About Pete Orford

I'm an English lecturer at the University of Buckingham, with a research background in both Dickens and Shakespeare; I am also a father of three, with a research background in dinosaurs and moshi monsters. I'm Chief Investigator for The Drood Inquiry (www.droodinquiry.com).

Madame Mannette?

Now that the dust has settled and we can look upon the novel as a whole, it occurs to me that we’ve just had three weeks of ATOTC where Lucie barely figures – when she does, it is largely through the report of others, she has only two lines of dialogue in the last three instalments. This is quite troubling given that early on we were identifying her as the heroine of the piece given the consistency of her presence in most of the instalments.

The lack of her presence come the end of the story (or reduced presence perhaps, is fairer to say), does hint at greater concerns about the character,who is hugely significant to the plot, but doesn’t actively instigate much action herself. She does two great deeds – going to France to save her father, and then going to France again to save her husband (although, in the end, she doesn’t do that much to save him). The rest of the time her significance as a plot device is in inspiring action and emotion in others – her presence itself is the greatest factor in her father’s recovery she also is the subject of three proposals, and it is for her that Carton lays down his life – if he’d not met her, if Darnay had married someone else, then we’d be looking at a different fate for Charles I fancy. I’m not suggesting Lucie deliberately and maliciously kept in touch with Carton just so she could use him one day to save Darnay – that would be crazy – but her influence has a lot to answer for both as a positive and negative force.

We’ve talked about contrasting her with Madame Defarge, so consider the significance of this pairing. Madame actively goes out and facilitates change, consciously inspiring others to terrible deeds and deliberately setting out her machinations to entrap the Manettes and Darnay – Lucie, as the flipside to this, is arguably no less a dangerous character, albeit one who acts without awareness of the impact she is having on others around her. That her personality is benevolent does not detract from the chaos in her wake. I don’t think Dickens intended this, but just as Ben was talking about the subsequent use of Carton as an inspiration for men to seek noble deaths, so too in creating a character so lovely and loved, Dickens has created an unintentional monster of sorts, a nineteenth-century Helen of Troy.

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Drawing to a close

So far I’ve shared the illustrations by Phiz that accompanied the first six monthly instalment that appeared alongside the weekly parts. With the story finishing next week (just three days to go!), the end advertisement is not for the seventh monthly part, but instead for the complete volume, with 16 illustrations by Phiz. Here then, are the remaining drawings, courtesy as usual of Victorian Web. Rest assured there are no spoilers, I promise: in fact, what’s interesting is that there are no illustrations from the last three weeks; I can only assume this is the consequence of Dickens plowing ahead with his story while leaving everyone else, his poor illustrator included, trailing behind.

Anyway, the first picture is ‘The Double Recognition’, referring back (seems so long ago now) to Miss Pross’s discovery of her brother, back in the days when she was just a minor comic character instead of heroic vanquisher of she-devils.

The Double Recognition

Bearing in mind the illustrations recently provided by Ben, its interesting to see how decidedly unstout Miss Pross appears. Otherwise it’s a well-depicted illustration, Barsad’s back to us maintaining the intrigue and allowing for our focus to rest upon the reactions of Pross and Cruncher, while still recognising the importance of the figure they are looking at by his position in centre frame.

The next picture is ‘After the Sentence’ which shows Manette in full melodramatic pose:

After the Sentence

I really like this one – if it weren’t so close to the end of the story I would vote for this one as a cover picture. Lucie is the stereotypical sacrificial virgin in white, Carton looks suitable dishevelled and manly while holding her (and simultaneously almost like a haunting devil come vampire – that’s a very exposed neck Lucie has there…), while down in the left-hand corner among the nonchalant French there is one in particular who, leaning against the pillar, recalls that earlier illustration of Carton way, way back in ‘Congratulations’ (month two). So what Phiz is doing here, I would humbly suggest, is showing the progress of Carton from disengaged rake on stage left to passionate hero on centre stage. Looking at this I’m dumbfounded how people can write off Phiz’s contributions to this story.

Though that’s not the last illustration Phiz draws for ATOTC, it is the last one taken chronologically from the plot: there is nothing depicting any of the later events. There is, however, one final drawing included and that is the frontispiece for the whole novel – and the image he chooses to sum up the story – Phiz’s last comment on A Tale of Two Cities? Why it’s Doctor Manette of course, ‘In the Bastille’:

In the Bastille

 

Plot and character

The nature of this project has led us to being very reactive and immediate in our responses, dealing with instalments almost in isolation as we focus our energies on the here and now, occasionally trying to remember the there and then. But as we are now approaching the end, I’ve begun looking back on all that we’ve read so far – as a contemporary reader would have done – to step back and take a look at the whole, and consider some of the issues that apply to the story we’ve been reading.

One of the main issues that has been raised continually throughout the blog (and indeed was raised again on Friday by Ben) is this turmoil and conflict between plot and character. I’ve been wondering how accurate it is ton look at the two conflicting, to consider that a book must be about either plot or character – that they are two distinctive ideas. Is this really the case? Surely everything we know about a fictional character is determined by the plot of the novel and their reactions to that, and often characters are described not purely by who they are but what they do: Emily in David Copperfield is a fallen woman, and Steerforth a rake, but is that facet of their character determined by the plot, or do their characters determine the way the plot unfolds? 

In ATOTC, certainly, it appears the Dickens has prioritised plot: there have been times when characters have acted questionably, their integrity sacrificed at the sake of moving the plot along, or complex emotions condensed to a paragraph in order to squeeze everything else in (e.g. Lucie’s outburst at Darnay’s trial, which sees her go through a range of despair, self-destruction and thoughts of the kids in less time than it takes to make a cup of tea). But just because Dickens intended it to be about plot, doesn’t automatically mean that we as readers are going to honour that and not focus on the characters instead, especially given our preconceptions about Dickens as a writer.

We’ve all of us at one time or another been brandishing Dickens’s intent to make this book about plot instead of character; simultaneously we’ve all been getting thoroughly involved with the characters as well, interrogating why they act in certain ways and whether this complements or contradicts what we previously thought of them. In doing this, interestingly, we have been responding very much as readers and treating the characters increasingly as real people rather than constructions of Dickens’s imagination (I don’t say this to criticise or commend, merely to comment: I think in responding this way we are being more honest and immersing ourself  more in Dickens’s world, which is a compliment to the story). But perhaps plot is important after all – we have spent more time sympathising with Lucie than with the unfortunate Mrs Cruncher: there is nothing intrinsic in the character of one or the other to impact upon how much attention we pay to them, instead it is determined by plot: Mrs Cruncher is a minor character who has been generally forgotten, while Lucie has been appearing in the majority of instalments: her role in the plot increases our focus on her character.

What do other bloggers think? Has Dickens prioritised plot at the expense of character? Are the characters in this book weaker than in his others? And do we as readers focus less on characters in this book than the others?

The sixth monthly part of A Tale of Two Cities (and the first volume of All the Year Round!)

Spare a moment’s thought for the unfortunate few who opted to purchase the monthly instalments instead of the weeklies, lagging behind in the plot while their counterparts get whooshed up in a maelstrom of excitement and revelations. They must have wandered around London with their hands permanently against their ears, yelling ‘Don’t tell me! Don’t tell me!’ Anyway…here are the latest visualisations of the story, courtesy of Phiz, that would now be circulating:

Before the Prison Tribunal

‘Before the Prison Tribunal’ shows Darnay as he first gets into trouble in France (so long ago now) – it’s interesting how Phiz has grouped the revolutionaries into two distinct sections, the one, lolling about in debauchery and games, the other’s much more serious and professional, huddled around the new prisoner and looking a force to be reckoned with.

The Knock at the Door

This next one, ‘A knock at the door’, captures Darnay’s second moment of trouble in France – the choice of illustrations do seem to emphasise his hapless adventures (he’s in trouble, oh, he’s in trouble again); I wonder if that’s intentional? I would have thought the scene from Lorry’s window of the crowd sharpening their axes would have been a great opportunity for Phiz’s skills, but instead we are made to focus very much on the fortunes of Darnay. The scene above has that old Dickens favourite, the fireplace, to show the domestic bliss that is being disrupted by the soldiers (who, against tradition, have entered, and presumably will exit, stage right). Lucie is a beacon of light and purity in white, as is her daughter to some extent.

It was also interesting to see at the end of this week;s instalment that it advertised not only the latest monthly part, but the first volume of All the Year Round as well (eagle-eyed online readers on DJO may have noted that we’ve now moved into volume two). What a bizarre and contradictory set-up to have a complete volume that contains an incomplete story. Clearly these volumes were marketed for the reader intending to purchase the complete set.

Save him now, my doctor, save him!

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!!!

The jackal and the sheep

Wowser. We seem to have reached a stage where every instalment ends with an unspoken “dum-dum-duuummmmmm”. What is the word that Sydney wants to have with Barsard, and just what plan is he hatching that gives “a braced purpose in his arm and a kind of inspiration in his eyes, which not only contradicted his light manner, but changed and raised the man”?

There’s been talk of late (some of it from me, I confess), of how in some instalments Dickens has been a bit off his game, but this week I think he’s really done himself proud. The pacing in particular is breath-taking. It opens with the reader frustrated in their desire to find out more about what’s happened to Darnay, then swiftly baffled by a succession of revelations: the appearance of Miss Pross’s brother; his dual identity as John Barsard (for all those who continue to trot out the tired comparison that if Dickens were alive today, he would be writing soaps, I present this revelation as exhibit a in a counter-argument that he’d actually be writing Scooby-Doo); the appearance of Sydney Carton, “his hands behind him under the skirts of his riding-coat” – that same riding-coat seen on Lorry’s chair two-weeks ago (but only one night ago in the text); and then that magisterial game of cards where suddenly it all starts to come together. The court case. Darnay’s imprisonment. Jerry’s thwarted grave-robbing escapades. It’s all connected – but to what end?

Note also how Dickens takes the opportunity to remind readers of the past connections. We are twice told of when Miss Pross talked to Lorry about her brother, just as we are reminded of the court case and Jerry’s midnight adventure. Dickens is drawing everything together and he wants to ensure that we are following every detail.

Even Jerry gets to have a purpose too, which is lucky, as I was a little concerned at the start of this chapter with how domesticated he had become. I wager that if his son had not followed him on that night he went to rob a grave, but instead followed him on this night, then he would not be so afraid, but rather bemused at seeing his old man carrying Miss Pross’s basket around as she does the weekly shop.

And purpose is empowering. For some time now we have been following the tracks of a storm, seeing bad things happen to good people beyond their control – the classic set up of seemingly insurmountable odds against the Hollywood hero; and now, finally, we get some inkling of a retaliation, the goodies taking a stand. Perhaps it’s not so much “dum-dum-duuummm” after all as the intro to the hero’s theme-tune: take it away Mr Dickens.

A quick peek at St Antoine

I’m just putting the final touches on a talk for Dickens Day this weekend, and my research threw up this image – unfortunately I won’t get opportunity to discuss A Tale of Two Cities in talk but I felt I had to share the picture here. Hailing right back to week 3, and the strong impression that the spilt wine on the streets made upon us all, here we can see an artist’s attempt to illustrate that moment. What took me aback in finding this picture is that it is in a children’s edition. Is it just me, or does it seem a little bit strong for kids?

Image