The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Tag: biography

Re-reading A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities may be the best-selling novel of all time. Wikipedia’s list of best-selling novels gives it top spot, but the citation for its sales is a Telegraph article by novelist David Mitchell in which he makes a passing comment to that effect. Other sources agree, but I’ve come up with nothing authoritative. Still others say Don Quijote or Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. But the Tale is definitely up there. For the Dickensian, it’s an odd one. It is not very Dickensian, in some respects. It has little in the way of comedy, with only the grave-robber Jerry Cruncher playing a comic role, with his constant suspicions that his wife is “floppin'” against him. Even that has an uncomfortable edge of darkness in the suggestions of domestic abuse. Reading the book, I was reminded of George Orwell’s comment on Dickens:

He is all fragments, all details – rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles.

The Tale is pretty short and streamlined, so it has very few gargoyles. If Orwell is right, it’s lacking the very thing that makes Dickens special. Ironic, then, that it’s apparently his most read book.

But the great advantage the book has had is its historical setting. The French Revolution remains fascinating as an example of things falling apart, humanity going way out there, a civilized society giving way to wholesale butchery of its own citizens. It is, and certainly was in the 19th-century, something that needs to be made sense of. Even very recently, Jonathan Nolan, co-scriptwriter of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) cited this as the reason he tried to draw on the Tale for his script:

A Tale of Two Cities was, to me, one of the most harrowing portraits of a relatable, recognizable civilization that completely folded to pieces with the terrors in Paris in France in that period. It’s hard to imagine that things can go that badly wrong.

So the book can appeal to the many people to whom the idea of literature in its purest form is uninteresting. This isn’t just literature; it’s an interpretation of a great and cataclysmic historical event. It’s both dramatic and instructive. There’s a way into the story for the non-literary. Dickens and his contemporaries would have been more aware of this element than many academic readers of today. They had read their Carlyle, for starters:

[L]et any one bethink him how impressive the smallest historical fact may become, as contrasted with the grandest fictitious event; what an incalculable force lies for us in this Consideration: The Thing which I hold here imaged in my mind did actually occur; was, in very truth, an element of the All, whereof I too form part; had, therefore, and has, through all time, an authentic being; is not a dream, but a reality! (“Biography”, 1832)

What Carlyle wanted, and what he got, was novelists using the raw materials of society and of history to construct their works upon. Fiction is not a realm apart, but is, to a great extent, a way of making sense of the world and of humanity.

And Dickens certainly had a message about the French Revolution and how his readers were to make sense of it, albeit a fairly obvious one: it was a result of aristocratic greed, selfishness and negligence. It was payback. If the peasants had been better treated, it wouldn’t have happened.

It was too much the way of Monseigneur under his reverses as a refugee, and it was much too much the way of native British orthodoxy, to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown—as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it—as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitably coming, years before, and had not in plain words recorded what they saw. (Bk. II, Ch. 24)

This philosophy provides part of the architecture of the book: show the evils of the ancien regime, and then show the “harvest”. In the many reflections of such themes throughout the book, Dickens adopts a sternly portentous tone, contributing to the impression of humourlessness the book creates. It’s Dickens playing the role of the sage, incorporating his reading of Carlyle into his writing style. But it’s probably the seriousness of tone of this book that recommends it to latter-day readers like Jonathan Nolan. Indeed, the time may be ripe for a new adaptation of the Tale – incredibly, there doesn’t seem to have been a cinematic adaptation since the Dirk Bogarde one of 1958, according to an IMDb search. Maybe 2011-2012 would have been the time, with the Arab Spring, the European financial meltdown, and a generalized anger against political structures and politicians, for a Tale for our times.

Any new approach to the book would have to change a lot. Though Dickens’ humour is mostly absent, his other prominent characteristic of sentimentality is very much present. This centres mostly on the egregious Lucie Manette, one of the Dickensian dolls modern-day readers (me included) find insufferable. Despite the subject, there’s also a surprising smugness to Dickens’ portrayal of the English national character as it  is demonstrated by Jarvis Lorry and Mrs Pross. Lorry is the English man of business, associated with dullness, solidity and honesty. Pross represents the born servant, fit for little else but happy with her lot:

[Miss Pross was] one of those unselfish creatures—found only among women—who will, for pure love and admiration, bind themselves willing slaves, to youth when they have lost it, to beauty that they never had, to accomplishments that they were never fortunate enough to gain, to bright hopes that never shone upon their own sombre lives.

Her final struggle with Madame Defarge is a sort of stereotype death match, in which English self-denial, practicality, and honesty defeats French excitability and passion. Here again, Dickens reminds me of Carlyle, who had praised stupidity in Past and Present (Bk. III, Ch. 5) as being a predominantly English characteristic, and one allied with practicality and good sense. Dickens, like Carlyle, seems to be positing that for such people, national glory can and should be a substitute for any sort of commitment to oneself. For Dickens, Prossian self-denial is also dubiously linked with gender. She’s a little like the heroine of Flaubert’s “Un Coeur Simple” as a character, but the authorial ideology surrounding them is totally different, and Flaubert’s treatment of his protagonist is much more searching and less complacent.

So there’s quite a bit to cavil at in this book, as in most of Dickens. It has that wonderfully dramatic and iconic last scene, which can probably be pictured even by those who have never read the book, so deeply is it entrenched in cultural memory. As much as anything, it’s the iconography of the guillotine, awesome and terrible, that we think of when we think of the Tale, and that gives such resonance to the work. The intrinsic merits of the book, when divorced from its status as the pre-eminent fictional approach to a milestone in history, are not that great. But because that historical context is there, the Tale is still relevant to modern approaches to fictionalizing history, like The Dark Knight Rises. The book is a way in to all sorts of speculations about history and civilizational development. Like animals for certain Amazonian tribes, A Tale of Two Cities is “good to think”.

Biographies of Literary Men: Carlyle and David Foster Wallace

I am once again deeply mired in Carlyle studies, having begun to read the 4-volume Life of Carlyle (1882-1884) by James Anthony Froude, some 1800 pages(!) in all. Froude’s Carlyle is one of the most significant in English letters, for the reason that it played a significant part in destroying Carlyle’s reputation – from being seen as one of the great minds of the age, Carlyle fell into total discreditation, then into oblivion. Walt Whitman said on Carlyle’s death  that:

It will be difficult for the future—judging by his books, personal dissympathies, &c.,—to account for the deep hold this author has taken on the present age, and the way he has color’d its method and thought. I am certainly at a loss to account for it all as affecting myself. But there could be no view, or even partial picture, of the middle and latter part of our Nineteenth century, that did not markedly include Thomas Carlyle. (“Carlyle from American Points of View”, 1892)

But if Carlyle did color the method and thought of his age, with his disquisitions on justice, duty, and a stern adherence to the Eternal Laws of the Universe; his ridicule for those who felt life could be theorized into meaningfulness; the worship of sorrow and silence and the need for Heroes/ Great Men to lead the unthinking herd, and above all his constantly being “dreadfully in earnest” (Froude II, 56); as I say, if he did color his age’s method and thought, with the publication of Froude’s Carlyle, he was opened to the opprobrium of those very same idle, chattering classes who had listened so intently as he ranted against them. Yeats recounted a conversation he had in the 1890s in which he noted with satisfaction that Carlyle, already, was “as dead as Ossian”. Later, as the conversation moved onto Walpole, Yeats’ dialogist noted “Walpole is exactly the sort of man Carlyle would have hated, and called a sham, yet Carlyle himself was the most insincere of all” (from memory, citation not to hand). The most insincere of all – for a man who had spent his long writing career denouncing cant, quackery and sham, to be so remembered was somewhat ironic. Carlyle had been painted by Froude as a constantly self-absorbed, self-pitying, hypochondriacal, selfish-to-the-point-of-cruelty, probably-sexually-impotent fraud who had married one of the most accomplished and intellectual women of the age and used her belief in his genius to turn her into a drudge and maid-of-all-work, while ignoring her emotional and intellectual needs, driving her nerves to breaking point, till she took refuge in that old Victorian staple of “delicate health”, and died before her time. Simon Heffer’s biography of Carlyle (1995) tells the story of Carlyle’s reputational demise in his Introduction. Many have since argued that Froude’s picture was totally unfair, and that he was blinded by his own admiration/ love for Jane Welsh Carlyle and his vision of her as tragic martyr. In any case, Froude’s book was a sensation, read by all of Gigmanity, and Carlyle’s writings, in this new light, began to seem like the greatest sham perpetuated on the reading public since Ossian’s heyday.

As I make my slow way through Froude’s opus, I read today a review of the new David Foster Wallace bio, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by DT Max. Strange as it may seem, Wallace is something of a latter-day Carlyle. Only consider the following, from a review of Carlyle’s last major work Frederick the Great:

His power, though, we trust, lessening, is still great – especially in three classes – litterateurs, the more intelligent of our working men, and thoughtful young people generally.

Apart perhaps from the second class mentioned, this is very much Wallace’s readership as well: the literary classes – he’s very much a “writer’s writer”; writers and young intellectuals and students are his readership. He is an intellectuo-moral touchstone for a generation: smarter than everyone else, but constantly debating and evaluating the moral fundamentals of life in our time. As he says himself

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day…. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t…. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness.

Having no DFW to hand, I have pasted the above from Wikipedia. This much admitted, I wish to draw attention to the sage quality of Wallace’s writing, to the fact that the implied author here is a sage in the Carlyle sense, one who meditates deeply on how we must live our lives and speaks with a moral authority that is absolute. Where Carlyle raged, Wallace maintains a reasoned tone, but the implied author as holder of the keys to moral truth, as wanderer in the desert and martyr for the people (note the use of the word “sacrifice”), who is wise that the general populace may be happy, is the same.

Max’s book, at least as presented in the Sunday Times Culture review of 16.09.12 by Robert Collins, explodes all this. Wallace is “exhaustingly erratic, petulantly self-regarding, obsessively jealous, etc.” It will be interesting to see if this has any effect on Wallace’s reputation. It is unlikely to go with him as it did with Carlyle, mainly, I think, because we have a very different attitude to our heroes and idols now. An idol should have feet of clay. The human being is not perfectible. Further, it is such a commonplace now to regard society as the oppressor that individual neurosis is health: a reasonable response to an unreasonable world. One must also remark that despite Collins’s determined efforts to portray Wallace as unpleasant, the actual facts he cites to support his contention are not so prejudicial: neurotic Wallace obviously was, but not so clearly morally reprehensible as Collins seems to think. Therefore thoughtful young persons will no doubt continue to look to DFW for guidance, a great reader of the Signs of the Times, and a “sacrifice” to those times, too sensitive, it may seem, for this harsh world.

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