Week 26 The Fruitiness of Man?

Months and months ago, back when we first started this blog, there was some debate as to the rules of how we should proceed.  With such a famous novel even those who hadn’t read it before had some awareness as to plot or character or oft-repeated quotes – could we discuss these things as we went? Could we even refer to Lucie as “Lucie” and not Miss Manette given that Dickens didn’t get round to mentioning her first name for what seemed like an age? It was decided that no, we could not, there should be no spoilers. And fair enough, we don’t want to ruin anyone’s experience of reading the novel. But when reading this instalment it occurred to me, that such rules have meant that we have had to read against the grain to an extent and curtail our discussion of what seems to have been a vital part of the text. Note, this isn’t a criticism – I absolutely see the necessity of the rule – but this is a novel that is constantly looking to the future, hinting at a known or unknown something just around the corner.  The echoing footsteps are back in this part and back in force. Carton’s wanderings around Paris clearly point to something, even if we do not yet know exactly what that something is.

The clues have been there all along, I think, even if we do not yet know quite how to interpret them. Is Dickens suggesting something of this kind through Mr Lorry’s idea of the cyclical pattern of life in this part?:

‘[A]s I draw closer and closer to the end, I travel in the circle, nearer and nearer to the beginning. It seems to be one of the kind smoothings and preparings of the way. My heart is touched now, by many remembrances that had long fallen asleep, of my pretty young  mother (and I so old!), and by many associations of the days when what we call the World was not so real with me, and my faults were not confirmed in me’.

Beginnings and endings are not so different. Life is a circle. This fits with the Bible passage that haunts Carton on his wanderings:

‘I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were
dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die’.

It also seems go well with the poem that follows on from this instalment, entitled ‘Life’.

LIFE is a tree, and we and all mankind
Are but the tender germ or fruit thereon.
Some born to blossom, some to fade away,
Some to endure the end by furthest stay.

[…] Yet, mortal, hear,
And chiefly note, O man, the fruit shall die
Whilst thou endure the vast eternity.

Perhaps this is why, despite the rather creepy paragraph regarding eyes in the courtroom, and ghoulish guillotine-barber timekeeping, there seemed to be something hopeful about this instalment for me, and the image that sticks with me is that of Carton helping the small girl across the mud and asking her for a kiss.

Post Script: On a random note, the mention of Sydney’s white coat seems rather odd – could this be a reference to Fielding’s Tom Jones?

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Week 17: The Murder of the Bench

Once again, reading the novel week by week seems to make individual incidents stand out with far greater clarity than when racing through a paperback eager to find out what happens next. The most startling scene for me in this week’s instalment, vivid in its oddness, is that of the sacrifice of Dr Manette’s work-bench. For Mr. Lorry with his business-like sense of materiality (‘a plodding man of business who only deals with such material objects as guineas, shillings, and bank-notes’), the sign is the thing, or at least the ‘retention of the thing’ equates to the ‘retention of the idea’. So Dr Manette’s work-bench is sacrificed for his mental health, and notably, for Lucie, who is later on described in almost religious terms when asking Darnay to be have greater compassion for Sydney Carton (‘She looked so beautiful, in the purity of her faith in this lost man’). This sacrifice is strangely violent, drawing analogies and contrasts between innocent comedic characters such as Mr Lorry and Miss Pross with their more violent counterparts in the novel. One cannot help but read a judgement on the masses so soon due to rise up, in the statement

‘So wicked do destruction and secrecy appear to honest minds, that Mr. Lorry and Miss Pross, while engaged in the commission of their deed and in the removal of its traces, almost felt, and almost looked, like accomplices in a horrible crime’.

Apparently, to honest minds, even burning a bench, strikes horror into their hearts, even if in doing so they are helping a friend, and causing no harm. There is something quite grisly in Dickens’s description of the deed:

‘There, with closed doors, and in a mysterious and guilty manner, Mr. Lorry hacked the shoemaker’s bench to pieces, while Miss Pross held the candle as if she were assisting at a murder—for which, indeed, in her grimness, she was no unsuitable figure. The burning of the body (previously reduced to pieces convenient for the purpose), was commenced without delay in the kitchen fire; and the tools, shoes, and leather, were buried in the garden’.

On a side-note, it is interesting that Mr Lorry’s euphemism for Dr Manette’s cobbler work is ‘Blacksmith’s work’, which of course, makes us think of Dickens’s next novel, Great Expectations and Pip, the young gentleman who is ashamed of his past as a blacksmith’s apprentice, particularly given our discussion last week of Dr Manette as a cypher for Dickens himself. Mr Lorry and Dr Manette’s analysis of Dr Manette’s psychological state throws up a few more remarks to lend weight to that notion. The most obvious being Dr. Manette’s tendency to over-work himself. One does not need to know much about Dickens to realize that he could have been as easily describing himself when he writes of Dr Manette: ‘It may be the character of his mind, to be always in singular need of occupation’. Moreover, Dr Manette’s later statement that ‘He may have observed himself, and made the discovery’ recalls to mind a line from ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’, written much later, in 1869, in which Dickens writes in relation to a period of over-working himself, ‘Being accustomed to observe myself as curiously as if I were another man, and knowing the advice to meet my only need, I instantly halted in the pursuit of which I speak, and rested’ (http://www.djo.org.uk/all-the-year-round/volume-i-new-series/page-589.html).

Can we find any significance in the fact that one of the later articles in the number recounts the story of a forger of bank-notes who was sent to Australia as a convict? In this case, the materiality which Mr Lorry depends on, those bank-notes and shillings and guineas, does not quite equate what it is supposed to.  What about Wilkie Collins’s question ‘A New View of Society’ of ‘whether I am fit for Bedlam, or not?’ I quite enjoy the playful interaction of this text with TOTC, in which Dickens’s serious treatment of the subject of psychology and mental health is juxtaposed with Collins’s musings on the ‘insanity’ of societal conventions, bringing in a lighter note, to an issue which I found rather gloomy, although without quite knowing why – perhaps because at this late Gstage in the novel, as a reader, one feels that storm clouds must be gathering soon – or perhaps it is just the image of Dr Manette sitting in his office with his blackened hands.

Week Twelve The Fellow of Delicacy

Finally, an instalment that seems to build directly on the previous one! This isn’t the first time this has happened so far, but it feels like a far rarer occurrence than I expected when we first started out. My greatest surprise in reading the novel in this manner is how ill or perhaps I should say oddly it fits into the pattern of weekly instalments.

Is it wrong that Stryver has now become my favourite character? (Although Miss Pross is a close second). JRSD mentioned last week that old (and rather annoying) chestnut “If Dickens had been alive in the twentieth/twenty-first century he’d be writing for East Enders/Coronation Street/The Bill”. Well, this week, in regards to the first chapter at least, I think we might say “If Dickens had been alive in the twentieth/twenty-first century he’d be writing sitcoms”. To me the exchange between Stryver and Lorry reminded me of the kind of humorous play on language that you might get in a Morecambe and Wise sketch or an old-fashioned British sitcom like Open All Hours or Dad’s Army.  It made me realize how much of Dickens’s usual humour had been lacking in the novel so far. Comedic scenes have been few and far between. Perhaps this is why I like Stryver so much. Plus I find something quite refreshing about his complete lack of delicacy.

Like last week, the twelfth instalment is a game of two halves, the conversation between Lucie and Carton, although running on a similar subject to that of Stryver and Lorrie, providing a striking contrast, and perhaps, dare I say it, actually bordering on being soapish, by which I suppose we mean focused on the domestic and dealing in the emotional, as well as being divided up into neat little parcels with a suitably dramatic ending to make one eager to unwrap the next instalment. Emotion, whether it be tears or laughter, is notoriously difficult to talk about, and I am finding that myself with this instalment. I find the structuring of the instalment interesting, however – the way Dickens moves from one to the other, juxtaposing and contrasting the two.

What did strike me in relation to this instalment was Lorry’s similarity to Wemmick in Great Expectations. He has his business character as the representative of Tellsons’ and he has private character, in contrast to Stryver who is all business and is unable to countenance in considerations other than business considerations in relation to a marriage proposal. What is interesting about this is that in ‘Inexhaustible Hats’ a few pages later, we get an account of the various tricks inherent in sales of the household goods of people declared bankrupt. John Hollingshead seems to suggest in this article that the world of business and banking is not so far apart from the domestic and the personal, positing a fluid relationship between the two built on ideas of circulation. Does this article act in concert, opposition or dialogue with the TOTC instalment? I’m not sure. The poem ‘Memory’ also seems to speak to the TOTC instalment, although in a rather moment straightforward sentimental depiction of romantic love and loss.

 

Week Five

Several weeks ago someone commented on this blog saying what a tease Dickens is and I think that was my first reaction to this week’s installment. Five years later and five installments in and we still haven’t even progressed to knowing our heroine’s first name. After last week’s reunion of father and daughter, one might have expected the second book to open with a domestic scene, more or less cheerful, in which we might start to get to know these characters a little better, but we barely see them until the end of the installment and then only from the perspective of strangers. It still feels like the story has barely begun—what patience Victorian readers had!

Instead we are steeped in darkness once more as Dickens describes the claustrophobic and oppressive workings of Tellson’s and of Britain as a whole. An interesting critique of the savagery of the British government and justice system (I do love the image of the heads on Temple Bar), particularly when compared to the periodical’s discussion of the Indian Mutiny just pages later in ‘An Empire Saved’:

It was famous, too, for the pillory, a wise old institution, that inflicted a punishment of which no one could foresee the extent; also, for the whipping-post, another dear old institution, very humanising and softening to behold in action; also, for extensive transactions in blood-money, another fragment of ancestral wisdom, systematically leading to the most frightful mercenary crimes that could be committed under Heaven (A Tale of Two Cities).

But against actual mutiny the Government of England in the Punjab was able to show itself terrible in strength. In five out of the eight cases the mutineers were captured and either almost or utterly destroyed. It was a wise rigour (‘An Empire Saved’).

How do these two very different takes on ‘wisdom’ interact with each other? To the modern reader, perhaps it suggests the hypocritical nature of colonialist discourse, but what about the contemporary reader?

Another ironic overlap this week is the poem ‘The Cobbler’—a strikingly different picture of a shoe-maker than the one Dickens gave us last week. The polyvocal nature of the periodical was really underlined for me in this issue, despite the homogeneity implied by the magazine’s formal presentation.

The most striking image for me this week however was that of Jerry Cruncher sucking the rust from his fingers while watching the trial of Charles Darnay. Again there is this image of animalistic hunger (Cruncher is likened to a monkey earlier in the installment) and the question of what exactly it is that Cruncher is feeding on—what is this mysterious rust? The red colour of the rust makes one immediately think of blood, and the blood-thirstiness of a crowd that pays to see a man quartered. It also seems symbolic of the rot and corruption in a justice system that is sure to find a man guilty whether he is or not. Or is Cruncher simply trying to hide his own rot or blood-steeped hands?

What did everybody else think?