Week 9: ‘The Leprosy of Unreality’

Dickens bookends this instalment with startling, yet by-now familiar, images of oral consumption and cannibalistic rapacity. Yesterday, Donna drew our attention to the remarkable image of ‘human stew’, ‘boiling’ and flowing through the streets of London. In France, we are told, of the aristocrats running their country into the ground: ‘Monseigneur could swallow a great many things with ease, and was by some few sullen minds supposed to be rather rapidly swallowing France’. Again, Dickens deploys this image of an all-devouring monster, which rather reminds me of the myth of Cronus (Saturn) who ate his own children in fear that they would supplant him (Goya’s painting of this [1819–23] is fabulously gory! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturn_Devouring_His_Son).Towards the end of the instalment, Dickens depicts the starving rural poor, who are being swallowed (into the grave) rather than doing much swallowing, which reminds us of the extraordinary earlier scene of the famished Parisians lapping up spilt wine – and the detritus of the gutter. Do these disturbing images anticipate The Origin of Species (first published in November 1859), with its idea of ‘the struggle for life’? Dickens is perhaps critiquing Thomas Malthus here, whose theory of the inevitability of famine in an over-populated world he loathed. The French famine is not Nature rebelling against human over-population, but humanity suffering through governmental mismanagement and neglect.

This instalment seems to me to open in a familiar Dickensian mode: the scathing critique of aristocratic mores. Indeed, the tone and the content are both comparable to Bleak House (1852–53) and Little Dorrit (1855–57). See, for example, chapter 21 of Little Dorrit, which is remarkably similar in its radical, satirical attack on the interwoven interests of politics, religion and finance which dominate, and undermine, the State. In Little Dorrit, the social, political and economic representatives of power are witheringly reduced to their titles: Bishop, Horse Guards, Bar, Treasury and Admiralty. In both Little Dorrit and this week’s instalment of TOTC, Dickens attacks the selfishness, avariciousness and social and sexual corruption of the privileged, who are blind to their place within the interwoven fabric of society and their paternalistic role as political rulers, social guardians and moral exemplars. In Ancien Régime France, we find similarly dangerous forms of aristocratic neglect, a closed, elaborately ceremonial, grievously insular and painfully self-deluding world (evoked by Dickens’s wonderful phrase, ‘The leprosy of unreality’), in which merit, skill, ability and education are effaced by hereditary privilege and wealth (‘Exquisite gentlemen of the finest breeding’).

Interesting, Little Dorrit suggests that the appalling errors of the French aristocracy are being carelessly replicated and reproduced by British ‘Society’, dominated by a poisonous alliance between the old, landed aristocracy and the new wealth of industrialists, speculators and bankers (plus ça change!).

There is, perhaps, an interestingly gendered aspect to this critique, with male French aristocrats depicted as effeminately concerned with appearance, dress, comportment and ceremonial. Compare these effete creatures to the bluff, hearty manliness of, say, Stryver. Dickens also plays with religious metaphors in this instalment: ‘Monseigneur’ is also an honorific title in the Roman Catholic Church, while ‘Holiest of Holiests’ brings to mind the Jewish Temple. Dickens impishly compares the elaborate, yet superficial, ceremonial of the Court to Roman Catholic worship, reminding us that Dickens, like many of his contemporaries, regarded Roman Catholicism as effete, shallow and corrupting. This is particularly pertinent in the context of the Italian War of Unification in which the Pope was (rightly) regarded by many nationalists as an enemy of unification.

Dickens demonstrates a sound understanding of the socio-economic and political factors that contributed to the fall of the Ancien Régime and he cleverly and energetically compresses them into the vignette of the despicable Marquis. The autocratic French state was indeed in the grip of a prolonged and highly destabilising financial crisis (interesting parallels with our own times, perhaps), resulting from the expenses of the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) and the American War of Independence (1775–83). The aristocracy enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, and enjoyed ancient, seigneurial privileges – enabling them to arbitrarily arrest, imprison and even kill members of the lower orders – while parasitically failing to contribute their fair share of tax. The State was, as Dickens scathingly observes, criminally misgoverned by an isolated and autocratic elite. Meanwhile, for the ordinary people of France, famine was a constant danger as a run of poor harvests continually pushed up the price of bread and other staples.

What’s remarkable is the way that Dickens manages to evoke in the reader the rage of the French multitudes, depicting the Marquis and his ilk as utterly lacking one of the most fundamental human emotions – sympathy. A society in which wealth, inheritance, privilege and power warp the affective bonds that underpin social relations is one that, like the Marquis’s carriage, is heading, ‘with a wild rattle and clatter’, to destruction – and deservedly so.

The striking image of the man holding on to the underside of the Marquis’s carriage, stalking and haunting him, reminded me of our discussion of doubles, doppelgangers and ghosts – ‘white as a spectre, tall as a spectre!’ And what a cliff-hanger! Perhaps the treason charges against ‘Monsieur Charles’ weren’t quite as trumped-up as we imagined.

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About Ben Winyard

Ben Winyard is the Digital Publications Officer at Birkbeck, University of London. He completed his PhD at Birkbeck, where he also worked as an intern on '19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century' (www.19.bbk.ac.uk). More recently, he worked as a postdoctoral researcher and senior editor on the Dickens Journals Online project (www.djo.org.uk).

18 thoughts on “Week 9: ‘The Leprosy of Unreality’

  1. It’s interesting how this part complements last week’s; not a pairing you’d necessarily pick up on if reading this as a book, but after last week’s long-awaited consolidation of characters and the story so far in England, with its hints at the end towards the approaching masses, the switch this week to Paris is allowed to dwell in the introduction of a new character, the Marquis, without confusing the loyal readers. Note also how, once again, Dickens introduces a familiar character as though they were unfamiliar. Monsieur and Madame Defarge are seen as strangers through the eyes of the Marquis precisely as the Manettes are seen by Jerry in Week 5. Is Dickens challenging us to reassess our impressions of the characters; to recognise their multiple aspects dependant on the observer, or simply influencing our ideas of the observer by their opinion of characters already known to us?

    I was also interested by the recurring simile of rats in their hole as it immediately brought to mind Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1831, translated into English in 1833). In it, the pitiful recluse Paquette la Chantefleurie, wracked with grief from the kidnapping of her infant child long ago, lives in self-imposed exile in a cell in the Tour Roland, known to all the people of Paris simply as the rat hole:

    “a narrow, arched window-hole, guarded by two iron bars through which a little air and light are admitted into a small cell without a door built on the ground-floor, in the thickness of the wall of the old house – and filled with a stillness the more profound, a silence the more dead, inasmuch as a public square, the most populous and the noisiest in Paris, is swarming and clamouring around it.”

    Paquette herself is barely living, consumed by her grief to become a haunting figure, much like the figure on the Marquis’s carriage. She is described as “one of those spectres half light, half shade, such as are seen in dreams, and in the extraordinary work of Goya” – a strange coincidence, given the description of another character at the same scene as “a very Saturn” for his appetite – “it was neither woman nor man, nor living being nor definite form: it was a figure, a sort of vision, in which the real and the fanciful intermingled like twilight and daylight.”

    In turn, rereading “hunchback”, and the inhumainty of the person in grief, recalled to me Dickens’s imagery of the poor as rats and dogs living “life on the lowest terms”.

    • Thanks, Pete, for drawing our attention to these absolutely fascinating comparisons with ‘The Hunchback’. The idea of grief or trauma as almost cannibalistic and devouring seems a common thread here. I hadn’t really noticed how Dickens is constantly shifting the narrator’s perspective, introducing and then re-introducing us to characters. This seems to me tied to a vision of urban life, particularly its kleidsoscopic scenes, which is perhaps also related to the novel’s broader theme of flux, tumult and rapidity of change. Perhaps urban life itself is somehow akin to the revolutionary state?

  2. Yes, great economy of critique of aristocratic injustice – our sympathies here are firmly with the will-be revolutionaries. I was taken by the way that Monseigneur also has a carefully worked out domestic architecture – the language “sanctuary of sanctuaries” also made me think of the Soho corner house we’ve just seen in the previous installment. While both look like forms of retreat, there are clear differences in class treatment within these “inner rooms” – compare Miss Pross as one of the family to the chocolate serving lacqueys.
    The other thing that really jumped out to me were the descriptions of hard riding and the awful scene of the child killed. I’ve been reading John Halifax Gentleman by Dinah Craik (1856) with an MA group and we were surprised to find a very similar scene of a wealthy titled land owner running down a child. Is this a common motif of aristocratic self-indulgence and damaging disregard of others? I’d be interested to hear if anyone has come across it in other contexts.

    • The first thought that popped into my head was an antithesis in Jane Eyre, where Rochester makes his appearance in chapter 12 by falling off his horse – sure enough, a quick search on google and I found an interesting discussion of this as a motif for humbling a man and therefore making him likeable to the reader that compliments the point you’re making above:
      http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/bronte/cbronte/61brnt11.html

    • It’s absolutely fascinating how our discussions have opened up the idea that Dickens’s famous dedication to a broad ideal of domesticity is actually rather complicated and contradictory in TOTC. The house at Soho Square feels, to me, far more oppressive and threatening than on previous readings, and Holly’s wonderful comparison of this ‘holiest of holies’ with that of the Monseigneur reveals a further dimension to this idea, I think. It feels as if Dickens is complicating, or even dismantling the idea of any domestic or interior space as absolutely sacred and inviolable. The house at Soho Square echoes with the footsteps of invaders and we know that French aristocrats will soon find their luxurious living quarters overrun by revolutionaries. Perhaps Dickens is also suggesting something about the vulnerability of the psyche, of an individual’s inner, private life, to external invasion in the form of trauma?

    • When I was a teenager I was an avid reader of historical romances, and I remember this being a common incident in those. I remember one in particular in which some poor peasant child who was run down by a local aristocrat grew up to be a revolutionary who helped to imprison the aristocrat. He also had an identitcal twin who was adopted by the aristocrat to try to make restoration. It was a great read, as I recall, but possibly a bit low brow! It is interesting to think that it is a motif that has carried through to what one might hesitatingly call a ‘Neo-Victorian’ context.

      • I love the sound of it Hazel – can you remember the title? I suppose it’s a very effective and affective shorthand for positioning reader’s class sympathies – which might explain why it persists. I like the inverse Rochester reference too Pete, so will now also be keeping a weather eye for men falling off horses! This blog is suggesting so many things to look out for . . .

      • I couldn’t remember off the top of my head (although I remember a surprising amount about the plot!) but I looked it up and it is called The Devil on Horseback by Victoria Holt. It is very pulpy but lots of fun. Yes, I like Pete’s Rochester reference as well. One could suggest that the humbling that occurs in the horse scene foreshadows his later humbling when he is blinded by the fire. Both times Jane has to help restore him. Elsie B. Michie has written a chapter on ‘Horse and Social/Sexual Dominance’ in a book called Victorian Animal Dreams by Deborah Morse that might be interesting in relation to both TOTC and Jane Eyre.

  3. Again it feels as though Dickens is starting afresh and I wonder if this is deliberate so that any reader can enjoy the instalment without knowing the backstory? The scene where the child is killed was very affecting but for me it descended into farce with the Monty Python-like peasants descending on him at every turn and being turned away with magnificantly cruel replies!

    I can’t imagine reading this as a complete book; an anthology of interlinked short stories perhaps. Please Dickens, just give me one character I can route for!

    • Yes, Dickens definitely seems to fall back on his stock melodramatic presentation of character in this instalment. You can almost imagine the Marquis twirling his moustache while he laughs maniacally at the peasants! Also, the Marquis is completely without any redeeming characteristics, but perhaps Dickens felt it was necessary to do this in order to make his middle-class readers more sympathetic to the soon-to-be revolutionaries? It seems pretty clear, this week, that Dickens is firmly on the side of the suffering French poor.

  4. Reading the discussion over on Dickensblog, which aligns the idea of humbling with rebirth, I couldn’t help but immediately think of Dr Manette, who was ‘buried alive’ and then reborn as it were. Of course, Dr Manette’s case is quite different from anything we have been talking about so far, but it is interesting to think about the way Dickens utilises the same basic motif to different ends.

    • That’s a really fascinating connection. Also, humbling, death and rebirth are, of course, Christian tropes and, as we will later see (spoilers!), the Christian ideal of sacrifice is particularly important. I also wonder if this ‘humbling’ process is something happening on a national level with the humiliation, death and rebirth of the French nation that Dickens is so heavily foreshadowing.

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