As Joanne observed, Dickens has quite dramatically and forcefully re-orientated our sympathies. The revolutionaries are now ‘wicked and distracted’, having descended into murderous, lawless anarchy and abandoned the hard work of achieving deep-rooted socio-political transformation: ‘Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death;—the last, much the easiest to bestow, O Guillotine!’ Indeed, this trajectory closely follows contemporary and Victorian responses to the Revolution: celebration and sympathy at the initial events of 1789; horror and outrage at the September Massacres and the Terror. It’s interesting that Dickens focuses mainly on the Parisian ‘mob’, identifying them with a primordial savagery and violence apparently unjustified by, or springing from, their oppression.
Dickens instead facilely posits an idealised domesticity as the foundation of socio-political order, ‘civilised’ progress and individual and collective happiness. If only Madame Defarge were as gentle, kind and domesticated as Lucie, everything would be alright! It’s interesting how MD, like France, is devoured by burning rage and vengefulness, while Lucie and Dr Manette curiously lack any negative feelings towards the Ancien Regime which falsely imprisoned him. As Cathy Waters has observed (Dickens and the Politics of the Family [CUP, 1997], pp. 122–49 and 216–18), it is telling that the guillotine was always gendered as a woman – ‘her’ blood-thirstiness, pitilessness and relentlessness (like MD) epitomised all that was apparently opposed to femininity.
Dickens nervously espies rage, blood-lust and cannibalism bubbling beneath the ‘civilised’ surface of society; yet it feels that, as an author, he is enjoying unleashing these forces (just as we readers are enjoying devouring them?). As Cathy Waters puts it, ‘The narrator’s denunciation of the revolutionary mob remains haunted by a fascination with its frenzied forms of power’ (p. 149). I was particularly struck by the wonderful image of the French peasantry rising, almost zombie-like, from the Earth to overwhelm their (mis)rulers. Earlier, this image of monstrous cannibalism – of Cronus devouring his own children – was used to critique aristocratic misrule, but the aristocrats have slunk off and now the Revolution itself has become the child-gobbling monster. Do injustice, violence and oppression ‘inevitably’ give way to new forms of injustice, violence and oppression? This seems a very conservative perspective; and this intense fear of unleashing a primeval human violence, madness and depravity coloured Victorian anxieties about ‘the mob’ and revolutionary change (Dickens famously worked as a volunteer guardsman during the 1848 Chartist meeting).
There are echoes throughout this instalment of Barnaby Rudge, particularly the racialised depictions of the revolutionaries as savages and as animals, and, also, the sense that Dickens’s narrative voice is being overwhelmed by the historical events he depicts and by its rapid shifts of perspective. Dickens is trying to be everywhere and to convey everything, moving from the historical to the domestic. It is telling that it is Lucie, the faithful British wife and mother, the exemplar of domestic ideology and feminine virtue, who is caught up in the whirlwind of the revolutionaries’ wild dance, with its distinct air of sexual menace. Similarly, the Wood-Sawyer represents the extreme anti-domesticity of the Revolution, with its all-consuming blood lust which extends, horrifyingly, to entire families (like a fairy-tale monster that gobbles up children).
If the French peasantry are zombies then Dr. Manette has become a disembodied spirit, moving through the dangerous streets of Paris like a ministering angel. Manette has used the force of his will to overcome his trauma and has restored his manliness through hard work and purposefulness. This rather pat solution to Manette’s emotional and psychological trauma reflects the gospels of self-help, work and domesticity which are increasingly coming to the fore in the novel. In a rather silly moment, Dickens asserts, ‘No man better known than he, in Paris at that day’ – this being the era of St-Just, Danton and Robespierre! As with the unconvincing machinations by which the entire cast of characters is moved to Paris, Dickens deploys a similar narratalogical outlandishness in order to give Dr Manette the freedom to swan around Revolutionary Paris, unquestioned and unharassed. The Manettes represent superior British domesticity, which Dickens is offering as a panacea to the turmoil of Revolutionary anarchy. Lucie is ‘true to her duties’ – teaching her child, keeping the home tidy, looking ‘neat’ (whatever that means – presumably the Vengeance looks suitably untidy) – and loyally stands outside the prison every day. Perhaps the prison wall makes a better husband than damp squib Darnay.
After a dawdling climb to the acme of the Revolution, Dickens is now racing at breakneck pace through the historical events – the king and queen are dispatched in a few lines, almost as violently as in real life – and he breezily pushes the story forward by over 15 months. I was reminded of the novel’s breakneck opening, with the horses-and-carriages serving again as an apt metaphor for the narrative’s acceleratory transitions. Also, am I pushing it too much to see in the guillotine a metaphor not only for the chopping up of the weekly (and monthly) instalments, but also for the rapidity of the storytelling? Like the guillotine ‘shaving’ dozens of victims in as many minutes, Dickens seems to be dispatching the story with an equal ferocity and rapacity.