And so on to the penultimate part. I was watching the new series of The Killing on Saturday and I always love the montage sequence at the end of every episode, showing the key characters in telling scenes. This entire instalment is a little like that, although it’s a montage we must construct in our mind. Thus, Sidney is still clasping the hand of the seamstress, awaiting the tumbrils; Charles is still unconscious; and Lucie and Mr Lorry still peer fearfully from the carriage window as it races through the French countryside. Remarkably, given last’s week emotionally charged instalment, and given that this is the penultimate part, these major characters remain firmly out of sight.
I was struck this week by how brilliantly Dickens depicts the paranoia, fear and murderous rage of the Revolution. Given our recent discussions about plot, it is interesting to consider one of the word’s other meanings – namely, a plan made in secret by an individual or group to do something wrong, harmful or illegal – as Paris has become a city of plots in which Lucie’s harmless gestures outside the prison become dangerously freighted with political meaning. I was reminded of the paranoia and terror of a fascist or totalitarian society, in which ‘wrong’ words, deeds or even thoughts are enough to bring death. The Revolution has truly become a devouring monster, with death pursued only for its own sake and for the spectacle it brings. Thus, Jacques 3 wants to send Lucie Jnr. to the guillotine because ‘“we seldom have a child there. It is a pretty sight!”’ It feels to me that, as in Barnaby Rudge, death and perversity are interlinked, with death itself becoming a source of erotic fascination and pleasure.
If last week was about the struggles of the ‘goodies’, this week we’re back to their Manichean opposites. I love the homosocial relationship between Madame Defarge and The Vengeance in this instalment. Defarge places her fingers on The Vengeance’s lips, while The Vengeance calls Defarge ‘my cherished’ and ‘my soul’, embraces her and kisses her cheek. MD possesses a magnetic, sexualised force of attraction – people desire and fear her simultaneously. She is, thus, the pure embodiment of the Revolution: bloodthirsty, vengeful, paranoid, devouring – and disturbingly sexy. Dickens amusingly remarks of Madame Defarge’s dress, ‘it was a becoming robe enough, in a certain weird way’, as if he can’t quite acknowledge that this ‘monster’ is sexually attractive. Barbara Black has written convincingly of Madame Defarge as a figure of fear and sexual attraction, distracting both Dickens and the reader. It strikes me that Madame Defarge is, in some ways, similar to Miss Wade in Little Dorrit: both are beautiful, clever, determined and relentless; and both have been powerfully misshapen by earlier experiences. Both also enjoy strong social and erotic bonds with other women who worship them.
This instalment is wonderfully cinematic as we cut between the comic scene between Jerry and Miss Pross (which, truth be told, didn’t make me laugh once) and the relentless progress of Madame Defarge, almost animal-like as she tracks down her prey. Jerry is unconvincingly redeemed by the softening influence of Lucie – he will give up grave digging and allow Mrs Cruncher to ‘flop’. I think I preferred him before.
And then ding ding, final round! Miss Pross versus Madame Defarge – Great Britain versus France – love versus hate. The scene is brilliantly set up, with Miss Pross, half-blinded after washing her face, suddenly confronted by the phantasmal figure of Madame Defarge. It struck me that this scene, with the two women growling in their respective languages, might seem a little silly if enacted, but it works wonderfully well on the page. I’m not quite sure how I feel about the demise of Madame Defarge. Personally, I find it a little anti-climactic and, although ‘the soul of the furious woman’ is forcibly separated from her body with a (deafening) bang, it feels more like a whimper to me. And what do we make of the resulting deafness of Miss Pross – is it rich with some symbolic or moral meaning I can’t quite decipher, or did Dickens just like the idea?
And for those of you interested in queer readings of Dickens: the struggle between the two women, in which Miss Pross seizes Madame Defarge ‘round the waist in both her arms, and held her tight. It was in vain for Madame Defarge to struggle and to strike’, reminded me of the to-the-death struggle of Rogue Riderhood and Bradley Headstone that comes in 1865 in Our Mutual Friend. This scene has been the subject of many queer analyses and much discussion about anality and whether homosocial relations in Dickens are violent and phobic. It’s fascinating to place the two scenes side-by-side and consider if this earlier, all-female version impacts on our reading of OMF.