As Joanne mentioned in her blog last week, the pace of the novel is really increasing now. The tension in the wine shop is palpable as the utterly incongruous rose sported by Mme Defarge signals danger to her regular drinkers. Most striking initially though is the telescoping effect of the opening paragraphs which brilliantly convey to interconnectedness of Saint Antoine and ‘the village’, ‘a speck in a blue cap’ and the Marquis, a skinny villager and a ‘more fortunate hare’. This is synthesis operates spatially and temporally, but not yet morally. I’m really strongly reminded, as Dickens original readers couldn’t yet have been, of the experience of reading Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’, which would come out later in 1859. The lines of interconnection that we can see spinning out of Paris, the ways in which single events reverberate throughout the web of affinities that Dickens is weaving here, and the sense of scale that Dickens conjures in the opening of this chapter, all share in the qualities of interconnectedness that Dickens’s theory of evolution was exploring. This is underlined for me by the instalment’s second paragraph where Dickens concentrates the French elements of his tale into ‘a faint hair-breadth line’ which ‘lay under the night sky’. I’m not sure I’ve quite fathomed his meaning here, but the perspective from which he writes is intriguing. His sense that a ‘whole world’ ‘lie[s] in a twinkling star’ is a remarkable frame for the chapter that follows. That it will be a chapter for us to observe and analyse closely is suggested by this paragraph’s also dwelling on the work of the scientist.
M. and Mme. Defarge are close observers, as we see in Mme Defarge’s sparring match with Barsad, but the more muted presence of her husband also provides us with a point of view with which Dickens makes us engage. Defarge watches his wife, ‘complacently admiring’ her competence and business acumen, and inviting us to join him in his appreciation of her. But his affectionate regard for her is subsumed within her ever-present desire for revenge and also within a time-scale that returns me to thoughts of Darwin and the slow evolutionary movements that have come for us to characterise our sense of the development of the universe. Mme Defarge too adopts such a scale when it comes to encouraging her husband. She asks him to think of how long it takes to ‘make and store the lightning’, or how long an earthquake is in the making. These seem to me to be ideas absolutely indebted to contemporary ideas of evolutionary progress, and thus offering us as readers another model of history to set alongside the one that Mme Defarge is narrating.
The instalment ends with Dickens moving out again from the specifics of the moment to anticipate the building of the guillotine; it also invokes multiple forms of darkness, both actual and metaphorical, and thus includes an element of morality which has no room in evolutionary theory as initially advanced by Darwin. This sombre instalment sets our characters within a broader universe than we’ve seen before.
This is surely one of the most oppressively haunting parts of this novel, and it’s very useful to be reading in our serial fashion in order to be able to visit it afresh to assess exactly how this mood is achieved. The very quietness and shelter of Soho Square is deeply oppressive, stultifying and lifeless, but on this reading I’ve been most struck by the ways in which material objects generate a sense of horror and dislocation. Nothing is quite as it should be: ‘a golden arm [starts] out of the wall of the front hall’ as if the goldsmith ‘had beaten himself precious’, birds are caged in Lucie’s room, the dining room doubles rather gruesomely as a consulting room, and Dr Manette’s bedroom as a cobbler’s shop and cell, curtains become spectral wings, and the whole is both disturbing, and oppressively prophetic. Characters too threaten to dissolve within these metamorphic passages. Dr Manette fears to lose himself, Miss Pross is figured as a sorceress, and in a moment of Christ-like munificence and acceptance Carton promises to take into his life the thousands of hurrying footsteps that echo weirdly around Soho Square.
It’s impossible not to read this instalment without an awareness of what’s to come as France approaches its experience of Revolution, and this invites a comparison between our situation, when many of us are re-reading, whilst feigning to be reading for the first time, and the situation of Victorian readers embarking on this historical novel. In some sense, they too knew how the story would proceed: whilst not knowing of individual characters’ fates, they might anticipate the further involvement of the principal characters in the Revolution, and could certainly have expected Darnay’s implication in the guilt of the ancien regime. It might be instructive to consider the ways in which Dickens’s contemporaries were also in some measure re-reading the story of the French Revolution, and to think about the extent to which this awareness of their experience surely informs the claustrophobia, the ineluctable oppression, of this instalment.
The first thing that strikes me about this opening section of the novel is the sheer busy-ness of it. Though we might at the end be swept up by questions of who has been recalled to life, who has been immured for 18 years, the opening chapters begin by provoking questions about state religion and superstition, international relations – between England and France, and England and America, and questions of the relations between past and present. They also produce, as do many of Dickens’s novels, a pervading sense of overwhelming violence, both in terms of the personal danger that attends the travellers on the mail coach, but also the state violence that, whether in Britain or in France, is meted out on the slightest pretext. Added to that is the really chilling sense of chapter 3’s opening lines about isolation, secrets and loneliness: ‘A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this.’ Suspending all knowledge of what’s to come, which I agree with Pete is a tricky business, it is this section of the opening part that has made the biggest impression on me so far, and has done much to create the feel of almost visceral discomfort and foreboding that the opening section creates.
It’s very jarring then to read on to WIlkie Collins’s piece on credulous believers in advertisements, which is the next piece in All the Year Round, and which opens with the words: ‘I HAVE much pleasure in announcing myself as the happiest man alive.’ Does anyone have any thoughts about this juxtaposition?
A Tale of Two Cities began publication in All the Year Round on Saturday 30 April 1859, and ran until November 26. This year, beginning on Monday 30 April, we’ll be replicating Dickens’s first readers’ experience of enjoying this novel as it came out in weekly parts. All those parts can be found in volumes 1 and 2 of All the Year Round on the web-site of DIckens Journals Online – http://www.djo.org.uk/all-the-year-round.html – where you can see what the original parts looked like, and read them alongside the journalism, poetry, comedy and other fiction that Dickens’s periodical also published.
For more information about the project, details of how to join in, and guidelines for blog authors, please see the ‘About’ page above.
This reading group blog is a partnership between the Victorian Studies Centre at the University of Leicester and Dickens Journals Online