One of my favourite stories in the Bible was the Tower of Babel. The human race builds a tower that threatens to reach heaven, so God divides them, first by language, then by nation. It is that very division that, figuratively, prevents them from reaching the higher states. For language and nation read any division between individuals: race, gender, sexuality, age, etc. We look at each other as if through a glass wall, sometimes forgetting it is there. When a writer attempts to create a character that is beyond their own experience, you can sometimes hear the sound of them knocking up against it.
By the way, I should say that there are spoilers in this, but given the famous last line, the experience of reading TTC is a little like Owen Meany. You know what is going to happen and when, the only mystery is how. As soon as the dissolute Sydney Carton hoves in to view, you just think, right then.
Sydney Carton is also a clue to the first type of woman. He is much given to speech making and you can’t help thinking that if it were a stage play then this was the part Dickens would have cast himself in. Lucy Manette is a classic stage heroine. An embodiment of duty who stays by her father’s side for a considerable part of the novel, before standing by her husband’s side for the rest. She acts as a moral compass for other characters, as well as the novel itself. She is quite explicit in this:
‘…can I not save you, Mr Carton? Can I not recall you – forgive me again! – to a better course?’
You can imagine the two of them: her seated, him clapping the back of his hand to his forehead as he strides back and forth.
It’s the sort of Dickens character that to a modern audience most often sticks in the throat:
‘She had been true to her duties. She was truest to them in the season of trial, as all the quietly loyal and good will always be.’
But, and I’ll come back to this, she is incredibly determined. Even at their most saintly, his characters cannot help having great vitality.
Her opposite is the Monster. I don’t think (and I’m happy to be corrected on this) that I can think of another of his novels where the women are so clearly the villains. There are two in particular. Madame Defarge is a woman with far greater energy for the revolution than her husband, who becomes no more than one of the many anonymous ‘Jacques’.
‘”To me, women!” cried madame the wife. “What! We can kill as well as the men when the place is taken!” And to her, with a shrill thirsty cry, trooping women variously armed, but all armed alike in hunger and revenge.
And check this out:
‘Suddenly animated, she put her foot upon his neck, and with her cruel knife – long ready – hewed off his head.’
Hoorah! Dickens has a go at trying to explain her motivation, but it doesn’t quite come off:
There were many women at that time upon whom the time laid a dreadfully disfiguring hand, but, there was not one among them more to be dreaded than this ruthless woman, now taking her way along the streets.
The second villain is the woman known only as The Vengeance.
‘One of the sisterhood knitted beside her. The short, rather plump wife of a starved grocer, and the mother of two withal, this lieutenant had already earned the complimentary name of The Vengeance.’
Note the implication, in her comparative size, that she puts herself before her husband. Also, the mention of ‘the sisterhood.’ As if such a thing is anathema.
Clearly, both these characters are set up as a contrast to the saintly Lucy Manette.
There is also the image of the knitting. Rather like Mrs Haversham’s wedding dress, Dickens takes a supposed symbol of femininity and presents it out of context to produce an image of horror. Madame Defarge, The Vengeance, and several other women sit in a line and knit in front of the guillotine as the hundreds of heads roll. And, whatever you may think of the politics, it works as well as any Stephen King vampire floating outside the window.
There is one more villainous woman, of course:
The “sharp female newly born, and called La Guillotine,”
Perhaps this explains the prominence of the villainous women. Everything is inverted and ‘wrong’ in this new society. From the sexual politics to the method of execution.
The next type of character is the worthy-but-weird one. In this case, Miss Pross. Like Jenny Wren in Our Mutual Friend, she is a single woman who acts as a support for the lead character. It is she who finally defeats Madam Defarge, after a fantastic bit of stagey dialogue:
“You might, from your appearance, be the wife of Lucifer,” said Miss Pross, in her breathing. “Nevertheless, you shall not get the better of me. I am an Englishwoman.”
Then there is Mrs Cruncher, another sort of character that is difficult for modern audiences to read: the passive victim of abuse. There’s a great story quoted at the start of Claire Tomalin’s Dickens biography of how the young Dickens went out of his way, when on a jury, to defend a woman who was a clear victim of injustice. He knew what was going on around him, and did what he could to stop it (though perhaps not so effectively in his personal life). His depiction of Mr Cruncher’s abuse is unflinching:
…holding Mrs Cruncher by the ears, and knocking the back of her head against the head board of the bed
The problem is that he can’t help making her into a comedy character. She is always described as ‘flopping about’. The effect is somewhere between a Gillray cartoon and a Punch and Judy show, and the suspicion is that he’s trying to get a laugh.
Finally, there is the surprise female character. Someone who doesn’t quite fit the writer-from-another-age image that he sometimes gets. Lady Dedlock in Bleak House is one: an apparently compassionless woman with a hidden past. In TTC it comes right at the end. As Sydney Carton is facing his fate, he is approached by a small girl who asks to hold his hand. She is convinced of the rightness of the revolution for the benefit of the poor and is just confused why it should be necessary to cut off her head. It should be a one-line joke, but instead she comes across as very real. It’s a character that predicts Boxer in Animal Farm.
Oddly, Dickens succeeds in his depiction of women where many modern dramatists fail. To adopt the famous Bechdel questions: is there more than one named (major) female character? Yes. Do they talk to one another? Yes. Do they talk about something other than men? Yes. And, as far as I know, even the lauded Nordic TV dramas have not finished with a hand-to-hand fight to the death between two women.
Having said that, Dickens is one of those writers who very clearly bangs up against the glass wall in creating his female characters. He observes them but only on rare occasions do they get a believable sense of inner life. What they do have, however, is energy and distinctiveness – even Lucy Manette has to fight for her own identity, and each character in the novel is distinct from the others. Good or bad, weird or innocent, they move around the world in a way that holds the attention.