A sense of crisis is signalled immediately this week, by the subtitle of Book III, ‘The Track of a Storm’ and by the epigraph to the chapter, ‘In Secret’, the meaning of which only becomes clear half way through the instalment. Darnay returns to a country he scarcely recognizes, where armed ‘citizen patriots’ sporting tricolour cockades police his journey and barriers on the roads are a foreshadowing of the imprisonment to come. My reading of Darnay, contrary to comments last week, is that he is motivated entirely by a sense of honour and duty, not that he is either selfish or naive.
Dickens sticks close to real events in France in the autumn of 1792 as the king and queen have been imprisoned and the Reign of Terror is about to be unleashed. According to the helpful notes in Andrew Sanders’s World’s Classics edition he apparently changed the time of Darnay’s return to France on the manuscript, from January 1793 to the autumn of 1792, just before the ‘September Massacres’ where thousands of aristocrats were executed by ‘that sharp female newly born and called La Guillotine’, as Defarge refers to it. These events are hinted at – ‘the horrible massacre days and nights long which . . . was to set a great mark of blood upon the blessed garnering time of harvest’ but Dickens is also relying on the reader having some knowledge of the historical events.
Our sympathies seem to be shifting. The long suffering, starved peasants and the tense, watchful inhabitants of Sainte Antoine have become coarse, brutal ‘citizens’, armed and murderous, and potentially undisciplined. ‘Monseigneur’, the ironic collective noun for an arrogant, remote, unfeeling aristocracy living a life of excess has morphed into the cultivated and compassionate men and women who rise to greet Darnay as he enters La Force, ‘with every refinement of manner known to the time and with all the engaging graces and courtesies of life’. In Darnay’s eyes they are already dead, ‘Ghosts all! the ghost of beauty, the ghost of stateliness, the ghost of elegance, the ghost of pride, the ghost of frivolity, the ghost of wit, the ghost of youth, the ghost of age, all waiting their dismissal from the desolate shore’.
The scene is strikingly similar to one in Elizabeth Gaskell’s My Lady Ludlow serialized in Household Words a year before ATOTC, in which doomed aristocratic families keep up the pretense of normality , watched over by brutish gaolers as they await the summons to the guillotine. Dickens would have read Gaskell’s novella, as he read most of her fiction in Household Words before it went to press. But Andrew Sanders’s note suggests that it was Carlyle’s The French Revolution, not Gaskell’s tale that was Dickens’s source for the scene as well as some contemporary memoirs .
Further images of death crowd in on Darnay as he feels he has been left for dead in his cell, the bloated gaoler who looks like a man who has been drowned and filled with water , and the maggots that breed in the filthy mattress, ‘the first condition of the body after death’.
For me Dickens’s brilliant rendering of Darnay’s hallucinations – his obsessive pacing of his cell which prompts reminders of an earlier prisoner’s obsessive behaviour (‘he made shoes, he made shoes’), his inability to blot out memories of the unnaturally lit villages through which he has travelled, the woman in black with golden air, the roar of the city like muffled drums, but with ‘a wail of voices’ –makes this the best ending of a single instalment so far. I am finding it very hard to resist reading on.