Once again, reading the novel week by week seems to make individual incidents stand out with far greater clarity than when racing through a paperback eager to find out what happens next. The most startling scene for me in this week’s instalment, vivid in its oddness, is that of the sacrifice of Dr Manette’s work-bench. For Mr. Lorry with his business-like sense of materiality (‘a plodding man of business who only deals with such material objects as guineas, shillings, and bank-notes’), the sign is the thing, or at least the ‘retention of the thing’ equates to the ‘retention of the idea’. So Dr Manette’s work-bench is sacrificed for his mental health, and notably, for Lucie, who is later on described in almost religious terms when asking Darnay to be have greater compassion for Sydney Carton (‘She looked so beautiful, in the purity of her faith in this lost man’). This sacrifice is strangely violent, drawing analogies and contrasts between innocent comedic characters such as Mr Lorry and Miss Pross with their more violent counterparts in the novel. One cannot help but read a judgement on the masses so soon due to rise up, in the statement
‘So wicked do destruction and secrecy appear to honest minds, that Mr. Lorry and Miss Pross, while engaged in the commission of their deed and in the removal of its traces, almost felt, and almost looked, like accomplices in a horrible crime’.
Apparently, to honest minds, even burning a bench, strikes horror into their hearts, even if in doing so they are helping a friend, and causing no harm. There is something quite grisly in Dickens’s description of the deed:
‘There, with closed doors, and in a mysterious and guilty manner, Mr. Lorry hacked the shoemaker’s bench to pieces, while Miss Pross held the candle as if she were assisting at a murder—for which, indeed, in her grimness, she was no unsuitable figure. The burning of the body (previously reduced to pieces convenient for the purpose), was commenced without delay in the kitchen fire; and the tools, shoes, and leather, were buried in the garden’.
On a side-note, it is interesting that Mr Lorry’s euphemism for Dr Manette’s cobbler work is ‘Blacksmith’s work’, which of course, makes us think of Dickens’s next novel, Great Expectations and Pip, the young gentleman who is ashamed of his past as a blacksmith’s apprentice, particularly given our discussion last week of Dr Manette as a cypher for Dickens himself. Mr Lorry and Dr Manette’s analysis of Dr Manette’s psychological state throws up a few more remarks to lend weight to that notion. The most obvious being Dr. Manette’s tendency to over-work himself. One does not need to know much about Dickens to realize that he could have been as easily describing himself when he writes of Dr Manette: ‘It may be the character of his mind, to be always in singular need of occupation’. Moreover, Dr Manette’s later statement that ‘He may have observed himself, and made the discovery’ recalls to mind a line from ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’, written much later, in 1869, in which Dickens writes in relation to a period of over-working himself, ‘Being accustomed to observe myself as curiously as if I were another man, and knowing the advice to meet my only need, I instantly halted in the pursuit of which I speak, and rested’ (http://www.djo.org.uk/all-the-year-round/volume-i-new-series/page-589.html).
Can we find any significance in the fact that one of the later articles in the number recounts the story of a forger of bank-notes who was sent to Australia as a convict? In this case, the materiality which Mr Lorry depends on, those bank-notes and shillings and guineas, does not quite equate what it is supposed to. What about Wilkie Collins’s question ‘A New View of Society’ of ‘whether I am fit for Bedlam, or not?’ I quite enjoy the playful interaction of this text with TOTC, in which Dickens’s serious treatment of the subject of psychology and mental health is juxtaposed with Collins’s musings on the ‘insanity’ of societal conventions, bringing in a lighter note, to an issue which I found rather gloomy, although without quite knowing why – perhaps because at this late Gstage in the novel, as a reader, one feels that storm clouds must be gathering soon – or perhaps it is just the image of Dr Manette sitting in his office with his blackened hands.