Week 29: ‘O you will let me hold your brave hand, stranger?’

And so, finally, the ‘twist’ we have all been keeping under our hats is revealed! Whether Sidney will actually die for Charles and ‘his wife and child’, as he explains to the seamstress, or whether a dramatic last-minute reprieve or rescue will be instigated, is to be seen. I wanted to take this moment, really, to briefly consider the extraordinary emotional wallop of this short conversation between Sidney and the seamstress, which I will confess did move me to tears. I have been pretty critical – along with some others! – of the silly, convoluted moments in the plot, but here it seems as if we have reached the moment towards which all those twists and turns were tending. Here is a moment, I think, that is striped back, direct, and moving in its simplicity.

I wonder if this is something particular to Victorian melodrama, which Dickens himself gently satirised for its dastardly aristocrats, fainting maidens and dashing heroes (ringing any bells?), but which obviously held an enormous emotional resonance for him. Scenes of separation and reunion, of abandonment and rescue, and of joy and sorrow resonate with us, I think, on a very simple yet profound emotional level. An innocent woman and an innocent man are apparently going to die and they offer one another comfort and fellowship in their final moments – it is an extraordinarily powerful, affecting moment. Or am I just being soppy?

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About Ben Winyard

Ben Winyard is a Senior Content Editor at Birkbeck, University of London. He completed his PhD at Birkbeck, where he also worked as an intern on '19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century' (www.19.bbk.ac.uk). He also worked as a postdoctoral researcher and senior editor on the Dickens Journals Online project (www.djo.org.uk) and he has been a co-organiser of the annual Dickens Day conference since 2005.

6 thoughts on “Week 29: ‘O you will let me hold your brave hand, stranger?’

  1. Bless you Ben. Yes, you are being soppy, but you’re certainly not alone. Usually when I read a week’s instalment I make some notes as I go for discussion points – this week my eye never left the page (or screen), and instead I was just carried away by the story. There has been a lot of critical discussion of the book these past few months, considering themes, characterisation, structure and what not, but at this point my primary thoughts are far from academic and much more back to basics, an emotional response to some powerful writing.

    You’re absolutely right to mark out the interchange between Carton and the seamstress as a high point – I would also add to that the moment when Darnay unwittingly writes Carton’s goodbye letter to his own wife – on the one hand a necessary ploy to distract Darnay so that Carton can drug him (so that’s what the apothecary trip was for) – but far more significantly, a beautifully crafted moment of utter ignorance on Darnay’s part, in contrast to an overabundance of significance and final thoughts on Carton’s part. The two have swapped more than clothes, they have swapped roles – now it is Carton who comes across as the man of feeling, and about time too.

    Last week I asked whether Manette knew about the letter, and was pleasantly surprised to see that Dickens put the same thoughts into Darnay’s mind while writing his long letter to Lucie. In discussing this, and suggesting to the reader (both of the letter and the book) that Manette had either forgotten, or else presumed it destroyed, Dickens is wrapping up loose ends – the time for endless speculation is coming to a close and everything is tightening up to the final conclusion. It’s been baggy in places, and slopy in others, but now at last we have reached the point that Dickens has been anticipating all this time, and he’s running a much tighter ship. I will endeavour to find more critical points for serious academic discussion, but right now my prevailing thoughts are not on the aesthetic or construction of the piece so much as simply being completely involved with the fates and hopes of the characters – and that’s as it should be. Well done Mr D.

  2. One thing that has always puzzled me is what Sydney Carton means in his letter to Lucie by “If it had been otherwise…”. I think the general conclusion here is that the “otherwise” is if Charles had died and Carton had remarried Lucie. This is the “longer route” of which he speaks. However, here, the wording is ambiguous, and perhaps purposely so because it is meant for the eyes of Lucie only, and perhaps will jog her memory. If anyone has any other ideas though, I’d like to know.
    Also, someone on wikipedia pointed this out, and I found it quite poignant, that the Seamstress is the only person who awknowledges Carton’s good qualities during his lifetime. Lucie speaks of his capability for good, but the Seamstress speaks of it in the present tense.

    • Hmm, interesting question. I think for starters it’s easier to try to analyse when we look at the letter in its entirity without interuptions:

      “If you remember the words that passed between us, long ago, you will readily comprehend this when you see it.You do remember them, I know. It is not in your nature to forget them. I am thankful that the time has come, when I can prove them. That i do so is no subject for regret or grief. Were it otherwise I never should have used the longer opportunity. if it had been otherwise I should but have had so much the more to answer for. If it had been otherwise – ”

      Before we completely strip this of its context, it’s important to remember that the repetition of “otherwise” is primarily Carton’s distracted attempt to draw out Darnay’s attention while the drug takes its effect; nonetheless the resulting rhetoric certainly places great emphasis on the importance of “otherwise” to the speaker.

      There’s certainly merit in the suggestion that “otherwise”relates to a life of Lucie and Carton together. However, looked at in one go, I wonder if there’s a more workaday answer to this: it appears as though Carton is initially referring to his actions causing regret or grief. Had he been able to save Darnay in such a way that would not cause grief to Lucie, he would have done so much sooner (rather than take the longer opportunity). As it is, we know that he has taken efforts to try and make this as painless as possible for Lucie, (by sending Manette out into the streets so that she would know that all that could be done, was done). That Carton does this allows Dickens not only to show his own consideration of others, even in the face of death, but also underlines the feelings of Lucie who, when she learns of a plan to save her husband, will nonetheless feel sorrow that it might take another life to save it.

    • That’s a wonderful observation. I hadn’t thought about the Seamstress acknowledging Sidney’s goodness, but it’s incredibly poignant to think about it thus. Perhaps Dickens is saying that, when you strip away all the world’s measures of quality and worth – career, wealth, status, etc – it is only the bonds of love between people that have worth.

    • Thanks, Gina – glad to know I’m not the only weepy blogger here. I think I’m going to have to bring my handkerchief to the remaining instalments!

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