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.