Prof. Maitzen recently wrote a little something about Thomas Carlyle’s staggering and enormous second novel, The French Revolution (1837), including a generous excerpt on the execution of Louis XVI that gives the flavor of the thing. Here is Carlyle on the aftermath of the sacking of the Bastille:
A declining sun; the need of victuals, and of telling news, will bring assuagement, dispersion: all earthly things must end.
Along the streets of Paris circulate Seven Bastille Prisoners, borne shoulder-high; seven Heads on pikes; the Keys of the Bastille; and much else…
But so does the twilight thicken; so must Paris, as sick children, and all distracted creatures do, brawl itself finally into a kind of sleep. (I.1.vii)
It’s strange stuff for history, either built out of metaphor (Paris as “sick children”) or turning historical material into metaphor, which is what Carlyle is signaling with his odd capitalization (which is probably also a Germanophile’s affectation) – the number seven plays a strange recurring role in the novel, as in his use of the story of the seven sleepers, of which the seven prisoners are somehow versions. As Carlyle piles up these metaphors and substitutes, the novel becomes increasingly tangled. The reader beginning somewhere in the middle might well find it incomprehensible, as might many readers who start at the beginning.
Did I say novel? The French Revolution is, of course, a work of history, non-fiction. I should fix that.
How does Dickens end the same scene in A Tale of Two Cities (1859)? With an homage:
Seven prisoners released, seven gory heads on pikes, the keys of the accursed fortress of the eight strong towers, some discovered letters and other memorials of prisoners of old time, long dead of broken hearts, - and such, and such-like, the loudly echoing footsteps of Saint Antoine escort through the Paris streets in mid-July, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine. Now, Heaven defeat the fancy of Lucie Darnay, and keep these feet far out of her life! For, they are headlong, mad, and dangerous; and in the years so long after the breaking of the cask at Defarge’s wine-shop door, they are not easily purified when once stained red. (II.21.)
The letter of the broken-hearted prisoner is from Carlyle, too; it is concealed behind the ellipses up above. Dickens has to expand on Carlyle’s “much else” for plot purposes – keep an eye on those discovered letters – and deftly slips a couple of his own themes into the passage. The heads, for example, need to be gory as part of the red \ blood \ wine theme, which he hits again at the end of the paragraph. That wine cask broke way back in chapter V, about 25 pages into the book. I do have some doubts about the mixed metaphor of the “headlong” feet, but they come from six pages earlier, from the morning of July 14:
Headlong, mad, and dangerous footsteps to force their way into anybody’s life, footsteps not easily made clean again if once stained red, the footsteps raging in Saint Antoine afar off, as the little circle sat in the dark London window.
Mad footsteps; raging footsteps; hard to clean footsteps. As if I’m complaining! The rhetorical excesses of Victor Hugo,* of Thomas Carlyle, and of Charles Dickens are thrilling. Watching them fly out of control, even escape into incomprehensibility, is part of the pleasure.
* I had promised Rohan Maitzen a “Hugo and Carlyle, rhetoric of” comparison post, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. It’s a good idea, though. They share a wild-eyed enthusiasm, among other things. No idea if they knew of even the existence of each other’s work.