About Joanne Shattock

I am Emeritus Professor of Victorian Literature at the University of Leicester. My research interests are nineteenth century women's writing, literary journalism, and the nineteenth-century periodical press. I am currently interested in the networks of professional writers in the middle decades of the nineteenth century and the ways in which these networks impacted on journals such as Household Words and All the Year Round.

Week 28: Carton and Darnay (again)

After last week’s intense gothic tale, which raised a few questions in readers’ minds, as the discussion showed, we are firmly back in the present, 1793, with Darnay only twenty-four hours from execution and Dr Manette resolved to use what remains of his influence to save him . Lucie is given leave for a final embrace by a momentarily tender hearted Barsad and then, once he is taken away, swoons at her father’s feet. Who springs forward to pick her up? The same person who at Darnay’s first trial, suddenly spotted that she was about to faint, and directed a court officer to take her out of the room. Did I immediately make that connection? I’m not entirely sure.

But Dickens IS very demanding of his readers, as Pete said last week. Carton, determined to make himself visible in Paris, purposefully walks to Sainte Antoine, entering the Defarges’s wine shop, ordering a glass of wine in ‘indifferent French’ and then, when questioned by Madame Defarge, responding with the careful accents of an English speaker of French. Madame Defarge is struck by the likeness between the Englishman and Evremonde, Defarge agrees. At this point, I had to flip back to the instalments for weeks 6 and 7, to the scene in the court during the earlier trial, when a seemingly inattentive Carton suddenly tosses a note to Stryver, and the court is invited to consider the likeness between him and the prisoner, Darnay, particularly after Carton takes off his wig. Carton and Darnay drink a toast to Lucie, at Carton’s instigation. ‘Is it worth being tried for one’s life, to be the object of such sympathy and compassion Mr Darnay?’, Carton asks. And later, looking in the mirror, asks himself, ‘Do you particularly like the man…why should you particularly like a man who resembles you?’

Did Dickens expect his readers to have complete recall of an episode they had read some five months earlier? The answer simply is yes. Just as Pete had to remind himself of earlier episodes in an effort to remember which of the brothers was Darnay’s father, so I found myself rereading the episode for week 6 and then week 7, wondering if I was the only one who didn’t have these far off instalments completely clear in my mind?

There are other things to think about. Dr Manette returns, defeated, and worse, has regressed to the state he was in when released from the Bastille. In this novel which supposedly turns on plot, not character, we’re being introduced to some complex psychology. How much did Dickens know of contemporary psychological theories – it was still a science in comparative infancy, after all?

And then there is the terrifying pronouncement of Madame Defarge, ‘Tell the Wind and the Fire where to stop; not me!’ ‘Defarge, that sister of the mortally wounded boy upon the ground was my sister, that husband was my sister’s husband, that unborn child was their child….’. So far we’ve been commenting on Dickens’s oscillation between presenting the aristocracy as the villains, and then the revolutionaries. Is Madame Defarge the villainess of the novel, or a complex portrait of a woman who has been so hardened by a life time of witnessing injustice that all compassion, all humanity has been removed – the perfect revolutionary?

The signals this week are clear. Darnay will not survive. There are only a few hours before left before his execution. BUT we still have another three weeks to go.


Week 21 The Track of a Storm

A sense of crisis is signalled immediately this week, by the subtitle of Book III, ‘The Track of a Storm’ and by the epigraph to the chapter, ‘In Secret’, the meaning of which only becomes clear half way through the instalment.  Darnay returns to a country he scarcely recognizes, where armed ‘citizen patriots’ sporting tricolour cockades police his journey and barriers on the roads are a foreshadowing of the imprisonment to come. My reading of Darnay, contrary to comments last week, is that he is motivated entirely by a sense of honour and duty, not that he is either selfish or naive.

Dickens sticks close to real events in France in the autumn of 1792 as the king and queen have been imprisoned and the Reign of Terror is about to be unleashed.  According to the helpful notes in Andrew Sanders’s World’s Classics edition he apparently changed the time of Darnay’s return to France on the manuscript, from January 1793 to the autumn of 1792, just before the ‘September Massacres’ where thousands of aristocrats were executed by ‘that sharp female newly born and called La Guillotine’, as Defarge refers to it.  These events are hinted at – ‘the horrible massacre days and nights long which . . . was to set a great mark of blood upon the blessed garnering time of harvest’ but Dickens is also relying on the reader having some knowledge of the historical events.

Our sympathies seem to be shifting. The long suffering, starved peasants and the tense, watchful inhabitants of Sainte Antoine have become coarse, brutal ‘citizens’, armed and murderous, and potentially undisciplined.  ‘Monseigneur’, the ironic collective noun for an arrogant, remote, unfeeling aristocracy living a life of excess has morphed into the cultivated and compassionate men and women who rise to greet Darnay as he enters La Force, ‘with every refinement of manner known to the time and with all the engaging graces and courtesies of life’. In Darnay’s eyes they are already dead, ‘Ghosts all! the ghost of beauty, the ghost of stateliness, the ghost of elegance, the ghost of pride, the ghost of frivolity, the ghost of wit, the ghost of youth, the ghost of age, all waiting their dismissal from the desolate shore’.

The scene is strikingly similar to one in Elizabeth Gaskell’s My Lady Ludlow serialized in Household Words a year before ATOTC, in which doomed aristocratic families keep up the pretense of normality , watched over by brutish gaolers as they await the summons to the guillotine. Dickens would have read Gaskell’s novella, as he read most of her fiction in Household Words before it went to press. But Andrew Sanders’s note suggests that it was Carlyle’s The French Revolution, not Gaskell’s tale that was Dickens’s source for the scene as well as some contemporary memoirs .

Further images of death crowd in on Darnay as he feels he has been left for dead in his cell, the bloated gaoler who looks like a man who has been drowned and filled with water , and the maggots that breed in the filthy mattress, ‘the first condition of the body after death’.

For me Dickens’s brilliant rendering of Darnay’s hallucinations – his obsessive pacing of his cell which prompts reminders of an earlier prisoner’s obsessive behaviour (‘he made shoes, he made shoes’), his inability to blot out memories of the unnaturally lit villages through which he has travelled, the woman in black with golden air, the roar of the city like muffled drums, but with ‘a wail of voices’ –makes this the best ending of a single instalment so far.  I am finding it very hard to resist reading on. 



Week 14

This week’s instalment has a sense of urgency, and foreboding. We move from the black comedy of Jerry Cruncher and his resurrectionist activities in London to the Paris of Defarge’s wine shop, last seen five years earlier. The mood is sombre, the tension mounts.  As in last week’s episode the reader is invited to connect up a number of threads.  We meet the three men who guarded Dr Manette’s garret, now introduced as Jacques One to Three.  The country road mender, with his blue cap, who witnessed a tall man riding under the Marquis’s carriage and saw him escape over the hills, has been telling the story to anyone who would listen for nearly a year.  Now he comes to Paris, as Jacques Five, to report that the tall man has been captured, is imprisoned, and is likely meet a grisly end. We recall the last line of week ten’s episode:  ‘Drive him fast to his tomb. This, from Jacques’. So could the assassin be Gaspard, the Joker, who dabbed ‘Blood’ on the wall outside the wine shop, and then saw his son run over by the Marquis’s carriage?


The lethargy of the inhabitants of the wine shop in the earlier episode has changed. They are watchful, intent. Defarge and the other three Jacques exchange dark, repressed and ‘revengeful’ looks. They have ‘the air of a rough tribunal’. And then the revelation of the purpose of Madame Defarge’s compulsive knitting.  She is knitting in the names of those who will eventually be executed. The Marquis and ‘all the race’ are added to her ‘register’. And for the first time historical personages appear, the ‘large-faced’ King and the ‘fair-faced’ Queen, on public display at Versailles. The simple road mender is indulged in his wish to see them.  It will make him a more effective revolutionary.


I am finding my reader’s memory being constantly tested in this fast paced narrative. And I confess I am finding that the twenty-first century reader’s resource of explanatory notes enriches my reading. The catalogue of unspeakable tortures likely to be suffered by the tall assassin are not a sample of Dickens’s imagination run riot, I learn, but drawn from Mercier’s Tableau de Paris (1782-8), a source recommended to him by Carlyle. The same work provided the details of Monseigneur’s cocoa drinking and other aspects of court ritual in week 9.


Dickens (and we) are less than half way through the novel.  How will he, and we, keep up the pace for a further seventeen weeks!

Week 13

Like Pete I was struck by the violence in this instalment, both the violence of the mob who overtake the funeral procession and the domestic violence in the Cruncher household, as Jerry, ‘the honest tradesman’ prepares  to chastise his wife for any sign of disobedience.  As Pete observes, the scene of the mob surrounding the coach could have taken place in Paris. The contrast with the crowd surrounding the Marquis’s coach is clear. That ‘mob’ had been starved into servility; their English counterparts, energised by the news that it is the funeral of a spy,  go on to break windows and attack public houses. 

Reading this week’s instalment I am also struck by how much is required of a weekly reader in making connections with what has gone on for the past twelve weeks.  We need to connect the corpse with Roger Cly, from the Darnay trial.  We might remember the rust on Jerry Cruncher’s hand, but it would also be helpful to remember the comment in week 5 that he often went out with clean boots and came home with muddy ones. With the grave robbing scene, suddenly we see the significance of his being the messenger entrusted with ‘Recalled to Life’.  How much, I wonder, did the reader of the weekly instalments in the summer of 1859 remember, without the advantage of being able to flip back to earlier issues.  He could do this if he had purchased All the Year Round, but not if he had borrowed it or read it in a public place. My admiration for contemporary readers is growing.  

Week 7 : Darnay and Carton

What I find impressive about the 7th instalment of ATOTC  (11 June 1859) is the extraordinary energy and inventiveness with which Dickens pushes the narrative forward.  Scarcely drawing breath after the triumph of the last tense instalment, ending with Darnay’s acquittal, Dickens then turns his attention to Sydney Carton, pairing him first with Darnay, and then positioning him against Stryvver, the Shrewsbury schoolboy who has ‘shouldered’ his way to success, while  his schoolfellow  seems ‘the man of good abilities and good emotions’ yet ‘incapable of his own help and his own happiness’ .  Just as we saw loneliness and isolation in earlier chapters, here we have waste, desert, and a wilderness stretching before Carton.  And there are other threads to be taken up later —  why does Dr Manette look at Darnay wih dislike, distrust ‘not unmixed with fear’?

Am I, I wonder, the only reader of this serial version who has been tempted to look at the explanatory notes of a modern edition?  From these I learned that Dickens had originally named Carton ‘Dick’, and changed it half way through the chapter — his first choice giving him Darnay’s reversed initials; that Dickens had visited the famous Shrewsbury School twice, the last visit in 1858; and that he had made notes on the interaction of lions and jackals.   Not essential to an understanding of the instalment , and of course not available to the contemporary reader,  but certainly helpful in appreciating the way in which Dickens’s imagination transformed his raw material.