Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Tale of Two Cities

Review of:
A Tale of Two Cities (by Charles Dickens, 1859).

To are few more touching books in their way than the last of the Waverley Novels. The readers of Castle Dangerous and Count Robert of Paris can hardly fail to see in those dreary pages the reflection of a proud and honourable man redeeming what he looked upon as his honour at the expense of his genius. Sir Walter Scott's desperate efforts to pay his debts by extracting the very last ounce of metal from a mine which had long been substantially worked out, deserve the respect and enlist the sympathy which is the due of high spirit and unflinching courage. The novels, to be sure, are as bad as bad can be; but to pay debts is a higher duty than to write good novels, and as monuments of what can be done in that direction by a determined man, they are not without their interest and value. They have, moreover, the negative value of being only bad. They are not offensive or insulting. The usual strong men, the usual terrific combats, and the usual upholstery are ot upon the stage. They are no doubt greatly the worse for wear; but if they were good of their kind, there would be nothing to complain of. The soup is cold, the mutton raw, and the fowls tough; but there are soup, mutton, and fowls for dinner, not puppy pie and stewed cat.

In the Tale of Two Cities, Mr. Dickens has reached the Castle Dangerous stage without Sir Walter Scott's excuse; and instead of wholesome food ill-dressed, he has put before his readers dishes of which the quality is not disguised by the cooking. About a year ago, he thought proper to break up an old and to establish a new periodical, upon grounds which, if the statement—and, as far as we are aware, the uncontradicted statement—of Messrs. Bradbury and Evans is true, were most discreditable to his character for good feeling, and we might almost say for common decency, and in order to extend the circulation of the new periodical he published in it the story which now lies before us. It has the merit of being much shorter than its predecessors, and the consequence is, that the satisfaction which both the author and his readers must feel at its conclusion was deferred for a considerably less period than usual. It is a most curious production, whether it is considered in a literary, in a moral, or in an historical point of view. If it had not borne Mr. Dickens's name, it would in all probability have hardly met with a single reader; and if it has any popularity at all, it must derive it from the circumstance that it stands in the same relation to his other books as salad dressing stands in towards a complete salad. It is a bottle of the sauce in which Pickwick and Nicholas Nickleby were dressed, and to which they owed much of their popularity; and though it has stood open on the sideboard for a very long time, and has lost a good deal of its original flavour, the philosophic inquirer who is willing to go through the penance of tasting it will be, to a certain extent, repaid. He will have an opportunity of studying in its elements a system of cookery which procured for its ingenious inventor unparalleled popularity, and enabled him to infect the literature of his country with a disease which manifests itself in such repulsive symptoms that it has gone far to invert the familiar doctrines of the Latin Grammar about ingenuous arts, and to substitute for them the conviction that the principal results of a persistent devotion to literature are an incurable vulgarity of mind and of taste, and intolerable arrogance of temper.

As, notwithstanding the popularity of its author, it might be an error to assume that our readers are at all acquainted with the Tale of Two Cities, it may be desirable to mention shortly the points of the story. The Two Cities are London and Paris. A French physician, who has just been released after passing many years in the Bastille, is brought over to England, where he lives with his pretty daughter. Five years elapse, and the doctor and his daughter appear as witnesses on the trial for treason of a young Frenchman, who is suspected of being a French spy, and acquitted. A year or two more elapses, and the doctor's daughter marries, the acquitted man, refusing two barristers, one of whom had defended him, whilst the other was devil to the first. Then ten years elapse, and as the Revolution is in full bloom in Paris, all the characters go over there on various excuses. The Frenchman turns out to be a noble who had given up his estate because he was conscience-stricken at the misery of the population around him, and thought he had better live by his wits in London than have the responsibility of continuing to be a landowner in France. He gets into prison, and is in great danger of losing his head, but his father-in-law, on the strength of his Bastille reputation, gets him off. He is, however, arrested a second time, and turns out to be the son of the infamous Marquis who had put the father-in-law into the Bastille for being shocked at his having murdered a serf. On this discovery he is condemned to death, and his wife goes through the usual business—“If I might embrace him once,” “My husband—No! A moment,” “Dear darling of my soul,” and so forth. Next day, before the time fixed for his execution, the rejected barrister—the devil, not the counsel for the prisoner —gets into the prison, changes clothes with the husband, stupifies him with something in the nature of chloroform, gets him passed out of the prison by a confederate before he revives, and is guillotined in his place.

Such is the story, and it would perhaps be hard to imagine a clumsier or more disjointed framework for the display of the tawdry wares which form Mr. Dickens's stock-in-trade. The broken-backed way in which the story maunders along from 1775 to 1792 and back again to 1760 or thereabouts, is an excellent instance of the complete disregard of the rules of literary composition which have marked the whole of Mr. Dickens's career as an author. No portion of his popularity is due to intellectual excellence. The higher pleasures which novels are capable of giving are those which are derived from the development of a skilfully constructed plot, or the careful and moderate delineation of character; and neither of these are to be found in Mr. Dickens's works, nor has his influence over his contemporaries had the slightest tendency to promote the cultivation by others of the qualities which produce them. The two main sources of his popularity are his power of working upon the feelings by the coarsest stimulants, and his power of setting common occurrences in a grotesque and unexpected light. In his earlier works, the skill and vigour with which these operations were performed were so remarkable as to make it difficult to analyse the precise means by which the effect was produced on the mind of the reader. Now that familiarity has deprived his books of the gloss and freshness which they formerly possessed, the mechanism is laid bare; and the fact that the means by which the effect is produced are really mechanical has become painfully apparent. It would not, indeed, be matter of much difficulty to frame from such a book as the Tale of Two Cities regular recipes for grotesque and pathetic writing, by which any required quantity of the article might be produced with infallible certainty. The production of pathos is the simpler operation of the two. With a little practice and a good deal of determination, it would really be as easy to harrow up people's feelings as to poke the fire. The whole art is to take a melancholy subject, and rub the reader's nose in it, and this does not require any particular amount either of skill or knowledge. Every one knows, for example, that death is a solemn and affecting thing. If, therefore, it is wished to make a pathetic impression on the reader, the proper course is to introduce a death-bed scene, and to rivet attention to it by specifying all its details. Almost any subject will do, because the pathetic power of the scene lies in the fact of the death; and the artifice employed consists simply in enabling the notion of death to be reiterated at short intervals by introducing a variety of irrelevant trifles which suspend attention for the moment, and allow it after an interval to revert to death with the additional impulse derived from the momentary contrast. The process of doing this to almost any conceivable extent is so simple, that it becomes, with practice, almost mechanical. To describe the light and shade of the room in which the body lies, the state of the bedclothes, the conversation of the servants, the sound of the undertaker's footsteps, the noise of driving the coffin-screws, and any number of other minutiae, is in effect a device for working on the feelings by repeating at intervals, Death—death—death—death —death, just as feeling of another class might be worked upon by continually calling a man a liar or a thief. It is an old remark, that if dirt enough is thrown some of it will stick; and Mr. Dickens's career shows that the same is true of pathos.

To be grotesque is a rather more difficult trick than to be pathetic; but it is just as much a trick, capable of being learned and performed almost mechanically. One principal element of grotesqueness is unexpected incongruity; and inasmuch as most things are different from most other things, there is in nature a supply of this element of grotesqueness which is absolutely inexhaustible. Whenever Mr. Dickens writes a novel, he makes two or three comic characters just as he might cut a pig out of a piece of orange-peel. In the present story there are two comic characters, one of whom is amusing by reason of the facts that his name is Jerry Cruncher, that his hair sticks out like iron spikes, and that, having reproached his wife for “flopping down on her knees” to pray, he goes on for seventeen years speaking of praying as “flopping." If, instead of saying that his hair was like iron spikes, Mr. Dickens had said that his ears were like mutton-chops, or his nose like a Bologna sausage, the effect would have been much the same. One of his former characters was identified by a habit of staring at things and people with his teeth, and another by a propensity to draw his moustache up under his nose, and his nose down over his moustache. As there are many members in one body, Mr. Dickens may possibly live long enough to have a character for each of them, so that he may have one character identified by his eyebrows, another by his nostrils, and another by his toe-nails. No popularity can disguise the fact that this is the very lowest of low styles of art. It is a step below Cato's full wig and lacquered chair which shook the pit and made the gallery stare, and in point of artistic merit stands on precisely the same level with the deformities which inspire the pencils of the prolific artists who supply valentines to the million at a penny a-piece.

One special piece of grotesqueness introduced by Mr. Dickens into his present tale is very curious. A good deal of the story relates to France, and many of the characters are French. Mr. Dickens accordingly makes them talk a language which, for a few sentences, is amusing enough, but which becomes intolerably tiresome and affected when it is spread over scores of pages. He translates every French word by its exact English equivalent. For example, “VoilĂ  votre passeport” becomes "Behold your passport”—“Je viens de voir,” “I come to see,” &c. Apart from the bad taste of this, it shows a perfect ignorance of the nature and principles of language. The sort of person who would say in English, “Behold,” is not the sort of person who would say in French “VoilĂ ;” and to describe the most terrible events in this misbegotten jargon shows a great want of sensibility to the real requirements of art. If an acquaintance with Latin were made the excuse for a similar display, Mr. Dickens and his disciples would undoubtedly consider such conduct as inexcusable pedantry. To show off familiarity with a modern language is not very different from similar conduct with respect to an ancient one.

The moral tone of the Tale of Two Cities is not more wholesome than that of its predecessors, nor does it display any nearer approach to a solid knowledge of the subject-matter to which it refers. Mr. Dickens observes in his preface—“It has been one of my hopes to add something to the popular and picturesque means of understanding that terrible time, though no one can hope to add anything to the philosophy of Mr. Carlyle's wonderful book." The allusion, to Mr. Carlyle confirms the presumption which the book itself raises, that Mr. Dickens happened to have read the History of the French Revolution, and, being on the look-out for a subject, determined off-hand to write a novel about it. Whether he has any other knowledge of the subject than a single reading of Mr. Carlyle's work would supply does not appear, but certainly what he has written show's no more. It is exactly the sort of story which a man would write who had taken down Mr. Carlyle's theory without any sort of inquiry or examination, but with a comfortable conviction that “nothing could be added to its philosophy.” The people, says Mr. Dickens, in effect, had been degraded by long and gross misgovernment, and acted like wild beasts in consequence. There is, no doubt, a great deal of truth in this view of the matter, but it is such very elementary truth that, unless a man had something new to say about it, it is hardly worth mentioning; and Mr. Dickens supports it by specific assertions which, if not absolutely false, are at any rate so selected as to convey an entirely false impression. It is a shameful thing for a popular writer to exaggerate the faults of the French aristocracy in a book which will naturally find its way to readers who know very little of the subject except what he chooses to tell them; but it is impossible not to feel that the melodramatic story which Mr. Dickens tells about the wicked Marquis who violates one of his serfs and murders another, is a grossly unfair representation of the state of society in France in the middle of the eighteenth century. That the French noblesse had much to answer for in a thousand ways, is a lamentable truth; but it is by no means true that they could, rob, murder, and ravish with impunity. When Count Horn thought proper to try the experiment under the Regency, he was broken on the wheel, notwithstanding his nobility; and the sort of atrocities which Mr. Dickens depicts as characteristic of the eighteenth century were neither safe nor common in the fourteenth.

England as well as France comes in for Mr. Dickens's favours. He takes a sort of pleasure, which appears to us insolent and unbecoming in the extreme, in drawing the attention of his readers exclusively to the bad and weak points in the history and character of their immediate ancestors. The grandfathers of the present generation were, according to him, a sort of savages, or very little better. They were cruel, bigoted, unjust, ill-governed, oppressed, and neglected in every possible way. The childish delight with which Mr. Dickens acts Jack Horner, and says What a good boy am I, in comparison with my benighted ancestors, is thoroughly contemptible. England some ninety years back was not what it now is, but it was a very remarkable country. It was inhabited and passionately loved by some of the greatest men who were then living, and it possessed institutions which, with man imperfections, were by far the best which then existed in the world, and were, amongst other things, the sources from which our present liberties are derived. There certainly were a large number of abuses, but Mr. Dickens is not content with representing them fairly. He grossly exaggerates their evils. It is usually difficult to bring a novelist precisely to book, and Mr. Dickens is especially addicted to the cultivation of a judicious vagueness; but in his present work he affords an opportunity for instituting a comparison between the facts on which he relies, and the assertions which he makes on the strength of them. In the early part of his novel he introduces the trial of a man who is accused of being a French spy, and does his best to show how utterly corrupt and unfair everybody was who took part in the proceedings. The counsel for the Crown is made to praise the Government spy, who is the principal witness, as a man of exalted virtue, and is said to address himself with zeal to the task of driving the nails into the prisoner's coffin. In examining the witnesses he makes every sort of unfair suggestion which can prejudice the prisoner, and the judge shows great reluctance to allow any circumstance to come out which would be favourable to him, and does all in his power to get him hung, though the evidence against him is weak in the extreme. It so happens that in the State Trials for the very year (1780) in which the scene of Mr. Dickens's story is laid, there is a full report of the trial of a French spy—one De la Motte—for the very crime which is imputed to Mr. Dickens's hero. One of the principal witnesses in this case was an accomplice of very bad character; and in fact it is difficult to doubt that the one trial is merely a fictitious “rendering” of the other. The comparison between them is both curious and instructive. It would be perfectly impossible to imagine a fairer trial than De la Motte's, or stronger evidence than that on which he was convicted. The counsel for the Crown said not one word about the character of the approver, and so far was the judge from pressing hard on the prisoner, that he excluded evidence offered against him which in almost any other country would have been all but conclusive against him. It is surely a very disgraceful thing to represent such a transaction as an attempt to commit a judicial murder.

We must say one word in conclusion as to the illustrations. They are thoroughly worthy of the text. It is impossible to imagine faces and figures more utterly unreal, or more wretchedly conventional, than those by which Mr. Browne represents Mr. Dickens's characters. The handsome faces are caricatures, and the ugly ones are like nothing human.

Saturday Review, December 17, 1859.

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