French Revolution Dickens Paper

Hist. 224

A Tale of Two Books Without Footnotes

In the preface to A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens asserts “[w]henever any reference (however slight) is made here to the condition of the French peoples before or during the Revolution, it is truly made, on the faith of trustworthy witnesses” (Dickens xvii). Certainly Dickens believes that his descriptions of Old Regime (pre-revolution) France are based upon genuine historical narratives, and I will assume that he is telling the truth. When these sources are not given, however, controversy naturally arises over the biases of the historical content presented. Once individual sources are taken out of context and not dissected, it is easy to present a drastically skewed picture of the larger scene.

Simon Schama similarly uses historical narratives to present his story of the French Revolution in Citizens. Schama has no problem providing a surplus of information, yet he seldom offers any sources or source criticism. In his return to “the form of the nineteenth-century chronicles” (Schama xv) Schama repeats many of the flaws of Dickens’ historical writing, yet like Dickens he is an excellent writer, and it is often easy to overlook his biases. In this short paper I will contrast Dickens’ main assumptions about the Old Regime with Schama’s views on those assumptions. These Dickensian assumptions include the existence of a large oppressed population, a brutal, all-powerful aristocracy, a missing middle class, and an antiquated governmental system, which allows oppression to occur. Although Schama repeats many of Dickens’ methods by neglecting source criticism, he rejects most of Dickens’ major assumptions about the Old Regime.

Dickens’ predominant assumption about the Old Regime is probably the stereotype of the extremely impoverished French population. Dickens emphasizes the desperate condition of the poor at almost every point in his discussion of Old Regime France. This emphasis is exemplified in his description of a typical French village. Dickens’ claims that the village had “one poor street, with its poor brewery, poor tannery, poor tavern, poor stable-yard for relay of post–horses, poor fountain, usual poor appointments. It had its poor people too. All its people were poor”(118). It would be difficult for Dickens to drive home his point about the poor anymore blatantly than in this passage with it’s excessive repetition of the word “poor.” Later Dickens claims that these poor conditions made “the meagreness of Frenchmen an English superstition which should survive the truth through the best part of a hundred years” (119). The truth that Dickens assumes in this passage is that most Frenchmen during the Old Regime were extremely poor and nearly starving. This legend of extreme French poverty apparently survived well into Dickens’ own era.

Schama disagrees with Dickens about the dire condition of the French population in the Old Regime. He focuses largely on the social mobility that was allegedly accessible to the “Third Estate” (non-nobles) during the Old Regime. Schama claims “privilege was not a monopoly of the nobility. Tens of thousands of commoners had been brought within its fold, either by virtue of the offices they held in municipal corporations and guilds, or by marrying into privileged families” (116). Schama seems overly optimistic in his assessment of the commoners in France. Although over the course of the eighteenth century, thousands of commoners probably did enter the nobility, tens of millions did not. Schama makes climbing the social ladder seem relatively easy by focusing on a handful of famous successes rather than the millions of failures. This is exactly the opposite of the Dickensian view, yet both Schama and Dickens may be presenting extreme views in order to make the stories more appealing to the reader.

Schama does not share Dickens’ views on the aristocracy either. Dickens jests at and vilifies nearly all of the nobles in A Tale of Two Cities. One of the more memorable scenes of novel is when the Marquis requires “four men…to conduct the happy chocolate to Monseigneur’s lips” (109). Dickens is obviously poking fun at the absurdity of the situation, but later in the book, Dickens makes the nobles, as personified through the Marquis, seem downright evil. He portrays the Marquis as killing a young child with his carriage and then reprimanding the poor bystanders because they “cannot take care of [themselves] or [their] children” and because of the possible “injury done to my horses” (116). This is but one of numerous incidents throughout the book where nobles are vilified as murderers, rapists, and extortionists.

The leader of these “Christian pastors,” Louis XVII, is depicted a vain, inept monarch in A Tale of Two Cities (14). Defarge asserts that the King is one of the fools that “believe that it will last forever” and that “know nothing” (176). Dickens sees the king as the oblivious leader of a pack of greedy, bloodthirsty despots, who does not have a clue about his impending fall from grace. This could not be further from Schama’s feeling on the aristocracy.

Schama glamorizes the ruling nobles at almost every opportunity, and defends most of their decisions. Nobles such as Lafayette and Lavoisier are mentioned as prime examples of everything right with the Old Regime. The nobles discussed by Schama are mainly portrayed as enlightened scientists, statesmen, soldiers, and businessmen, who were “less obsessed with tradition than with novelty, and less preoccupied with feudalism than with science” (185). They are a far cry from the murderous Marquis Evremond in Dickens.

Even Louis XVI is portrayed as a largely benevolent, intelligent and enlightened king, who embraced ideas such as democracy, capitalism, and tolerance for people ranging from female painters to balloonists in his backyard. According to Schama the problem was not the nobles, but that “the more visionary the reforms of the …government, the less the public liked them” (259). The Crown was simply to blame for supporting liberal causes such as the American Revolution when it could not afford to do so. It was not at fault for failing to reform. Too much money was spent and even financial wizards such Turgot and Necker could not find a long-term solution to the problem of the massive government debt. Schama argues “that the French Revolution was as much the interruption, as the catalyst, of modernity” (184). If only the financial crisis could have been avoided, Schama believes that everything would have sailed relatively smoothly along in the Old Regime.

Another major Dickensian assumption that Schama disagrees with is the lack of a middle class in Old Regime France. Characters such as Dr. Manette and Charles Darnay clearly do not fit in with either the murderous aristocracy or the impoverished villagers in Dickens’ novel. Manette, who wishes to practice medicine and Darnay, who wishes to be a college instructor, are obviously out of place in Old (and New) Regime France. It is not surprising that both of them flee the country to a find a more tolerant climate across the channel in Dickens’ own country.

Schama once again disagrees with this major Dickensian assumption, as he hints that the middle class are thriving in Old Regime France. With his focus on success stories such as the playwright, Beaumarchais, and the balloonist, Montgolfier, it is relatively easy for a reader of Schama to see the ambitious middle class as doing well in Old Regime France. Schama even mentions the statesman, Herault de Sechelles, whose career was “largely made by the systematic exploitation of eloquence” (165). Only in passing does Schama inform the reader that his career was also “helped on its way by birth, education and connections” (165). These are no small factors in Old Regime France, yet Schama downplays them and emphasizes social mobility even though most of his examples for upward mobility were those who were already ennobled or privileged.

A final Dickensian assumption about the Old Regime is that the system of government was unjust, inefficient and absolutist, giving nobles the right to pretty much do as they please. Dickens presents the Old Regime as a system largely without checks and balances on power of the aristocracy. The Marquis personifies every stereotypical evil in this aristocratic system from absurd sexual privileges to downright laziness. The Marquis even mentions a “letter de cachet” as a threat to his nephew for rejecting his station in life (Dickens 126). This kind of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment epitomizes everything that Dickens claims is wrong with the Old Regime. The Marquis furthermore claims that “repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery…will keep the dogs obedient to the whip” (127). This repression, which the Marquis speaks of, seems to be largely in the form of taxes. Dickens asserts that most of the poverty was due an inefficient bureaucracy that collected “the tax for the state, the tax for the church, the tax for the lord, tax local and tax general” (119). Dickens believes that this tax revenue system is largely to blame for the condition of the peasants. Dickens tries again and again to pound home every perceived injustice in the antiquated system under the Old Regime.

Once again Schama takes the opposite view of Dickens’ assumption, and he defends the system of the Old Regime. Schama maintains that the “old regime may have been more efficient at supplying itself with revenue, and even at managing it, than is usually acknowledged” (71). In this statement Schama defends one of the weakest aspects of Old Regime and undoubtedly shows his true colors as a supporter of the old system. Schama admits that the Old Regime was head over heels in debt yet he still defends the system. Schama also goes on to frequently defend the various checks and balances on absolutism, which were in place in the Old Regime. The Parlements were probably the most obvious check on this power as they were a “quasi-representative body” (111). Schama enumerates dozens of other checks within the Old Regime system of government and certainly some of his points are well argued, yet his sources are not.

Needless to say there are numerous Dickensian assumptions that Schama disagrees with, and I have only brought up a few of the major ones in this short paper. Although Schama may have taken a fairly extreme stance in defending the Old Regime, I would be much more impressed with his argument if he simply added a few footnotes and source criticisms to his narrative approach. His book was well written and the chronicle style is very powerful. It is not surprising that he and Dickens had such different assumptions about the Old Regime. After all Schama had the advantage (or maybe disadvantage) of over one hundred years of accumulated social science and well footnoted histories of Old Regime France to formulate his conclusions, and Dickens did not.

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1997.

Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Vintage/Random,


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