Nit of the week

Here’s what has me scratching my head this week:

The grindstone had a double handle, and, turning at it madly were two men, whose faces, as their long hair flapped back when the whirlings of the grindstone brought their faces up, were more horrible and cruel than the visages of the wildest savages in their most barbarous disguise. False eyebrows and false moustaches were stuck upon them, and their hideous countenances were all bloody and sweaty, and all awry with howling, and all staring and glaring with beastly excitement and want of sleep.

Does anyone have any ideas on this? Is it an extended metaphor, in which case who are the savages that Dickens is speaking of who are wearing false eyebrows and moustaches; or, is it supposed to be literal, and the French revolutionaries are actually wearing false eyebrows and moustaches? Either option seems a little strange to me – can anyone shed any light on this?

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About Pete Orford

I'm an English lecturer at the University of Buckingham, with a research background in both Dickens and Shakespeare; I am also a father of three, with a research background in dinosaurs and moshi monsters. I'm Chief Investigator for The Drood Inquiry (

8 thoughts on “Nit of the week

  1. My first thought is that he’s referring to the smears of blood on their faces that look a little like eyebrows and mustaches. I could be mistaken, though.

  2. I seem to remember having read somewhere, in what was probably a heavily royalist influenced account written after the event of the Princesse De Lamballe in these massacres at La Force, the September Massacres, that the members of the mob were wearing mustaches made of her body hair. Doing a little more research, I found…
    Dickens apparently got this ghoulish detail from Carlyle who is a bit vague in his description.

    • Carlyle was pretty meticulous in his research and he is reporting on primary sources. The account is generally accepted as being true.
      There might be more to the action as Lamballe was also accused of being Marie-Anntoinett’s lesbian lover which makes the image more potent than at first it would seem.

  3. I can honestly say that I would never have guessed that. No wonder they didn’t mention it in the footnotes of my edition – thank you all for a truly enlightening experience that I won’t be forgetting in a hurry (despite all my best efforts).

  4. It is difficult to think that Humans could do such things but our recent history from the Babi Ghar and the 91st’s march down the Grand Trunk road (only two years before Dickens was writing) through the German thirties to Abu Graihb and the Lord’s Revolutionary Army shows how fine the line is between love and hatred.
    Zola has a similar image of ‘pork chops’ on a pike in Germinal (I hope I got that title right, memory is not what it was)

      • Difficult question – does violence beget violence, or is it justified if stopping even more violence? Dickens suggests using a gun to “petrify” the rebels – to talk of halting them in this way suggests to me the emphasis is on stopping them, presumably from causing any further attrocities, rather than vengeance for crimes past. This latter course is personified in Madame Defarge, who is doing terrible violence against those who previously persecuted her and her kind.

        Again, I feel Lucie is central to this theme as the anti-madame, all love and peace as opposed to hellfire and brimstone. Dickens doesn’t make her witness this scene – is this to protect her virtue from a sight that would prompt anyone to get a gun, or is her virtue incorruptible, making her presence at the scene an impassable obstacle for Dickens who wants to condemn rather than forgive?

      • Carlyle would use magic to stop the mob, Dickens gun, yes, would petrify them in the sense of causing them to fear for their lives but isn’t the threat of violence, violence in itself? is there ‘good’ violence as opposed to ‘bad’ violence? The crowd cheered Manette and followed him, could he have done a Gandhi and turned the people round?
        All hypothetical and difficult to answer but considering the circumstances where Paris had little food and the country had been invaded by the First Coalition who wished to restore the Bourbons and chastise the Parisians the reaction is understandable. It would have been better had the Duke of Brunswick’s army brought convoys of bread rather than wagon-loads of canon.
        Hey! This is a long way from Dickens story.
        I feel as you do, the central theme is Lucie vs. Lucifer which brings us back to reflections and opposites again. As to locking Lucie away, it is a natural reaction to danger to remove loved ones out of harms way.Had she been allowed to view the scene I suspect that she would have used a convoy, not a wagon and left no room for Dickens to condemn.

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