Well that was a little intense.
The title of the third book informed us that we would be following the track of a storm, and I figured that storm was the revolution. Maybe it still is, but this week we were told of a different tempest. When Manette’s unfortunate, and terribly wronged, patient, finally dies, he sees her in her peaceful state and notes ‘It was as if the wind and rain had lulled at last, after a long and fearful storm.’ This is not a national revolution, but a personal case of one woman, and yet this long and fearful storm has proven at last to have left great devastation in its wake. Manette’s imprisonment, Lucie’s fatherless childhood, and now everything that falls on Darnay, all stems from this one moment.
The fact that this week’s instalment launches straight into the letter, told from the first perspective, with no preamble or explanation, is rather telling of where we are at with this story: anyone reading this now is assumed to have been following everything beforehand, and to have been eagerly awaiting this week’s instalment with the last one still fresh in their mind: arrogant, Mr Dickens, but accurate. And he uses that familiarity to his advantage, making the most of the weekly structure by using this week’s instalment to tell what is effectively a self-contained short-story, although of course it is clear to see the ramifications of the events here to the larger narrative we have been following all these weeks. It’s also telling how France and Paris occur in the succeeding two articles, either with a passing nod in Wilkie Collins’s ‘Small Shot: Cooks at College’ in the comparison of English and French food, or intrinsically as in ‘Paris on Rome’: is Dickens encouraging these echoes (and is that why they get to be second and third in the issue?); are other writers capitalising on the story and marketing articles that they hope the editor will favour; or, are they being influenced by the sweep of the story as it gallops towards its end?
At the risk of looking like an idiot, I’ll go ahead and confess that I found the twin brother’s a little confusing to differentiate: and struggled to work out which one is Darnay’s dad and who killed the girl‘s brother and so on. I went back a few weeks to re-read Darnay’s meeting with his uncle, and he refers to him as his father’s ‘joint-successor’, so I’m assuming that makes Darnay’s father the elder brother, and his uncle the younger (i.e. the one who tried to seize the girl and killed her brother, then years later runs over a child and gets murdered by an angry revolutionary). But I’m still not 100% convinced I got that right. Is that me being tired and not paying attention, or is it a consequence of Dickens’s decision to use first-person for this week’s instalment? It adds a great deal to the narrative, but unfortunately it disallows Dickens from referring back and saying ‘you know, the one we’ve met already who got killed by Jacques’.
So, no outright references back to past weeks, but I was struck by a moment of déjà vu when the servant calls upon Dr Manette in ‘the room where I sat with my wife’: he intrudes upon the domestic scene just as the revolutionary soldiers intruded (or will intrude – prequels can be so confusing) to take Darnay into prison again. In each case we get this sense of the cosy and personal lives of these inoffensive people being disrupted by the machinations and injustice of the outside world, and it makes us revisit the previous/later moment and realise how doubly painful it must be for Manette not only to see his attempts to save Darnay thwarted, but also to relive that moment of his own incarceration.
Now, as much as I’m loving this story, and admire Dickens, I must point out one error, and I feel it’s a whopper: in this instalment the young Manette meets the even younger Darnay and his mother, and notes that they are innocent and trying to make amends, and this is a mistake. I can see why it’s in there, clearly Dickens as a writer wants us as the reader to still sympathise with Charles Darnay despite the wickedness of his family, but the mistake is in including this within Manette’s letter, because by implication that means Manette also recognises Darnay’s innocence, which then conflicts with his judgment just a few paragraphs later that all the house of Evremonde and all their descendants should be denounced. Now you could argue that Manette, imprisoned and alone in the bastille, is not thinking clearly, but he states specifically: ‘I solemnly declare that I am at this time in the possession of my right mind’. So this leaves two options – 1, Manette is a monster consumed with rage and vowing bloodshed upon an innocent as a consequence of his own suffering (a male precursor to the Vengance) , or 2, Manette is justified in calling for the death of all Evremondes, and Charles Darnay’s genetics define him as the monster, and he deserves to die. Now both these options provide a wealth of opportunity for interesting readings of the story, but neither of them, I think, are what Dickens meant to achieve. No, pure and simple, it’s a mistake. Better if in the subsequent chapter Darnay himself had recalled his mother’s attempts at retribution, so as to leave the young and angry Manette ignorant of his future son-in-law and the promise for redemption he offers.
But let’s put things in perspective; after all who cares if a player drops the ball if he then goes on to win the game? Taken as a whole this is a gripping instalment, with great villains that make you shake the book (or laptop) in rage (a reaction previously reserved for Mr Pecksniff). And the tension maintained throughout the letter is fantastic, as is the final conclusion telling of its impact, with Madame Defarge’s triumph at Darnay’s fall (and how wonderful that she manages to do it so coolly, murmuring rather than shouting, and without succumbing to the ‘mwah-ha-ha’ that lesser villains might be tempted to do). The Defarges are sharpening the guillotine’s blade while Carton lurks in the background playing imaginary poker; Darnay has 24 hours left to live; Manette, his previous saviour, is to blame; Lucie is left in a position where her father has condemned her husband to die; and – worst of all – I HAVE TO WAIT A WHOLE WEEK BEFORE READING THE NEXT PART!!!