France and England in A Tale of Two Cities - The French Revolution
In the eighteen-fifties, Charles Dickens was concerned that social problems in England, particularly those relating to the condition of the poor, might provoke a mass reaction on the scale of the French Revolution. In a letter written in 1855, for example, he refers to the unrest of the time as follows:
I believe the discontent to be so much the worse for smouldering, instead of blazing openly, that it is extremely like the general mind of France before the breaking out of the first Revolution, and is in danger of being turned … into such a devil of a conflagration as never has been ...view middle of the document...
If in the nineteenth century the novel served to affirm the stability of Britain, in this century it has been greatly influential in the formation of the popular image of the French Revolution, mainly thanks to film and television adaptations. The purpose of this paper is to look at the popular reception of the novel from the time of its first publication in 1859 to the nineteen-nineties.
Contemporary Reception of A Tale of Two Cities
A Tale of Two Cities proved a disappointment even to critics who had received Dickens's earlier works favourably. In The Life of Charles Dickens (1872-4), John Forster argued that "there was probably never a book by a great humourist, and an artist so prolific in the conception of character, with so little humour and so few rememberable figures" (qtd. in P. Collins 422). However, Forster praised the novel when it was first published, referring in particular to the "subtlety with which a private history is associated with a most vivid expression of the spirit of the days of the great French Revolution" (qtd. in P. Collins 424). This comment suggests that Dickens successfully integrated fiction and history, but it is clear from what Forster says later that he prefers the fiction to the rendering of history in the novel: "But in his broadest colouring of revolutionary scenes, while he gives life to large truths in the story of a nation, he is working out closely and thoroughly the skilfully designed tale of a household" (qtd. in P. Collins 424). Forster's preference may be connected to the growing feeling of indifference towards the French Revolution in the eighteen-fifties. Dickens was not the first to draw attention to England's social and political problems by using the French Revolution as a point of reference. As David Lodge explains, several Victorian writers, particularly Thomas Carlyle, had used this "rhetorical strategy" to emphasise the severity of the condition of England (129). And yet, such a strategy would no longer impress itself on Dickens's readers in the eighteen-fifties, because mass demonstrations and riots of the previous decades, which were encouraged by reform movements like Chartism, and which worried writers like Carlyle and Dickens, had by this time become a spent force. In Victorian People and Ideas, Richard Altick points out that Chartism virtually came to an end in 1848, and summarises the socio-political condition of England in the following years as follows:
As throne after throne was … overturned on the Continent, England's remained secure .… Now, finally, even those most fearful of a proletarian takeover began to concede that it probably would not happen here …. The clinching proof came three years later[in 1851], when throngs of workingmen and their families, among them many erstwhile Chartists, poured into London to see the Crystal Palace. Despite predictions of rampant crime and disorder, nothing untoward happened; "the...