In the leafy months of June and July (1793), several French Departments germinate a set of paper-leaves, named Proclamations, Resolutions, Journals, or Diurnals, ‘of the Union for Resistance to Oppression.’ In particular, the town of Caen, in Calvados, sees its paper-leaf of Bulletin de Caen suddenly bud, suddenly establish itself as Newspaper there; under the Editorship of Girondin National Representatives! (The Girondins were opposed to the regime and marked for extinction by Robespierre.)
That is how Carlyle begins his chapter on Charlotte Corday, the murderer of Marat, that grubby little idol of the masses and cheer-leader in the Terror. There it all is – quirky, doom-laden, prophetic, arresting, and BYO grammar and vocabulary. Nothing else even comes close.
Dickens idolised the author of The French Revolution. He was like a disciple. Carlyle was to 19th century England what Dr Johnson was to the 18th. Some recalled Dickens ‘playing around the old lion’ as Garrick did around Johnson. Disraeli, himself a novelist, recommended Carlyle to his queen for the highest distinction for merit at her command, saying that Carlyle and Tennyson stood out in ‘uncontested superiority.’
She is of stately Norman figure; in her twenty-fifth year; of beautiful still countenance: her name is Charlotte Corday, heretofore styled D’Armans, while Nobility still was…. ‘She was a Republican before the Revolution, and never wanted energy.’ A completeness, a decision is in this fair female Figure: ‘by energy she means the spirit that will prompt one to sacrifice himself for his country.’ What if she, this fair young Charlotte, had emerged from her secluded stillness, suddenly like a Star; cruel-lovely, with half-angelic, half-daemonic splendour; to gleam for a moment, and in a moment be extinguished: to be held in memory, so bright-complete was she, through long centuries!
Carlyle savaged the middle class. In the Britain of Queen Victoria, glutted on the gold of Empire, that course was fraught. But Carlyle had concluded that it was middle class civilisation itself, and not its corrupt institutions, that was the source of real evil. And nothing he saw over the Channel of the bourgeoisie would have softened that opinion. They would be descried by Balzac, Flaubert and Proust at times after a fashion that we see in Dickens. In his fine book, Carlyle and Dickens (1972), Michael Goldberg cites a note in the Saturday Review that said that Dickens had a mission, but that it was to make the world grin and ‘not to recreate and rehabilitate society.’
But the increasing impact of Carlyle on Dickens showed up in increasing social criticism from Dombey and Son onward. You get sustained disquiet with the community at large in place of sporadic commentary upon particular social lesions. Dombey is, like Père Goriot, a firestorm about Mammonism, a pet loathing of the stern Scot, Carlyle. Mr Goldberg says:
The tyrants of his last novels are less and less to be found in the thieves’ kitchens of the underworld or in the elegant drawing rooms of the aristocracy. They are commercial nabobs like Dombey, financiers like Merdle, industrial barons like Bounderby, utilitarian lawgivers like Gradgrind, monetary barbarians like Podsnap, and noveau riche opportunists like Veneering. As the portrait of a class they embody the idea, as Shaw put it, that ‘it is not our criminals but our magnates that are robbing and murdering us.’
That does all sound modern – if not radical.
On Wednesday morning, the thronged Palais de Justice and Revolutionary Tribunal can see her face; beautiful and calm…A strange murmur ran through the Hall, at the sight of her: you could not say of what character … ‘All these details are needless…it is I that killed Marat…I killed one man,’ added she, raising her voice extremely (extrêmement) as they went on with their questions, ‘I killed one man to save a hundred thousand; a villain to save innocent; a savage wild beast to give repose to my country’…. There is therefore nothing to be said. The public gazes astonished: the hasty limmers sketch her features, Charlotte not disapproving….The Doom is death as a murderess…To the Priest they send her she gives thanks; but needs not any shriving, any ghostly or other aid from him.
Faced with a script like that, a novelist may have quailed about writing a story about those times. Dickens did write one – to our singular betterment. His novel owes so much to Carlyle. Probably in jest, he said he had read Carlyle’s account nine times. He read all about the revolution and then threw his notes away and wrote. The Gordon Riots in Barnaby Rudge were madness – a favourite notion of Carlyle – and nothing more. Now he was looking at the product of intolerable oppression. The aristocracy thought Figaro was funny. They did not die laughing. Carlyle and Dickens were both lethal on the aristocracy but ambiguous about the third estate.
Carlyle had said that ‘old secrets come to view; and longburied Despair finds voice.’ There was a thread for Dickens’ plot. Dickens had the Marquis lamenting the loss of feudal privilege. ‘Our not remote ancestors held the right of life and death over the surrounding vulgar. From this room, many such dogs have been taken out to be hanged.’ He also wrote that ‘the leprosy of unreality disfigured every face in attendance upon Monseigneur.’ The Tribunal became ‘a jury of dogs empannelled to try the deer.’ All that is Carlyle to the bootstraps – and it underwrote the savage cannibalism of the Terror. Of Marat, Carlyle said: ‘All dogs have their day; even rabid dogs.’
Thousands of books have been written about the French Revolution. It is a fair bet that only one mentions Adam Lux.
…..the fatal cart issues; seated on it a fair young creature, sheeted in a red smock of Murderess; so beautiful, serene, so full of life; journeying towards death, – alone amid the world. Many take off their hats, saluting reverently; for what heart but must be touched? Others growl and howl. Adam Lux of Mentz declares that she is greater than Brutus; that it were beautiful to die with her; the head of this young man seems turned. At the Place de la Révolution, the countenance of Charlotte wears the same still smile.
Poor Adam was dotty about Charlotte. It was raining and we infer that the figure of Charlotte became more deeply impressed on young Adam as a result. But this was not the time to show sympathy for an enemy of the people.
Adam Lux goes home, half-delirious; to pour forth his Apotheosis of her, in paper and in print; to propose that she have a statue with this inscription, Greater than Brutus. Friends represent his danger; Lux is reckless; thinks it were beautiful to die with her.
And he does – ‘with great joy’ – for a crime that Stalin would borrow from the French.
A Tale of Two Cities is still right up there and will be while English is still spoken. Carlyle is well out of fashion, largely because his worship of heroes stirs bad chords. The Revolution is very short on heroes. What about the angelic-daemonic Charlotte Corday – the absolute hero of Adam Lux?
Can an assassin be a hero? Well, the revolutionaries thought Brutus was a hero. Dante put Brutus in the same level of Hell as Judas. We idolise Dietrich Bonhoeffer – but he was part of the plot to kill Hitler. God only knows what the answer may be.
But we do think that Charlotte Corday would have been happy to quit this world with the last words on her lips of Sydney Carton. Each of those figures stands for our humanity.