Thursday, April 14, 2011

I enjoyed the style of A Tale of Two Cities

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.


  1. Thrilling is right. Whenever I read one of those smug contemporary blurbs about leaving behind the dull realism of the 19th-century novel, I want to hurl volumes of this genre-bending, risk-taking, uncompromising craziness at the writer until he begs for forgiveness.

    I guess I can live without the Carlyle - Hugo comparison, though I know I would enjoy it, and learn from it, if you'd put it together! Maybe I'll do it myself, once I've read Les Mis for myself!

  2. Do you think anyone believes us? About Carlyle, I mean?

    I've picked up the impression that more nonsense is said about 19th century literature than about earlier literature. Maybe the generalizers know so little about earlier literature that they do not dare. But they have read Pride and Prejudice and The Mill on the Floss and, I don't know, "Daisy Miller," so full speed ahead.

    How anyone can read Wuthering Heights, A Christmas Carol, Faust, anything by E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Scarlet Letter, or Silas Marner - I'm just trying to stick with famous examples - how about Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - and think that the right, useful, sufficient word is "realism"!

    Leafing through, The French Revolution, the 950+ page Oxford paperback, has perhaps unnerved me. Every page is interesting, but hard to wrestle with. "Loose-skirted scarecrow of an Herb-merchant, with his ass and early greens, toilsomely plodding, seems the only creature we meet" (470) What a good sentence. What does it have to do with anything (it was picked at random)? I have no idea.

  3. I'm reading Carlyle's translations of Tieck and Jean Paul at the moment - the latter, a highly experimental writer translating a highly experimental writer (I think Jean Paul must certainly have read some Laurence Sterne at some point). - Jean Paul is v amusing too - a game playing post-modernist, heartily recommended. (I'll put up a post about him soon).

    Whenever a comparison is made between a modern writer and Dickens, it always seems to me to be based upon aspects of Dickens which I personally find more or less immaterial to Dickensness: e.g. his comic nature, his usage of exaggerated stereotypes for characters, his use of exaggeration generally. It's never - which I think is a pity - Dickens' sheer and infectious joy in the English language.

  4. Jean Paul was an eye-opener. I had swallowed that "Sterne stands alone, no influence until postmodernism, no followers, etc." nonsense. Wrong, wrong, wrong. An entire generation of Germans adored Sterne, although they are usually not as blatant as Jean Paul.

    I've never dared any of his long books - Titan or Hesperus.

    Looking forward to the post.

    And Tieck! Tieck's obscurity in the English-speaking world is a crime. And what have I read besides Carlyle's translations? What is there to read besides Carlyle?

    Completely agree about the irrelevant potted descriptions of Dickens.

  5. Thanks for linking this! See, now I want to read The French Revolution just to make the comparisons for myself. :)