Monday, 2 January 2012

Top Ten All-Time Bestselling Books, 1: Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)


So, we reach the end of this series with the world's bestselling book; and we do so just as 2011 folds over into 2012, the bicentenary of Dickens's birth. As to why this Dickens title, amongst so many other (let's be honest: better) Dickens novels, is the one to sell more than any other ... well I suppose it combines a vivid, well-plotted story -- and the plotting, though obviously melodramatic, is good -- with a degree of historical interest.  Plus it's considerably shorter than the fat-man-sized masterpieces, from Copperfield through to Our Mutual Friend.  Let us not underestimate the importance of relative shortness, in reaching a global audience who have heard that Dickens is one of the greatest novelists, but who don't feel like scaling a 1000-page mountain, particularly if English isn't their first language.  On the downside, this book lacks some of the sheer brilliance of Dickens's humour at its finest; and where Bleak House and Little Dorrit (my personal favourites in the Dickens canon) do extraordinary, eloquent, resonant things with their respective structures of theme and symbol, the bi-urban Tale wrings a rather wearying stream from Christian tropes out of its narrower stretch of cloth: wine that is also blood; dead bodies coming to life; substitutionary atonement.  Still, I do love this novel.  I love it as the most autobiographical book Dickens ever wrote.

That's not normally how it's taken, of course.  The Standard Critical View of A Tale of Two Cities is that it rehearses Carlyle's French Revolution in fictional form by way of airing CD's political views and anxieties.  And that's certainly a part of what is going on here.  It's just not (I think) a very important part.  For the greater part, I'm gonna ask you to -- gimme a 'C'! ("C!")  Gimme a 'D'! ("D!").

It is about justice, or more exactly about fairness, just like all of Dickens’s novels—one of the things that gives Dickens his unique appeal is his acute sense of the valences of fairness. Children understand this quality, and it matters very much to them; but some adults fall into cynicism, or despair, about it. I must say I’ve never understood why ‘but that’s not fair!’ has, as a phrase, the negative overtones of spoilt child about it. ‘It’s not fair’ is the most penetrating criticism it is possible to make about human social affairs: it is, at root, the force of the criticism of Marx—and the Gospels. A characteristic Dickens storyline concerns a child, with whom we empathise, who suffers a series of grotesque unfairnesses at the hand of adulthood. In his best books these unfairnesses accumulate, and are only paid-off with a restorative dose of justice right at the end of the book. In this sense A Tale of Two Cities is both intensely characteristic and rather unusual—unusual in that it concerns no children, it traces no Bildungsroman, it does not surround a bland everyman with a ring of exaggeratedly intensified caricature and grotesques. But it is characteristic, intensely so, in that the issue of fairness is elevated to a national, indeed a cosmic level. The abuses of Dickens’s ancien regime are so hyperbolically extreme, the unfairness of life for the poor so manifest, that it feels crude, even clumsy. This, though, is to read only on the level of manifest content.  The more interesting things happening here are going on on the level of the latent.

Two cities, one tale.  A tale about what?  Well, most obviously about the French revolution, and various people (most especially Dr Manette and his daughter Lucy, virtuous Charles Darnay and dissolute Sidney Carton) caught up in it.  What else?  Well, it's also about the thread linking London and Paris.  London, of course, was Dickens's city.  He knew Paris pretty well, too: he holidayed there often, especially in the 1850s.  And I think the key salient here is that, for respectable British Victorians, there was something disreputable about France, of course: a different alignment of sexual mores (or mœurs) both in life and art.  In May 1856 he had a conversation with a friend, Mrs Brown, on this matter.  I'll quote from Claire Tomalin's excellent new biography:
When she spoke against them, he praised their openness about social problems, telling her that a leading difference between them and the English was that "in England people dismiss the mention of social evils and vices which do nevertheless exist amongst them; and that in France people people do not dismiss the mention of the same things but habitually recognise their existence." Mrs Brown cried out, "Don't say that!" and Dickens insisted, "Oh but I must say it, you know, when according to our national vanity and prejudice, you disparage an unquestionably great nation." At which Mrs Brown burst into tears. [272]
Hah! That told her! It's always edifying, I feel, when a millionaire celebrity, one of the most influential men of his day, makes an ordinary non-famous woman cry.  On another occasion Dickens complained to his friend Forster that Balzac and Sand could write about real heroes, where the hero of an English novel must be 'always uninteresting -- too good.' This question of the representation of the 'indecencies' (Dickens's word) is one of the fault lines separating the English and French literary traditions, I suppose: but it points to one of the way 'France' functions, symbolically, in this novel. Violence and revolution, yes; but also sex.

Now, in the usual course of things I shy away from biographical criticism, and I urge my students to do the same. The notion that a work of literature can be ‘unlocked’ once we understand the life-story of the individual who wrote it can hardly escape banality. Speaking as an author myself I can confirm that the author is dead, and that the business of literary criticism is with literature. But I say all that in order to violate my own rules; and advance a strictly biographical reading of A Tale of Two Cities. Many critics before me have noticed biographical parallels in the novel, of course; but I wish to go further—to suggest, in fact, that this is a novel absolutely saturated with CD. A critical commonplace is that David Copperfield is CD’s most autobiographical novel; I propose that A Tale of Two Cities merits that title.

Appropriately for a novel much concerned with secrets, and repression, the autobiography it construes is a hidden one. In the mid 1850s, after nearly two decades of marriage, Dickens separated from his wife Catherine. After giving birth to ten children (not counting her miscarriages) Catherine had certainly played her part in the Victorian conception of marriage; and if she had grown fat and sluggish in the process I know of no contemporary commentators inclined to judge her harshly on that account. But it is clear that Dickens had long since grown to feel his marriage was a prison, and that being married to his slow, conventional wife and his (even by nineteenth-century standards) large brood of children was tantamount to being buried alive. A Tale of Two Cities opens with Dr Manette, who has been buried alive in an actual prison cell for nearly two decades, reduced to the obsessive making of shoes (shoes are an eloquent trope for the material demands of parenthood: any parent will confirm that one seems constantly to be buying new shoes. The little buggers’ feet keep growing). But the novel opens with him recalled to life, drawn back to the light by the golden thread of his beautiful, eighteen-year-old daughter Lucy—whose name, of course, means light.

The story of Dickens infatuation with the beautiful, eighteen-year-old Ellen Ternan has been well documented—CD first fell for her when she was playing a character called ‘Lucy’ in Dickens’s and Collins’s play, The Frozen Deep. Like Lucy Manette, Ternan was a petite, fair-faced blonde (unlike the large-limbed, corpulent, dark-haired Catherine). Intensely protective of his public reputation as the preëminent family entertainer of his day, CD kept his relationship with Ternan secret; he did such a good job, indeed, that there are professional Dickensians who refuse to accept that theirs was a sexual relationship at all. But of course it was. And CD would hardly be the first wealthy middle-aged-man to have had an affair with a complaisant beautiful younger woman and to feel, thereby, that he had been as it were released from prison.

It seems logical to me (although we have no hard evidence) to think that Dickens told Ellen—and her mother, who was certainly ‘in’ on the relationship—that he would marry her if and when he could. But divorcing the blameless Catherine was out of the question, and so they had to wait—in his letters to his All the Year Round editor Willis (who knew about the affair) CD refers to Ternan as ‘the Patient’, presumably because she was having to wait patiently for Catherine to die to wed. In the meantime, Dickens bought ‘Nelly’ (and her mother) a house in Slough—then, as now, a charming countryside village a short train ride from London.

I used to live a couple miles from Slough. I know all about it.

Later he sold the Slough house and bought her place in Peckham; and there are rumours that (contra the official story, in which Dickens died at his Kentish house Gad’s Hill) he died in Peckham in Nelly’s arms. Certainly the couple travelled often between England and France, on one occasion, perhaps, to go to a safely anonymous place in order for Ellen to give birth to Dickens's son (if this happened, it seems the boy did not live long).  Meanwhile he forced his actual wife away from him, against her wishes, with a startling ruthlessness; he was pitiless to those friends, no matter of how longstanding, who did not entirely side with him, and said a raft of cruel things, some of them untrue, about Catherine.  As he conceded to a friend: 'I am a man full of passion and energy, and my own wild way that I must go.'  For many, to quote Tomalin again, 'the spectacle of a man famous for his goodness and his attachment to domestic virtues suddenly losing his moral compass is dismaying.'  But Tomlin, in a perceptive move, speculates that it was precisely the middle-class propriety of Ternan that precipitated the savagery of CD's behaviour during this climacteric: 'a naughty girl,' she speculates, 'could have made him happy.'  As it was Ternan seems to have held out, for a while at least.  But Dickens, father of ten children and full of stomping, rushing, urgent, unsatisfied vitality, was (to quote his friend Macready) 'not the celibate type'. Tomalin puts it less laconically: 'Nelly simply succumbed. Dickens was a great performer who liked to please his audience. He was famous for his energy, and took his physical pleasures seriously, eating and drinking, walking, dancing, travelling, singing. He had fathered ten children on his wife in twenty years, not counting miscarriages, and he believed that sexual activity was necessary to a healthy man' [Tomalin, 327].  This is not the same thing as saying that he was happy to have so conspicuously lost his moral compass, of course; on the contrary.  But however uncomfortable it may have been for CD himself, the rock-and-a-hard-place pressures applied to a genuinely creative imagination can at least generate great art.

At any rate, these circumstance presumably bred two Dickenses: the one who watched the dial on his own moral compass spin wildly and could not get past his self-revulsion at what he had done to his blameless wife, to his family, and potentially to his reputation--and the other, who feeling sexual activity was necessary to a healthy man could not get past his boyish delight that the sexual activity in question was now happening with a beautiful eighteen-year old rather than a corpulent woman his own age.

All in all, it would not overstate things to describe the appearance of Ternan as a revolution in Dickens's life.  When things happen to writers, they tend to write about them.  Dickens could not write directly about this illicit sexual connection, of course; but he was a writer to the marrow.  And so he wrote the story by not writing the story.  I've done the same thing myself.  Most writers have.

In A Tale of Two Cities, we have three characters who act, to one degree or another, as ciphers for CD. One, Dr Manette, represents Dickens’s sense of himself as imprisoned; as old enough to be Nelly’s father (which he was) and as broken down physically (which, again, he increasingly was: Tomalin is particularly good on this). Two others are the doppelgangers, upon which the plot hinges: the virtuous, hard-working, uxorious Charles 'CD' Darnay—and the talented but alcoholic and reprobate Sidney Carton. Darnay is CD on a good day; with a guilty secret in his past, but making the best of the present. Carton is a repository of all of CD’s worst traits: his rootlessness, his boozing, his faithlessness. We might want to see Carton as a sort of anti-Dickens (hence his name; not C. DIC. but [C]ID C.). Both Carton and Darnay love the young, blonde Ellen Ternan, sorry, I mean, the young, blonde Lucy Manette; and both are prevented, in the novel, from being able to realise that love, Darnay by the outside world (rendered in the novel as in terms of the anger of the mob that feels itself to have been betrayed—CD’s own fears about crossing his own large fanbase) and Carton by his own fundamental unworthiness. This is the Dickens of the early days of his relationship with Ternan: feeling himself blocked from his happy-ever-after with the woman he loved both by the world’s opposition and his own unfitness.

As I say many critics have noted these sorts of parallels. It is less often pointed out that there's a greater preponderance of ‘C’s and ‘D’s in character names in this novel than any other by CD.  So we have not only Charles Darnay and Carton, but also the Crunchers, the Defarges (Mr and Mrs). There’s also Cly. Even Stryver has the initial ‘C’. And when character names aren’t built up from Cs and Dcs, they tend instead to elaborate CD’s middle names, ‘John Huffam’—the great many Jacques in the novel, for instance, have a clear relationship to the John (for Dickens is also, in his heart, the force of Revolution and ruin in this novel too, as in his own life); just as the turncoat spy Barsad has the first name John, and even Lorry is a ‘J’ too. There's a plethora of Jacques running through the heart of the novel ("How goes it, Jacques? Is all the spilt wine swallowed?" "Every drop, Jacques" ... "It is not often that many of these miserable beasts know the taste of wine, or of anything but black bread and death. Is it not so, Jacques?" "It is so, Jacques." ... "Hard lives they live, Jacques. Am I right, Jacques?" "You are right, Jacques" and so on). Stretching it a little, I’ve always assumed that ‘Gaspard’, the man whose son is run over by the wicked Marquis, and who kills him in revenge, suggests the gasping, huffing-puffing ‘Huffam’ from inbetween the 'John' and the 'Dickens'. I tell you: I find myself thinking that there’s hardly a character name in the novel than doesn’t riff on Dickens’s own name.

There’s more—much more, I’d say, than even the most assiduous Dickensian has excavated from the novel (and, I must concede, more than many would consider plausible.  Not that that's going to stop me). Part of the plot hinges on a letter, hidden in the prison itself, but unearthed by Defarge.
Upon a corner stone in an angle of the wall, one prisoner, who seemed to have gone to execution, had cut as his last work, three letters. They were done with some very poor instrument, and hurriedly, with an unsteady hand. At first, they were read as D. I. C.; but, on being more carefully examined, the last letter was found to be G. There was no record or legend of any prisoner with those initials, and many fruitless guesses were made what the name could have been. At length, it was suggested that the letters were not initials, but the complete word, DIG. The floor was examined very carefully under the inscription, and, in the earth beneath a stone, or tile, or some fragment of paving, were found the ashes of a paper, mingled with the ashes of a small leathern case or bag. What the unknown prisoner had written will never be read, but he had written something, and hidden it away to keep it from the gaoler." [1:6]
DIC, right. What of the prisoner himself? So traumatised by his incarceration that his name has become a number:
"Did you ask me for my name?"
"Assuredly I did."
"One Hundred and Five, North Tower."
“Is that all?"
"One Hundred and Five, North Tower."
With a weary sound that was not a sigh, nor a groan, he bent to work again.
What a name! We read it as 105, but there’s nothing stopping us as reading it as one hundred and then five (hundred); which is to say, in Roman numerals, as C and then D. Did you ask him for his name? It’s CD.

I’m going to go even further. Dickens originally wanted to call his novel Recalled To Life, which is a perfectly good title (he also toyed with The Golden Thread). Yet A Tale of Two Cities wouldn’t leave him alone as a title; and he went with it. A Tale of Two Cities struck him, on some level, as the right name for this novel. And that’s because of what the novel actually is: A Tale of Two CDs. The privately good CD who is blocked by the world, and the privately bad CD who looks exactly like him and who sacrifices himself so the other can go on with his life.

You want more?  “Charles Darnay brought before the lawless Court, and examined” [3:4] CD and the Lawless court? Lawless (ah, but you know this already) was Ellen Ternan’s middle name.  "When he awoke and was afoot again [by the river], he lingered there yet a little longer, watching an eddy that turned and turned purposeless, until the stream absorbed it, and carried it on to the sea.—'Like me.'" [3:9] Carton, here: the anti-Dickens watching an eddy (E for Ellen, D for Dickens) that ‘turned and’. That Ternan. Like him.

What's that? You don't want me to go on?  Oh, alright.

To be clear, or a little clearer. I am not suggesting the A Tale of Two CDs is a designedly constructed allegory of CD’s relations with Ellen Lawless Ternan. On the contrary: I don't believe there's anything strictly allegorical here at all. What there is, I think, is the profound saturation of a imaginative creativity with a set of emotional quanta that relate intensely, in an intensely felt way, to his own life. This in turn produces a text that is haunted by the poltergeists of Dickens’s violent passion for his new inamoratas, and his equally violent guilt and self-disgust at breaking up his marriage, lying (by omission and commission both) to his public, friends and family and—more fundamentally—for being an old and physically broken-down man who had pressed his attentions upon a young, virtuous virgin. Rich old men who press their sexual attentions upon impoverished young women may spin themselves enabling fictions about how the girl in question ‘really’ likes older men—perhaps even going further, trying to convince themselves that he and she are soul-mates, or something of that fashion. But at some level they know that the true salient in ‘rich old man’ is the first of those three terms. And Dickens, however pulled-along he was by his desire for this beautiful young woman, can hardly have been able to keep from his knowledge the thought that had he been poor and unfamous, young Ellen wouldn’t have looked at him twice.  Because -- well, of course not!

In other words, the shadow-play of their relationship may have had wonderful moments (who knows?); but the Substance of the Shadow (to use the name Dickens gives the chapter in A Tale of Two CDs where the buried secret of the novel is finally revealed) is surely one of sexual guilt.  And, really, how could the buried secret at the heart of A Tale of Two CDs be anything other than the story of the sexual exploitation of a young powerless girl by a old powerful man?  The document, written in secrecy by old Doctor Manette, and buried in the Bastille under the rebus 'DIC', reveals that the wicked old Marquis of Evrémonde exercised his droit de seigneur upon an innocent young girl. The girl's brother objected to this treatment, and was stabbed to death with a sword for his pains. As he dies he tells Manette:
They have had their shameful rights, these Nobles, in the modesty and virtue of our sisters, many years, but we have had good girls among us. I know it, and have heard my father say so. She was a good girl.
In the fiercely compressed symbolic economy of the novel it is this (‘he took her away—for his pleasure and diversion’) that propels the entire country into revolution; this is the primal sin that can only be expiated in blood. And whilst Dickens’ outrage at a society in which a rich, old man can see an attractive younger woman and simply ‘take her away for his pleasure and diversion’ is doubtless real, so is his secret exhilaration at precisely that power. This conflict is the identity of the two CDs in this tale: the CD who is properly outraged by this scenario, and the CD who can’t help desire it for himself.

The brother dies, of course; and the woman herself repeatedly shrieks ‘'My husband, my father, and my brother!’—in reference to those of her family who have been killed, but also, we might think, channelling Ellen Ternan’s conflicted sense of the nature of Dickens’s relation to her: old enough to be her father; assisting her and her sisters with brotherly charity; secretly her sexual partner. CDs litter the prose throughout, but in this passage they become more cloggingly obvious: ("I write with so much Difficulty, the Cold is so severe, I am so fearful of being Detected and Consigned to an underground cell and total Darkness, that I must abridge this narrative. There is no Confusion in my memory; it can recall, and Could Detail, every word that was ever spoken between me and those brothers”). When the document is read, at the final trial, it seals CD’s doom, to the C and the D, ‘to the Conciergerie, and Death’.

This is not a novel that delineates the externalities of Dickens's 1850s.  Such a book would be much duller.  This, on the contrary, is a book about the overturning of an old regime not so much in terms of its externals but as the revolution of the heart and mind, the stirring up of old passions CD had tried to consider long buried.  More specifically, it styles the force powering this revolution as dual: as Londonish and Parisian; as the desire to make a better world and the desire to indulge bad appetites and bestial yearnings.  And since this is the story of one man, it is therefore the story of his two doppelgangers -- the man who wants to put his bad past behind him and live a virtuous life, only the world won't let him; and the man who wants to make love to a woman on an equal footing -- only he's not worthy.  It is a far far better thing, and so on, and so forth.

Perhaps the most far-fetched claim I make in all this blogpost's parsec-far fetches, is the one that A Tale of Two CDs is actually a more interesting story than A Tale of Two Cities.  Why is such a claim particularly far-fetched?  Because (the contrary voice mutters in my ear) the story of a wealthy middle-aged man putting his wife away to have sex with a younger girl is worse than seedy and scuzzy -- it's banal.  It's such a cliché! Whereas, for better or worse, the French Revolution was a unique and prodigious event in world history!  But (I reply, to that contrary voice), especially when viewed from the auspice of moral fable, as A Tale of Two Cities does, the French Revolution is horribly one dimensional.  The ancien regime was full of horrors; and the revolution, reacting against them, went too far the other way.  End of, as the contemporary idiom has it.  But A Tale of Two CDs is a story about something intrinsically dramatic, a man at war with himself.  I once interviewed Brian Aldiss at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, and he expressed a low opinion of The Lord of the Rings because it had no characters in it, just two-dimensional types; and then he corrected himself -- no (he went on) there was one character in that novel, by far the most interesting figure Tolkien created.  Gollum.  Now, Dickens was, it seems to me, a better maker of characters than Tolkien. But nevertheless he is open to the charge that his characters tend to be defined by a single dominant.  His greatest achievements in that way -- Pip, Clenham, maybe Scrooge -- stand out from the rest.  And, I am suggesting here, the fullest articulation of that sense of human nature as intrinsically divided, striated and driven in ways it does not necessarily even understand itself, is here, in this novel.  CD.  Or the two CDs, of whom this novel is the tale.