Week Eleven: Dickens the Designer

Coming to the weekly part a couple of days late–well, five, if you consider that All the Year Round hit the bookstands the Wednesday before its Saturday publication date–I read it all at one breakfast-time sitting. First reactions? Pardon me, the ATOTC episode felt thin. I’ve looked several times at the first sentence–

MORE months, to the number of twelve, had come and gone, and Mr. Charles Darnay was established in England as a higher teacher of the French language who was conversant with French literature.

–and tried to consider by what measure of judgement I could consider it a good one. As an opener for the issue, it feels depressingly like a Murray first serve. Or like a barely fleshed out synopsis: ‘Music plays “The Passage of Time” (1 year) / Darnay now a tutor; successful (explain). Dialogue…’

[This reminds me that, along with the manuscript at the V&A, are preserved the number plans for ATOTC, which Dickens approached  as though he was planning a monthly rather than a weekly serial, and then chopped up. Note to self: dig copy of these out of badly-organised office archive, and post anything of interest.]

My sense of the thinness of the episode is based partly on the fact that Dickensian description, that luxuriant article, is so tightly reined in. The account of how Darnay has been spending his time has few unnecessary details, no sprouting, curious analogies, no arch backhanders. Straight from the middle of the racket. The dialogue itself, when we get there, is, again, like a rather uninteresting rally–

“Dear Doctor Manette, I love your daughter fondly, dearly, disinterestedly, devotedly. If ever there were love in the world, I love her You have loved yourself; let your old love speak for me!”
“Not that, sir! Let that be! I adjure you, do not recal that!”

Meanwhile, on court number one, Stryver vs. Carton. This, though a contest between (apparently) two lesser players, is far more engaging. Dickens seems so much more at home with these two–if only his dialogists could always be mixing punch!

Gradually, almost grudgingly, however, as the episode comes to a close I come to admire all the things I know already Dickens is trying to do. He’s designing a story, for structure, rather than telling one for the love of talking. The episode proposes ‘two promises’, one from each pair of speakers, with a condition thrown in for good measure, and duly delivers. The situation is engrossing, and the contrasts between Lucie’s three suitors could not be more clearly drawn (manly thoughtfulness; complacent coarseness; hopeless secrecy), even if the reader continues to feel a degree of outrage at the golden haired doll’s being disposed of so summarily by everyone around her. Even Manette’s at it (‘If she should ever tell me that you are essential to her perfect happiness, I will give her to you’). Still, at 9¼ columns the episode fulfils its own promise as economically as could be desired, and–widening the aperture to consider the issue as a whole, from an editorial perspective–I think one can also admire how Dickens is prepared to leave the supply of grotesque comic socio-political detail to other writers, who grapple with the material realities, the heft and stubborness of life, in more open and formless articles. John Hollingshead’s ‘Castles in the Sea’, Walter Thornbury’s ‘Viva L’Italia!’ and the final part of Charley Collins’s ‘New Sentimental Journey’ are all wonderfully ‘Dickensian’ in this respect, yet also push–with their emphasis on repressed plots and presentiments of things to come–back towards one of the central design themes of the main magazine serial.

There are a few interesting circumstantial trifles too, that this week’s episode throws up. On 30th June 1859, Dickens sent his sub-editor W.H. Wills instructions to post ‘fair revises’ of the proofs of these two chapters, and of the two that follow next week, ‘to Miss Ellen Ternan, 2 Ampthill Place, Ampthill Square, N.W.’ She would read them a week or more before the rest of the world did. Dickens’s thoughts about what she would make of their content, her reactions to being asked to consider Lucie’s situation as the object of all this tortured parental-conjugal passion are beyond recuperation–but are surely interesting to speculate about. There is perhaps an added frisson in all this supplied by the knowledge that by the Autumn of this year, Dickens would be dealing with Charley Collins as the accepted suitor of his high-spirited daughter Katey; they married in July 1860. One wonders how Charley approached the task of addressing his future father-in-law on the subject: if he borrowed or fled from the Darnay model?

Finally, the author of ‘Totty’s Consolations'(p. 252 of this issue) research reveals to be Robert Barnabas Brough (1828-60); more info. on the DJO website shortly!


7 thoughts on “Week Eleven: Dickens the Designer

  1. I like your point about how Dickens seems more at home with Carton and Stryver!

    BTW, the Nolan brothers said some very interesting things in a recent press conference about getting inspiration for “The Dark Knight Rises” from ATOTC. I don’t want to run afoul of the spam filter again, so I won’t link to it, but you can find the article I read at Comingsoon.net.

    • I really enjoyed the interweaving of the other rhythms of day to day life in John’s and Gina’s posts this week. As a fan of both Wimbledon and Nolan Batman I am also seeing the story of what maketh a hero as we read TofTC playing out in these things too. Over the last week my tea-spoon of Dickens jostled up against a re-watching of the first two parts of the Dark Knight trilogy and the saga of Murray. As well as making me think about forms of courage, heroism and male emotional expressiveness (hats off to Murray) this combination also made me see how much of our cultural life is by installment, and think about the various forms of uncertainty about the length/end/deferment of the narrative.

  2. It’s certainly an instalment of two halves, and the second one makes it for me, acting as a satyr play to the serious/noble/dull declarations of Darnay. But is the calm serenity of the first chapter deliberately employed to create tension? I ask this because the last thing we read was the murder of Darnay’s uncle, and to buy the next part the following week and find ourselves back in England with talk of teaching, Cambridge and matrimony, I can’t help thinking that Dickens’s readers would be a little confused, possibly wound up by the anti-climax. Aside from that momentary disorientation, the first half is better retrospectively, when we have read the companion picture to contrast the differing approaches to courting Miss Manette. It’s interesting that Dr Manette anticipates the next chapter in his discussion of Stryver and Carton as possible suitors, though he disregards them both as unlikely. The second chapter is therefore depicting two unlikely suitors, neither of whom have the approval of the father, and Stryver certainly shows himself unworthy in his lack of consideration for Lucie and her father that strongly contrasts Carton’s overly sensitive proposals – he talks of Lucie as a thing in his home to go to when he pleases, and has the lack of self-awareness to criticise Carton of a lack of any sensitiveness or delicacy!

    Incidentally, is it just me, or does Darnay’s “considerate” proposal seem a hell of a thing to ask? “Can I marry your daughter, and move in here for the rest of your life?” No wonder Manette isn’t overly enthusiastic about the proposal!

  3. The opening reminded me of our discussion about ‘Self-Help’ a few weeks back: Dickens is predictably approving of Darnay who manifests the correct Protestant work ethic and lacks a classical, Oxbridge education (which Dickens was consistently scathing about).

    The theme of the ‘secret heart’, of the unknowability of a person and the difficulty of relationality, also seems important in this instalment.

    As Pete has said, the meeting between Darnay and Manette is extremely odd – queer, even. This situation seems to exemplify Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s idea of the homosocial triangle, whereby two men compete for the love of a woman which, in turn, facilitates intense feeling between the men. When Manette describes Lucie as ‘my other and far dearer self’, it seems to me that, in a sense, Darnay is proposing marriage to Manette. In lots of ways, Lucie only exists in relation to the men in her life, not as an independent character in her own right. The second half of the instalment also continues in a homosocial vein with the lively friendship between Carton and Stryver who are also in competition for the affections of Lucie.

    • Mm, sorry, I’m not really seeing the feeling between Darnay and Manette as all that “intense.” And definitely not the feeling between Carton and Stryver! In my humble opinion, sometimes these kinds of interpretations squeeze characters into a mold that they just don’t fit.

  4. Yes, it’s rather disappointing that we have yet more jumping forward in time after the previous episode, where we’re left hanging (and wondering if the “Jacques” referred to at the end is one of the three Jacques met earlier in Paris). Of course time passes in novels, but there seems to be a lot more of it passing than usual in a nineteenth-century novel. How does this compare with other Dickens novels? (Which one covers the most time from start to finish? David Copperfield? Great Expectations?)
    I like John’s description of the dialogue in the earlier chapter as a “rather uninteresting rally”. When that well-worn cliché “If Dickens had been alive today he’d be writing for East Enders/Coronation Street/The Bill” gets trotted out, it’s worth remembering that if he were he’d be subject to the strictures of a script editor. In this instance, one can imagine Dickens being told “OK, we get the picture – Lucie has more than one suitor. Do we really have to take a whole episode over it? Couldn’t you move the story on a bit more?”
    The other thing that strikes me, reading the story in bits and pieces like this, is that one has to keep looking back to remind oneself who all these young (or middle-aged) men are. Darnay, Carton Stryver, Barsad … all these two-syllable names would surely be confusing for the Victorian serial reader. And what’s happened to Jarvis Lorry? Will we see any more of him?
    Just one more question for now. Surely Darnay and Manette would be conversing in French — does Dickens have any way of indicating this elsewhere? I seem to remember at the start of Little Dorritt there’s some dialogue in a form of French-inflected English …

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