The following paper was presented at Cowichan Secondary on Tuesday, March 26, 1991; it was published in its entirety in the B. C. [British Columbia, Canada] English Teachers' Professional Journal (1991).
As E. M. Forster remarked in his review of Hamilton's Materials and Methods of Fiction (Daily News: 23 April 1919), "We learn not from studying a book, but from enjoying it . . . " (177). Nevertheless, a teacher sensitive to the requisites of studying both history and literature may create a climate for intelligent rather than merely visceral enjoyment of an historical fiction. For example, Sheila Borrowman's English 11 class at Cowichan Secondary in Duncan [British Columbia] have just completed an historically-based consideration of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, watching and discussing films, and analyzing the events and personalities of that momentous time when the European spirit was reborn in the fires of the Bastille.
Consequently, when Sheila invited me to talk to the class about A Tale of Two Cities, as a Dickensian I felt bound to defend the work as a fiction, not as a history, and Dickens as a novelist rather than as an historian. As E. M. Forster suggests in Aspects of the Novel, A Tale of Two Cities equals history plus Dickens.
Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (1859): Historical Fiction
In Aspects of the Novel (1927), novelist and critic E. M. Forster defined the English novel as "a fiction in prose of a certain length . . . not less than 50,000 words" (25). He uses the metaphor of the novel as a valley or plain "bounded by two chains of mountains neither of which rises very abruptly--the opposing ranges of Poetry and History" (25). In an historical novel, argues Forster, the subject is not an historical event, "but memories, associations, passions, [which] rise up and cloud [the novelist's] objectivity" (36). The reconstructing of an historical period for the novelist requires research, but is still merely a technique, as is fantasy, as is dialogue. A novel is more than a sequence of events told in chronological order (what Forster terms a "story") or a series of events in a cause-and-effect relationship (what Forster terms a "plot"). Among a novel's "nobler aspects" are character and theme, and what Forster calls "value" and "intensity." The final test of any novel is not our admiration for its technical excellence, its handling of its materials, but "our affection for it" (38). Certainly, A Tale of Two Cities had Dickens's affection: "I hope," he wrote enthusiastically to a French actor-friend on the 15th of October, 1859, "it is the best story I have written." Because of its vigorous story, energetic manner of telling, and engaging plot, A Tale of Two Cities must count as one of his best books, despite its melodramatic and rhetorical excesses.
One way of a writer's increasing our feeling for a novel is humour, and Dickens is among English literature's greatest humourists. However, as George Woodcock remarks in his introduction to the Penguin edition of A Tale of Two Cities, the eleventh of his fourteen novels is "the least Dickensian" (9)--not because it is set in a period other than that in which Dickens lived (Barnaby Rudge, too, is set in the eighteenth century, though written at the start of the Hungry Forties), but because it lacks the whimsical characters and comic digressions for which Dickens is famous. "If Dickens' Two Cities in the age of revolution lack the vivid humor and warmth, the intimate feel of bizarre yet familiar British experience, associated with the contemporary England of his other novels, we should not dismiss the Tale for failing to be another Pickwick" (Alter 135). As G. Robert Stange remarks,
Comedy is based on the familiar and the particular; the wide gestures of intense passion or suffering are far removed from the minute turns of comic vexation. For this reason comedy would obviously be inappropriate to a study of revolution. However, there is another reason for the gravity of A Tale of Two Cities: Dickens' best comedy is verbal . . . . Since Dickens rarely made good comedy out of the well-bred, it seems likely that in this novel, where he was pretty much confined to upper middle-class people, aristocrats, and foreigners, he was bereft of the native, colloquial speech upon which he genius fed. (386)
Too few are the scenes in which that honest tradesman Jerry Cruncher remonstrates with his wife Aggerawayter for gratuitous "flopping" (Book II, Ch. 1), although Jerry's shying a boot at his oppressed mate strikes a modern reader as perilously close to spousal abuse, and therefore unfunny.
Since this is a story primarily designed to move the reader emotionally through a sympathetic identification with its characters, A Tale of Two Cities is not the collective memoirs of the Cruncher family, the Manettes, the Defarges, Sydney Carton, and Charles Darnay. As Forster points out, "A memoir is history, it is based on evidence. A novel is based on evidence + or -x, the unknown quantity being the temperament of the novelist" (55). A Tale of Two Cities is not a history of the French Revolution--that is partly why no historical characters actually appear in the story (the other reason is that Dickens distrusted the ideallism of such revolutionary leaders as Marat and Robespierre because of the monstrous deeds they justified in the name of Liberty); rather, it is the revelation of what Forster terms "the hidden life" of certain imagined characters who are reflections of the temperament of Dickens himself (notice, for example, that one of the book's protagonists has the initials "C. D." and that the model for Lucie was not merely Lucy Crayford in the melodrama The Frozen Deep, but also Dickens's extra-marital liaison, Ellen Ternan; furthermore, Dickens originally intended his chief protagonist to be named "Dick Carton").
What Dickens is ultimately concerned with in A Tale of Two Cities is not a particular historical event--that is simply his chosen dramatic setting--but rather the relationship between history and evil, how violent oppression breeds violent rebellion which becomes a new kind of oppression. His account of the ancien régime and the French Revolution is a study in civilized man's vocation for proliferating moral chaos, and in this one important regard the Tale is the most compellingly "modern" of his novels. (Alter 137)
As a novelist, Dickens is not so concerned with reporting or commenting upon physical actions--speeches, battles, riots, and so on (the stuff of history) as with "the pure passions, . . . the dreams, joys, sorrows and self-communings" (Forster 56) of his imagined characters. The French Revolution exists in A Tale of Two Cities only insofar as Dickens's characters vivify it, live through it, react to it, and make its reality manifest to the reader. For example, the embedded plot surrounding the rape and subsequent death of Térèse Defarge's sister, recorded in Dr. Manette's memoir, evokes all those conditions that led directly to the revolution. "The rape itself implies social exploitation, a class-wide droit du seigneur. Conversely, one peasant's attack on his master anticipates the nation's reply to such abuse" (Hutter 448). While the rape of Térèse Defarge's sister stands for the oppression of the masses, "For the purposes of the novel, the revolution is the Defarges" (Gross 239) and a lone seamstress its thousands of unjustly executed victims.
Historical fiction is a story in which the setting is an earlier period in history (that is to say, earlier than the period in which it was actually written) and in which that temporal background is of paramount importance to plot and characters. Such a story is A Tale of Two Cities, in which Dickens constructs a number of persons (the former prisoner of the Bastille, his daughter, Tellson's confidential clerk, the dissolute English attorney, the liberal French aristocrat, and so on), a series of events (from the outbreak of the Revolution in July, 1789, through the September Massacres of 1792 to Year One of the Republic ), a movement (the outbreak of the Revolution and annihilation of the aristocracy), and the spirit of a past age (the late eighteenth century). Although he owes a debt to serious scholarship (to the historian Carlyle, for example), Dickens attempts a painterly reconstruction of the bygone age (note the tableaux vivants or set pieces described in words suggesting shapes, textures, and colours) only as a backdrop for the story's action.
Consequently, we do not have in this novel the careful reconstruction of manners and morals which occasionally gives such richness to the novels of Scott or Thackeray. . . . . Instead, the novelist uses the condescending "in those days" formula; he continually reminds us that we have escaped from the trammels and superstitions of the past into a freer, better age. [Stange 384]
Dickens's real subject in this novel is the relationship between the characters, and especially the sacrifice of Sydney Carton for the love of Lucie Darnay (re-enacting the sacrifice made by Richard Wardour, the character that Dickens himself played in Wilkie Collins's The Frozen Deep in 1857).
In historical fiction, characters who never really lived undergo and give expression to the impact of historical events on the people who really did live through them. The result is not history (an accurate record of actual events), but a fiction in which an earlier age is rendered in immediate and personal terms through the joys, trials, sufferings, and victories of characters with whom we as readers have identified. A Tale of Two Cities is
primarily . . . a novel which through the distancing medium of a historical melodrama, critically evaluates the condition of contemporary mid-Victorian England and imaginatively explores one of the possible consequences of that condition. Though the novel opens in 1775 the imaginative world created in the scenes set in England is, in its essential characteristics (rather than surface detail), that of England in the 1850s. (Brown 115)
Some works of historical fiction, particularly romances and pot-boilers, do not vivify very profound themes. However, as a literary masterpiece A Tale of Two Cities does embody an enduring theme of universal import: "The human spirit, distorted by systems, . . . produces distorted societies" (Sanders xvii). Institutions such as those of Victorian England (the standpoint from which, as Brown has pointed out, the book's theme must be judged) will not be ameliorated by revolution because people, who ultimately shape social institutions, are not ameliorated by revolution--as is demonstrated by Dickens through the excesses of the revolutionary fervour through which a nameless seamstress must perish because she is suspected of plotting against the fledgling Republic. "As always in Dickens's work, it is individuals who free themselves from the rigid imposition of institutions, not institutions which reform themselves" (Sanders xvii).
As Woodcock points out, the book's title suggests not only the balancing of two capitals, two societies, and two peoples: "It suggests the basic dichotomy on which the novel rests: the choice between changing society and changing ourselves" (14).
The novels prior to A Tale had condemned Victorian capitalism as a structure on the verge of collapse. A Tale explores both what would be involved in the nature of that (revolutionary) collapse and whether it is possible for individuals within such an environment to be spiritually reborn as a means of redeeming the total structure. (Brown 121)
As in Hard Times (1854), the personal suffering and sacrifice of a good person contributes to the improvement of condition (as well as an increase in moral perception) for the survivors. With the heroic self-sacrifice of Sydney Carton, the footsteps die out for ever (III, 15) and a new generation, represented by the child of Lucy and Charles (who, as a man, becomes "the foremost of just judges"), profits by the lessons suffering has taught the former generation.
A Tale optimistically suggests that a general process of individual re-birth or resurrection can provide a preventative social counter to revolutionary hatred and violence. Social redemption through love and spiritual rebirth is not being offered as a solution to revolutionary France, but consistent with where the real interest in the novel lies, is being prescribed as a preventative cure for mid-Victorian England. (Brown 123).
As G. Robert Stange notes, Dickens's remark about the novel's genesis in the Collins melodrama "helps emphasize the fact that in the novel Sydney Carton's sacrificial death, and, more important, the whole theme of violent death and regeneration, must be regarded as the 'main idea'" (382-3). "Dickens originally thought of calling the book 'Buried Alive', and at its heart lie images of death, and, much less certainly, of resurrection" (Gross 233). The relationship between death and birth on the one hand, and imprisonment and freedom on the other, becomes intelligible when one realizes that Dickens was much influenced by Thomas Carlyle's vision of history in The French Revolution (1837), namely that humanity evolves through successive stages of destruction and reconstruction. Thus, in the novel it is Dickens's contention that evil serves good, that the revolutionary city which would develop into the Paris Dickens knew and loved is under the spell of a powerful enchanter who through terrific scenes of violence and bloodshed is working out the destiny ordained by the Creator. Each new age, like the phoenix, was for Carlyle born out of the ashes of its predecessor, so that the Victorian age of scientific and industrial progress (in which, nevertheless, Dickens found much to criticize) was the product of the destruction of the eighteenth century (which, as the famous opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities assert, was both an Age of Enlightenment and of superstition, brutality, injustice, and abuse of privilege). The cataclysm that engulfs and sweeps away the ancien régime, epitomised in the novel by the Marquis de Saint Evrémonde, is the inevitable consequence of its own excesses and failings.
This sense of inevitability . . . is deliberately reinforced by the use of coincidence in the plot. After all, Dickens surely could have invented some credible subterfuge to get Carton into Darnay's cell without having Miss Pross discover her long-lost brother Solomon in the police-spy, Barsad, at the crucial moment, without the superfluous abundance of evidence against Barsad in the testimonies of Mr. Lorry, Carton himself, and even Jerry Cruncher, all conveniently present just when needed. (Alter 141)
Symbolically, these characters are memory, the witnesses of past acts that come back to haunt Barsad. For the spy Barsad as for the cruel Saint Evrémondes, the past refuses to be buried and forgotten. The past in Dickens is never dead, only sleeping, waiting to be awakened. As Stange remarks, "Carton embodies both the novel's central narrative theme and its profoundest moral view: his past of sinful negligence parallels the past of eighteenth-century Europe; his noble death demonstrates the possibility of rebirth through love and expiation" (385). His double is the virtuous Evrémonde who has renounced his father's name in favour of his mother's, a model of Enlightenment attitudes and conduct who is tried in both cities.
Each time he is unjustly accused, and each time he is rescued by his alter-ego, Carton, the Englishman who--thanks to his Latin Quarter sojourn--speaks flawless French (note how Darnay makes his living in London, not by sponging off his wealthy relatives and the overtaxed French peasantry, but by teaching French and translating).
Even Darnay's real name, D'Evrémonde, suggests that he is an Anglo-French Everyman ("every" plus "tout le monde"). As Alter notes, Dickens probably intended that "Charles Darnay's French name, Evrémonde, should sound like an English name of a different sort: he is the Everyman who is drawn to the heart of destruction, virtually gives up his life there, in legal fact and physical appearance, to be re-born only through the expiatory death of another self, and so to return to his beloved, whose name means 'light'" (138). From a memorial plaque in Westminster Abbey's South Transept (the "Poets' Corner" where Dickens himself would one day be buried) Dickens might have been familiar with the French poet-soldier of the seventeenth century, Charles de Marquetel de Saint Denis de Saint Evrémond (1613-1703), the period in which through his excesses and his denial of even modest democratic rights the Sun King of France, Louis XIV, was driving future generations inexorably towards violent revolution.
The Carton-Darnay dichotomy reflects the split focus of the story suggested by the two cities of the title. Although at first glance the book seems neatly divided between the two countries ("of the forty-five chapters, two recount the parallelism of events in England and France, nineteen are set in England, and twenty-four in France"--Stange 385), the book's subject inevitably drives the action towards Paris, the "load-stone rock."
While in Dickens's previous novels, "the teeming life of Dickensian invention tends to draw our attention from the imaginative thinness of the heroes and heroines, the contrived coincidences, the strained notes of melodrama, the moments of dewy-eyed, lip-serving religiosity" (Alter 135), the rapid pace combined with a dearth of incidental characters and subplots highlights these deficiencies. What Alter terms "the more intently dramatic presentation of character and event in A Tale of Two Cities" (135) is actually the result of weekly serial publication, a form which Dickens had tried three times previously, and which had given him, as he confessed to his friend John Forster, "perpetual trouble." "The small portions [of weekly installments] . . . drive me frantic," he complained (1 November 1854) regarding the weekly serialisation of Hard Times in his own journal, Household Words. "Nothing but the interest of the subject," he wrote Forster on 25 August 1859, "and the pleasure of striving with the difficulty of the forms of treatment, nothing in the way of money, I mean, could also repay the time and trouble of the incessant condensation." For weekly serialisation Dickens adopted a special design, to which he could deliberately write, or to which he could edit a work written either as a whole (such as Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South) or as monthly numbers (which appears to be the case with A Tale of Two Cities). The problem as Dickens saw it was to create discrete parts that later could be fused as an uninterrupted whole. Early in the narrative Dickens would have to introduce principal persons and places, and move the main plot smartly off from the start. Each weekly number would have to amount to exactly eight columns of text in All the Year Round; Hablot K. Browne's illustrations accompanied only the monthly parts. Dickens, used to writing expansive monthly parts, felt cramped and rushed by weekly serialisation. Of his frustration with the weekly format he wrote, "The difficulty of the space is crushing. Nobody can have an idea of it who has not had an experience of patient fiction-writing with some elbow-room 1 always, and open spaces in perspective" (Life 565).
Despite the carping of such contemporary critics as Sir James Fitzjames Stephen about the story's incredible coincidences, forced French idioms, unwhole-some morality, contrived emotions, specious history and jurisprudence, unreality of the illustrations, and general grotesqueness, A Tale of Two Cities reflects Charles Dickens's
exuberance and fertility. Dickens's genius inheres in minute particuulars; . . . patterns of symbolism and imagery, a design which lies deeper than plot, . . . the lavish heaping-up of acute observations, startling similes, descriptive flourishes, circumstantial embroidery. . . . . But for the most part one goes to the book for qualities which are easier to praise than to illustrate or examine: a rapid tempo which never lets up from the opening sentence, and a sombre eloquence which saves Carton from mere melodrama, and stamps an episode like the running-down of the child by the Marquis's carriage on one's mind with a primitive intensity rarely found after Dickens's early novels, like an outrage committed in a fairy-tale. [Gross 240]
Alter, Robert. "The Demons of History in Dickens' Tale." Novel: A Forum on Fiction 2, 1 (Fall 1968): 135-142.
Brown, James M. "A Tale of Two Cities--Revolutionary Madness and Moral Rebirth." Dickens: Novelist in the Market-Place. Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes and Noble, 1982. Pp. 115-126.
Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel, ed. Oliver Stallybrass. Harmondsworth:Penguin, 1974 (originally published in 1927).
Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens, ed. J. W. T. Ley. London: Cecil Palmer, 1928.
Gross, John. "A Tale of Two Cities (1962)." Dickens: Modern Judgements, ed. A. E. Dyson. London: Macmillan, 1968. Pp. 233-243.
Grubb, Gerald Giles. "Dickens' Weekly Serialization." E. L. H. 9 (1942): 141-156.
Hutter, Albert D. "Nation and Generation in A Tale of Two Cities." PMLA 93 (1978): 448-462.
The Letters of Charles Dickens. The Pilgrim Edition. Ed. Madeline House, Graham Storey, K. J. Fielding, and Kathleen Tillotson. 6 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1965-1989.
Sanders, Andrew. "Introduction" to Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Stange, G. Robert. "A Tale of Two Cities Reconsidered." English Journal 47, 7 (October 1957): 381-390.
Stephen, Sir James Fitzjames. "A Tale of Two Cities (1859)." The Dickens Critics, ed. George H. Ford and Lauriat Lane, Jr. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1963. Pp. 38-46.
Woodcock, George. "Introduction" to Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.
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