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Diane invites listeners to join a discussion of Charles Dickens’ classic, “A Tale of Two Cities.” It was the best of times, it was the worst of times in London and Paris, as economic and political unrest lead to the American and French Revolutions. The main characters — Doctor Manette, Charles Darnay, and Sydney Carton — are all recalled to life, or resurrected, in different ways as turmoil erupts.
- Leslie Maitland former reporter for "The New York Times"
- Karen Chase Linden Kent Memorial Professor of English literature at the University of Virginia
- Donald Sutherland Professor of History at the University of Maryland
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" has been entertaining readers for 150 years. The classic novel is often credited for our popular image of the French Revolution. It's been adapted to film, television and even a video game.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in this studio to talk about the enduring appeal of "A Tale of Two Cities," Leslie Maitland, formerly of the New York Times, Donald Sutherland of the University of Maryland, Karen Chase of the University of Virginia. Of course during our readers' reviews, we ask you to be part of the program, whether you read the novel and finished it yesterday or read it in high school and we tweak your memory, please call us, 202-885-8850. Join us online if you like and send an e-mail to email@example.com. You can join us on Facebook or send us a tweet.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd I see we already have numerous messages posted on Facebook. Good morning to all of you, it's so good to have you here.
MS. LESLIE MAITLANDGood morning.
MR. DONALD SUTHERLANDGood morning.
MS. KAREN CHASEGood morning.
REHMLeslie Maitland, that first paragraph that we all -- those first lines that we all know so well, it goes on into that first paragraph which I'd really like you to read for us.
MAITLANDThank you, it'd be a treat. It's so very, very beautiful. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. It was the epoch of belief. It was the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness. It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. We had everything before us and we had nothing before us. We were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. In short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."
REHMLeslie Maitland reading from not only those first famous lines, but indeed, the first paragraph of Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities." You read that beautifully, Leslie.
REHMDonald Sutherland, tell us what those lines in that first paragraph portend.
SUTHERLANDI think it's meant to give an idea of the French Revolution that is coming, that the potential for revolution exists in Victorian England, just as it existed in the France of Louis XIV at the end of the 1790s.
REHMThere's also, is there not, Karen Chase, sort of the double side in everything in those first lines and that first paragraph.
CHASEAbsolutely. When the lines say, so far like the present period, Dickens is appealing to his readers of 1859 and reminding them that there is no life outside of history, that everybody lives in time and that previous incidents in history have everything to do with the contemporary incidents which he may not want to discuss openly.
REHMAnd what about the fable of resurrection that comes through in these first lines and in that first paragraph?
CHASEWell, historically, I mean, when he's speaking about the violence that -- the violence and the life that returned again and again, his readers are jumping from 1789 and 1790s to the most immediate bloody Indian uprising of 1857 and the Crimean War, which had been 1854 to 1856. They're thinking of many incidents in British history, which were current in -- all too immediate in the contemporary readers in their minds and how to respond to the violence, to the counter violence, especially in the Indian uprising.
REHMLeslie, when did you first read this novel?
MAITLANDYou know, I first read it in high school and then I dipped into it a little bit to introduce my kids to it, but I have to say that this reading, to me, was the best. I was so delighted and I thank you for drawing me back to it. I wept at the end just as Dickens, I'm sure, would have wanted me to and I went, bah to all the critics I read who said it was overly sentimental.
REHMYeah, yeah, right.
MAITLANDI was, really, because I found it absolutely beautiful, that it took us along the sweep of the frenzied madness of this incredibly interesting period and at the same time invited us into quiet corners, kind of to huddle in fear and to experience the kind of love that could transcend even the horror that was going on around it. It was magnificent.
REHMAnd yet, Donald Sutherland, it would seem that what Dickens was doing was relying an awful lot more on the scenery, the tale, rather than the dialogue. The dialogue is fairly sparse.
SUTHERLANDI think the dialogue is fairly sparse. He's trying to create an effect and he does it. The part that struck me most about this book, like Leslie, I read it when I was in high school and very grateful for being asked to reread it in the past week because it raises another question that didn't occur to me when I was 14 years old and that is how does Dickens achieve this effect, this extraordinary effect of the violence, the sea of violence, the rivers of blood, the buckets of blood, how does he achieve that? He achieves it by eliminating 95 percent of the French Revolution that professional historians know. There's no estates general, there's no declaration of the rights of man in the citizen, there's no rope spear, no dong tong, no Napoleon, no committee of public safety, no control -- the list can go on quite a long way.
SUTHERLANDBut in order to achieve the effect he does, which I think is extremely good, not just on literary point of view, but for a historian's point of view, he does it by simplifying the revolution and focusing on one theme out of dozens he could have chosen.
REHMAnd that theme is?
SUTHERLANDRetribution. Violence, retribution, satisfaction for centuries long grievances that gets out of control in the form of the Defarges and how the whole epoch is soaked in blood.
REHMMadam Defarge. Go ahead, Karen.
CHASECan I, can I add to this? I would say that just as I said, everybody has to remember that there is no life outside of history. I think that Dickens feels that in addition to the chronicles of history, every history needs story. And that "A Tale of Two Cities" is a way of contributing to the narrative of history by telling a story and that story has to blend the individual narratives of Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette and Doctor Manette, the Defarges and so on with the larger generalized stories of classes and peoples. And so much of this book is really, I would argue, not even about the French Revolution, but about establishing British identity.
REHMAnd let us not forget Sydney Carton in that list of characters who -- who truly becomes the one who moves from the darkness to the light in this novel. Donald.
SUTHERLANDYes, yes. I think he does. It's also -- it's an interesting question that Karen brings up about national identity because the French for centuries and down to the present day have been a foil for how the British define themselves, how not to be like the French. The French are attractive in many ways, but also there are parts of French society that are best avoided in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. And in the French Revolutionary case, it's the breakdown of law and order, the reversal of social roles, the class struggle, the starvation and so on and one can trace that back, I'm not sure, centuries and -- to the 1790s for sure. There's a literature that goes on in the 1790s, which is a foil for British authors about France.
MAITLANDCourse, it's interesting that when at the start of the novel, Charles Darnay is put on trial for treason. In London, the penalty upon conviction would be far more gruesome and torturous. You would be beheaded, drawn quartered, put in the rack, torn apart and despite the masses of murder that goes on in the French Revolution, the idea that the guillotine was the method of execution was regarded as a great equalizer because before that, I understand, that the ax was reserved merely for the execution of nobles and the -- offering the blade to everyone was a great democratizing gesture.
REHMI know you want to say something, Karen.
CHASEI was thinking of the comment that Carton makes early on in the novel where he says, I was always nowhere. And he is, indeed, a nobody living the life of a mistress driver, the barrister for whom he does all the work and it takes -- as many people have noted, it takes all of these characters, exactly what Donald was saying, it takes these characters to cross over to France before they find themselves. And when they find themselves, they announce themselves as Britain's, but in France and it's significant that Carton stops drinking, that he becomes a Minch when he gets over to France and he discovers himself by way of self-sacrifice, but he discovers his self.
REHMKaren Chase, she's professor of English literature at the University of Virginia, her latest book is titled "The Victorians and Old Age." We'll take a short break. I look forward to hearing from you. Give us a call, send us an e-mail, drop us a tweet.
REHMAnd for this month's Readers' Review, we've chosen Charles Dickens' classic novel "A Tale of Two Cities." I have with me in the studio three people who know the novel well, Donald Sutherland, Professor of History at the University of Maryland, his latest book is titled "Lynching, Law and Justice: Murder in Aubagne." Is that the correct pronunciation?
SUTHERLANDThat's exactly correct.
REHMGood, thank you. Leslie Maitland is writer and former New York Times reporter, Karen Chase is Professor of English literature at the University of Virginia. We are inviting you to be part of this program. You can call us, you can e-mail us, you can send us a tweet or join us on Facebook. Karen Chase, I want to ask you about these original magazines that you have in which the book was first published. They are so beautiful. How did you come by them?
CHASEStanford University got a grant to publish the -- reprint the original monthly serials of three Dickens' novels. It was "Hard Times," "Tale of Two Cities" and "Great Expectations." And they sent them out in the same way readers would have received them in the monthly serials "Tale of Two Cities" was actually published simultaneously in Dickens' weekly journal, All the Year Round, and in the monthly serializations with the greenbacks and fizz illustrations that you have in front of you.
REHMJust fabulous and there is a website...
MAITLANDYeah, I'd like to mention this to readers...
MAITLAND...because it was so fascinating. Stanford University has established a website in which they have picked out all of the sections from Thomas Carlyle's history of the French Revolution on which Dickens based this novel. And if you will go to their website, which is Discovering Dickens and go to archive novels, you'll find one for "Tale of Two Cities." And if you follow the link that says, I think, historical connections or something, it will lead you directly as you go through the book to each of the sections of Carlyle that Dickens used. And I must say, it is fascinating to be able to read the historical account from Carlyle as you're going along...
MAITLAND...and follow it (word?).
REHMOh, my. And of course, this novel for us, gives us such a sense of who Dickens was, Leslie.
MAITLANDWell, of course, from a very poor background, his parents wound up in debtors' prison when he was just a boy and he was forced to go to work, but I think in particular what struck me so much about this book was the psychological insights that he had way before psychology became known to all of us. But when you look at Dr. Manette and his post traumatic stress disorder and his recurring episodes of trauma and psychosis and you look at Sydney Carton, a man of self-loathing depression, deep darkness. He says, this world has nothing in it for me. I'm no good to anyone. You just wanted to say, poor man, could I bring you to a doctor?
MAITLANDBut I was really struck by -- for all the people who say that the Dickens' characters may be too wooden or one-sided, there are characters in this book whose nuance is touching and Dickens' understanding is beautiful.
CHASEDickens wrote the novel at a moment in his own life in which the world had become completely topsy-turvy. He had just separated from his wife, he had broken ties with his original journal, Household Words, and just started All the Year Round and it was in the first edition of All the Year Round that he started the new journal out with "Tale of Two Cities." His own life was turning over, turning upside down, but also, as Leslie said, the penetration of certain states, the state of dread, the state of fear, the fear of violence, fear of terror, post traumatic syndrome, not only in Dr. Manette having been imprisoned for 18 years.
CHASEAnd Dickens was really preoccupied with the state of solitary confinement in prisons. He was horrified when he visited America and saw the prisons in which solitary confinement were being used and he wrote about this, but he also understands the post traumatic syndrome in a figure like Madame Defarge and I find that...
CHASE...her own personal history -- you know, as much as we stand back in horror when we understand what that horror of her -- what her own lust for violence comes from, we don't approve it, but we understand it and we pity the character even if we condemn the course that her history takes.
SUTHERLANDWell, it's fascinating to read it as an historian because reading the passages about crowd action in "Tale of Two Cities" reminded me of another book that was published, but in 1877, by a French sociologist called Gustave Le Bon, in which some very familiar ideas of crowds have become part of our culture. People do things in crowds they wouldn't otherwise do. The crowd is much more savage than individuals are and so on, but Dickens sees that almost a generation in advance.
SUTHERLANDAnd Dickens has a very great insight, I think, into what motivates crowds in the French Revolution and that is the vengeance.
REHMHere's an e-mail from Denise in Janesville, Wis. She says, "I want to hear your guests take on both the literal and figurative knitting in the novel again and again. I feel as though I'm missing some part of the allegory it's meant to convey." Donald.
SUTHERLANDWell, I can talk about the French Revolution and knitting as a small subject. I'm not sure I can talk about the allegorical part, but knitting in the French Revolution is a part of the myth of the French Revolution that women sat at the base of the guillotine and while heads were being chopped off, they knitted the names of individuals into their knitting.
REHMAnd of course, that's exactly what Madame Defarge does. She knits the names...
REHM...into -- but is there something we're missing, Karen?
CHASEI think so and what we're missing is the emphasis that Dickens places on the role of women and particularly -- and of course, knitting is associated with domesticity and he's trying to discuss the ways in which traditional female activities can be put to uses in which we see women taking on roles that were quite out of the ordinary. And this, I just want to throw out very briefly, comes also from a series of events that are happening throughout the late '40s and '50s in Britain that have to do with women.
CHASEWomen from 1848 on can begin to get educational -- education at universities. In 1851, '52, you had the whole bloomer incident when Amelia Bloomer comes over from America, introduces what the British saw as trousers, a masculine attire, for women and perhaps most of all, you have the passing of the divorce bill in 1857, which made it possible for the first time for women to be able to sue for divorce on their own account outside of an active parliament.
MAITLANDWell, just as the caller mentioned the allegorical significance, I think that Dickens is also referring perhaps to the Greek fates, the three women, spinners, weavers whom the Greeks regarded as spinning the human fate. And I think at times in the novel he refers to the fates becoming furies and I think that the idea of knitting the names into the knitting is a kind of way that he's suggesting that the knitting becomes kind of a roll call of death.
REHMHere's an e-mail from, let's see, from Gloria who says, "I read this book in the high school living in a steel mill oil refinery, lower-working class town. It was my first introduction to classic literature, France, fine writing. I was captivated. It took me out of my town, my culture and opened to me the world of history, fine writing, a turning point in my life." How beautiful. And that's what literature can do and clearly does do, Donald.
SUTHERLANDYes. I think this is a book that can grow with the person. As I say, when I read it in high school, I thought it was a buckets-of-blood theory of the French Revolution. And now much, much older and much more further advanced, I can ask myself questions about Dickens' insight, what he got from Carlyle, what's accurate about the book, what isn't accurate. There are some remarkably prescient passages in here that are very accurate and shows a man who's extremely well informed about his subject already.
REHMThere is a passage in here describing wine in the streets of Paris. A huge barrel of wine breaks, falls off a wagon in front of Madame and Monsieur Defarge's wine shop. And what happens, Karen?
CHASEThe impoverished community runs when they see the wine flowing on the pavement and almost like animals, they lick the wine from the cobblestones, delirious for having something to put in their mouths. One of them dips his finger in the wine and uses it to write on the wall a message of vengeance and is told by Monsieur Defarge to wait, to be patient, that soon enough the wine will become blood.
REHMHe does write the word blood and Monsieur Defarge wipes it out, Leslie.
MAITLANDThroughout the entire book, you have the recurrent theme of blood and wine. And I think that in a way, to go back to your original question about resurrection, this is one of the little arrows to point us there, that the whole story points to the elevation, the transformation of a society, the possibility of rebirth even out of horrible violence. And at the very end of the book, you know, we have this vision of Paris rising again out of the bloody abyss of the revolution and terror. Even as Sydney Carton looks toward rebirth through the love of Lucie, of her eventually having a son that she names for him and through the illustrious career of this yet to be born child, that he will live on in a positive sense. The wine, to me, points us there.
CHASECan I add just one thing here? And that -- one thing that's so interesting that we end the novel with two things that you don't hear because Sydney Carton's words are actually spoken by the narrator, not Sydney Carton. And Miss Pross, who stands for Britain, at the end fighting Madame Defarge, standing for France, loses her hearing for the rest of her life.
REHMAnd Karen Chase, she's a Professor of literature, the University of Virginia. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to Woodbine, Md. Good morning, Jennifer.
JENNIFERGood morning, Diane. I love your show.
JENNIFERMy comment -- well, it's almost been answered, but I once took a study where I -- we were looking for the Christian theme of resurrection in "A Christmas Carol." And then I went back and read "A Tale of Two Cities" and that time, I was looking at it through different eyes and I was wondering if Charles Dickens was a man of deep faith because the resurrection theme is so prevalent in the novel.
REHMDo we know that, Karen?
CHASEDickens was not a man of great faith. He definitely considered himself a Christian humanist, but he was not a devout practicing believer.
REHMWhat about his moral behavior. You talked about the fact that he and his wife had separated. Didn't he die with a mistress?
CHASEAfter separating from his wife, Dickens fell in love with Ellen Ternan. Perhaps before he separated from his wife Dickens fell in love with Ellen Ternan. It is unclear whether or not they actually had an affair, but they probably had some kind of a relationship, yes.
REHMAll right. And to Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning, Helen.
HELENHi. Good morning. Thank you. First of all, I'd like to comment that I think this is one of the greatest romance -- underrated romances of all times.
REHMI agree with you.
HELENThank you. You know, he's -- Sydney Carton is the ultimate anti-hero, but he evolves, but I would like to ask your panelists, please, first of all, I've always found somewhat of a parallel between the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution and how that it relates to our time, particularly looking at political aspects of what's going on right now and people getting into mobs. Recently, you know, just a moment ago, you had one of your panelists comment about, you know, people in mob behavior. And I'm just kinda go -- gonna go there and talk about the Tea Partiers without actually having the knowledge or the political knowledge to really look instead of being told what to do, that they act that way.
HELENAnd also, I will take my answer off the air. I would love for someone to comment on the myth of the Bastille, because in Cincinnati, we have this big old holiday here (laugh) on (word?) for Bastille Day and it is my understanding -- I'm a big fan of Simon Schama and Robert Massie in having read both pretty well -- that there weren't that many people in the Bastille and a few of them were child molesters or had been put there by their families. They were, you know, actual criminals. I'm sure that there were a few that were political...
REHMAll right. Let's hear from Donald Sutherland.
SUTHERLANDWell, I can comment on that and I bring it back to the novel as well. The reason Dr. Manette is in the Bastille is that he has been put there by a device called a lettre de cachet, meaning sealed letter. This was a system of administrative arrest by which anybody could be thrown in prison if you had enough influence. It wasn't just the government that threw you in the prison. Private individuals could secure a lettre de cachet.
SUTHERLANDParadoxically, it's very popular among families to control wayward sons. And there are a number of famous people who are put in the Bastille by lettre de cachet. One of the things the revolutionaries tried to struggle against was this current of opinion that actually defended lettre de cachet against Louis XVI's government that actually wanted to abolish the system.
REHMThe Bastille was almost a character in this novel.
SUTHERLANDIt is. It is.
REHMI mean, it looms so incredibly large. Donald Sutherland, he's Professor of History at the University of Maryland. We're going to take just a short break here. More of your calls, comments when we come back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We've had several e-mails from sociologists who say they have found that mobs can be much more vicious and violent than the same number of people acting individually. As the adage goes, every crowd has its savage leanings. And that was exactly the point you made, Donald Sutherland. I'm gonna go back to the phones, 800-433-8850. To Dustin on Palm Coast, Fla. Good morning, you're on the air.
DUSTINThank you, Diane. I just wanted to make a comment and then I had a question about the...
DUSTINI'm, like, two-thirds of the way through the novel, my first time ever reading it. And to me, it's like a Picasso of literature and I was just wondering, like, even, like, specifically, like, the Gorgon Head chapter where the Monsieur Marquez is assassinated and now he tells just everything in the story. It's just so abstractly told through -- he's like a word smith and I was just wondering if that was, you know, had to do with maybe some kind of editing censorship of his time and (unintelligible) take my answer off line.
REHMI don't think so, Dustin. Do you wanna comment, Karen?
CHASENo. There was no censorship at all that -- Dickens was writing metaphorically in speaking of the way in which a character becomes petrified into expressions that can reflect the historical moment.
REHMAnd to Cockeysville, Md. Good morning, Robert.
ROBERTHello. I just wanted to make a remark about Madame Defarge. Madame Defarge often evokes the name of St. Evremonde. Who was St. Evremonde? Well, some of you may remember in the book Marquis St. Evremonde runs across a child in his coach, kills the child. And it -- Madame St. Evremonde -- Madame Defarge always remembers this and I wanna remember at the time the Marquis says, get those children off the streets, you're damaging my horses. I just wanna evoke the hostility of people like Madame Defarge toward the nobility and there were some reasons, of course. And so when we think of her as kind of hysterical and bloodletting and all that, we mustn't forget this hostility which was very deep...
ROBERT...as far as the revolution.
MAITLANDOf course, the frightening thing is that she does not distinguish between individuals, but rather denounces an entire group of people for, as she puts it and perhaps the most frightening word of the entire book, extermination, which to me, you're a century ahead of time or more. You have Dickens foretelling, I don't know, genocides. I thought of Hitler, of Stalin, Pol Pot, Rwanda, Darfur, I mean, all of these horrific episodes in world history that were to come, in which the madness and the hatred spewed out indiscriminately against an entire group of people.
SUTHERLANDIndeed. I absolutely agree with that. It's -- one can go through some fairly important revolutionary texts and Google the word exterminate and it's frequent, especially in the period of the French Revolutionary turn, 1793, '94. This is common language, especially in the provinces.
CHASEEspecially readers of modern literature will know the great line from Conrad's novel "Heart of Darkness" where Kurtz says, exterminate the brutes. And clearly, Dickens is foreseeing that. If we can think for a moment of the famous grindstone passage in the novel where Dickens is explaining from the horrified point of view of the characters watching from outside their window, members of the populous sharpen their weapons and greedily look forward to brutal behavior. And by the time I -- if you don't mind, I'll read part of this.
CHASEBy the time we get to the end of the paragraph, the narrator becomes sucked into the violent temperament. "The grindstone had a double-handle and turning at it madly were two men whose faces as their long hair flapped back when the whirlings of the grindstone brought their faces up were more horrible and cruel than the visages of the wildest savages in their most barbarous disguise." And he goes on at length, "That I could not detect one creature in the group free from the smear of blood, shouldering one another to get next at the sharpening stone where men stripped to the waist with the stain all over their limbs and bodies.
CHASEMen in all sorts of rags with the stain upon those rags. Men devilishly set off with spoils of women's lace and silk and ribbon with the stain dying those trifles through and through. Hatches, knives, bayonets, swords all brought to be sharpened were all red with it." And at the end of the paragraph, we move to, "And as the frantic wielders of these weapons snatched them from the stream of sparks and tore away into the streets, the same red hue was the red in their frenzied eyes. Eyes which any unbrutalized beholder would have given 20 years of life to petrify with a well directed gun."
REHMWhoa, whoa, is that powerful, I must say. And I do think in -- you know, we criticize Hollywood so much, but that original film with Ronald Colman, which I watched again for about the 20th time the other day, I think it's just very, very worth seeing after you've read this book.
MAITLANDI wanted to watch it and I decided to hold off by intent.
MAITLANDI have to say, you know, when hearing these passages, I think perhaps the overwhelming thing for me reading it again, this book, is that Dickens manages to make us feel the pain of the lower classes, as to understand the reasons that lead to the revolution. The fact that they were taxed and the nobility and the clergy were exempt from tax. The fact that they were starving while they were living a luxury, we -- he totally sympathizes with it, even as he despairs over the brutality and the violence that just descends into it and he gives us both.
REHMLet's go now to Ann Arbor, Mich. Good morning, Gary.
GARYHi. Thanks. I just wanted to go back to the first paragraph to something that I always thought was missed and I guess it's a common (word?) question. In the last lines, he talks -- he says how the noisiest authorities need to -- I don't have it in front of me, but they need to describe the events in the superlative degree only. And I think that, you know, what -- I'm guessing that what he's saying is that by noisiest authorities, either politicians or journalists or historians, that they somehow tend to greatly oversimplify the description of these grand events and miss a lot of nuance and detail that's really, really important for us to understand them.
GARYAnd then of course we see all the mob action that's going on, which I think is direct consequence, so I mean, that's just a comment that I -- and I think that that's very relevant for today and what we're seeing in today's political sphere.
REHMDo you agree, Karen?
CHASEYes. And I also think you raise a fascinating point because the focus on the word noisiest is crucial because part of the infection or the infectiousness of brutality Dickens wants to counter with the quietism that Carton achieves at the end of the novel, that you can beat violence not with more violence, not with counter violence, but with -- and this is a quote from the novel, "quiet heroism." And that quiet heroism is one way to bring to the end the violence of the years leading up to the French Revolution, the violence of the French Revolution, the violence of the terror.
REHMWhat do you think makes this such a classic novel, Donald?
SUTHERLANDI think because of the simplification of the narrative of the French Revolution which is enormously complex in which students find very, very hard to master and understandably so. Many of us have been spending practically all our academic careers trying to do that. So in the simplification he creates a kind of power in the narrative, which is extraordinarily good, not just from a literary point of view, but from a historian's point of view. He has real insights to real events like the two lynchings he describes of the governor and the bastillion and the Controller-General of Finances Fouquet, whose mouth is stuffed with straw and then the two of them are beheaded. Both of these are based on actual events that really did occur and Dickens is able to convey the horror of a genuine real event.
REHMDonald Sutherland, he's professor of history at the University of Maryland. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And we have some other messages from Facebook. Linda says, "Like 'The Scarlet Letter,' I think some stories are better appreciated by people with some life experience. There aren't too many other published works which have so widely recognized beginnings and endings." Leslie?
MAITLANDThat have so widely recognized -- oh, there are few that have -- yes, oh, my goodness. The beauty of the opening and the closing of this book, I mean, they stay with you forever and coming back to it this time, those were the words that I needed to recall.
REHMAnd it was fascinating, Karen, to hear you say, he, Sydney Carton, did not speak these words at the end. In fact, the narrator says, if he had spoken, these are the kinds of things he would have said. And he talks about the child on the mother's bosom. I must say, in the movie, that last young woman whom he comforted toward the end.
CHASEIt seems just...
REHMAh, that really got you.
CHASEYes. And then of course she goes to show that people get caught up in the tide of events. She was not an aristocrat, she was not a political intriguer. How did this little seamstress wind up in the cart on the way to the guillotine?
REHMDo we know?
CHASENo. She doesn’t even really know.
REHMShe doesn't know.
CHASEAll it took was a pointed finger, a denunciation and one could find oneself...
SUTHERLANDBut the vast majority of people executed during the terror were ordinary people. Peasants, women, artisans, small urban people, the vast majority...
REHMBut weren't there some aristocrats?
SUTHERLANDYes, there were.
SUTHERLANDBut the vast majority of French aristocrats survived the French Revolution. The revolution did not eliminate the aristocracy as such and never actually attempted to do that. Being an aristocrat was never actually a crime. Many, many thousands of aristocrats were in fact killed, but the terror had a plebian element that is very seldom appreciated. And the motives for that are perhaps another story. Again, part of the simplification that I've referred to before that Dickens has to leave out in order to make the story coherent.
CHASEAnd isn't that what -- part of what makes it relevant today because our own fear of terrorism is precisely that it can occur anywhere, anytime and affect people who have nothing to do with the legitimate or not reasons why other people are upset.
REHMHere's another comment from Facebook. This is from Derek, who says, "Charles Dickens' ability to plumb the depths of human nature, that part of us that is often regrettably embarrassing and unchanging, at once compelling and repugnant, makes all of his works forever relevant." Do you agree with that?
MAITLANDI do. And I must say, though, the other thing is for all the sweep of history we have here, personally, I found that those little charming moments, the conversations between the banker, Jarvis Lorry and Miss Pross or between Jerry Cruncher and Miss Pross, he offers us little comic interludes and they're so realistic and the people come to life in such a humane, beautiful way.
REHMMiss Pross is adorable. Tell us about Miss Pross.
CHASEAs I said earlier, Miss Pross comes to assume the identity of Britain. She bears on her eccentric shoulders -- and eccentric is a word associated with her. She bears on her eccentric shoulders the burden of national identity. He leaves it to her to trounce Madame Defarge, essentially. And she does so like Carton in a quiet heroism, not the quiet -- I mean, there is a blast there (laugh).
REHMYeah, there is a blast.
CHASEBut it is unclear who is to blame for that. It is unclear whether Miss Pross has pulled the trigger or it somehow went off accidentally or perhaps Madame Defarge accidentally kills herself. Nobody really knows, but somehow in that battle between France and England and the figures of the two women, it is the future of the -- another self-sacrificer, Miss Pross, who bears the weight with Carton of representing Britain.
REHMBut it is Madame Defarge who brings the gun with her...
REHM...so that ultimately, you know, it takes you back to that whole statement that if there's a gun in the house, it will be used. And it is she who brought her own demise...
REHM...in the end.
MAITLANDYes. She's done in by her own vicious need for vengeance and becomes the victim of her own pursuit.
CHASEIn a letter to a good friend of his, Boler Litton (sp?), Dickens writes about why he had Madame Defarge die the way she does and he says, when I use Miss Pross to bring about such a catastrophe, I have the positive intention of making that half comic intervention a part of the desperate woman's failure and of opposing that mean death, by which he means small death, instead of a desperate one in the streets, which she wouldn’t have minded, to the dignity of Carton's. So he wants to give her a demeaning death.
REHMSo Sydney Carton goes to his death loving Lucie Manette, knows he's giving his life for something better than what he perceived his own life might, could, would have been and we all mourn his death because it was truly a beautiful conversion. I wanna thank you all so much for being with us. Karen Chase, University of Virginia, her latest book is entitled "The Victorians and Old Age." Donald Sutherland is at the University of Maryland, his latest book is titled "Lynching, Law and Justice: Murder in Aubagne." And Leslie Maitland is a writer and former New York Times reporter. Enjoy "A Tale of Two Cities." Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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