A complete possession

Execution of émigrés, 1793 (Wikipedia Commons)
Execution of émigrés, 1793 (Wikipedia Commons)

Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities
Collins Classics 2010 (1859)

History repeats itself, and too often repeats itself in terrible ways. The downtrodden masses of 18th-century France had genuine grievances but when the inevitable reaction came moderation soon gave way to the Reign of Terror between September 1793 and July 1794. So it also was in 20th-century Russia and later in China, and recent years have seen too many other risings with hopes for natural justice being perverted by cruelty, bloody mayhem and corruption.

Dickens’ early years just overlapped the close of the Napoleonic Wars: he was born in the year of the failed French invasion of Russia, commemorated by Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The French Revolution had begun not even a quarter of a century before and so its events were not at all dry-as-dust history for Dickens and his generation, but he does acknowledge a debt to Thomas Carlyle’s “wonderful book” detailing this turbulent period when preparing for his novel, published seventy years after the start of the conflagration. Dickens 1859 preface also tells us that

“A strong desire was upon me then to embody [the main idea of this story]  in my own person … Throughout  its execution, it has had complete possession of me; I have so far verified what is done and suffered in these pages, as I have certainly done and suffered it all myself.”

This rather veiled personal admission also furnishes further clues on what motivated Dickens to write this novel, clues which, thanks to the sands of time and Claire Tomalin’s 1991 study The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (now a feature film also called The Invisible Woman) we are better able to unravel from the text.

A Tale of Two Cities is both blessed and cursed with two of the most famous literary quotes as its metaphorical bookends, the opening (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”) and the concluding lines (“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…”) both being frequently parodied. Both start and end of this novel wax quite poetical, and this mirroring conceit, where the reflection often contrasts with its original, characterises much of the Tale. Stable but jittery London, fearful of French spies, is placed opposite a revolutionary Paris in perpetual turmoil; the gifted wastrel Sydney Carton is shadow to the decent-minded Charles Darnay; the loving Lucie Manette, light to father, husband and children, with her loyal helpmeet Miss Pross, is at the opposite end of the spectrum to the fierce Thérèse Defarge (she of the knitting needles), disloyal to her husband while abetted by the dangerous but empty-headed hanger-on La Vengeance.

Tricoteuses (Wikipedia Commons) and La Guillotine
Tricoteuses, 1793 (Wikipedia Commons) and La Guillotine

The plot is familiar but a brief synopsis may help. In 1757 the young doctor Alexandre Manette is imprisoned in the Bastille for no ascertainable crime, though we later discover that it was through the agency of a corrupt aristocratic family. Eighteen years later Manette, ‘recalled to life’ as it were, is released into the hands first of his former servant Ernest Defarge, then to the ministrations of banker Jarvis Lorry and Manette’s 18-year-old daughter Lucie.

Five years later, in 1780, the former French aristocrat Charles Darnay is on trial in London, falsely accused of spying, but the key prosecution witness (calling himself John Barsad) is unable to distinguish Darnay from the English barrister Sydney Carton, and therefore the case collapses. In the courtroom are also Manette, Lucie and Lorry, and this little group of five (the three French immigrants, the banker and the barrister), together with Lucie’s servant Miss Pross become firm friends, meeting frequently at the Manettes’ home in the then quiet suburb of Soho. But the pre-echoes of the revolutionary crowds disturb even their tranquil corner of London: and in 1789, with the fall of the Bastille, followed by the Reign of Terror, their lives fall apart.

Ellen Ternan (Wikipedia Commons)
Ellen Ternan (Wikipedia Commons)

Dickens’ preface describes the genesis of A Tale of Two Cities through his involvement with Wilkie Collins’ The Frozen Deep in 1856; this play, in which Dickens had a major hand, had as subject the ill-fated Franklin expedition of 1845. The young actress Ellen Lawless Ternan, 18 years Dickens’ junior, was hired to play a part, and Dickens became infatuated with her. Two years later, after his wife learnt of the clandestine affair, Dickens and Catherine separated. Commentators have, probably correctly, surmised that characters depicting idealised women in his subsequent novels — such as Estella in Great Expectations (1861) and of course Lucie in A Tale of Two Cities (1859) — were substantially modelled on Nelly (as Ellen was known). That length of eighteen years — Manette’s period of imprisonment, Lucie’s age on his release, the age gap between Nelly and Dickens — all point to one aspect of Dickens’ acknowledged intent to ’embody’ story details from his own personal life. Without condoning Dickens’ morality in separating from his wife and ten children we can doubt whether the ‘golden thread’ (a reference to Lucie’s and, by extension, Nelly’s fair hair) would have formed a strong and stable central section of A Tale of Two Cities were it not for his infatuation.

There are other aspects of Dickens’ life that have made their way into this book. For example, during a spell in Italy (1844-5) he witnessed an execution by guillotine in Rome and, though he doesn’t go into gory details in the novel, his determination to imagine himself as about to suffer that fate results in some of the more moving passages at the close of the book (ending with the words “It is a far, far better thing that I do…”). And his childhood experiences of seeing his father in a debtor’s prison, along with his familiarity with legal processes, help give the prison and courtroom scenes both authenticity and an experiential vividness. Of course his trademark social conscience emerges in these pages: in very black-and-white terms he describes the vicissitudes of ordinary people in the service of their cruel aristocratic masters, though he also depicts the inhumanity with which the formerly oppressed such as Madame Defarge then pursue their vendetta.

It’s time to consider the plot mechanism of the doppelgänger on which both occasions of jeopardy depend, both near the beginning and at the  denouement. Dickens wasn’t of course the first to use the concept of a double in fiction: Dumas had already explored this in 1850 with the Man in the Iron Mask (Louis XIV’s twin brother) in The Vicomte of Bragelonne 1850, and Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper was to do the same in 1881 (as also did George Lucas in The Phantom Menace episode of his Star Wars sequence). Though Darnay isn’t as regal as Louis of France, Edward of England or Amidala of Naboo he is an émigré aristocrat who is also in need of a substitute to rescue him from harm’s way. It’s a plausible theory that Charles Dickens used himself as a model for both Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, Darnay for the noble aspects of himself — the philanthropic benefactor — and Carton for the ignoble — perhaps the aspect of himself feeling guilty for betraying his family’s trust.

A Tale of Two Cities is very different from Dickens’ other novels in being set in the 18th century rather than the writer’s own century, but in other aspects it shares a similarity of treatment. One such is the use of coincidence to tighten the bonds between what appear at first to be unrelated characters. Why does Madame Defarge hate the Evrémonde family more than other aristocrats? Why did Dr Manette stipulate that Darnay’s identity remain a secret? What is the connection between Lucie’s servant Miss Pross and the spy who denounces Darnay? How is it that Jerry Cruncher from London recognises somebody in Paris he saw in passing several years previously? These are contrivances to create a story where pieces satisfyingly fall into place at their allotted time, but in retrospect they can feel a little too pat. Another Dickens idiosyncrasy is his use of what could be called reverse-engineered nominative determinism, where individuals are given peculiar names to match their characters. Here it’s not so blatant as his more contemporary novels, but we do have a barrister called Stryver who tries too hard to imagine himself a catch for any young lady; and a bank messenger, wife-beater by day and body-snatcher by night, who while coming good as a bodyguard for the Manette entourage in Paris is significantly called Cruncher; and the putative Marquis St Evrémonde who renounces his birthright, who appears to be a compound of ‘every’ (as in Everyman) and ‘monde’ (as in tout le monde, ‘everybody’).

Finally, we get to structure. A Tale of Two Cities was issued serially in instalments, as were all Dickens’ novels. In book form it consists of three parts of unequal length, but the novel can actually be divided into three chunks of 15 chapters, with notional breaks happening at crucial junctures in the story. The chapter entitled “The Gorgon’s Head” is at the point where the evil Marquis St Evrémonde is murdered and his nephew inherits the title, a precursor of both the revolution and Darnay’s woes. “Drawn to the Loadstone Rock” concludes the second part ‘The Golden Thread’, which is when Darnay makes the fatal decision to return to France, leaving his wife and daughter in England in order to advocate for a former servant.

This conflict between duty and doing what appears at the time to be right is one of many themes that run through the work, suggesting that as well as being a tale of London and Paris it is also a tale of the author himself, torn into two pieces. No wonder that the writing of it had “complete possession” of him.

11 thoughts on “A complete possession

  1. This is an amazing review. I have to confess, that I haven’ t read this novel ( Dickens is not among my favourites), but you convinced me to amend my fault soon. 🙂


    1. You’re very kind! It’s taken me a little while to get my thoughts together, especially as there were incidents I simply had no memory of from reading it as a teenager.


        1. To be fair I’d actually read it properly just before this review — I didn’t rely on a faulty memory from many years ago! That would have been a very short review…


  2. A really comprehensive analysis.
    Picking, as it were, stalks from your cherries, one wonders if Dickens didn’t do some of the the character naming as an aide memoire (I’m guilty of that, even with recourse to computer searches).
    I didn’t realise that the 1894 ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’ followed such a rutted road of doubles.
    It was a long time ago that I read the book, but I recall an impression that Darnay was one of the more wishy-washy of Dickens’s characters.


    1. Aide-memoire: that’d not occurred to me but it does make sense.

      Still not read The Prisoner of Zenda though I’ve read synopses — should I read it?

      Darnay: I suppose you can question his decision to sneak off to revolutionary France without telling his wife where he was going, though I wouldn’t say that was wishy-washy. Perhaps Lucie was bowled over by his aristocratic bearing? I do think Dickens is better writing morally ambiguous characters than goody-two-shoes types: in this book for example Lucie and Darnay are both a bit vapid, but Carton is much more interesting, and some of his other ‘heroes’ (Pip, for example, and even Oliver) you really want to shake to get a bit more life out of them.


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