Revolution rewritten

Issue: 129

Jack Farmer

Colin Jones, Josephine McDonagh and Jon Mee (eds), Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities and the French Revolution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), £50

Charles Dickens was not a writer who liked to sit on the fence. A passionate advocate of reform, his novels rail against all manner of social ills—from poverty (Oliver Twist, Hard Times) to misanthropy (A Christmas Carol) to the inanity of the legal system (Bleak House). He is perhaps the quintessential London author, his infamous night-time wanderings feeding his intense interest in the burgeoning capital of empire.

Yet A Tale of Two Cities occupies an awkward position in Dickens’ oeuvre. It is one of only two historical novels Dickens ever wrote. Despite being one of his most popular novels (in Britain at least) it suffers from a serious flaw that has befuddled numerous critics over the years—it’s just not very “Dickensian”.

This response probably comes from the same line of critical thought that describes some of Shakespeare’s best plays (Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure) as “problem plays”. The problem belongs to the critics and not to Dickens.

Nevertheless, there is something strange about this book. Its often-quoted opening line seems to betray a strange equivocation. On whose side stands the author who writes of a revolution that it was the best and worst of times?

This inter-disciplinary volume brings together essays from a number of academics grappling with Dickens’ relationship with the French Revolution, and the effect of his peculiar vision on Anglo-French readings of the Revolution. In particular, the editors argue that the novel has been unfairly seen as a triumphalist polemic on the virtues of British gradualism over French radicalism.

Some of the most interesting essays discuss Dickens’s sources. A Tale includes a dedication to Thomas Carlyle’s “wonderful book”, The French Revolution—a right wing account hostile to the revolution. But this influence may have been balanced by Dickens’s reading of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, and also by less openly partial works. For example, Arthur Young’s account, prosaically entitled Travels in France During the Years 1787, 1788, 1789 contains a description of a peasant child being run over in the street by a coach—a scene which finds its way into A Tale.

Young’s account seems almost painfully even-handed in its treatment of the insurrection. Mark Philp points out that “Young sits uncomfortably on what quickly becomes a fence dividing those responding to France, at once compassionate…and yet fearful of the populace, resistant to political innovation.”

Along with the broader arguments about the Revolution and Dickens’s take on it, this volume contains essays that tease out different aspects of the novel. While Dickens summons a relatively small cast of characters, they are subject to constantly shifting identities, double agents, and doubled faces. Kamilla Elliot explores the difficulties of cleaving together names and faces in the novel. This must have had obvious implication for the Jacobin’s prosecution of Terror against counter-revolutionaries, but Elliot’s essay also usefully elaborates on class and identity. The “Jacques” (ie Jacobins) of the novel seem to draw from a collective identity, and be largely interchangeable. At the same time the main characters (mainly middle class and English) are chased by the spectres of deadly identities, as they are variously accused of being members of French aristocracy or the English secret service.

Other essays here explore cinematic and theatrical reworkings of A Tale, the theorisation of revolutionary violence in the novel and beyond it, and many other elements that have made this novel both compelling and problematic. Though there is much of interest here, at times some of these essays lapse into formulations that are unnecessarily complicated, and prose that is unhelpfully dense and difficult.

The dozen or so academics represented in this volume do not attempt to formulate a consistent interpretation of the French Revolution, though they share many conclusions about Dickens’s retelling. Michael Wood’s afterword offers a typically cryptic decoding of A Tale’s moral message: “What is inevitable will happen—unless we prevent it. 1859 in England is just like 1789 in France, except for the difference in time and place.”

The simplest response may be the best. In 1859 Dickens chose to intervene in what had long been a ferocious contest to define the legacy of France. The revolutions of 1848—which saw the barricades back in Paris, and a final Chartist surge in London—underlined the importance of these arguments. On the streets of Paris the sansculottes had been replaced by the proletaires. Across Europe the remnants of feudalism faced a decisive challenge but, crucially, the bourgeoisie vacillated. The spectre of a new kind of revolution haunted the minds of any would-be Robespierres in the mid-19th century.

As the dust settled, Dickens penned a tale about the French revolution that seemed to embrace both sides of an ideological
gulf—from Carlyle to Paine. As a result the novel itself resists simple interpretations. Dickens was not a revolutionary. But he was a zealous reformer for whom revolution was a reasonable response to unreasonable rule. A Tale was (and remains) a reminder to the bourgeoisie of its radical legacy and a warning about its possible future fate.