. . . gulp . . . What a pay off for thirty one weeks of loyalty. If the journey has ever felt long or weary, now we are well rewarded for our efforts. I’m very aware of writing into the poignant hush left by what are surely some of the finest last words on record.
I’m not sure what to make of the fact that this marvelous closing speech is, itself, an unrealised phantom, what might have been heard of the thoughts inspiring Carton ‘if he had given any utterance to his, and they were prophetic’. That conditioning ‘if’ looms large for me, though I think Dickens wants us to see what follows as an accurate prophecy. Predictive of a post-novel future or not, these imagined last words give a fascinating psychological portrait. The aspects I’m most drawn to are the confirmation that Carton’s sacrifice has been for the whole family – “the lives for which I lay down my life” – and that it allows him to become/imagine himself as the emotional centre of the family structures of marriage and parenting. I love the image of a triadic eternal marriage of souls: ‘I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed, and I know that each was not more honoured and held sacred in the other’s soul, than I was in the souls of both’. Young Sydney Darnay embodies this three-part heritage, carrying forward his fathers’ names and his mother’s forehead. The potential rivalry of Carton and Darnay as fathers as well as husbands, which Pete mentioned last week, is here wonderfully resolved into a harmonious family of choice. Of course I can’t quite celebrate it in the way I would had Sydney been saved from the guillotine to live happily, as Mr Lorry does, as a beloved bachelor friend to the family. . .
Though Sydney does not voice this speech, it works as a powerful piece of oratory. I’m imagining all the renditions of it in households on this equivalent week 153 years ago. And since then it has been invoked in situations of national and personal emergency – at Batman’s grave, for example, or, more profoundly, during the Boer War as performed by Baden Powell to give heart to the troops during the siege of Mafeking. Joss Marsh has done some fascinating work on the popularity of the play adaptation of the novel, ‘The Only Way’ with First World War troops. At times when mass violence threatens to become overwhelming Carton’s sacrifice has offered spiritual solace, and the hope that every life has a valuable legacy for those it has touched.
‘All flashes away. Twenty-Three.’