Week 31: ‘A Far, Far Better Thing’

 . . . 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.’    


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About Holly Furneaux

Holly is a Reader in Victorian Literature at the University of Leicester. She has written variously on Dickens, including a book, Queer Dickens: Erotics, Families, Masculinities. For more details of her work, and her current research on the Military Man of Feeling, see her staff page:http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/english/people/hollyfurneaux

29 thoughts on “Week 31: ‘A Far, Far Better Thing’

  1. Well, as endings go, it’s not bad I suppose.

    Like Holly, I feel a little sacrilegious trying to add comments after this week’s instalment, when it expresses itself so perfectly by itself, any commentary can feel a little redundant. This is great for Dickens, but not so great for the academic and critic. There were a few particular points of interest, apart from the obvious, that I would raise for attention. The first is the way Dickens begins with this panorama of the revolution, actually justifying it – or at the very least, ensuring that we do not lose sight of the aristocrats’ villainy and the inevitability of the uprising before we read on to through the personal experience of Carton on a cart (is that pun accidental? I wonder…):

    ‘Six tumbrils roll along the streets. Change these back again to what they were, thou powerful enchanter, Time, and they shall be seen to be the carriages of absolute monarchs, the equipages of feudal nobles, the toilettes of flaring Jezabels, the churches that are not my father’s house but dens of thieves, the huts of millions of starving peasants!’

    This is balanced by the closing observations of Carton: ‘I see Barsad, and Cly, Defarge, The Vengeance, the Juryman, the Judge, long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use.’ In other words – evil people, be they aristocrat or revolutionary, will all get their just desserts in the end, but ultimately the revolution will reap rewards, resulting in ‘a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss’.

    Turning to the point Holly makes about all the future scenes being ultimately the thoughts of Carton – or the narrator’s suggestion of what those thoughts might be (doubly evasive) – rather than the more empirical laying out of the plot by the narrator, this is both troubling and empowering: yes, you could argue that the visions of the future have no guarantee of being accurate, and actually Lucie and Charles may well choose to forget unpleasant memories and not think of Sydney in their dying moments, but ultimately you have to ask yourself why then Dickens chose to write it this way, and so far as I can see, it’s because it hands the moment over to Sydney and gives him a presence in that future. He is not there, but by telling us about it, it makes him intrinsically involved. It gives him control: physically his hands may be bound and his fate determined by an angry mob, but metaphysically he is telling the story now, he has the reins and for the first time in his life is leading from the front. How beautifully ironic that a man who throughout his existence has thrown his life away will ultimately redeem himself by, well, throwing his life away.

    Was this a surprise for Dickens’s readers? Yes, we all knew before this week what Carton’s plan was – but we also knew that Dickens is notorious for happy endings, often brought about by coincidence or bad people repenting at the last minute. Were people expecting a last minute rescue – Darnay wakes up from his stupor and returns on horseback to rescue his friend; Miss Pross gets a taste for violence and takes on the crowd; Defarge repents on his past sins for the evil empire and throws everyone into the abyss (I may have got confused with Star Wars a bit at the end there)? In that instance, the lack of a big finale, of a daring rescue, must have been an enormous shock, and as though to capitalise on this shock tactic, Dickens seems to make this instalment deliberately abrupt on a number of occassions, using anti-climax for dramatic effect. For one thing, it’s only two and a half pages long – surely the shortest instalment yet, when in contrast Dickens’s previous form was to end his stories with a double-bill. And that wonderfully terse phrasing that ends Carton’s life: ‘All flashes away. Twenty-three.’ Just imagine if Dickens had ended it there – ooh, the outrage!

    In the end though, Sydney’s triumph is in legacy. There will be a child, another Sydney Carton, an heir to his name who will redeem the sins of the father by making the name shine again. I am the resurrection, Carton remembers, and he will live again in young Sydney. Marvellous, marvellous stuff. I was half-tempted to crack open a bottle of French red to mark the occasion, but it’s not even 11am yet and even I have my limits.

    So – how on earth do you follow that? With the Woman in White of course: what a corker of an issue to have not only the first part of this, but also the last, greatest part, of ATOTC before it. I was amused by Dickens’s preamble to Willkie Collins’s story in which he writes – and this can be read either modestly or boastfully (but in either event is entirely accurate) – that ‘it is our hope and aim, while we work hard at every other department of our journal, to produce, in this one, some sustained works of imagination that may become a part of English Literature.’ Job done, Charlie, job done.

    • “. . . when it expresses itself so perfectly by itself, any commentary can feel a little redundant. This is great for Dickens, but not so great for the academic and critic.”

      I can almost hear Dickens having a quiet chuckle at our expense. 🙂 But that’s what we get for dealing with the work of a master! They didn’t call him the Inimitable for nothing.

  2. My comment will be short as I too feel this last installment was so satisfying that to delve into it too much would negate its sincerity and simplicity. The Trinity of Lucie/Charles/Sydney is so much more powerful to me during this re-reading. Perhaps all the great comments I have read over the last months about their relationships to each other contributed to make this reading more powerful? Regardless, it is such a satisfying wrapping up of a Trinity in that instead of one replacing another for the traditional dual-relationships of societal norms, theirs has transcended “earthly relationships” and has gone to a metaphysical one where the souls can exist as a group. It’s just so marvelous and gut-wrenching. I do feel as if it is time for something decadent in the way of food to celebrate!

  3. Pete, that Pun (Carton/Cart) is awful! For shame! I don’t want to think about whether it’s intentional or not.
    Anyway, I do really like Holly’s interpretation of the imagined union of souls at the end. It’s one I hadn’t thought about and is really quite beautiful–and more satisfying than one interpretation which several scholars have adopted which is that in his death, Carton usurps Darnay’s legacy, thus “winning” against his rival.
    One of the reasons that I’d wished Nanoko Konoshima had kept commenting is that in one of her papers, “Sydney Carton and Quiet Heroism” http://www.dickens.jp/archive/ttc/ttc-konoshima.pdf she indirectly refutes the above interpretation by pointing out that part of the nobility of Carton’s death is its anonymity. He does put a lot of care into making sure that his sacrifice will scar Lucie as little as possible–this is,I think, what raises this ending above the melodrama of the ending of The Frozen Deep upon which it was loosely based. Richard Wardour dies at the end of The Frozen Deep with Clara’s full attention, and does thrust himself between Clara and Frank.
    I could go a bit further than Konoshima does and say that after working his career in anonymity while Stryver reaps the benefit, Carton dies in anonymity, entirely dependent on the Darnays for any sort of legacy, but instead of an anonymity forced upon him by habit, it’s one he assumes by choice. I think this total surrender of self does make it a truly good act instead of a cynical one as has been proposed.
    One more thing I’d like to point out is that while Carton tells Lucie earlier in the novel that he is “like one who died young–all his life might have been”. How appropriate then, for him to befriend the Seamstress who is truly one whose whole life might have been.
    Anyway, if I don’t comment again, It’s been fun and I’ve really enjoyed responding to this blog. I hope to join in on the next one…maybe we’ll do a book I’m less madly in love with so I can be more objective!

    • Apologies for the pun – it’s an affliction of mine you’ll have to bear with.

      The idea, which you rightly refute, that Carton’s death is about winning against Darnay is bizarre – surely if he wanted to win he would have let Darnay die then made his move on the widow? It relies on a distinction between physical and pure love – the sacrificed man becomes more than a man, he becomes an ideal, a legend (okay, now I’m quoting Batman), to which the living man might compare unfavourably. You could argue that had Darnay died, Lucie would never have remarried anyway, so dying in Darnay’s place is Carton’s one chance of getting the upperhand. But ultimately, the theory butts up against everything we have been told about Carton’s character – he is doing this for Lucie, not himself, and it is in that sense a completely selfless act, hence its brilliance.

      I’m always intrigued by Carton and the seamstress at the end, because it seems like the start of a beautiful friendship – possibly even romance. This is curious because again it hints at a happy ending more typical of Dickens, thwarted by the guillotine; but also it shows Carton taking himself more seriously. When he falls in love with Lucie he immediately assumes he doesn’t have a chance, and because his assumptions inform his attitude, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. But when he meets the seamstress he is much more confident in himself – he accepts her praise and agrees to be her champion. In other words, we are seeing Carton as he might have been, as he could be, when he takes control of his life. That it all happens before his death is both an added moment of poignancy as well an opportunity for the frustrated reader to shout “Sydney, why didn’t you do this before!”

    • I don’t have a lot to add to some of the wise and illuminating things that have been said about this and earlier episodes… but just to underline one thing already noted about this finale: I’ve read most of Dickens’s novels, but this was one of the few I hadn’t until this project, and the ending was a surprise. The well-known “far, far better thing” quote I expected to be spoken on the scaffold by Carton: but it turned out to be, as Holly says, an “unrealised phantom”.
      As for the whole novel, I have to say that in my opinion it’s the worst Dickens novel I’ve read. Yes, there are some great moments and some characteristic Dickens passages, but there are more flaws than I’d come to expect in his work. Maybe this slow week-by-week reading hasn’t helped, but I don’t think Bleak House (say) would have suffered in the same way …
      As it happens, I recently dug out a piece that the novelist Arnold Bennett wrote for the Daily Express (yes, the Daily Express) in September 1926. Bennett was no Dickens fan – until he read ATOTC, he had never succeeded in finishing a Dickens novel, he said: “The sentimental parts of his work have always beaten me”. And he was pretty scathing about this novel, too. But at least he liked the way it ended: “in the concluding chapters … [Dickens] has gathered together all his threads, he braces himself, he disciplines himself, his creative and inventive brain is continuously at full stretch; and the result, though still melodrama, is masterly, moving, and entirely satisfactory. What a man! But how crude he could be, and how uncritical of himself!”

      • Great quote, John! And I have to say I agree with you. As interesting as this experiment has been, and as many great “moments” that I have discovered in the text, it has made me think less of the novel as a whole. It is moving but oddly crude at times. This is a matter of taste, of course, but somehow it seems to me, perhaps because of the serial reading process, less than the sum of its parts.

      • I disagree with you both pretty completely. I’ve noticed that this book tends to be dismissed out of hand in the Dickens Journals, perhaps because it is an experiment and considered “undickensian”. Dickens scholars and critics are inclined to be more critical of the book because it’s not what they expect or want or want from Dickens, and are inclined to call out things they let slide in his more “Dickensian” novels.
        I have a theory that this book is more popular with people who *don’t* like Dickens. The book is short on the humour that characterizes Dickens’ other works. It’s also a lot less wordy and a lot more is left to be inferred by the reader than in his other books–there’s a lot left unsaid. I find both of these things to be among the story’s great strengths.
        On a personal note, this was the first novel by Dickens that I read. I have since read Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, though I remember relatively little of each. I found them entertaining and witty, but ultimately disappointing. They didn’t capture my imagination like this book has, or inspired much thought past the closing paragraph.

      • Okay, okay, break it up people. Honestly, I leave the blog for a couple of days and what do I come back to? Rokujolady, I think you’re right that ATOTC is undickensian, and it stands to reason therefore that those who like Dickens’s other works will not be so enamoured with this precisely because it is different – that said, there are flaws with ATOC – it is patchy, which I think has been emphasised by the enforced break between reading. Usually we would read past any lowpoints and on to the good bits, and leaving the book with the excellent ending in mind we would of course have a more positive view of the quality of the story. But hving to stop each week and reflect on the passages just read has the double-sided impact of deepening our respect and appreciation for the good bits and increasing our frustration with the shortfalls and deadends. It will be itneresting at some point in the future to read another Dickens novel like this to see how it compares under the microscope.

        So no it’s not my favourite Dickens – but that said, it’s not my least favourite either. I can think of at least two, maybe three that I would rank below this (gues them correctly to win a glittering prize!). Like I said, it’s patchy, but every good album has at least one dodgy track, and that can always be forgiven when it has other amazing pieces on there.

  4. Thanks Holly for this moving response to the end of the novel. By happy coincidence I was teaching A Tale of Two Cities yesterday in an MA module which looks at the literature and culture of 1859. Yesterday we were reading ATOTC alongside Charles Kean’s 1859 production of Henry V, as texts both concerned with nationhood and Anglo-French relations, particularly in the light of contemporary anxieties about French military activities in the Italian wars of that year. But inevitably we also thought about the versions of male heroisim in these texts: the ways in which Henry V is re-written through Kean’s textual editing and spectacular production values into a more democratic, less violent hero, and how he and Carton compare to others forms of masculinity being developed during that year in Samuel Smiles’s Self- Help and Eliot’s Adam Bede. Carton stands out in many ways from these other models, not least in being the one who actually goes through the sacrifice that is held out as a measure of worth in other texts, but what’s particularly interesting in each of these texts is how historical models are being drawn on to invigorate contemporary discussions. That Carton himself has since become an archetypal figure, as Holly shows, is fascinating; his roots are deep in the culture of this year, as well as in Collins’s play and the French Revolution itself. Maybe we should consider alongside his male contemporaries how Carton’s ride in the tumbril at the end of the novel echoes Dinah Morris’s journey to the scaffold with Hetty at the end of Adam Bede, and the ways in which, in a year which would see the publication of On the Origin of Species, both show how potent still the imaginative and moral pull of Christian teaching was.

  5. Sidney’s final speech is, indeed, masterful and, for me, profoundly moving. However, I think his final words and wishes, as well as the model of self-sacrificing masculinity Dickens is extolling, are deeply problematic and actually kind of disturbing. I feel there is something almost violent in Sidney’s wish to insert himself as constant phantasmic presence in the married lives of Lucie and Charles, rather like, in psychoanalytic terms, an infant’s enraged desire to be incorporated into the mother’s body. Neither Lucie nor Charles give consent for this sacrifice, or for its everlasting presence in their lives, and I think Sidney’s fantasy of being with them both ‘lying side by side in their last earthly bed’ is quite sexually suggestive. Sidney insists that, ‘I know that each was not more honoured and held
    sacred in the other’s soul, than I was in the souls of both’, quite plainly suggests that he longs to be the beloved of them both.

    And why do we feel this sense of hushed awe and almost sacred reverence for Sidney’s sacrifice? Well, because Dickens makes it quite plain it is on a par with Christ’s Atonement. Although Sidney’s death is ‘quiet’ within the context of the novel, Gail and Holly’s examples show that, culturally, this was quite a ‘loud’ scene, resonating across Victorian and Edwardian culture. I am profoundly disturbed by the notion of Sidney’s self-sacrifice being presented to Scouts and soldiers as the exemplar of masculine self-abnegation. Did some of the poor boys butchered in the trenches of the First World War think they were being noble and giving – like Sidney? I think that Gail and Holly’s examples suggest some of the ways in which Christian models of sacrifice and atonement can be used to quite murderous ends.

    Also, I think we have to rebel against Dickens’s insistence that Sidney’s life was ‘worthless’ until his moment of deathly self-sacrifice. Instead of looking to death as a liberatory jack-in-the-box which provides automatic meaning, purpose and worth to a life, I think we need to question why some cultures regard some lives as ‘worthless’ and always insist that life itself provides meaning, purpose and worth – not death.

    • Carton’s death *IS* disturbing because he inserts himself into the lives of those who may not want him. This has been interpreted, as I mentioned above as a sort of selfish act by critics in the past. A way of “winning” over Charles or forcing Lucie to love him. Which is an interesting dilemma: he can’t be Christlike and selfish at the same time (at least if you’re goint to interpret this in a Christian framework). He also can’t be Christlike because he’s a deeply flawed person. While Christ was a paschal lamb–a pure, innocent sacrifice, Carton isn’t. In his mind he’s attoning for something we’ve never been told–and for the fact that in his mind that his life is worthless. In his mind, the only way he can make his life worth something in the mind of others is to die–this gives him the goal he needs to turn his life around.. Carton is dying for the sins of the Evremondes, but he’s also dying for himself. This is not a bad thing.
      I’m not sure how else the novel could have ended. Clearly asking Lucie and Charles for permission would have condemned either of them to a life of second-guessing or guilt depending on their answer. It would have been, for them, a deal with the devil. Carton realizes this, and as I’ve mentioned before, tries to mitigate the effect that his death will have on the family.
      Anyway, I don’t think we can blame Dickens for the fact that his work was coopted by to inspire doomed soldiers in WWI anymore than we can blame Beethoven for the fact that his work was coopted to inspire feelings of nationalism in WWII Germany. If only he’d blunted the majesty just a little, maybe it would not have been so appealing to the Nazis!
      But we can blame Wagner. Wagner was an ass.

      • “Carton is dying for the sins of the Evremondes, but he’s also dying for himself. This is not a bad thing.
        I’m not sure how else the novel could have ended. Clearly asking Lucie and Charles for permission would have condemned either of them to a life of second-guessing or guilt depending on their answer. It would have been, for them, a deal with the devil. Carton realizes this, and as I’ve mentioned before, tries to mitigate the effect that his death will have on the family.”

        Yes. This. Rokujolady, sometimes I think we were separated at birth. 🙂

        We have to remember, too, that Carton has always been part of the Darnay family, in a shadowy way, since Charles and Lucie were married. I see, and I think he sees, death not as an intrusion but as simply enhancing his role there, making him a cherished family member instead of just someone on the fringe of the group.

    • Is Dickens insisting that Sydney’s life was worthless, or is Sydney? Remember, the character’s estimation of himself may be very far from the author’s estimation. If Dickens really did think Sydney was worthless, I think he would have characterized him very differently.

      • You beat me to it Gina. Yes, i was going to say that Carton’s life is not worthless, but perceived by him to be worthless. But you know, this throws up other problems. If Carton truly believes his life is worthless to the extent that he is prepared to commit suicide, then why now and not before? There is a disturbing suggestion that suicide becomes justified when it is beneficial to others, that brings on connotations of kamikazi soldiers and honour in death. It is also that extreme fatalism that suggests the only solution to the love triangle is for Carton to fall on his sword, which is fantastic literature, full of pathos and profoundness, but in real life we’d be saying, ‘get over it Sydney, why don’t you ask that nice seamstress for her phone number?’

        Back to the worth/worthlessness of Sydney’s life – he works in court, he prepares cases for Stryver and saves lives in the process: this is a fairly profound existence, and Carton is an intelligent man, so for him not to be aware of this suggest massive self-delusion/depression/mental illness.Dickens does such a good job of showing us, the reader, what a noble man Carton is, that as a consequence it becomes hard to understand why Carton and others should think him so worthless.

        It couldn’t have ended any other way because really this book started at the end – the influence of the Frozen Deep and the character of Richard Wardour dictated that this would be a story in which one man lays down his life: were it otherwise we could easily consider different variations with daring prison breaks and high aventure as Carton becomes a Scarlet Pimpernel and redeems himself not through sacrifice but by action. But Dickens was heading towards an inescapable ending, and I suspect, as wonderful as the ending is, that in execution (no pun intended) throughout the rest of the book there are decisions made along the way which undermine the purity of the ending, such as those Ben has identified.

      • I don’t think Sydney ever really wanted death. I think he wanted oblivion. To my mind, he seems haunted throughout the book by a sort of “but that the dread of something after death” feeling. It’s only when he sees a chance to make death meaningful, and in the process experiences a spiritual rebirth that assures him he’s going to “a far, far better rest,” that he’s ready to go through with it.

      • I kind of love the Scarlet Pimpernel idea, though. I’ve long itched to write an ATOTC/Scarlet Pimpernel crossover fanfic. [/nerd]

      • I think Dickens is ambivalent about the ‘worth’ of Sidney’s life, but I wonder if he shared with his creation a romantic idealisation of death as a source of redemption. To me, this represents a sort of fetishisation of death, curiously akin to that which Dickens condemns in the revolutionaries. Admittedly, Jacques 3 and the others love death for its own sake, but is Sidney, too, not a little enamoured of the idea of death? What’s really interesting is that the character who most shares Sidney’s disregard of the worth of his own life is Madame Defarge, who similarly seeks out death. Dickens denies her a heroic death and affords one instead to Sidney – both want to die for an idealised family though, but MD’s are beyond saving.

  6. I think this is especially important as not only was it culturally “loud” then but also now (thinking Batman once more). This is meant to be a redemptive scene but is it in fact simply tragic? Following the First World War analogy, I can’t help but compare and contrast this with the final scene of Blackadder and think that from a twenty-first century perspective, this is much more responsible storytelling. That is of course assuming that Dickens meant for this last scene to be purely redemptive. Maybe that is underestimating him.

    I would agree with Ben about the strange violence of Sydney’s insertion into the marriage of Charles and Lucie. It feels like a bizarre twist on the Oedipal scenario where he replaces the father not by murdering the father but by killing himself. In his fantasy of his afterlife, Charles’ children become his children, carrying his name and honouring him, rather than their actual father, with their achievements.

    • The involvement of Sydney in the marrriage of Charles and Lucie is made more bizarre by the lack of reciprocation by Lucie at any point to Sydney’s feelings. Unlike the Frozen Deep where Wardour is an ex-boyfriend, here this is not actually a love triangle – Lucie has no moments of temptation and has no difficulty picking her husband. It is a perfectly happy relationship, and seperate to that there is a man who has unrequited feelings for the wife. So there will always be a creepy undertone to Sydney’s imagining of his legacy in the hearts of the Darnay family. But again, this is Dickens mapping this out, and we have to assume that it is not intended to be creepy and that the Darnays do indeed hold Carton forever in their igh estimation after this.

      How utterly ironic that while in fiction Dickens should champion the outsider who lays down their life to let a happy couple prosper, that in life heshould publish that vile letter about his wife who was being forced into seperation so he could be a happy, albeit secret, couple with Ellen Ternan.

      • It’s interesting you should call Wardour an ex-boyfriend. I just read “The Frozen Deep” (thanks to the members of this blog for alerting me that it was available in novella form!) and it seemed to me that Wardour was ever only a boyfriend* in his own mind. Clara certainly never wanted him to be one.

        *And using “boyfriend” in this context puts me in mind of Frau Blucher’s “HE VAS MY BOYFRIEND!” 😀

  7. It’s really great to have a critical exchange about the attractions and repulsions of Sydney’s death. I gave a very eulogistic first response to it, and I think Dickens’s working of the motif of Christ’s sacrifice in such a blatant way can make it difficult to respond more critically. I wonder whether Victorian audiences would have found it with or against the grain of contemporary religious discourses – whether atonement/redemption was an undisputed emphasis or whether other parts of Biblical teaching held more sway? At first I thought this death offered another good example of Dickens’s deep understanding of Christianity that the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke for on the anniversary of Dickens’s death. Dr Rowan Williams gave Sir Leicester Dedlock as his example, but here the emphasis was on the wonderful Sir Leicester’s absolute forgiveness of Lady D, his compassion, and understanding, rather than a self-sacrifice that in its nature is also a kind of self-fulfilment. You can see the whole address at http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/2347/archbishops-address-at-wreath-laying-ceremony-for-charles-dickens

    • When I was a History undergrad (about a thousand years ago), we followed Boyd Hilton (a brilliant historian of nineteenth-century society and religion) in arguing that this period was broadly divisible into two distinct stages of Christianity.

      So, the first half of the century was the Age of Atonement, in which Christ’s self-sacrifice was foremost and evangelicalism stressed the saving power of Christ’s death and the dire consequences of refusing to accept it and seek forgiveness for your sins. For Hilton, this was the more ‘vicious’ stage, in which small children were threatened with hell for having been born sinful. Think, in Dickensian terms, of Esther’s horrible childhood in Bleak House.

      The second stage was the Age of Incarnation, in which Biblical criticism, geology and evolutionary theory, and a shift in sensibility away from the fire-and-brimstone theology of the earlier evangelicals led to an emphasis on Christ the man – a moral exemplar who lived, suffered and died as every human being does. Dickens was definitely an Age of Incarnation man – he always emphasised the humanity of Christ and urged his children to only read the NT – but the ending of TOTC is, perhaps, an interesting mix of the two. Perhaps Dickens is trying to present a more humanised version of the Atonement, in which Sidney’s self-sacrifice is eternal, ongoing and ever assured. By reverencing Sidney, by appreciating and celebrating his sacrifice, the Manette-Darnay family keep it alive and assure it ongoing efficacy, just as Dickens believed that reading, following and practising the teachings of Christ assured eternal life, without any theological complications such as Grave versus Works, or the necessity of the Sacraments.

    • I’ve just been perusing my copy of Dicken’s ‘The life of our Lord’ (a firm fixture in everybody’s bookshelf, I have no doubt), and while the main text does not deviate or elaborate much on the bible, there’s an interesting contradiction in his opening and closing remarks. He tells us (or rather his children, as this was never intended for mass publication) that ‘It is Christianity to be gentle, merciful and forgiving, and to keep these qualities close in our own hearts, and never make a boast of them’. In his opening comments he says ‘My dear children, I am very anxious that you should know something about the History of Jesus Christ. For everybody ought to know about him. No one ever lived, who was so good, so kind, so gentle, and so sorry for all people who did wrong’.

      Now in these comments Dickens hits upon the sort of absolute forgiveness and prioritising of others over ourselves that can be witnessed in Carton at the end. But at one point he says we should not boast of such qualities, while also saying that everyone should know of Jesus because he had these qualities. so it a stange set-up where the Christian man should be both humble and celebrated; not advertising their own virtue, but being triumphed by everyone else. In this sense the end of Carton makes sense – he does not make a speech, or even records his thoughts, but dies in peace and obscurity, with none of those around him even realising who he is: it is then Dickens’s role to play the fanfare and triumph the man, telling us what his thoughts should have been were he not so good and humble to have kept them to himself.

      • That makes a lot of sense! Very insightful. I’ve read “The Life of Our Lord” but never considered that contradiction, or thought to apply it in that way.

  8. (Not that it’s a contradiction when it comes to Jesus, as in the Christian POV, He was that perfect being who deserved to blow His own trumpet! But it is one for everyone else.)

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