nothing is quite as it should be: ‘a golden arm [starts] out of the wall of the front hall’ as if the goldsmith ‘had beaten himself precious’, birds are caged in Lucie’s room, the dining room doubles rather gruesomely as a consulting room, and Dr Manette’s bedroom as a cobbler’s shop and cell, curtains become spectral wings, and the whole is both disturbing, and oppressively prophetic. Characters too threaten to dissolve within these metamorphic passages. Dr Manette fears to lose himself, Miss Pross is figured as a sorceress, and in a moment of Christ-like munificence and acceptance Carton promises to take into his life the thousands of hurrying footsteps that echo weirdly around Soho Square.
It’s impossible not to read this instalment without an awareness of what’s to come as France approaches its experience of Revolution, and this invites a comparison between our situation, when many of us are re-reading, whilst feigning to be reading for the first time, and the situation of Victorian readers embarking on this historical novel. In some sense, they too knew how the story would proceed: whilst not knowing of individual characters’ fates, they might anticipate the further involvement of the principal characters in the Revolution, and could certainly have expected Darnay’s implication in the guilt of the ancien regime. It might be instructive to consider the ways in which Dickens’s contemporaries were also in some measure re-reading the story of the French Revolution, and to think about the extent to which this awareness of their experience surely informs the claustrophobia, the ineluctable oppression, of this instalment.