I recently reread Charles Dickens’ vivid evocation of Paris in the years when the French Revolution had descended into the bloodletting of the Terror, as well as London, which served as a home for French exiles who had fled the murderous impulse for revenge that had swept up the long- suffering and oppressed masses and the revolutionary vanguard that spoke for them. Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities has not overly impressed the critics over the years in the way that the early beginnings of life Great Expectations has, or the serious social and legal novels like Little Dorrit and Bleak House have. However, all lovers of this masterful Victorian novelist should not rest content with merely viewing one of the many film adaptations of the tale, but rather should open themselves up to the original in all its exuberant and dynamic glory. Dickens focussed on his story with a fairly tightly conceived cast of fascinating characters, plunging them eventually into the colorful world of the Old Bailey, London’s central criminal court, and later, the fearsome Revolutionary Tribunal in Paris.
The novel relies heavily on the character device of the double – the dissolute, despairing lawyer Sydney Carton is found to bear a remarkable physical resemblance to Charles Darnay, the French nobleman who has fled the consuming flames of the Revolution to take up tutoring in French to support himself. Despite his loss of control over his ancestral home and the disruptions to his life, Darnay is depicted as a man of deep optimism and goodwill, ready to surmount his obstacles. Further, he is delighted by the lovely Lucie Manette who he meets and eventually woos. Carton, by contrast, is continually drinking himself into oblivion most evenings and has developed a pessimistic philosophy and a melancholic disposition.
While the plot develops a number of interesting comparisons between these two, the novel also contains another significant contrast. The novel relies heavily on the character device of the double – the dissolute, despairing lawyer Sydney Carton is found to bear a remarkable physical resemblance to Charles Darnay, the French nobleman who has fled the consuming flames of the Revolution to take up tutoring in French to support himself. Carton is portrayed as a key ally to a barrister he works with, and is called a “jackal” of the legal trade – that is, someone capable of digging through extensive records and materials and zeroing in on what will turn out to be key evidence or significant for use in cross- examination of a witness. The barrister is the supremely self- confident and energetic Stryver, who relies heavily on the work Carton does behind the scenes to make his mark in trials at the Old Bailey. Stryver is the type of lawyer who will do what it takes to rise in the ranks of criminal law and master the hurly-burly world of the Old Bailey, attracting a wide range of clients. Carton is something of an unsung hero – he works through mounds of legal material through much of the night, gets Stryver much of what he needs, but it is only the latter that the crowds see performing on the public stage of the courtroom. When he appears in court seated next to Stryver, his wig askew and looking straight up at the ceiling rather than at the witness and judge, many would consider him a rather hopeless case.
I am rather taken by what Dickens has endeavoured to do with these two characters in A Tale of Two Cities. The novelist certainly intends for us to perceive this anti-hero as an enigma. There does not seem to be sufficient motive for Carton’s despair and general air of futility. After Carton has encountered his double, Darnay in a tavern and made a disparaging remark, the mysterious lawyer refers to himself as a disappointed drudge and flings his glass against a wall. Then, after seeing Darnay, who looks so much like him but lives a life so much healthier and happier, he examines his reflection in a mirror and, tells himself what he has fallen away from and what he might have been.
Carton, who seems characteristically to be lounging in the shadows, is viewed by others as Stryver’s silent partner in the courtroom, hands in pocket, seemingly unconcerned by what is unfolding. Alternatively, he is occasionally observed slinking home after an all-night orgy, unsteady on his feet, like a “dissipated cat.” The chapter ends with a poetic meditation on Carton’s state of dejection, as the sun comes up after another all-nighter of drink and painstaking research to assist his law partner:
…it [the sun] rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help… sensible of the blight upon him, and resigning to let it eat him away.
Although part of Carton’s problem is that he lacks the ability to mobilize his talents in a productive way and further, that he is convinced that he cannot meet a woman like Lucy Manette with whom he could develop a lasting bond, the openness of the text leaves one to speculate on another cause. A look at histories of the period in which the novel is set – the 1780s and 90s – reveals a most rudimentary criminal trial process with a great deal of arbitrariness and potential for abuse. Might it be, I wonder, that a major reason for the sense that a “blight is upon him” is that he entered the legal profession with a bountiful idealism and this has gradually been ground down, recognizing that the English legal system and workings of the Old Bailey resulted in considerable injustice, and a failure to respect basic liberties? After all, in the trial we do witness, Darnay, charged with treason for supposedly passing on British military secrets to French officials, is given virtually no chance to prove his innocence. Two paid informers take the witness stand. Only a miracle at the trial’s very conclusion provides cause for hope for a just result.
A look at histories of the period in which the novel is set – the 1780s and 90s – reveals a most rudimentary criminal trial process with a great deal of arbitrariness and potential for abuse. In Dr Johnson’s London, Liza Picard tells us that “trial procedure would startle a modern lawyer.” She recounts the various ways that corruption and unfairness were built in to the process – witnesses could be bought by either side and could be picked up outside the courts, ready to swear anything for the right fee. The rake Casanova, travelling through England, observed trials at the Old Bailey which shocked him, particularly when he ventured down a street and saw the word EVIDENCE emblazoned on a window. Various features of court procedure from the Middle Ages had survived through much of the 18th century. Sentences for those convicted were generally savage and might bear little relationship to the seriousness of the charge.
When Stryver and other barristers failed in their bids to obtain acquittals, they might make an energetic plea for a pardon, failing which capital punishment was a distinct possibility for a whole range of offences. The condemned were then placed in a cell to await the trip to Tyburn, where a public execution would occur, with a rowdy crowd in attendance, filled with many pickpockets. An alternative was to sentence the guilty man or woman to transportation, involving a rough ocean crossing and an often grim beginning in one of the British colonies. Those who remained in one of the notorious prisons might easily succumb to disease from the pestilence that was ever-present.
Despite all these most unpleasant realities, Carton does persist to do his work in the shadows and will perform his remarkable act of renunciation in the concluding chapters of A Tale of Two Cities, transforming his entire life in the process. There is something dramatically satisfying with such an ending, and readers are left with a vivid impression of the full scope of the legal drudge’s potential, a potential that was nearly ground into dust but makes a miraculous rebirth.