Skip to main content

You are here

Dickens, Christianity, and Revolution

Spring 2014 - Vol. 56, No. 2


This review appears in the Spring 2014 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


A Tale of Two Cities 
by Charles Dickens, ed. M. D. Aeschliman
(1859; San Francisco: Ignatius Critical Editions, 2012)

Nowadays few are those (even academic specialists) who read or have read the Edinburgh Review. This distinguished and influential quarterly was published from 1802 to 1929, but its high point was the early nineteenth century. In 1809 Sir Walter Scott, a staunch Burkean conservative he, initiated a rival for it, coming out of Edinburgh also, the Quarterly Review (1809–1967, led first by the satirist Gifford and by Scott’s son-in-law, Lockhart).

It was an appropriate parallelism, expressing the nation’s mixed responses to the international sociopolitical events of the age. On the one hand you had the majority of Britons of all classes, led by dynamic figures such as William Pitt the Younger, the Duke of Wellington, Canning and Castlereagh, Lord Palmerston also, who believed that the French Revolution and the Napoleonic “world wars” were great calamities and dangers for the English nation, movements to be contained, obstructed, and, if possible, destroyed.

On the other hand there was a minority, constituted mostly out of prominent intellectuals and upper-class gentlemen who displayed smaller or greater sympathies for the historical turbulence started in France. (Blake, Shelley and Byron, Hazlitt and Hunt, among writers, Fox and Sheridan in Parliament, are just a very few names.) Many in this oppositional category wrote in the above-mentioned Edinburgh Review: their elegant and sophisticated essays there resemble eerily the arguments put forward by the Left-pacifists of the West during the Cold War; there is much talk in 1807/1810 about negotiation, détente, peaceful solutions, and the like, and Napoleon, while not always applauded, is depicted as a kind of Brezhnev, worthy of some insidious sympathy as one simply belonging to a different kind of culture, “not ours” of course, but one deserving of its own functioning.

This double reaction and public division may be said to have come to an end only in 1837 with Carlyle’s brilliant History of the Revolution, which argued eloquently that the “Ancien Regime” had indeed become an intolerable, oppressive, and exploitative system, but that in turn (and at least after 1792) the Revolution was indiscriminately violent, self-destructive, persecutory, and bloodthirsty. This opinion was widely (almost unanimously) embraced in the English-speaking world. It is worth mentioning that such an understanding was close to the immediate responses in the 1790s of a good number of leading Romantic thinkers and poets, in Germany and in England.

To complete the picture, let us say that by the last quarter of the twentieth century, the radical critique of the French Revolution (often by analogy with the Russian one!) had deepened and spread. While in the nineteenth century the severe voice of Hippolyte Taine had been a rather isolated one, by now the Revolution (let alone Napoleon’s dictatorship) was subjected to thorough condemnations and regarded as intolerable from its very beginnings. Simon Schama in America and England and François Furet in France were among the decisive judges, and the interpretation of the Vendée butcheries as the first modern genocide contributed considerably to the demise of any enthusiastic or rosy-colored image of the Revolution.

Dickens, a true literary genius but not a particularly learned or intellectually outstanding individual, accepted entirely Carlyle’s view and even imitated it (much as, at around the same time, Dumas was writing a couple of historical novels sedulously following in the footsteps of Jules Michelet). A Tale of Two Cities is one of only two historical novels Dickens produced, and I, for one, actually prefer Barnaby Rudge (1841), placed in the years of the anti-Catholic “Gordon riots.” And by the way, it seems to me highly interesting that there is practically not a single “realist novelist” of the age who failed to write at least one historical novel (George Eliot, Thackeray, Trollope, Flaubert, and the list can continue); it shows how this was an age intellectually obsessed by and wrestling with the issue of continuity.

The 1859 novel is in some ways cartoonish, both when it depicts the conditions preceding 1789 and even in those placed during the Terror itself. Dickens obviously wants to make a point, but he exaggerates. (This may be one of the very, very few occasions when I disagree with Chesterton’s impeccable judgments, particularly when it comes to Dickensian matters.) Besides, there are a number of smaller improbabilities (such as the motivation of Darnay’s return to Paris) and the unsatisfactory framework.

First of all there are the characters, sketchy as they may sometimes be. The loyal, defiant, and yet deeply sentimental Miss Pross, the absolute bachelor and competent and honest banker Jarvis Lorry—both towers of British integrity—and the roguish yet eventually converted Jerry Trencher are all characteristic figures of nineteenth-century England. Likewise both the wine dealer Defarge and his ferociously inclement wife are types emblematic for the Revolutionary decade of France. The detailed physical descriptions of Trencher and Carton upon their first introduction to the reader are memorable, imaginative, and lifelike at the same time. (Here is Trencher: “He had eyes that assorted very well with that decoration, being of surface black, with no depth in the colour or form, and much too near together—as if they were afraid of being found out in something, singly, if they kept too far apart. They had a sinister expression, under an old cocked-hat like a three-cornered spittoon, and over a great muffler for the chin and throat, which descended nearly to the wearer’s knees.”) Doctor Manette, with his tragic hovering between serene sanity and nervous breakdown, is a complex and credible human being.

There is no dearth of admirable episodes. Nobody ever equaled Dickens in the depiction of courtroom scenes, uncontrollably grotesque with touches of the pathetic, and we see this strength again both in the London and in the Paris trials of Darnay. The image of the Tellson Bank—musty, incommodious, cramped and ugly, totally hilarious—is as colorful as any similar Dickensian description. The slyly effective neuro-psychological handling of Manette by (of all people!) Lorry upon one of his relapses is quite stunning. And the last hours of Sidney Carton together with a young innocent victim of the Jacobin terror mongers reaches, I do not hesitate to say, the sublime in its kindness, bravery, and serene display of true Christian faith.

We thus come to what is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of A Tale of Two Cities and (quite possibly) the reason of its huge, stunning, and consistent public success over a century and a half. We do know that Dickens was not a practicing religious man, and that he was not affiliated with any form of institutional Christianity. Nevertheless, the presence of the religious in his writings was obvious and loud. Dickens’s triumphant praise of Christmas, his strong adherence to scriptural moral virtues is recognizable in novel after novel. Evil or villainy is identified with hypocrisy or crass materialism, while kindness and decency are somehow derived from spiritual obedience or values. Although it is not widely known that Dickens wrote a life of Jesus, this summary of the four Gospels, written for children, is very eloquent. It is highly significant that Dostoyevsky, who was far from being a fan of British modernity as he encountered and understood it, called Dickens “the great Christian” (as the editor of this edition also points out).

The indubitable truth is that in A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens, more than practically anywhere else, “comes out of the closet.” The novel uses Christian teaching and values as a permanent sounding board, as well as an explanatory framework and theoretical background for the book’s action, over and beyond Carlyle’s historical doctrine and interpretation. The Scriptural Weltanschauung is openly shown to be the solid and true alternative to both historical options, equally bad in the author’s eyes.

Here the center must be said to be Sydney Carton. A fully Dostoyevskian character, Carton begins as a lower-class dandy, reckless, cynical, indolent, devoid of ambition, negligent, indifferent toward his own abilities and God-given talents. His deep and genuine love for Lucie leads him to an exceptional act of sacrifice; we might speak about a gesture that turns on its head the Girardian theory and exercise of “triangular desire.” Carton is physically the equivalent of Charles Darnay, though not his equal in virtue. Yet it is precisely his undeclared love for Lucie that induces him to sacrifice his life and to replace Darnay beneath the Guillotine. His jocular insolence becomes the motor of efficient salvational action. Moreover, he shows himself capable of acting as a protector and redeemer to an innocent young girl, to allay her fears in the last few hours of her tender life, and to bring her close to God and to redemption. This, combined with the virtual “last letter” that concludes the novel, emphasizes convincingly the Christian underpinning and direction of A Tale of Two Cities.

That is why I think that, surprising as the choice for the Ignatius Series may have seemed, it is ultimately justified. With amusement I read the blustering fumings of a commentator on the Amazon site, convinced that large parts of the novel must have been censored and replaced by the “bigots” at Ignatius. That an ignorant reader should thus err is largely excusable, that the learned folks at Amazon should publish him is much less so.

As a matter of fact, the Ignatius critical series is a fine achievement in progress, welcome to serious readers. The editor Michael Aeschliman is an accomplished scholar who has taught at good universities and published in respectable journals in England, America, Switzerland, and elsewhere. His editorial work is not, however, without shortcomings. There is no clear indication as to the basis for this particular text. The notes are a mixed bunch. There are no errors that I detected; many of the footnotes are bright and helpful, but a few are too vague, and I would complain mostly of cases where one misses explanations of archaic or dialectal words (or else of some proper nouns). By contrast, the bibliography (inevitably short) is good and substantial, and I particularly liked the choice of secondary literature: all articles appended to the volume are meritorious and thought provoking. All in all, this is a worthy addition to a worthy literary series. The all-important principle of the conjunction of religion and literature is undoubtedly strengthened by this particular volume in the Ignatius Series. ♦


Virgil Nemoianu is William J. Byron Distinguished Professor of Literature at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.