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

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.’    



Special Blog Event

Hello all,

I interrupt the flow of discussion with some exciting news. There will be an event at the annual literary festival at the University of Leicester to celebrate the blog. ‘Dickens week by week’ is on Fri 9th Nov 2012 from 4-5pm. Details below. It would be really fantastic if lots of us involved can be there to participate in a face-to-face supplement to our online conversations. It will be great to get to meet you, and there will be a reception afterwards with time to socialise. Tickets are free, but so that we can keep an eye on numbers we ask that they are booked in advance. There are lots of other Dickens events in the Literary Leicester programme, including Claire Tomalin on Wednesday 7th Nov, and a launch of the poetry collection ‘A Mutual Friend’ to follow the Dickens ‘Week by Week’ event. More festival details are at: http://www2.le.ac.uk/institution/literary-leicester


Dickens Week by Week

  • Free event
  • Ticketed event
  • Literary Leicester
When Nov 09, 2012 
from 4 PM to 5 PM
Where Library Floor 1 Seminar Room, David Wilson Library
Contact Name Pritty Wadhia
Contact Phone 0116 252 2320
Add event to calendar  vCal

A Roundtable on Serialisation, Dickens’ Journals, and How it Feels to Read A Tale of Two Cities from April to November

Share experiences of reading and watching serials, and think about Dickens from a different perspective in this event, which is part of the Festival’s commemoration of the Dickens bi-centenary.

The University’s Victorian Studies Centre has been celebrating the author’s 200th birthday in a project that reads Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities as it first appeared in 31 weekly parts. The Centre, together with the Dickens Journals Online project, and Dickens fans across the world, has created an online serial reading group, in which participants share responses to the installments each week in a blog. The project is reaching a climax with only three parts left to go – just nobody give away the ending!

In this event a roundtable of bloggers reflect on their experiences of Dickens by installment, and open up discussions about the nature of reading, and the experience of serials in the Victorian period and today.

The Charles Dickens exhibition in the David Wilson Library is open throughout the festival.

Week 24: Tomorrow, Tomorrow!


The cliff-hangers are coming thick and fast now. We finished installment 23 with the promise that Darnay’s fate will be sealed in the next episode – ‘Removed to the Conciergrie, and summoned for to-morrow’ – and it looked like Darnay’s second capital trial had also gone his way. Not for long! At the end of installment 24, with Darnay retaken we don’t really seem to have got anywhere. (Though there has been the important information that Darnay’s return has secured Gabelle’s liberty, and that this seemingly foolhardy mission does succeed in saving a loyal servant’s life. I also enjoyed all the attention to the precariousness of sanity, with citizens succumbing to ‘a wild infection of the wildly shaken public mind.) 

I read the end of this installment with Ben’s great suggestions about the guillotining of weekly and monthly parts in mind. This week ends finishes with an absolutely perfect parallel of content and form: “‘Then’ said he of Saint Antoine, with a strange look, ‘you will be answered tomorrow. Now I am dumb’.” There is sudden silence as the part is cut off, as we fear Darnay’s voice and head may be in the next episode. Later this week I’ll be looking at the monthly parts of Martin Chuzzlewit with a group of research students. I was struck by the similarities with the end of the part in which Jonas Chuzzlewit guilty awaits his fate, listening for the summons he knows will come; that part finishes on the word ‘Hush’. These   explicitly verbal references remind us that many people first heard the installments read aloud. Dickens’s careful staging of the weekly curtain/knife drop must have made for some exciting performances.

Does anyone have other examples of instances of part endings that explicitly refer to their own finality? I’d be interested to hear, from anyone reading the novel for the first time, how you feel about the repeated deferment of Darnay’s fate in this part? I feel it’s a bit stagey of  Dickens, although perhaps in quite an emotionally effective way, to make us think he’s safe only to undo that and leave us in the same uncertainty in which the part began.

‘As at a Play’: Week 19.

After we have inexorably tended towards this outbreak of revolutionary violence, it is, as Pete mentioned last week, a relief, of sorts, that ‘at last it is come’. With typical ominousness Madame Defarge replies to this, ‘almost’. I was struck again by the grisliness of the depiction of violence here – a world without mercy on either side, as we are shown revolutionary cause and effect. I was quite disturbed, as I think Dickens intended his readers to be, at the rage at the discovery of Foulon, for whom a ‘grand mock funeral’ cannot guarantee safety – ‘Then a score of others ran into the midst of these, beating their breasts, tearing their hair and screaming, Foulon alive! Foulon who told the starving people they might eat grass . . .’ – and the visceral descriptions of the violence to him:

‘Down, and up, and head foremost on the steps of the building; now, on his knees; now, on his feet; now, on his back; dragged, and struck at, and stifled by the bunches of grass and straw that were thrust into his face by hundreds of hands; torn, bruised, panting, bleeding, yet always entreating and beseeching for mercy; now, full of vehement agony of action, with a small clear space about him as the people drew one another back that they might see . . .’

The significance of witnessing/ seeing is strongly emphasised as Madame Defarge ‘clapped her hands as at a play’. Dickens draws out the theatricality of revolution, fermented, in part, by spectacles of suffering, like the peep show of Dr Manette broken by the bastille. There’s a parallel here with the continuing language of the ‘theatre of war’, which registers the intense action and emotions of wartime, at the same time, I think, as de-realising and distancing them. I’d be interested to hear what others think about the effects of Dickens’s emphasis on spectacle and theatricality.

The spectacle of punishment is the subject of the installment’s fourth article, ‘Small Shot’, which looks at the history of the stocks in Britain. ‘County Courted’ continues the questioning of systems of justice, providing statistics of those imprisoned after county court trials for debts. The article emphasises the disproportionate treatment of rich and poor, with sympathetic examples of the latter, like a woman imprisoned for ‘a debt of twenty pence’. I was surprised to see how fully this T of TC  installment of revolutionary fervor is part of the week’s treatment of questions of discipline and punishment.

Week 10: ‘The Gorgon’s Head’: At the Stone Face

Another instalment another death and another doppelganger; we discover that Monsieur the Marquis

is the twin of Darnay’s (as he is known inEngland), father. Darnay wonders if it is possible to distinguish them: “Can I separate my father’s twin brother, joint inheritor and next successor, from himself? Blurred identities, aliases, hooting owls, and a fortress-like chateau at the dead of night all continue the gothic strain we’ve been noting. What particularly interested me this week was the emphasis on the properties of the Marquis’s stony property.

The instalment opens with a sketch of the chateau, in which ‘stone’ is used 8 times. This family property is very differently described to the ancestral properties of English aristocrats I’ve seen. I’m thinking particularly of Audley Court, the country house of Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). Here the house is crumbling, with shaky doors and windows, suggesting the decline of the aristocracy and their vulnerability/openness to outsiders, like the less-than-a-lady heroine. By contrast, the Marquis’s house is seemingly impervious, its unyielding stones – like its owner – resisting a more gradual, organic process of class reform. Its future is more absolute:

If a picture of the château as it was
to be a very few years hence, and of fifty like it as
they too were to be a very few years hence, could
have been shown to him that night, he might
have been at a loss to claim his own from the
ghastly, fire-charred, plunder-wrecked ruins. As
for the roof he vaunted, he might have found
that shutting out the sky in a new way—to wit,
for ever, from the eyes of the bodies into which
its lead was fired, out of the barrels of a hundred
thousand muskets.

I loved the Dickensian virtuosity of transforming aristo property into bullets, so that these luxurious homes are literally the death of those who own them.

Reading this in AYR gives an incredible juxtaposition as the closing note from Jacques is immediately followed by an article, ‘Revolution at Florence, Exactly Described’ (Ben’s post last week gives some background to the Italian war of independence). This overlaying of current events with the unfolding narrative of French Revolution must have had a huge effect on how this instalment was first read.

Week Three – Tastes and Smells of Saint Antoine

Oh wow! The pace has really accelerated. I was really surprised at the amount of movement and action here in comparison to the single scene of instalment of week two. This part opens with what is the most memorable image of the novel for me, the wine-stained streets and mouths, the feverish, famished licking, and even chewing, of the wooden wine casks. While there is so much to say about this weekly part, the thing that really stand out for me is the way that Dickens conveys a sensory experience of the district, so that we can almost taste and smell its pungency:

“There was no drainage to carry off the wine, and not only did it all get taken up, but so much mud got taken up along with it, that there might have been a scavenger in the street, if anybody acquainted with it could have believed in such a miraculous presence.”

It’s cheating a bit as the full horror/bodily revulsion of this section was drawn out by a discussion with an MA group who talked about the composition of the ‘mud’ on a street with no drainage. Here is a populace who will scoop up and eat excrement, so desperate are they for the rare sustenance of the wine. I think ‘mud’ here is anticipating the ‘dust’ of Our Mutual Friend, where all kinds of waste is made valuable and variously re-consumed.

It seems to me that this part also is overlaying the concerns of Revolutionary France onto very present 1859 concerns with sanitation. Dickens’s regular readers would have surely thought about the description of the contaminated air of Tom All Alone’s, the London slum of Bleak House, when reading these descriptions of the streets and buildings:

“Such a staircase, with its accessories, in the older and more crowded part of Paris, would be bad enough now; but, at that time, it was vile indeed to unaccustomed and unhardened senses. Every little habitation within the great foul nest of one high building—that is to say, the room or rooms within every door that opened on the general staircase—left its own heap of refuse on its own landing, besides flinging other refuse from its own windows. The uncontrollable and hopeless mass of decomposition so engendered, would have polluted the air, even if poverty and deprivation had not loaded it with their intangible impurities; the two bad sources combined made it almost insupportable. Through such an atmosphere, by a steep dark shaft of dirt and poison, the way lay.”

I’ll be interested to see if we get some material on public health, sanitation and the cholera epidemics in other sections of HW during the serialisation.

What do you make of the appeal to all the senses in the novel?

And does anyone have other thoughts about the way that Dickens explores the current concerns of 1859 via the history of the 1790s?

I’ve not even mentioned the marvellous introduction of Monsieur and Madame Defarge . . .

Ghosts of Dickens Past, Present and Future

Inspired by Pete’s previous I had a closer look at ‘A Poor Man and His Beer’. I was surprised to see Cousin Feenix here, introduced in passing, as if we know him, as an upper-class, fast-living comparison to the poor man. I wonder if this is the same character as the noble, though unsteady on his legs, Cousin Feenix who comes from Baden Baden (where he’s off to die in this article) to his young cousin Edith’s wedding in Dombey and Son? He then goes on to do the right thing by Edith at the end. intrigued by this character, seemingly resurrected from an earlier Dickens novel, I continued through the installment to find in Trade Songs the figures of the workhouse nurse, cradling a foundling boy, and a heroic blacksmith. For me – although it might be stretching it and a bit of Dickens mania creeping in – these are the ghosts of Oliver Twist (past) and Joe Gargery (to come). What might it mean that alongside a serial concerned with people being recalled to life, that characters from across Dickens’s career stalk the number?