Contemporary Reception of A Tale of Two Cities
France and England in A Tale of Two Cities
Victorian Images of the French Revolution
Dickens, The French Revolution, and the legacy of A Tale of Two Cities
In the eighteen-fifties, Charles Dickens was concerned that social problems in England, particularly those relating to the condition of the poor, might provoke a mass reaction on the scale of the French Revolution. In a letter written in 1855, for example, he refers to the unrest of the time as follows:
I believe the discontent to be so much the worse for smouldering, instead of blazing openly, that it is extremely like the general mind of France before the breaking out of the first Revolution, and is in danger of being turned … into such a devil of a conflagration as never has been beheld since. (qtd. in I. Collins 42)
At the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Dickens once again expresses his concern. The novel opens in 1775, with a comparison of England and pre-revolutionary France. While drawing parallels between the two countries, Dickens also alludes to his own time: "the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only" (1; bk. 1, ch. 1). The rest of the chapter shows that Dickens regarded the condition to be an 'evil' one, since he depicts both countries as rife with poverty, injustice, and violence due to the irresponsibility of the ruling elite (1-3; bk. 1, ch. 1). As the novel unfolds, however, England becomes a safe haven for those escaping the violence perpetrated by the French Revolution. In this paper, I shall argue that A Tale of Two Cities reflects the popular confidence in the stability of England in the eighteen-fifties, despite Dickens's suggestions at the beginning. A Tale of Two Cities thus becomes a novel about the England and the English of Dickens's time. And yet, many people today would believe that the novel is essentially about the French Revolution, which brings me to my second point. If in the nineteenth century the novel served to affirm the stability of Britain, in this century it has been greatly influential in the formation of the popular image of the French Revolution, mainly thanks to film and television adaptations. The purpose of this paper is to look at the popular reception of the novel from the time of its first publication in 1859 to the nineteen-nineties.
Contemporary Reception of A Tale of Two Cities
A Tale of Two Cities proved a disappointment even to critics who had received Dickens's earlier works favourably. In The Life of Charles Dickens (1872-4), John Forster argued that "there was probably never a book by a great humourist, and an artist so prolific in the conception of character, with so little humour and so few rememberable figures" (qtd. in P. Collins 422). However, Forster praised the novel when it was first published, referring in particular to the "subtlety with which a private history is associated with a most vivid expression of the spirit of the days of the great French Revolution" (qtd. in P. Collins 424). This comment suggests that Dickens successfully integrated fiction and history, but it is clear from what Forster says later that he prefers the fiction to the rendering of history in the novel: "But in his broadest colouring of revolutionary scenes, while he gives life to large truths in the story of a nation, he is working out closely and thoroughly the skilfully designed tale of a household" (qtd. in P. Collins 424). Forster's preference may be connected to the growing feeling of indifference towards the French Revolution in the eighteen-fifties. Dickens was not the first to draw attention to England's social and political problems by using the French Revolution as a point of reference. As David Lodge explains, several Victorian writers, particularly Thomas Carlyle, had used this "rhetorical strategy" to emphasise the severity of the condition of England (129). And yet, such a strategy would no longer impress itself on Dickens's readers in the eighteen-fifties, because mass demonstrations and riots of the previous decades, which were encouraged by reform movements like Chartism, and which worried writers like Carlyle and Dickens, had by this time become a spent force. In Victorian People and Ideas, Richard Altick points out that Chartism virtually came to an end in 1848, and summarises the socio-political condition of England in the following years as follows:
As throne after throne was … overturned on the Continent, England's remained secure .… Now, finally, even those most fearful of a proletarian takeover began to concede that it probably would not happen here …. The clinching proof came three years later[in 1851], when throngs of workingmen and their families, among them many erstwhile Chartists, poured into London to see the Crystal Palace. Despite predictions of rampant crime and disorder, nothing untoward happened; "the people" … proved to be orderly, sober, and good-humoured—anything but revolution-minded. (94)
France and England in A Tale of Two Cities
What, then, could A Tale of Two Cities signify for Dickens's readers,
if the writer's fears of a massive uprising similar to the French Revolution
appeared groundless? The answer may be found by a closer look at the contrasts,
and not the similarities, between France and England as they are depicted
in the novel. Rather than drawing readers' attention to the current problems
of the country through a comparison with the condition of pre-revolutionary
and revolutionary France, these contrasts serve to reaffirm the stability
To illustrate, when Lucie Manette finds her father Dr. Manette in Paris after his eighteen-year imprisonment in the Bastille, she tells him that they will "go to England to be at peace and at rest" (44; bk. 1, ch. 6). Charles Darnay, while explaining his decision to renounce his title and privileges as a member of the aristocratic Evrémonde family, refers to England as his "Refuge" (119; bk. 2, ch. 9). Jarvis Lorry complains about the difficulties of communication brought about by the Revolution between the London and Paris branches of Tellson's Bank: "At another time, our parcels would come and go, as easily as in business-like Old England; but now, everything is stopped" (226; bk. 2, ch. 24). In contrast, France becomes more and more dangerous as the novel unfolds. The acts of violence committed by the revolutionary mob are among the most memorable scenes in the novel. To give but one example, when the Bastille is stormed, the mob kill the governor "with a rain of stabs and blows," and Madame Defarge decapitates him "with her cruel knife" (209; bk. 2, ch. 21).
It may be argued that Sydney Carton's silent prophecy about the future on his way to the guillotine compensates for the negative image of revolutionary Paris and France in the novel. "I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss," (357; bk. 3, ch. 15) thinks Carton to himself. And yet, his prophecy seems to be inappropriate, as the novel has never given a sense that Paris is likely to become a 'beautiful' city that ennobles or is ennobled by its people. Carton's "solemn interest… in the streets along which the sixties rolled to a death which had become so common and material, that no sorrowful story of a haunting Spirit ever arose among the people out of all the working of the Guillotine…" (298; bk. 3, ch. 9) is one of the best examples of the feeling of revulsion that is associated with Paris and its people throughout the novel. Nor has the novel shown any characters who may become the 'brilliant people' of France who will make their country rise from "this abyss" in the future. Dr. Manette comes closest; he has suffered the evils of both the ancien régime (a term referring to the rule and the way of life in France before the Revolution) and revolutionary France, but his future is clearly with his daughter and son-in-law in England. None of them is likely to return after their escape, not only because it will be politically unwise, but also because a happy and safe future awaits them in England, as Carton prophecies: "I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more" (357; bk. 3, ch. 15).
The future awaiting the 'villains of the piece,' on the other hand, is death in France. In the penultimate chapter of the novel, Madame Defarge, who has been driven by a desire to see each and every descendant of the Evrémonde family executed, dies by accidentally shooting herself in a struggle with Miss Pross, Lucie's faithful maid. Although the deaths of the other 'villains' are not narrated directly in the novel, Carton foresees their fate on the guillotine: "I see Barsad, and Cly, Defarge, the Vengeance, the Juryman, the Judge, long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument [the guillotine], before it shall cease out of its present use" ( 357; bk. 3, ch. 15). It is interesting to note that Carton's list contains not only those French characters associated with the Revolution, but also two English characters, Barsad and Cly. Their careers as spies have finally brought them to Paris, where they work for the revolutionary French government. The pattern is one of poetic justice: the characters who have been depicted sympathetically will end up in England, whereas the villains, both French and English, will finally pay for their crimes on the guillotine in France.
The only character to contradict this pattern is Sydney Carton, who is executed on the guillotine in Paris. However, his death is not rendered as part of the workings of poetic justice, as in the case of the villains, but rather as a divine reward. From the moment that he decides to sacrifice himself by dying on the guillotine instead of Darnay, he repeats the lines from the Scriptures, beginning with "I am the Resurrection and the life." This theme of resurrection reappears with Carton's prophecy, where he envisions a son to be born to Lucie and Darnay, a son who will bear Carton's name (357-8; bk. 3, ch. 15). Thus he will symbolically be reborn through Lucie and Darnay's child. This vision serves another essential purpose, however. In the early parts of the novel, Lucie and Darnay have a son, who dies when yet a child (201; bk. 2, ch. 21). Why the vision of another child, and a son, apart from the continuation of the theme of resurrection? If the Darnay\Carton family is to survive into the future, they need a son to bear their name. But much more importantly, this second son will be born free of the aristocratic stigma that has almost destroyed his father Darnay's life. In this way, the descendants of Lucie and Darnay will live as English citizens free of any association with France and its violent past. When viewed from this perspective, A Tale of Two Cities becomes a novel not about the French Revolution, but about the reaffirmation of England as a safe haven and English citizenship as something to be proud of. As Miss Pross says, "the short and the long of it is, that I am a subject of His Most Gracious Majesty King George the Third… and as such, my maxim is, Confound their politics, Frustrate their knavish tricks, On him our hopes we fix, God save the King!" (276; bk. 3, ch. 7)
Victorian Images of the French Revolution
That the English should be proud of their country and nationality, which
finds its most straightforward expression in Miss Pross's words, is a message
which many of Dickens's contemporaries would readily endorse. The merit
of such a message becomes unquestionable when considered in relation to
a historical event—i.e. the French Revolution—which is depicted as pure
and simple carnage. As John Gross points out, the novel "doesn't record
a single incident in which it [the French Revolution] might be shown as
beneficent, constructive, even as tragic" (191).
It is this image of the French Revolution that has influenced subsequent generations of English readers, particularly in our century. Most of book 3, which comprises the climactic episodes of Darnay's condemnation to death and Carton's execution, takes place during the Terror of 1793-94, the period which witnessed the most violent events of the Revolution. According to the historian Eric Hobsbawm, British people have generally tended to associate the French Revolution with the atrocities committed during the Terror only:
In Britain…. this was the image of the Revolution that came closest to entering public consciousness, thanks to Carlyle and Dickens's (Carlyle-inspired) A Tale of Two Cities, followed by pop-literary epigones like Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel: the knock of the guillotine's blades, the sansculotte women knitting impassively as they watched the counterrevolutionary heads fall. Simon Schama's Citizens, the 1989 bestseller written for the English-language market by an expatriate British historian, suggests that this popular image is still very much alive. (5)
Revolution, and the legacy of A Tale of Two Cities
It is a commonplace of Dickensian criticism that the writer was influenced by Carlyle's The French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities. Taking Dickens's comment that he read Carlyle's history "five hundred times" (I. Collins 46) as a starting point, many critics have discussed Carlyle's influence on several aspects of the novel, such as the narrative technique (Friedman 481-5), the imagery associated with the Revolution (I. Collins 52; Baumgarten 166; Lodge 131-2), and the narration of the historical episodes (Lodge 134; Friedman 489). And yet, Dickens's outlook on revolutionary violence differed significantly from that of Carlyle. As Irene Collins points out, Dickens "dislikes the violence of the revolutionaries, both in its popular form (the mob) and in its institutionalised form (the Terror). Unlike Carlyle, he can no longer see justice in the violence" (53). Moreover, it is Dickens's novel, rather than Carlyle's history, which is responsible for the popular image of the French Revolution in England in our century, not least due to the popularity of A Tale of Two Cities on film and television. The most famous adaptation of the novel is the 1935 MGM production, directed by Jack Conway. The film capitalised particularly on scenes depicting the revolutionary mob: the film critic Derek Winnert describes it as "a wildly extravagant production" with "17000 extras in the Paris street scenes" (1009). The novel was again filmed in 1958 by the British director Ralph Thomas. This production again used a "lavish staging" (Winnert 1009). The novel has proved to be a popular source for television adaptations as well: it was adapted in 1980 and 1989, the first being an ATV production directed by Jim Goddard and the latter an Anglo-French production directed by Philippe Monnier.
A Tale of Two Cities promoted the image of a stable England by using revolutionary France as a setting to highlight the contrasts between the two countries, although Dickens seemed to believe in the eighteen-fifties that England was heading towards an uprising on the scale of the French Revolution. In the twentieth century, we see the French Revolution used as a 'lavish' setting in film and TV productions of A Tale of Two Cities. In the preface to the novel, Dickens says "It has been one of my hopes to add something to the popular and picturesque means of understanding that terrible time" (xiii). It seems that, through the popular media, our century has fulfilled Dickens's intention, perhaps even more so than the previous century. What remains to readers and film/TV audiences is to decide whether this 'popular and picturesque means of understanding that terrible time' through A Tale of Two Cities does justice to that momentous historical phenomenon called the French Revolution.
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