A Tale of Two Cities (1935)

Why are the Sartres always on the other side?

When Colonel Mathieu asked the question in The Battle of Algiers, he overestimated the support the idea of revolution gets from the intellectuals. For every Henry David Thoreau, who passionately defended John Brown, there’s a Margaret Mitchell, who wrote the iconic novel of the United States Civil War from the point of view of the old Slave Power. For every Mark Twain there’s a Charles Dickens.

Mark Twain, in his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, damned feudalism and defended the French Revolutionary Terror.

Why, it was like reading about France and the French, before the ever memorable and blessed Revolution, which swept a thousand years of such villainy away in one swift tidal-wave of blood — one: a settlement of that hoary debt in the proportion of half a drop of blood for each hogshead of it that had been pressed by slow tortures out of that people in the weary stretch of ten centuries of wrong and shame and misery the like of which was not to be mated but in hell. There were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror — that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.

Charles Dickens, the greatest British writer after Shakespeare, may have hated brute capitalist greed and the exploitation of working-class children, but he also hated the idea of revolution. Sadly, he was a better propagandist than Mark Twain. Twain’s defense of the Jacobins has barely dented the American consciousness. A Tale of Two Cities, on the other hand, destroyed the reputation of the French Revolution in the English speaking world, forever. It’s not only good propaganda. It’s great propaganda, mainly because it’s not only propaganda. It’s great drama. Dickens can tug on your heart strings like no other novelist. I’d gladly give Colonel Mathieu Jean Paul Sartre if only he’d give me the man who gave us Madame Defarge and Sydney Carton.

In 1935, Charles Dickens got an actor worthy of Sydney Carton, Ronald Coleman, and a film worthy of the novel. While Jack Conway’s A Tale of Two Cities may have its flaws, it’s perfectly faithful to the book, and to its conservative politics. Perhaps it was the right year. In 1858, the English middle class was worried about the idea of working-class revolution. The English aristocracy, after all, was no better than the French aristocracy. The industrial revolution had brought the country great wealth, but to the lower classes it brought only poverty, and cruel dislocation. 1935, in turn, was the height of the Great Depression. Privileged Americans were beginning to feel the same anxiety about communism that Charles Dickens felt about Jacobin mobs coming to London. Jack Conway got them both on film.

While A Tale of Two Cities, for obvious reasons, never mentions Stalin’s purge trials, the fear of the Bolshevik revolution runs throughout Conway’s film. If London is the United States and the democratic west, then Paris is the Soviet Union and the totalitarian east. There are spies everywhere. There are trumped up charges against innocent working-class women like the terrified little seamstress Sydney Carton comforts on her way to the guillotine. There are benevolent capitalists, Jarvis Lorry and Tilson’s Bank. There are unscrupulous professional revolutionaries who hijack the legitimate grievances of the poor. The poor, in turn, are hateful and easily manipulated. Above all there is the idea that anybody from the privileged classes deserves to die. Just as Stalin liquidated the Kulaks and sent intellectuals from bourgeois families to the gulag, Madam Defarge is so determined to exterminate the St. Evremonde family down to its last member that she’s even willing to send Lucy Manette’s young daughter to the Guillotine. Are working-class revolutionaries child killers? They are in A Tale of Two Cities.

So why is Jack Conway’s A Tale of Two Cities a conservative and not a liberal movie? After all, the novel’s young romantic lead, Charles Darney, leaves his family in Paris to go to work at Tilson’s bank in London in protest over his uncle’s callous attitude towards the poor. The Marquis de St. Evremonde, an oily, perfumed, supercilious dandy played by Basil Rathbone, is a villain who feels no remorse after his carriage runs down a child. He attempts to have his own nephew framed and executed for treason. We feel no regret after one of the Jacques, one of the revolutionary san culottes, stabs him in his sleep, nor does the film expect us to. Charles Darney’s tutor Gabelle is an “advocate for the new equality.” Tellson’s Bank lends money to people who might not be able to pay it back. Jarvis Lorry could be an elder statesman in the Roosevelt Administration, a wise old man with a heart of gold underneath the pretension that he’s concerned only with the profit motive.

The Marquis de St. Evremonde is a despicable man but he’s not the books primary villain. That, of course, would be Madame Therese Defarge, a terrifying, yet in at least one instance, passionate and charismatic Blanche Yurka. The film’s French aristocrats, apart from the Marquis de St. Evremonde, don’t seem particularly wicked or hateful. Some of them are vain and clueless, but, in general, they’re mostly just confused victims of history. The embodiment of evil, the representative of the demonic forces unleashed by the French Revolution is a woman. Indeed, revolution in the form of Madame Defarge, The Vengeance, and the harpies who help storm the Bastille is mostly a feminine affair, an expression of womanly rage against law and order. Ernest Defarge, the leader of the Jacques, seems almost a nonentity by comparison. This is partly true to history. While the most familiar leaders of the French Revolution, Danton, Robespierre, Mirabeau, Abbé Sieyès, Desmoulins, were men, the militant action in the streets was often, if not primarily led by women. Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle both knew that the March on Versailles in October of 1789, the march that dragged King Louis XVI back to Paris for good, was begun by rough, working-class women from the Parisian fish markets, and that its memory terrified the English middle-class. The deeper level of radicalism underneath the Jacobins and the National Covention was made up of the hungry women who organized bread riots. In 1793, a mob of women who get violent because they have no milk for their children or food for their families could scare even a Robespierre.

In A Tale of Two Cities, the man who restores order, who makes the world safe for the English middle-class is the heroic Sydney Carton. When we first meet Carton, he is a brilliant but morose, self-pitying alcoholic lawyer in his 30s, or perhaps his 40s. We really don’t know. Dickens never tells us his age, but what we do know is that he’s deeply depressed over the idea that he’s going to grow old without ever having had a wife or family. He’s obviously got an education. He speaks fluent French. He knows the law. But he’s also working-class. He doesn’t have his own law firm. He works for the comically incompetent Mr. Stryver. Carton saves Charles Darney from being executed for treason not by going to the law libraries, but by descending into the London underworld and uncovering the Marquis de St. Evremonde’s spy in England. Sydney Carton is a man who knows the streets, of London, and of Paris.

When Sydney Carton meets Lucy Manette, it’s love at first sight. To us, Lucy Manette seems dull. She must have seemed just as dull back in 1935. The 1920s were the age of the flapper and the woman’s suffrage movement. The production code censoring Hollywood had just kicked in the year before, but there were already dozens of films starring bawdy, self-sufficient, liberated women like Mae West. But it’s not a liberated woman that Sydney Carton wants. When Stryver suggests that he “find a wife with a little property, maybe a landlady,” he scoffs at him in contempt. Carton wants Lucy Manette, the Victorian angel of the hearth. Lucy represents the idealized upper-middle-class family, children, church on Sunday, large gatherings on Christmas Eve. Carton wants her so badly he’s willing to die for her, to go to the guillotine to save her husband from the now degenerate revolution in Paris.

There’s not much more to say about Ronald Coleman other than that he’s brilliant. Coleman is the perfect self-sacrificing romantic hero. As Lucy Manette tries to coax Sydney Carton back into polite society, we watch the struggle he undergoes to master himself. He should hate Charles Darney, the privileged child of the French aristocracy who marries the woman he loves. Coleman’s expressive features register every note of sorrow the dissolute, drunken lawyer — the 40-year-old loner looking through the plate glass window at the happy family he’ll never have — feels, but he’s no Madame Defarge. He’s no revolutionary. On the contrary, he’s a conservative determined to do whatever he has to do to protect the middle-class world he’ll never be a part of. In 1935, in Jack Conway’s film, he foreshadows the “Greatest Generation,” the men who fought World War II but never talked about it, who sucked it up after the Great Depression, and restored middle-class normality in the 1950s.

I doubt there was a woman in any movie theater in 1935 who didn’t take out her handkerchief and sob when Coleman helped calm the poor little seamstress, Isabel Jewell, on the way to the guillotine. But it’s a double edged blade, after all. Women in A Tale of Two cities are either victims or harpies, angels of the middle-class hearth or demonic revolutionaries, virgins, whores, or Mr. Pross, the ferocious, unsexed, manly English spinster who kills Madame Defarge. Carton’s companion at the guillotine is in fact the only sympathetic working-class woman in the whole film. For Charles Dickens, a woman’s place is in the home, or crying on the hero’s shoulder, not marching on Versailles or storming the Bastille.

But Dickens was the true poet, and often of the devil’s party without knowing it. One of the most exciting moments in Conway’s film is Madame Defarge’s speech to the revolutionary tribunal during Charles Darney’s trial. The charges are bogus. The judges are sneering political hit men. Madame Defarge is trying to send an innocent man to his death, but still, Blanche Yurka’s passionate denunciation of the French aristocracy jolts the film out of its sentimental middle-class melodrama. She’s a far more interesting character than the insipid Lucy Manette. If only Dickens had made her the heroine, and not, to quote Miss Pross, “the wife of Lucifer himself.” Then there’s The Vengeance, Madame Defarge’s cackling old sidekick. Yes, she’s as evil as Madame Defarge, but, since Dickens is always at his best when it comes to comic relief, we can’t help but like her in spite of herself. “I dropped a stitch,” she snarls after the drop of the guillotine’s blade interrupts her knitting, “cursed aristocrats.” If only she had added “cursed bourgeoisie.”

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2 comments

  1. Carton wants Lucy Manette, the Victorian angel of the hearth. Lucy represents the idealized upper-middle-class family, children, church on Sunday, large gatherings on Christmas Eve. Carton wants her so badly he’s willing to die for her, to go to the guillotine to save her husband from the now degenerate revolution in Paris.

    I have noticed that a good number of leading ladies in some of Charles Dickens’ novels tend to be virtuous bores.

    1. Many of his heroes too. Charles Darney is pretty dull.

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