Probably Dickens never wrote a more popular book (unless Pickwick is the exception) than his Tale of Two Cities. Among readers whom Nature has made incapable (to their pride and loss) of appreciating Mr. Pickwick and Mrs. Gamp, and all our dearest friends, the Tale of Two Cities is admired. Meanwhile the lovers of the old irresponsible humour and high spirits of Dickens's earlier days must admit that the Tale is an historical melodrama of unrivalled vividness and power. It is a book that will not allow itself to be forgotten, with its refrain of trampling multitudinous feet, and its melancholy figure of Sydney Carton.
The French Revolution has been a fertile but not a fortunate field for novelists. Scott justly observed, about some other historical events, that they are, in themselves, too strong for romantic treatment. Nothing can add to the native romance of the conquest of Anahuac by Cortés; fancy lags in the trail of fact. The poignancy and horror of the Revolution outdo all mere imaginative effort to cope with them: it is Nature that here purges by pity and terror, that distracts our sympathies, and finally leaves us in an impotent anger against the shiftless party which fell, and the fiendish party which triumphed in that fall, and then turned its fangs against itself. We are too near that chaldron of Medea, too near its brink ourselves, for the existence of a merely artistic interest. Therefore even the great Dumas did not succeed in this field, as he did in fields more remote, and among catastrophes less cosmical. Dickens has, probably, the advantage here over that renowned master of France; his English background aids him, by affording relief. Doubtless this is the best novel of the Revolution, and the best of Dickens's novels which venture into history.
On one point, historical accuracy, not very much need be said. Dickens, in a letter to Bulwer Lytton, shows that he was quite familiar with the scientifically historical view of his topic. “Enquiries and figures” regarding the precise social condition of the peasantry might prove this or that, on the whole, but examples of oppression were recent enough, and common enough (he held), to justify the use which he made of them in fiction. We must beware of checking the fancy of the novelist by pedantic restrictions—pedantic because out of place. The historical novelist is not the historian. Mr. Freeman has been severe on Ivanhoe for want of congruity with facts. Kenilworth and Peveril of the Peak present characters dead long before the tale begins—or at that time children, though they figure as grown men. In Thackeray's splendid picture of the King, in Esmond, there is hardly one line or touch of colour consistent with historical verity. This is hard on the character, and Dickens's wicked Marquis may be hard on his order. "It is not unreasonable or unallowable to suppose a nobleman wedded to the old cruel ideas," says Dickens to Lytton, and, in romance, it is doubtless allowable. He might have added that, in the Marquis de Sade, a real contemporary, the bestial Gilles de Raiz of 1440 was actually reincarnated, and was not burned, nor even guillotined, while so many innocent heads were falling. The Bastille, by the time it was destroyed, was as obsolete almost for its old purposes, and nearly as empty, as the cave of Giant Pagan, in Bunyan. But in a curious wandering book, the "Letters" of Oliver Macallister, we read of horrors worse than Dickens could invent—the black dungeons of Galbanon, where men's lives were one long noisome torture; where prisoners disappeared for ever, none knew how or why, none dared to ask. Macallister, a mouton, or prison spy, causes, despite his verbose futile digressions, a shudder which cannot be forgotten. The date of his experiences was 1755-1760, sufficiently near the period of the novel for the purposes of fiction. The pressure of taxation, its most unequal pressure, is undeniable, while the results were wasted in the way with which we are familiar. Dickens cites Mercier's Tableau de Paris as authority for his bad Marquis, though he does not tell us what were the Quellen of Mercier. Indeed, we need not ask. The question is not whether the stories are true, but whether, like the blood-baths of Louis XV., the stories were believed. India is full of such myths about ourselves, as mediæval Europe was full of them about the Jews. The historian examines the facts: to the novelist is permitted a larger liberty. As an old critic justly puts it, the novelist is "the landscape gardener of history." Rousseau is cited by Dickens for "the peasant's shutting up his house when he had a bit of meat." We may, of course, say that the Revolution did not greatly benefit the peasant, or anybody. That is rather an extreme opinion. Certainly the peasant escaped from the element of tyrannical personal caprice. Revolutions never produce a millennium, but they gratify the passion of revenge, and they shift and modify grievances. The sick world gets such relief as a fevered man obtains from turning in his bed.
The Tale of Two Cities was the next in sequence after Little Dorrit, and though so vastly superior to that work in vividness, concentration, and construction, was written in unhappy circumstances. The author and his wife had separated, and a dispute about the publication of a statement on this topic by Dickens led to the abandonment of Household Words. From Messrs. Bradbury and Evans, its publishers, Dickens went back to his old allies, Messrs. Chapman and Hall, never to leave them again. He established All the Year Round, practically the old periodical under a new name. And here, though not very relevantly, one may observe that "household words" was a household word, or proverbial phrase, before Shakespeare's day. Randolph, the ambassador of Queen Elizabeth in Scotland (1565), talks of "household words, as poor men use to say," in one of his despatches.
In All the Year Round the new story was published. The germ of the idea, "a vague fancy," had occurred to Dickens when acting with his friends and children, in Wilkie Collins's Frozen Deep, during the summer of 1857. In the end of January, 1858, he reverted to the notion, partly because work at a story would relieve his " worried mind." A number of titles were thought of: Buried Alive; The Thread of Gold, or The Doctor of Beauvais; but it was in March, 1859, that he decided on A Tale of Two Cities. He meant to put the story into his magazine, and also, for another public, into monthly numbers. His purpose was that the legend should express the characters more than they should express themselves in dialogue—"a story of incident pounding the characters in its own mortar, and beating their interest put of them." Seldom, indeed, have fictitious characters been more severely "pounded." As Mr. Forster says, Dickens does rely more on incident than character; but perhaps it would be as true to say that he drops that surplusage of description of character, and that Carlylean trick of iteration played on some personal feature, as on Pancks's snort or Carker's teeth. Most in his regular manner are the bullying Stryver, and the Resurrectionist. The humour of Jerry's remarks on the barbarity of quartering a criminal, because it spoils a "subject," are exactly in the manner of Dennis, the hangman, in Barnaby Rudge. Mr. Forster, usually a most lenient critic, thinks Dickens's experiment "hardly successful," from the absence of humour, and of "rememberable figures." But it is not well to be humorous in scenes of oppression, popular or patrician; while Dr. Manette, and Sydney Carton, and Mr. Stryver, and Madame Defarge are surely characters memorable enough. Carton has been argued against, as not a plausible character, and, in the nature of the case, he is not a usual character. But there is nothing impossible, or gravely improbable, in him. He does not set a pin's fee on a life which he has wrecked, and lacks the energy to rebuild. He has a great passion; "greater love has no man than this, that a man should give his life for his friend." He makes a noble end of a wasted existence, as he might do, under the stress of his affection for Mrs. Darnay, and perhaps more tears have been shed over Sydney Carton than over any personage in Dickens's novels. Nobody need grudge them to the school-fellow of Mr. Stryver, whose last scene is in a high degree pathetic, yet not melodramatic. There were too many such farewells to life, when the mob had its will and its way.
According to the right rule of historical fiction, the characters are unhistorical. "The domestic life of a few simple private people is so knitted and interwoven with the outbreak of a terrible public event, that the one seems but part of the other." Dickens does not give us long chapters of actual history. He could have introduced the real people—the King, Danton, Robespierre, St. Just; and Dumas or Scott would probably have done so, with good effect. But the more modest plan is the safer, and, as the example proves, not the less interesting. The Revolution exists, so to say, for the story. Even that gallant feat, the storming of a scarcely defended castle, is described because of its necessity to the plot; the Doctor's manuscript, concealed in No. 105, North Tower, has to be discovered by Defarge. The novel does rather suggest that the Bastille was assaulted mainly for that purpose, and that the Revolution was chiefly caused by the vintner's wife, "to serve her private ends." The conditions, or some of them, which nourished the bacillus of revolt, are described, however, in earlier chapters, consistently with what Dickens calls "the philosophy of Mr. Carlyle's wonderful book." With similar skill the September massacres are not dragged in, for the mere sake of description, but are of moment to the conduct of the story. It were hypercritical to object to the coincidence whereby the spies, whom we first met in England, meet and are mastered by Carton at the nick of time. Such allowances are the common right of novelists. Indeed, when Dickens, writing to Monsieur Regnier of the Comédie Française, called this book "the best story I have written," his self-criticism was just. It is the best charpenté of his tales up to that date; the most compact, and the most lucid in its development. Excellence in construction had not hitherto been his forte, partly because his tales had too many interests, in which that of plot was apt to be obscured and overlaid by a mass of heterogeneous detail. In this instance, just because the characters were to be "pounded out" by circumstance, all lies clear before the eye of author and reader.
Throughout the novel, the scenes, as described, reach a high level of vision, whether they are cast in London or in Paris. Mr. Forster, in his Life of Dickens, is annoyed with Mr. Lewes's criticisms on Dickens's power of vision. They are expressed, perhaps, rather pedantically, and in the terminology of psychological science, which seems to have been hardly intelligible to Mr. Forster. Vividness of conception, almost amounting to hallucination, is decidedly a form of genius. In Goethe's case, both in scientific and personal thought, conception externalised itself as hallucination. He would think of the girl of the hour "till she actually came to meet me," he told Eckermann. To possess this vigour of phantasia, and to communicate it in a secondary degree to the reader (as Dickens here does in a score of splendid passages), is to give proof demonstrable of the highest romantic genius. Lewes was paying a tribute to Dickens with one hand, while taking it away with the other, when he called the characters "wooden." They are anything but wooden, as a rule, in A Tale of Two Cities, though, in places, the humour of Jerry may be censured as verbal, or mechanical. "Hallucination will never account for it," cries Mr. Forster, apparently regarding "hallucination" as synonymous with mental aberration. This is what comes of introducing scientific technical language into literary criticism. Dickens said, "I don't invent, really do not, but see," thus attesting the correctness of Mr. Lewes's diagnosis. But "the mechanism of genius" is an obscure topic: we ordinary minds may be grateful for the results of processes whereof we have no personal experience. Dickens wrote to Lytton that he "never gave way to his invention recklessly, but constantly restrained it; and, of course, he occasionally failed in restraint. His invention did not often present him with a jeune première of great interest, and the heroine of A Tale of Two Cities is even as most heroines of male novelists. The turn which makes Miss Pross an accidental avenging angel, was censured, as if Dickens, here, had not restrained his invention. But he justly replied that he wished to contrast Madame Defarge's mean death in a grotesque scuffle, with the stately and honourable death of Carton. The grim ingenuity of the device by which Jerry learns that Cly is not dead, accounts for the introduction of a character common enough, at the time and much later, the Resurrectionist. That a man in his position should practise this by-work, is, it must be admitted, not very probable.
Dickens sent the proofs of the story to M. Regnier, to be dramatised. But the censure, as M. Regnier saw, would have replied—
"Incedis per ignes Suppositos cineri doloso."
When I was acting, with my children and friends, in Mr. Wilkie Collins's drama of The Frozen Deep, I first conceived the main idea of this story. A strong desire was upon me then, to embody it in my own person; and I traced out in my fancy, the state of mind of which it would necessitate the presentation to an observant spectator, with particular care and interest.
As the idea became familiar to me, it gradually shaped itself into its present form. Throughout its execution, it has had complete possession of me; I have so far verified what is done and suffered in these pages, as that I have certainly done and suffered it all myself.
Whenever any reference (however slight) is made here to the condition of the French people before or during the Revolution, it is truly made, on the faith of trustworthy witnesses. It has been one of my hopes to add something to the popular and picturesque means of understanding that terrible time, though no one can hope to add anything to the philosophy of Mr. Carlyle's wonderful book.