Miss Pross Versus Madame Defarge

I Google-d Madame Defarge (I’m such an exemplary scholar) and came across this great image by Fred Barnard, whose TOTC images we have looked at before. I’m intrigued that MD and Miss Pross look so similar – and that MD looks rather less beautiful and glamorous than Dickens portrays her!

On Victorian Web (the source of this image), there is an interesting discussion about Barnard’s decision to portray the women as, physically, rather different from Dickens’s descriptions.

Here’s another take on this scene (also taken from Victorian Web), by John McLenan and featured in the American magazine Harper’s Weekly:

Again, MD looks less than glamorous, and it is just me or is Miss Pross wearing the most extraordinarily impractical dress? I’m surprised that MD could get a hold of her at all. Miss Pross is gripping her ear to indicate her deafness, apparently. This instalment and illustration appeared in Harper’s in the States only a week after the AYR instalment appeared, so our American cousins weren’t too far behind us.

And here’s a clip of the scene as represented in a 1980 drama. Madame Defarge is played, brilliantly, by the redoubtable Billie Whitelaw.

It’s interesting that this adaptation forgoes the English/French language divide and plays the whole scene out in English. No sign of Miss Pross’s (potential) Welshness here: ‘I am an Englishwoman!’ she declares.

Also, I read on Wikipedia that Madame Defarge is supposed to represent one of the Greek Fates, snipping away at the thread of life via her knitting. I hadn’t considered such a fascinating reading of MD, which really lifts her, as does the comparison with Lady Macbeth, into the realm of mythology and archetype.

Also, if you’re feeling a little sad, like me and Holly, that MD is no more, here’s an entertaining little piece from The Telegraph, written during the bicentenary, celebrating MD.

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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.

7 thoughts on “Miss Pross Versus Madame Defarge

  1. Thank you for this hamper of goodies Ben! Yes, as much as Madame needed to die, it’s a good thing Dickens left it till the penultimate episode – ATOTC without her would be a much duller tale. I’m intrigued by the two pictures at how…(I’m trying to think of a nice word for fat)…stocky they’ve made her, especially in the second illustration where, to my mind, Miss Pross looks more like how I’d imagined Madame Defarge, and Madame looks more like how I’d imagined Miss Pross! So as you can imagine I was very confused at first glance to see Madame triumphant over Pross.

    Does the illustrators’ depictionn in both pictures of Madame as neither beautiful nor glamourous suggest a conscious decision to veer from Dickens’s text, or is it an unconscious assumption prompted by her manly attributes – her vengeance, bloodlust and battle experience are all distinctly unfeminine traits, so the representation of her as physically formidable is an extension of her character, rather than her description.

    You know, it has just occurred to me that we only know these characters by their surname- otherwise they are Miss and Madame (unless I’ve missed an announcement somewhere along the way) – I guess we we got so involved with the delayed naming of Lucie that the decision never to name these two managed to go unnoticed. What is Dickens’s game here – is it an oversight on his part too? An unimportant detail? Or does denying the reader a first-name-terms relationship with either of these characters create a distance between us and them (and if so, to what purpose)?

    • Madame Defarge’s first name is Therese — it was mentioned during Darnay’s last trial (and maybe elsewhere as well; I can’t remember). But I think you’re right that we never learn Miss Pross’s first name.

    • Stout is the word you are looking for. Dickens used it to describe Mme in ‘The Wine Shop’. Miss Pross he describes as not being small, though that applied to her height I forget where.
      Describing Mme marching away from the Vengeance et al, he uses the term ‘fine figure’ which is not what his earlier description would suggest. She could be the French army making a fine figure as it moves out to do battle. It strikes me that beside achieving his aim at giving her ‘trivial?’ death he is also giving a Welsh longbowman’s salute as they did at Crecy and Agincourt.

      • I love the Agincourt observation, Mr Booley! Perhaps Dickens was cheekily referring back to that infamous triumph of the plucky British over the French. It’s interesting how, in the nineteenth century and since, the British have often imagined themselves as pugnacious, spirited and tenacious — the embodiment of a scrappy liberty in opposition to the po-faced tyranny of our European counterparts.

      • Ah yes – stout. That’d be it.

        As for Madame’s fine figure – is it her sense of purpose which gives her that figure at this stage? Now that she’s no longer lurking behind the bar with her knitting, but is openly defiant and proud, it’s arguable that this opportunity to show her true self and be proud would give a charismatic appeal that would come through in her bearing – which links in with what you’ve said elsewhere about the fascination the Vengeance and others have with her. After all charisma is not reserved purely for the good at heart, but is often a trait found amongst extremists – how else do they get their followers?

        I also like the Agincourt and Crecy reference – as Shakespeare points out, Henry V was “a welshman, you know”. I wonder if this is also an allegory of the English bulldog spirit overcoming the rebellious French – i.e. the stout (thanks Mr Booley) and stable English resisting the lure of revolution (which so many in England feared they might succumb to following the events in France and America) and standing proud for heirarchal order and the status quo as Miss Pross puts her life on the line to protect her social betters.

  2. Slightly changing the subject … I’ve now got round to reading – or in some cases skimming through – the rest of the contributions to this issue of AYTR. Isn’t it interesting that the article immediately after this confrontation between the two pugnacious women is about a hospital for women, and is thus emphasising the weakness of the sex? It’s as if a balance has had to be restored, as if the Victorian feminine has had to be put back in its place after the disruption of the preceding fictional Amazons. And then later on we’re back in France a generation or so before the Revolution, with the “Revival” under Louis XV, and the “convulsionnaires” of Jansenism. More, in other words, on the tendency of Parisian crowds to go to extremes …
    One final thought: whenever I look through the other articles in All the Year Round, every issue seems to have at least one contribution that’s about railway travel (quite a lot of “Since This Old Cap Was New” here is on the subject). Has anyone quantified how much of the journal featured the railways?

    • Thanks so much for reminding us of the AYR context, John, which is something I fear we may have slightly lost sight of with the excitement of the recent instalments! Your wonderful observations about the women’s hospital sound absolutely spot on. I think Dickens briefly mentions Jansenism in an earlier instalment of TOTC as evidence of the corruption and self-indulgence of the French court. Along with spiritualism, religious extremism of any kind was always given short shrift in AYR.

      Actually, it might be useful here to consider the context of the Italian Wars of Independence. In July, while TOTC was in full swing, the French and Austrians signed the Treaty of Villafranca, which restored the ousted rulers of the central Italian states and left Venetia under Austrian rule. This violated French agreements with their Piedmontese allies and fomented popular uprisings to unite the entire Italian peninsula. So, in the closing months of 1859, there was much popular outrage in Italy and Britain at the treacherous behaviour of the French, which may have fed into TOTC and the article you cite. Napoleon’s behaviour also confirmed broad fears about the new French Empire and its territorial ambitions.

      One of the DJO subject headings is ‘railroads’, which would give some indication of the number of articles featuring this. However, we use all of the subjects headings very broadly, so we would tick ‘railroads’ in, say, a piece of fiction in which there is discussion of railways, or a scene at a station or on a train. You could certainly filter the non-fiction articles and then look under ‘railroads’. However, you’re right that this was a subject of almost endless fascination in AYR.

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