Week 21 The Track of a Storm

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. 



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About Joanne Shattock

I am Emeritus Professor of Victorian Literature at the University of Leicester. My research interests are nineteenth century women's writing, literary journalism, and the nineteenth-century periodical press. I am currently interested in the networks of professional writers in the middle decades of the nineteenth century and the ways in which these networks impacted on journals such as Household Words and All the Year Round.

5 thoughts on “Week 21 The Track of a Storm

  1. How interesting that Dickens changed the date of Darnay’s return to France. Had he returned after the September massacres, it would have made him less ignorant of the dangers he was sailing into (DIckens talks of his “ignorant hope” that arises from the obscurity that still shrouds the guillotine at that time, as well as the revelations that the King has just been arrested); however to then go across knowing such dangers would not make him brave so much as reckless, or harbouring a death wish; either of which would have a far more negative impact on his character than a positive, as has already been discussed given his wife and child at home. As it is, Darnay’s naiviety, even though it stretches belief still, allows for us to see him as noble but misinformed, rather than arrogant and single-minded.

  2. I found the Gaskell echo you point out very interesting Joanne. Does anyone know of other scenes like this in Victorian novels? It’s fascinating to think of the treatment of doomed French aristocracy being, perhaps, another staple of fiction of the period, some of which Dickens clearly drew on for this instalment.

    • Thanks Pete and Holly for your comments. Pete has very helpfully amplified the point about Dickens changing the date of Darnay’s return to France. Had he returned after the massacres he would have seemed foolhardy in the extreme. Andrew Sanders makes another point about the date on which all emigrant properties were confiscated, which would also have given Darnay pause before deciding to make his journey.

      I think it interesting that Dickens assumes a reasonably detailed knowledge of the French Revolution from his readers, few of whom, if any, would have been alive at the time. Holly’s question is a good one. At what point, I wonder, did English readers begin to see the French aristocracy as the victims rather than the cause of the revolution? Gaskell presents them as representative of all that is best in French society. Dickens’s view is more qualified — they embody frivolity as well as wit — and up until this point in the novel they, and the court, are presented as the cause of the people’s grievances. Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel I suppose is the best known popular text about the rescue of French aristocrats during the Reign of Terror, but it is much later (1903) than Dickens and Gaskell’s texts.

      • There’s an important point to consider in the switch in treatment of the aristocracy here, which is that the original Marquis de Evremonde – who embodies the very worst of the nobility’s trampling of the peasantry (literally in the coach incident) – dies BEFORE the revolution begins. Why not after? Why doesn’t Dickens show him being brought before the mob and reduced to a prisoner? Why does he kill him while still at the height of his powers?

        As it is, it is a tale of two Evremondes: Darnay and his uncle; the one, pre-revolution, presents the case for the peasan’t uprising in his diabolical tyranny and disregard for humanity; while the portrayal of his successor argues against the revolution by showing the aristorcracy as noble, kind and human, yet persecuted by the ignorant savagery around him.

  3. Interesting to note that the story line in Scarlet Pimpernel swings round a secret past. Marguerite is a Republican unknown to her husband Blakeney who disowns her when he finds out. She travels back to France to recue him from danger regardless of what such action might cost her.

    Darnays pacing and hallucinatons are a remarkable piece of writing. In one short paragraph Dickens takes us through Manette’s prison life and the emotional upheaval that went with it and adds the element of Darnay’s despair with the repetition of ‘He made shoes’ to which ,as I read it I hear the muffled drums interpose the question — “What do I do?”

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