Maybe it’s appropriate that I start writing this article on Mother’s Day. Appropriate, or rather, ironic. Since the figure that drew me to reread this Dickens tour de force is none other than Madame Defarge, a woman who can hardly be said to have the heart of a mother. Or does she? Maybe we’ll find out in the course of this examination of one of Dickens’s most atypical novels.
I have just now fetched this volume down from my moldering shelf, where it takes its place among my other Dickens novels, alongside those of George Eliot, Emile Zola, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf. Having been a reader for more than forty years and having moved as an adult four times, I’ve had to discard many, many books, and these few, classic authors are the ones I’ve defended most successfully against the house-cleansing ravages of my long-time spouse. Only my favorites and ones I considered hard to get hold of have remained.
This particular volume is a weirdo. For Dickens, I have Bantams, Signets, and mostly Penguins. One or two hardback oddballs that were given as gifts are there, too. But this is the only Dickens novel from the Washington Square Press. It has a strange painting as illustration on the cover: lurid, wit a golden-yellow background, Madame Defarge in the foreground with a cockade in her beret, holding her knitting prominently in front of her and glaring off into the distance, her complexion corpselike, while the guillotine towers above her. To her right, fists and pitchforks (presumably both belonging to revolutionaries) push foward at shoulder level, and in the distance, risiing above them and over her left shoulder is a figure I presume is Sidney Carton.
(All of this, and I haven’t started reading yet! Yes, I have read this book before, though many years ago.)
The printed price on the front is 45 cents! That gives us our first clue that this book is a bit ancient. And marked in black grease pencil over the title is a 75, which I presume is what I paid for it. I believe I must have bought it used in the mid-80’s, and it’s kind of funny that though I paid so little for it, it was almost twice as the original purchase price.
Opening the cover, the copyright page tells me this edition was first printed in 1939, and the edition I eventually purchased was printed in 1969. So quite awesomely old on all accounts!
I read my very first Dickens novel at the age of eleven, when I was in seventh grade at John F. Kennedy Junior High. That year, in English class I read The Sword in the Stone, Born Free, Ten Little Indians...and more. I didn’t actually read Born Free, either. I was well down my path in life as a procrastinator and avoider by then. My point is that I didn’t read Oliver Twist because it was assigned in school. Our reading was at a much easier level. In fact, I was never required to read Dickens in school, not once! I could have taken a Dickens class in college, but never did. I almost did after having my first child, but the teacher was an ass, so I decided to take a Yeats class instead. That teacher was stubborn and bullheaded, but he wasn’t a rude ass.
I read Oliver Twist at the age of eleven because I had seen the movie Oliver! that summer and totally fallen in love with it. I saw it three times and wrote my first fan fiction that fall. My little sister now claims to have written it, and to tell you the truth, if she thinks so, maybe she did, because sometimes we make ourselves out to be more important than we were in our memories. But I was totally obsessed, to the point of writing Oliver! fan fiction, perhaps complete with Mary Sues though I don’t think so, I think we cast ourselves as junior thieves in the Fagan gang). We made up personalities for all of the young thieves. And I was totally smitten with the Artful Dodger and teheboy who played him, Jack Wilde. Who lowered himself to playing the main character in H. R. Pufnstuf, which I saw every episode of. Haha. Well, I can say, looking back, that fan obession seems to correspond with puberty hormones!
I got a lot of teasing from my older brother about it, and he still brings it up sometimes, the creep.
Anyway...you see, I was so obsessed that I even went to the lengths of reading a rather long and wordy novel with some fairly grim passages. I can’t say I was totally enthralled with Dickens’s writing at the time. His sentences were too long, and he used a lot of words I didn’t know. But I already had a history at that time of forcing my way through books that were way over my head just so I could say (to myself) that I had read them.
My main memory of that reading was the pursuit of Bill Sykes down the dark streets of London and his eventual death. And the contrast between that scene and those scenes full of light where Oliver is taken in by his (unbeknownst) grandfather, Mr. Brownlow. And an impression that the lives of children were held pretty much at the mercy of adults who could be either caring or self-serving and cold.
Even though my reading of Oliver Twist was not that pleasurable, remarkably, I went on to read David Copperfield and Great Expectations in the next year, and found them to be much less difficult. Either I was getting used to Dickens’s style, or those books were more palatable. And I think it may have been both. Though both books have their dark scenes, on the whole David Copperfield is populated with warm firesides and caring adults (with a few exceptions). Great Expectations has some really revolting and scary scenes, with Pip meeting the convict out in the marshes and being threatened with his life, and then Miss Havisham in her moldery palace of memory. It’s not a happy book, but it doesn’t quite have the gloom of Oliver Twist. I say that, though, never having reread the latter. Maybe if I read it as a 50something, I’d compare it differently to Great Expectations and David Copperfield. The latter, I think I may have reread in high school, and I’ve reread Great Expectations twice, once during my Great Dickens Exploration of the 80’s, and once to my son Sam about 10 years ago.
So, with those three books under my belt, I set Dickens aside and went on with my reading life. In junior high and high school I read lots of James Thurber (inspired by the delightful TV series “My World and Welcome to It” with the lovely William Windom), Harold Robbins (I read The Betsy! Why on earth did my mom let me read it? It’s semi-pornographic! From that time till my 20’s or 30’s, I thought “hard-on” was pronounced with the emphasis on the “on” because I had only ever read it in a book. What eleven-year-old needs to know that term?), Agatha Christie, Tolkien’s great epic, The Lord of the Rings... I also read The Scarlet Letter and thought it terribly dry. I just reread it and still think it’s pretty damned dry!
It wasn’t until I was a working adult that I became the Dickens maniac that I am today. Having R-U-N-N-O-F-T from graduate school in Berkeley in 1983 to live in San Francisco and work at the transit agency where I still work to this day, I still wandered back to the home of my alma mater on a regular basis, pining for the fragrant fields of academe. On one of those forays, I wandered into the Pacific Film Archive (a wonderful resource for all kinds of fascinating and obscure films!) to see a film version of Dickens’s Hard Times. It was a Portuguese production, and very well done, and it spurred me to read the book.
I remember being a little daunted by Dickens at the time (even though I had a degree in French literature and had great swathes of both English and French literature by that time and should have feared no printed word as long as it was French or English) and was relieved by the fact that Hard Times was his shortest novel. I gobbled it up. It was passionate. It was gritty and vivid. It was a little strange. And I wanted more!
Thus I was launched on my career of reading my way through the bulk of Dickens’s novels. During that time, Dombey and Son and Little Dorrit were my favorites by far. I later reread Great Expectations and thought it deserved one of the top spots as well for its mature and open-ended consideration of some of the great questions of life (and for its non-sugary female characters).
As an aside...I’ve seen the Little Dorrit movie both live in the theater and on Netflix streaming. Its sound quality is atrocious, which is a shame, because it’s quite a wonderful production. My stand-out favorite is Roshan Seth as Panx! Well, Panx is probably my favorite character from the book as well, but when I recognized him on my recent viewing, having seen him in many roles, including the charlatan father in The Buddha of Suburbia, that casting choice totally won my heart. I also recently saw a version of Great Expectations set in modern day US (made in the 90’s, I think?) featuring Gwyneth Paltrow and ...oh geez what is his name again? Ethan Hawke. Even though I care not a whit for either of those actors, it was an excellent film that succeeded in bringing the story’s themes into a modern setting. Excellent work.
Back to the 80’s...I got through most of the canon, then got hung up on the PIckwick Papers, which I never finished. Bored the pants off of me! I also never got to Martin Chuzzlewit or Barnaby Rudge, both of which are accounted as among his least successful novels. On the contrary, I think Bleak House is considered to be very good, but I haven’t read it yet. I do own a copy, though! And I’ve seen two TV versions of it, with Emma Peel (haha forgot her real name) and Gillian Anderson playing Lady Deadlock. Gillian Anderson did an amazing job! I didn’t realize she was such an accomplished actress. I think Derek Jacoby shows up in both version, and he’s always worth a viewing, I think.
So here I am, almost three decades after my initial Dickens Debauch, and I still consider myself an out-and-out fan of the old guy. I’ve read a few biographies of him and have my reservations about what a good man he was, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he was an excellent writer and brought us many books full of memorable characters, emotional moments, and sparkling wit.
By the way, I’ve also read various take-offs of his works. The D Case (by Carlo Fruttero and Franco Luccentini) and Drood by Dan Simmons were based on the Mystery of Edwin Drood. The D Case is good fun, a good read. Drood is very creepy and a good read. But my favorite of all is The Quincunx by Charles Palliser. What a wild ride that story is! I don’t think he openly avows to imitating Dickens in his novel, but it is very clearly a Dickensian novel, and it’s a damned good one. Read it! I’ve read it twice and own a copy.
I also saw a play of The Mystery of Edwin Drood at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland many years ago. That was pretty awesome.
So why did I choose A Tale of Two Cities rather than finally tackling Bleak House? Actually, I initially wrote Bleak House down. But two things swayed my final decision. One was that I’ve never done this author blog thing before and wanted something that wasn’t impossibly long to give myself plenty of time to write. The other was that I’ve been thinking about A Tale of Two Cities recently. I’ve been thinking about Madame Defarge most of all, that strange and ghastly character. But also thinking about the novel’s unique position as Dickens’s only historical novel. It appeals to me in particular, because the French Revolution is one of the few historical periods that has drawn me to read actual history books (as opposed to novels).
Well the actual day has come! And I actually failed to finish the novel. Let’s just say I was overambitious in planning and underambitious in the execution! A long nap on both Saturday and Sunday were the capper on my progress in making it through A Tale of Two Cities this second time.
However, I do have quite a bit to say about it. And pretty much all of it revolves on the character development in the novel.
One thing that I (and others, I suppose) fault Dickens for is creating one-dimensional characters who are just a little too good and pure or a little too evil. I think that toward the end of his career, he did a better job at creating bad characters who had shades of humanity to them. In fact, I think that his bad characters throughout his career have more depth to them than his heroes and heroines.
A Tale of Two Cities is really no exception. Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette are both somewhat unrelievedly good characters (Darnay a little less so than Lucie, and that follows the Dickens pattern). Lucie may be a little more of a real woman than Little Nell of the Old Curiosity Shop, but not by much.
But in some of the minor characters he really pulled out the stops in this novel. Sydney Carton is my favorite by far, followed by Jarvis Lorry and the Defarges.
My favorite scene by far this time around was the one where Sydney Carton confesses to Lucie that he is never going to amount to much of anything, but that he would like her to have pity on him regardless. It’s the most indirect love confession ever, and because of that it was quite stunningly beautiful. Dickens allowed the reader to guess at Carton’s depth of feeling by having him talk about his lack of hope that he would ever be a better man than he was. Of course, this scene leads up to another more complete act of sacrifice at the climax of the story. And even though it really stretched credulity a little--I don’t think I know a single person who is capable of such a self-abnegating love confession--to me it was beautiful anyway and made me love Sydney Carton.
The Defarges’ scenes are peppered throughout the book. It is the Defarges who pretty much carry the part of the plot line about the French Revolution. To me, it was quite a feat to see how the Defarges, especially M. Defarge, start out as honorable, caring people who want to take care of their poor brothers and sisters in the St. Antoine neighborhood of Paris, but end up being caught up and even being the instigators of what were some of the first cruel and brutal acts of the Revolution. Dickens describes fairly plainly multiple lynchings in the streets of Paris. Rather oddly to me, he seems to imply the Mme Defarge, at the head of a pack of women, far from attempting to stem the brutal tide, is in the lead in working the French people into a froth of blood lust. I suppose it isn’t the first time that a male author has suggested that women are crueller than men and maybe it’s even true.
I’ve always also loved the visual image of Mme Defarge and her fellow female revolutionaries grimly knitting out in plain sight an extremely grim weapon of the bloody revolution.
The last thing that I have to praise in this volume is the portrayal of Dr Manette. The portrayal of what has to be thought of as post traumatic stress syndrome, though rather idiosyncratic and perhaps not quite believable in the detail, is completely convincing when regarded in broad terms. I felt that Dickens kind of “cutesied up” Manette’s state when reliving his trauma. That is to say, he sits at a cobblers bench and makes shoes when he gets drawn back into the reality of his days of imprisonment. But there was never any doubt in my mind that Dr Manette or someone like him could have had a response very much like the one portrayed in the novel...withdrawal into a past mental state (minus the shoemaking tools). I was very impressed by this psychological realism.
That brings me to a psychological detail that I felt was perhaps unrealistic, and it ties back into Dickens’s unrealistically good main female characters. When Lucie Manette travels to France to meet the father she thought long dead, she swoons a little, but then she falls into his arms, petting him and trying to relieve his suffering, never leaving him once on the voyage back to England. When reading that, I thought of various stories I’ve read of children reunited with biological parents in the modern day, and I recall reading about feelings of meeting someone who is a stranger, feelings of awkwardness, and at best, a slow building of a bond with the distant parent. Even taking into account the different ethics and practices between now and the Victorian period; accepting that the psychological make-up is not quite the same; I didn’t find Lucie’s reaction at all believable.
I do wonder whether the very optimistic portrayal of this situation, among many others in Dickens’s books (one that comes to mind is Little Dorrit’s lack of resentment toward her proud and feckless father, who leads her into the most embarrassing and difficult situations), come about because of strictures on what could and could not be said in the Victorian novel. Not necessarily out of legality or even editorial censorship, but merely because of the concept of what a novel was supposed to be. After all, the nitty-gritty naturalistic style of novel-writing, where the very worst of human nature and circumstance was put on show, was still ten or twenty years off at this point. Even if Dickens thought that a good daughter could have selfish and disloyal impulses, he might have thought such things did not belong in novels.
Sadly, an absence of such mixed characters (main characters, that is) may be seen as a flaw by today’s standards and makes Dickens’s novels feel as if they are irrelevant today. I myself don’t read them, in general, for their accurate portrayal of the dilemmas of everyday life, but for their rich and colorful portrayals of the England of Dickens’s time and for the lively and touching characters such as Sydney Carton.
Well, all who read this, I’m sorry about spending so much time on my relationship with Dickens and so little on the book itself. Rest assured that when I blog for the Classics Circuit again, I’ll be aiming for improvement!