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 The Distortions of A Tale of Two Cities 
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Post The Distortions of A Tale of Two Cities
A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, has done more to promote the myths and stereotypes of the Revolution than perhaps any other work (at least in English-speaking countries). Again and again, I have run into opinions in other novels, articles and essays that were shaped more by Charles Dickens than actual history. Even on this site, I've read posts quoting Dickens as if he were a source of fact.
Charles Dickens did not write A Tale of Two Cities to give us a history lesson; rather he shaped and twisted history to suit his own purposes. Take for example the character of the Marquis de St. Evremonde. In the book, St. Evremonde is a cold, arrogant man who rapes and tortures his servants for his own amusement. When the good Dr. Manette discovers this, St. Evremonde issues a lettres de cachet and the innocent man is thrown into the "horrible" Bastille. Out of shame and protest, St. Evremonde's nephew, Darnay, rejects his uncle and his aristocratic heritage, and emigrates to England.
In reality, Dickens based the St. Evremonde character on a very real person: the Marquis de Sade. Sade did in fact rape and torture his servants at his family chateau, Lacoste. The servants escaped however, and went to the local authorities, causing the Marquis to be arrested and sent to the Bastille himself. Sade ended up spending most of his adult life in prison, and died in jail years after the Revolution. Incidentially, the Revolutionary regime freed him for a time, seeing him as a "victim of tyranny," but soon discovered for themselves that the man was insane. Sade's son---read "Darnay"---renounced his father, and spent his life apologizing for the Marquis' actions; he did not however, leave France in protest or project his father's sins onto the whole aristocracy.
Charles Dickens used the St. Evremonde (Sade) character as representative of the French aristocracy, but in reality the nobility were scandalized by Sade's behavior and despised him. In the book, Dr. Manette is sent to prison simply because the evil Marquis wanted him there. In truth, only the King could issue a lettres de cachet, and there had to be a very good reason (like Sade's crimes against his servants). In the book, the Bastille is shown as a terrible dungeon where the prisoners are locked in dark, damp cells and left to rot. In reality, it was one of the better royal prisons. Sade had his own set of apartments in the Bastille, with a manservant, fine furniture and expensive china. His family was allowed to supply him with all the comforts and luxuries at their own expense.
Another of the great myths fostered by A Tale of Two Cities: that being an aristocrat meant an automatic death-sentence during the Revolution. In truth, the majority of aristocrats survived the Revolution, many reclaiming their titles afterwards. Some fled to other countries, but many others remained in France through the whole ordeal without loosing their heads. The nobles who were guillotined were either connected directly to the royal government in some way, or accused of plotting against the Revolution. Most titled heads, however, simply put on Revolutionary colors and went about their business unmolested. The vast majority of those guillotined were commoners.


Mon Aug 25, 2008 9:46 am
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Post Re: The Distortions of A Tale of Two Cities
Hello Christophe! I'll bear in mind what you've said above about "A Tale of Two Cities" as its a book I've been planning to read in the near future.

Christophe wrote:
Charles Dickens did not write A Tale of Two Cities to give us a history lesson; rather he shaped and twisted history to suit his own purposes. Take for example the character of the Marquis de St. Evremonde.


Ha! Much like Shakespeare with Richard III then - he was writing to suit his Tudor audience and is somewhat to blame for Richard III's bad reputation to this day...but that's off topic, sorry! :)

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Mon Aug 25, 2008 5:44 pm
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Post Re: The Distortions of A Tale of Two Cities
I don't want to discourage you from reading A Tale of Two Cities, because it is highly entertaining and very well written. Please, just don't take it for a factual account. The stereotypes that Hollywood has played upon ever since all come from ATOTC: aristocrats were evil, Revolutionaries were slightly insane (well, that I might agree with), the ancien regime spent all its time and money oppressing its people, and French peasants were all half-starved, ragged creatures. None of these stereotypes prove true, but they persist in pop culture.


Tue Aug 26, 2008 2:13 am
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Post Re: The Distortions of A Tale of Two Cities
I agree with Christophe in the necessity of reading A Tale of Two Cities with a grain of salt. Its historical accuracy is basically limited to the fact that England and France are across the Channel from each other and a revolution did take place in France.

Like he pointed out, it is probably the single greatest source for the stereotypes of the Evil Wicked And Debauched Marquis who went around raping peasant women and running over small children in carriages, blah blah blah. And then how how they were all later guillotined, which again as he said was not true. 80-85% of people guillotined were from the Third Estate.

It's also the major source for stereotypes about the people of Paris, who go from long-suffering martyrs to a bloodthirsty mob in a record 25 pages. The French Revolution, as we know, was a whole lot more complicated than "wicked aristos oppress downtrodden peasants, who revolt and immediately become a bloodthirsty mob and guillotine all the now innocent and tragic nobility," which is the image presented by A Tale of Two Cities.

I admit it's not my favorite book because I find the characters so utterly soppy and Victorian, but it is the classic novel about the French Revolution. Like Christophe said, read carefully and critically.


Tue Aug 26, 2008 8:19 pm
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Post Re: The Distortions of A Tale of Two Cities
Thank you Christophe and dreamoutloud, I shall remember these points when I start reading the book :)

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Sun Aug 31, 2008 8:53 am
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Post Re: The Distortions of A Tale of Two Cities
Hi all!
I'm reading the book right now and I must say I quite agree. It seems to me that the representation of historical events is quite simplistic, in that, as you have already remarked, nobles are depicted as (almost) all corrupted and blind in their arrogance, and common people as indistinctively ruthless and bloodthirsty. Actually, I think this is quite the "common" perception of the Revolution in popular culture, and it's interesting to see how probably this percepption was shaped to a certain degree by Dickes himself.
However, I think the book is also worth reading, at least for people (like us :) ) interested in the period of the Revolution. First of all, some images and scenes are truly powerful (like the description of the mob attacking the Bastille on July 14th), and, second, I think it's interesting to see how the Revolution was perceived in England (at least in Victorian times). And, then, the book is well-written and even though in some points it's really a bit too much Victorian (like in the character of Lucie: she's unbearable:too perfect!) it's otherwise a good read :)

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Sun Sep 13, 2009 4:49 pm
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Post Re: The Distortions of A Tale of Two Cities
First, a word from Dickens himself (via his friend John Forster), who was friends with Thomas Carlyle and had no doubt read his history of the Revolution (itself very Dickensien in its narrative energy) as well as many period sources:

Quote:
Another of his letters supplies the last illustration I need to give of the design and meanings in regard to this tale expressed by himself. It was a reply to some objections of which the principal were, a doubt if the feudal cruelties came sufficiently within the date of the action to justify his use of them, and some question as to the manner of disposing of the chief revolutionary agent in the plot. "I had of course full knowledge of the formal surrender of the feudal privileges, but these had been bitterly felt quite as near to the time of the Revolution as the Doctor's narrative, which you will remember dates long before the Terror. With the slang of the new philosophy on the one side, it was surely not unreasonable or unallowable, on the other, to suppose a nobleman wedded to the old cruel ideas, and representing the time going out as his nephew represents the time coming in. If there be anything certain on earth, I take it that the condition of the French peasant generally at that day was intolerable. No later enquiries or provings by figures will hold water against the tremendous testimony of men living at the time. There is a curious book printed at Amsterdam, written to make out no case whatever, and tiresome enough in its literal dictionary-like minuteness; scattered up and down the pages of which is full authority for my marquis. This is Mercier's Tableau de Paris. Rousseau is the authority for the peasant's shutting up his house when he had a bit of meat. The tax-tables are the authority for the wretched creature's impoverishment. . .

http://books.google.com/books?id=ME0YAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA355&dq=inauthor:forster+intitle:dickens+%22tale+of+two+cities%22#v=onepage&q=inauthor%3Aforster%20intitle%3Adickens%20%22tale%20of%20two%20cities%22&f=false

Having read a great deal about the Revolution before sitting down to read all of Dickens about a year ago, I was struck by how Dickens used exaggeration to portray essential truth - that is, there are great distortions of both the aristocrats and the Revolutionaries, but the end result is to sum up real issues of a complex situation in a powerful human way. The whole incident of throwing a coin to pay for a child's death is a caricature, for instance, but not by much. When Sade (who I don't think was the model for the aristocrat in Dickens) was arrested for kidnapping and torturing a woman, his family paid her off (she used the money, poignantly, for her dowry). And Dickens' over-the-top image captures a real insouciance for the lives of the lower classes on the part of many.

Otherwise, here's a closer look I took at that incident at one point:

Quote:
LETHAL CARRIAGES AND DICKENS
I've been very frustrated by the query about "the French nobleman
whose carriage killed a child, and who then
made amends to its mother by offering to help her get another one", since I
dimly recall reading the same tale and can't find it either.

The closest thing I've found so far concerns the sons of Mme de Brionne, a
sometime friend of Marie Antoinette's. In 1780 the Prince Lambesc and his
brother drove over pedestrians on the Rue St. Antoine. Mme. de Brionne (their
mother) tried to at least make amends to an injured priest by offering him 200
livres in income and by asking her children to apologize to the priest (which
they didn't). (described on p. 183 of Marie Antoinette: Writings on the Body
of a Queen, edited by Deena Goodman) Bachaumont (vol 15, April 2, p.
107-109) also tells the tale, mainly re the cure (whom the population taxed with
being over-forgiving)

Otherwise, one would think that a good gloss of "Tale of Two Cities" would
reference this, but even Stanford's excellent site on the novel only quotes
Mercier:

"At last, swooping at a street corner by a fountain, one of its wheels came
to a sickening little jolt…

The hazardous driving of Monsieur the Marquis’ carriage is, according to a
chapter in Mercier’s Tableau de Paris (1781-8), historically accurate. In an
anecdote called “Gare! Gare!” (“Watch out! Watch out!”), Mercier describes
the perils of the Parisian roads in this period and the indifference of the
wealthy to the consequences of their haste:
Watch out! Watch out for carriages! [writes Mercier]…. I have been knocked
over three times on to the street at different periods, and in each case I was
almost broken on the wheel. I therefore can claim a little bit of moral
authority when I condemn the barbarous luxury of carriages.

No one’s put the brake on, despite the daily complaints. The menacing wheels
which proudly hold up the rich fly no less rapidly over a pavement stained
with the blood of unfortunate victims who expire in frightful tortures,
awaiting the reform which will not come, because all those who participate in the
administration maintain state-coaches, and consequently disdain the complaints
of the infantry.

The lack of sidewalks makes almost all the streets perilous: when a man who
has a little credit gets sick, they spread dung in front of his door, to
muffle the sound of state-coaches; and it is then above all that one must be on
guard…. When a coach has ground you up alive, they ask at the police
superintendent’s office if it is the big wheel or the little wheel that did it; the
coachman says the little; and if you expire beneath the big wheel, there are
scarcely any pecuniary damages paid to your heirs. There is a fine for the
arms, the legs, the thighs; and it is a price set ahead of time. (qtd. in and
translated by Maxwell, 410-11)" "

http://dickens.stanford.edu/archive/tal ... gloss.html

This is from the Discovering Dickens site:

Discovering DIckens: a Tale of Two Cities
http://dickens.stanford.edu/archive/intro.html



Madame Defarge is a caricature, but the relentless, vengeful, irrational rage she represents was very real (even if demagogues played a large part in coaxing it forth).

So it is unfortunate that the most many people know of the Revolution is this novel, but it was never meant to be the last word. As a "summing up", it's magnificent.

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Fri Sep 18, 2009 5:21 pm
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Post Re: The Distortions of A Tale of Two Cities
Quote:
Having read a great deal about the Revolution before sitting down to read all of Dickens about a year ago, I was struck by how Dickens used exaggeration to portray essential truth - that is, there are great distortions of both the aristocrats and the Revolutionaries, but the end result is to sum up real issues of a complex situation in a powerful human way.


Yes, I definitely agree. It's like Dickens summed up in a few "extreme" characters a complex situation: so most characters are not realistic, but the general situation they represent (or, at least, it's "spirit")is true. This is maybe why, although the distorions we remarked, the book is worth reading.

Thank you for the information about carriages, it's very interesting.


By the way, a purely literary remark: at the beginning of the book I found it at times to theatrical and I didn't really understand what all was up to, but I'm reading the last 60 pages or so now, where the action is at his climax, and I find it more and more compelling! I absolutely love Carton's character!

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Sat Sep 19, 2009 10:54 am
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