18 June

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.

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About Gail Marshall

I joined the University of Leicester as Professor of Victorian Literature in January 2010. My main interests are in the fiction and theatre of the period, and in women's history and literature of the time. I've long wanted to see how it might feel to read a Victorian novel serially, and am looking forward to examining this experience.

11 thoughts on “18 June

  1. It’s so odd that, despite all the details that set an oppressive mood in this passage, when I look back at it, I don’t at first recall it as being oppressive. Maybe because of the rainstorm? There’s something about a rainstorm that brings a sense of release and relief.

  2. To me the primary feeling of this instalment is consolidation. A number of people, myself included, have mentioned how Dickens has rushed about or disappointed us by changing scene in a following instalment when we were expecting further explanation of the last. Here, finally, we get it. Dr Manette’s state of mind is further explored, Lucie’s background is expanded. Where last week we had jackals, now we have ladybirds. All the principal players are in place, the pace is slowed right down to one day, one gathering, one location. Carton and Darnay are now regular visitors to the Manettes, as is Lorry. Jerry pops up too, and the red-headed servant returns and is named as Miss Pross. But whereas Jerry’s return in week 5 went without comment, here Dickens makes takes special care to link the earlier parts together: “Miss Pross, the wild red woman, strong of hand, whose acquaintance he [Lorry] had first made at the Royal George Hotel at Dover, and had since improved.” Everything is being tied together nicely (no doubt, by a golden thread).

    It is an opportunity to catch our breath and take stock, and also to look ahead, to the footsteps of those yet to join the narrative – in particular, as Gail notices, the coming revolution. I agree, given the various scenes set in France already, not to mention the opening of the book and the opening within all this of the approaching bloodshed, that anticipatory thoughts of the revolution were both inevitable and planned. Given that this is, first and foremost, a tale of TWO cities, the way this week’s instalment seems so bent on giving a recap and summary makes the absence of Paris, in turn, quite conspicuous. Indeed, by the final paragraph especially, where we are told of crowds rushing and roaring (reminiscent of the many discussions already made by Dickens thus far in his France sections), the silent part of Paris is deafening.

  3. I was really struck by Gail’s description of space and the material objects that fill it as oppressive and stultifying in this week’s instalment. This also occurs in Barnaby Rudge, in which the Maypole Inn is represented as sometimes warm, welcoming and nourishing, yet, at other times, as a site of stasis, decay and oppression. Tellingly, it is a Gothicised building, dating from Tudor times. With the dislocating description of the house in Soho Square, is Dickens, perhaps unconsciously, suggesting that some elements of British domesticity are Bastille-like?

  4. I agree that this chapter is completely oppressive but I was too excited at seeing Miss Pross again to really realize it until the end of the chapter. I couldn’t keep myself from audibly laughing at her fits of “the jerks” when she becomes uncomfortable with Darnay’s attraction towards Lucie. Dickens really is a master of allegory, and we see that with his usage of the thunderstorm as a symbol for the impending “storm” of the revolution. After reading Gina’s comment here, I realized that this chapter is totally ripe with the oppressive atmosphere that happens before a storm. It really helps put the reader in the mindset of the tumultuous time (which honestly, I’ve been forgetting it’s a period piece unless I’m reminded by some outside societal description.)

    • And I’ve realized since I wrote that, both of my top two favorite novels (this one and Dorothy L. Sayers’s “Gaudy Night”) have scenes where an oppressive atmosphere is relieved by a thunderstorm! If the atmosphere in ATOTC really was relieved . . .

  5. I didn’t read the section as oppressive at all; like Pete I saw it as a chance to catch up with the characters, to see them interacting in a common space and to take stock of what has gone before. I saw the Manette’s house as a refuge from the storm with Lucie at its centre, attracting and sheltering the other characters. For Lorry the house is now an important and comforting part of his life. The sinister aspect for me was, within this peaceful haven, the sudden mention of the shoemaking equipment in Dr Manette’s room, rather like an instrument of torture left on display.

    It was good to have a few reminders of Miss Pross’s character traits, as I hadn’t expected her to appear again. However I wish Dickens had done the same with Darnay and Carton as I really can’t remember much about them from preceding weeks!

    A more enjoyable read this week for me. But I still feel as though I’m waiting for the story to start.

    • Thanks Lou – I’m coming back after a week away from this but I think Gail or Ben must now have done this and we’re ‘dickensataleoftwocities’, so thanks to them if this is now sorted. If not please shout! And if there are other things that you spot as a more experienced blogger. . . It’s all new and wonderful to me!

  6. Thanks for your great responses. I’m very taken by Ben’s idea that this instalment articulates the imprisoning nature of British domesticity. The characters do seem to me to be stranded in their domestic predicament, rather than finding succour in it. The apartment is like a little island of haunting noises, where Miss Pross’s fears of marauders couple with the echoes surrounding the characters to produce a state of nervous trepidation in me. There is a deep level of unarticulated threat here. It’s also a section that brings to the fore the doubling that Dickens uses to unsettling effect throughout this tale of two cities, and which is arguably never resolved (though that’s getting ahead of ourselves). Dr Manette’s tools bring the prison into the home, Darnay and Carton confront each other, peace and tumult exist simultaneously in the quiet space which nonetheless echoes with unseen feet.

  7. Reading TOTC in instalments is really helping me to see how it is a novel with its own ghostly double – Dickens’s earlier historical novel, Barnaby Rudge (sorry to keep harking back to it!).

    As in Barnaby Rudge, the home is simultaneously, and paradoxically, a space of refuge, virtue and contentment, but also the site in which political and personal revolt is both generated and enacted. With its oppressive domesticity, the home imprisons and thus enrages its frustrated inhabitants. During the riots, the Maypole Inn is overrun by ‘the mob’ (a rather gleeful scene that one can’t help but feel Dickens thoroughly enjoyed writing), while in TOTC, as Gail interestingly points out, the house at Soho Square echoes with the warning footsteps of a ghostly mob. This striking image suggests that the home is both a refuge and already contaminated by the ‘outside’. Again, I feel this is related to the novel’s exploration of how ostensibly contrasting places and states are actually marked by the delineable fragments and traces of the other.

  8. Didn’t see this chapter as oppressive. It did, though, have some Dickensian richness that others have pointed out, and also seemed to pick up some loose ends and thereby prepare us for a further leap forward — to where?
    I liked the atmospheric description of Soho Square — it’s that part of Dickens that just enjoys describing London scenes, the part of Dickens that culminates in The Uncommercial Traveller.
    Also, I enjoyed the return of the red-headed Miss Pross. Here’s a question, though: who was paying her to take care of Lucie when younger? Will we find out? As Orwell (I think) noted long ago, Dickens is often rather vague as to the sources of people’s income

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