Charles Petzold

1859 Books: Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”

November 21, 2009
New York, N.Y.

In Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) when the very proper and stuffy Lady Bracknell learns that Jack was found as a baby in a hand-bag in the cloak-room at Victoria Station, she is understandably shocked: “I confess I feel somewhat bewildered by what you have just told me. To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.”

One hundred years had passed since the French Revolution, and Britain's greatest wit was now giving the country permission to laugh about it — or rather, to laugh about Britain's attitude towards it. This was a real breakthrough. For much of the 19th century, the French Revolution and its long aftermath was to Britain much more than an historical cautionary tale. Every political protest in the streets of England reminded the ruling class of the events in France that began with the storming of the prison known as the Bastille in July of 1789.

In 1789 England was still flush from the centennial celebrations of their own Revolution of 1688 (also known as the Glorious Revolution and the Bloodless Revolution). To this day, historians still debate the true meaning of the Revolution of 1688, or even if it qualifies as a revolution at all. To the more progressive Whigs, however, the Revolution of 1688 established the dominance of Parliament over the Crown, and resulted in a Bill of Rights that stated concrete protections for the citizenry against royal tyranny.

In the early months of the French Revolution, many Englishmen — from King George III on down — saw the event as eliminating archaic feudal structures and bringing to the French people the same rights as England enjoyed under a constitutional monarchy much like their own. (See Chapter 3 of Asa Briggs, The Age of Improvement, 1783–1867, David McKay Co, 1959.) An added bonus was that the French Revolution targetted a government that had helped fund the American Revolution against the British. (It has long been the historical consensus that the root cause of the French Revolution was the financial breakdown in France caused by this assistance.)

One dissenter from the cherry view was Member of Parliament Edmund Burke, who was shocked by the sympathetic attitude of some Englishmen to the events in France. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke defined his nation as a peaceful mix of established orderly traditions, hereditary continuity, and natural law:

The societal upheavals, the severe break with the past, and the consequent turmoils going on in France were to Burke the antithesis of British sensibilities:

Burke's Reflections is also famous for having inspired other pamphlets and books. Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) is really only a prelude to her much more famous proto-feminist book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792). English-born American revolutionary Thomas Paine also opposed Burke with one of his most famous works, The Rights of Man (1792).

In recent decades, Reflections on the Revolution in France has come to be regarded as a founding document of the modern American Conservative movement, so it is surprising to see what a cruel and heartless book it really is. Burke is an unabashed royalist who defends heredity privilege and wealth as the basis of civil society. He constantly ridicules the concept of human rights, and is particularly insensitive to the plight of the French people. To demonstrate that they have not suffered under the old regime, Burke examines population statistics and concludes that conditions couldn't be too bad if the population increased during that period.

At the same time, Burke's prediction of the violence later widely associated with the French Revolution turned out to be rather prescient. (Or perhaps Burke helped turned Great Britain against the French Revolution, and hence caused the Revolution to become as violent as he predicted.)

For the first few years after July 14, 1789, British radicals found inspiration in the French Revolution:

The French Revolution was simply becoming too chaotic for English taste, and soon France and England would be at war. Overall, the French Revolution had the effect of sobering up the rather libertine English aristocacy. "In Britain one of the first consequences of the French Revolution had been to bring the aristocracy flooding into church." (Ben Wilson, The Making of Victorian Values: Decency and Dissent in Britain: 1789–1837, Penguin Press, 2007, p. 144)

Other scholars apply this formulation to the middle class as well: Prior to the French Revolution "any strong religious fervor had been largely limited to the lower classes, to whom the Wesleyan movement had appealed almost exclusively. But now, when social revolution seemed to be the fruit of atheism and immorality, piety became fashionable.... In this context [William] Wilberforce was able to add a new and forceful argument of Evangelicalism." (Walter E. Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830–1870, Yale University Press, 1957, p. 241)

Throughout the 19th century, reform came to Great Britain in gradual doses through a series of Reform Bills that increased suffrage and expanded human rights without the wild fluctuations between monarchy and republic that characterized France. It's not too hard to imagine the French Revolution as the primary influence in setting a temper we have come associate with the Victorian age, balancing a conservative piety with slowly increasingly liberal political attitudes.

To identify and condemn those radicals and "religious freethinkers" who questioned the traditions of crown and church and aristocracy, and who emphasized human rights over property rights and inheritance rights, the label Jacobin served well. This tendency crossed the Atlantic as well. Twenty-three days after Abraham Lincoln was elected President on November 6, 1860, the Rev. B. M. Palmer delivered a Thanksgiving Day sermon on The South: Her Peril, and Her Duty in the First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans, where he impressed upon his listeners their sacred duty in maintaining slavery, and opposing those evil outside agitators who wished to destroy it:

And so forth.

A number of British writers tackled histories of the French Revolution, but nobody did it like Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle's The French Revolution (1837) — published in the first year of Victoria's reign — is frequently challenging for modern readers, but nobody can deny the force of its narrative. Carlyle doesn't enliven the history with fabricated dialog or cozy characterizations. Instead, the narrative hurtles forward in a breathless present tense as if Carlyle is guiding the reader through a movie of the events. Here's Carlyle's description of [spoiler alert!] the trial of the Queen:

Carlyle's attitudes about the issues raised by the French Revolution are as idiosyncratic as his history. He doesn't negate the suffering of the French people preceding (and during) the revolution. The masses are starving, and Carlyle never lets us forget it. (arlyle was equally appalled by the widespread suffering of the masses as a result of Great Britain's advance into the industrial age.)

Yet, Carlyle did not regard democracy as the solution to these problems. Instead, he wanted a Great Man, a Hero, to lead the people. (Carlyle's writings on these subjects tends to be creepy to modern readers because they seem suggestive of fascism.) The lack of a Great Man to lead France before the revolution, or to emerge from the French Revolution, is to Carlyle the true tragedy of the era. Throughout The French Revolution, Carlyle keeps track of the progress of "a dusky- complexioned taciturn Boy" (Pt I Bk III Ch VIII) named Napoleon Bonaparte — someone who actually does qualify as a Great Man in Carlyle's estimation, although not without his own flaws.

When Charles Dickens set out to write a historical novel about the French Revolution, he borrowed some books from Carlyle and freely acknowledge his debt to Carlyle's history. The Preface to the first book edition of A Tale of Two Cities — published 150 years ago today on November 21, 1859 — states:

A Tale of Two Cities was one of Charles Dickens latter novels. He would complete only two others, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend. The novel originally appeared in installments. The first three chapters highlighted the first issue, dated April 30, 1859, of a little 24-page two-penny magazine All the Year Round, published by Dickens himself.

The weekly installments continued for another 30 weeks, with just one or two chapters an issue, until it was wrapped up in the issue dated November 26, 1859. (From Google Book Search, you can read the original installments in All the Year Round, Volume 1 and All the Year Round, Volume 2 or All the Year Round, Volumes 1 and 2.)

That November 26, 1859 issue of All the Year Round contained both the last installment of A Tale of Two Cities and the first installment of a new novel that played a major role in establishing the genres of detective fiction and the Victorian "sensation novel" — Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White.

After every four issues of All the Year Round, the installments were published by themselves as monthly parts, from which people could assemble their own books. Finally, on November 21, 1859, A Tale of Two Cities was published as an actual book. (There is apparently no copy of the first edition in Google Book Search.)

A Tale of Two Cities is undoubtedly Dickens' best known novel, indeed, one of the most famous novels in all of English literature. From the opening lines ("It was the best of times, it was the worse of times") to its closing paragraph ("It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done...") A Tale of Two Cities seems so familiar that one hesitates to actually read it anew, expecting perhaps to be disappointed, or to end up scoffing at it.

But that's not the case. After 150 years, A Tale of Two Cities in still exciting and, ultimately, emotionally moving. This should not be surprising. It's what Dickens does.

To a 19th century Englishman like Dickens, the French Revolution was as much an event of British history as of French history, so it's not surprising that the 19th century's premier historical novel about the Revolution has many scenes in London. But the Paris scenes are the ones we remember. The names we normally associated with the French Revolution — Robespierre, Marat, and Danton — are all off stage and not even mentioned. Dickens instead presents a street-level view of the events, including the storming of the Bastille and the daily activity of the Terror. The revolutionaries are represented by the Defarges, and as the Revolution intensifies, Madame Defarge gets increasingly more bloodthirsty. (It is illuminating to learn that Dickens based her on Lady Macbeth!)

The old regime is personified by the Marquis St. Evrémonde, a connoisseur of fine chocolate (in a memorable scene), and a man who feels nothing when his carriage runs over a boy (in another memorable scene). He is the man responsible for the wrongful imprisonment of Dr. Manette in the Bastille. (Defarge is the doctor's former servant.) Dr. Manette stands for the victims of pre-Revolution France, and when he gets out of the Bastille and moves to London to live with his daugher Lucie, he has left Paris bereft of any heroic characters.

Straddling the Paris and London worlds is Charles Darnay. At first we think that the only connection between the Manettes and Darnay is a casual and superficial one, and that this connection only serves to allow Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette to meet marry. On his wedding day, Darnay tells Dr. Manette who is really is: Darnay is the nephew of the evil Marquis St. Evrémonde, but he has renounced his aristocratic heritage.

In the Preface where Dickens gives thanks to Thomas Carlyle's history, he also wrote that he was inspired to write the novel by acting the role of a self-sacrificing character in a Wilkie Collins play, The Frozen Deep. That character became Sydney Carton.

Sydney Carton first appears as a seemingly minor character who has importance only because of a physical resemblance to Charles Darnay. (In Dickens' plans for the novel, Sydney Carton was named Dick Carton, so that his initials are reversed from his lookalike. In addition, the two first names are nearly the author's name!) Sydney Carton is a mess. He does good legal work, but he's an alcoholic, he hates himself, and he loves Lucie.

That Sydney Carton is the true hero of A Tale of Two Cities — and the very reason for its existence — emerges only gradually. Yet, this is perhaps the novel's greatest flaw. For Sydney Carton, the French Revolution is an event that serves only to redeem his profligate life. Carton's fate doesn't resonate with the bigger events.

Although Dickens clearly shows his debt to Carlyle in many details and descriptions of the novel, on the whole I find A Tale of Two Cities much closer in spirit to Edmund Burke. Carlyle's focus is almost wholly on the events in France, whereas Burke constantly compares France with England. Similarly, in A Tale of Two Cities, London and Paris are sharply contrasted. London is the city of domestic tranquility, a house so quiet you can hear footsteps out on the sidewalk, a place where an old man can be rehabilitated back into social existence, occupations both boring and fulfilling, visits from friends and pleasant evening conversation.

Paris is a city in turmoil, a city of anguish and pain, of heartless aristocrats and crazed revolutionaries, of horrifying mob rule and the finality of La Guillotine.

Charles Darnay is put on trial twice in A Tale of Two Cities. In the English court (Bk 2, Ch III), Darnay is acquitted of charges of treason because of the principle of reasonable doubt: Darnay so closely resembles Sydney Carton that an eyewitness identification can't be trusted. But when Darnay is tried in Paris (Bk 3, Ch X), he is condemned — "At heart and by descent an Aristocrat, and enemy of the Republic, a notorious opperssor of the People. Back to the Conciergerie, and Death within four and twenty hours!" — solely on the ridiculous basis of a letter written in the Bastille by Dr. Manette, which has denounced the Evrémondes "and their descendents, to the last of their race ... to heaven and to earth"

Although Dickens probably got the idea of Bastille prisoners writing letters from reading Carlyle, the idea of aristocrats being punished for simple family connections is eerily reminiscent of a passage in Burke (and notice the characteristic mocking tone of the last phrase):

England preferred its revolutions to be more civil, orderly, and intellectual. Three days after A Tale of Two Cities hit the bookstores, another book appeared that offered up a revolution as profound, perhaps, as that in Paris 70 years earlier.

Earlier Entries in the Sesquicentenniality Series

1859 Books: “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” (1/15/2009)

1859 Books: George Eliot’s “Adam Bede” (2/1/2009)

1859 Books: John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” (2/26/2009)

1859 Books: Anthony Trollope’s “The Bertrams” (3/29/2009)

1859 Art: Frederic Church’s “The Heart of the Andes” (4/27/2009)

1859 Journalism: Harriet Martineau’s “Female Industry” (5/30/2009)

1859 Science: John Tyndall and the Greenhouse Effect (6/10/2009)

1859 Books: George Meredith’s “The Ordeal of Richard Feverel” (6/20/09)

1859 Books: Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” (7/17/09)

1859 Music: Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” (8/30/2009)

1859 Books: Harriet Wilson’s “Our Nig” (9/5/2009)

1859 Speeches: Prince Albert’s Address to the BAAS (9/14/09)

1859 Books: Samuel Smiles’ “Self-Help” (9/29/09)

1859 Crusades: John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry (10/16/09)