French Revolution Paper

Hist. 224


A Tale of the Middle Clash

The most influential book in European history asserts that “it is not fitting for a fool to live in luxury, much less for a slave to rule over princes” (Proverbs 19:10). Both of these unfortunate circumstances occur in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities as bloated aristocrats fall from power and downtrodden serfs rise to take their place. Although A Tale of Two Cities is a brilliant work of historical fiction, this Dickensian view leaves no room for “decent,” anglicized, middle class people such as the Darnays and Manettes in revolutionary French society.

Simon Schama’s Citizens, on the other hand, portrays a world that is not strictly black and white, but shades of middling gray as well. In this short paper I will contrast Dickens’ main assumptions about the Revolution’s threat to “decent” people with Schama’s views on those assumptions. These Dickensian assumptions claim that the Revolution wants to eliminate all nobles “decent” or not, the lower class is leading the persecution, and the “decent” upper middle class does not fit into this new society. In contrast Schama does not believe that the French Revolution was simply a destructive threat to all “decent people” (although it sometimes was), and often Schama presents “decent people” who were leading figures throughout the Revolution.

Dickens primarily personifies the threatened, middle class through the characters of the virtuous Darnay, Lucie, Dr. Manette and little Lucie. These characters are all effectively English and middle class, and coincidently so were Dickens and his readers. Therefore this ennobling of the middle class is not at all surprising given the context of novel. The main character, Darnay, is literally of noble blood as well, but he has renounced his title and become a language teacher. Yet because of his ancestry, Madame Defarge later persecutes him because his “people are to be exterminated” (Dickens 351). This alleged genocide of all nobles contrasts with Schama’s description of executions during the course of the French Revolution.

Schama points out many examples of commoners (non-Aristocrats) who were also killed throughout Revolution. The murder of commoners is exemplified in the September massacres where not only “aristocrats” were killed, but also “venal priests, diseased whores and court lackeys” (Schama 631). The Revolution was not simply murdering people because of their genealogy, but it was executing those who were criminals or who were “decent” people that interfered with the Revolution’s business. The official intention of public executions was largely “to weed out traitors and punish speculators” (Schama 602). Many of those “traitors and speculators” were indeed from the upper classes, but family roots were not the primary prerequisite for execution, individual actions were.

Schama does describe numerous members of the upper class and nobility who were executed, but he emphasizes the fact that many of them were extremely active in national politics such as Louis XVI. They were not simply prosecuted for their ancestry, as was Darnay. Dickens interestingly parallels the plights of Louis Capet and Charles Darnay. In both the Capet and Darnay examples, the father/husband is tried in December 1793 and promptly executed (or thought to be), with wife (both foreign) and child not far behind. Even the Darnays’ flight, resembles the Capets’ flight to Varennes as described by Schama in chapter thirteen of Citizens. Dickens probably believes that there are many similarities between his character and Louis XVI, but I believe that he is downplaying the significance of Louis’ role if he is attempting to create a parallel. In Schama’s modern interpretation, equating the simple, decent Darnays with the legendary Capets is quite a stretch, even if one is sympathetic to the royal family. After all, the Capets were not simply ordinary people with a noble uncle, like Darnay’s. They were the focal point of an institutional revolution and of much of Schama’s book.

Dickens’ second major assumption is that the bloodthirsty lower classes are leading in the persecution of the former aristocrats and other enemies of the state. Again Schama disagrees with this Dickensian assumption of a lower class led revolution, as would be expected from his “top down” approach to history. Schama claims that former nobles like Mirabeau and Talleyrand and upper class bourgeoisie lawyers like Danton and Robespierre were much more active in revolutionary politics than poor peasants. These well-to-do “decent” professionals certainly resemble Darnay and Manette much more than Defarge or his accomplices.

Schama even lists the occupations of various other revolutionaries, lending more sway to the argument that the poor, lower classes were not running the Revolution. He analyzes the professions of the members of the Convention of 1792 claiming, “the Convention was a gathering of lawyers” and “fifty-one civil servants…and forty-six physicians” (Schama 647). Even an Englishman, Thomas Paine, was even elected to the Convention. Cleary lower class peasants did not lead the Revolution. Dr. Manette and Darnay (a teacher) could, however, have easily fit into the general demographic of this legislative body.

Dickens’ final assumption is that the “decent” middle class does not have a clear place in revolutionary France, and it is often persecuted. Needless to say, Schama disagrees with this claim. He believes that “political radicalism has seldom been determined by social origin” (Schama 711). Therefore the middle class falls into a wide range on the political spectrum from the revolutionaries to royalists. Victims of the guillotine may have been overwhelmingly more likely to be members of the upper classes than peasants, but this was probably due more to their disproportionate involvement in politics than directly to their bloodline or wealth.

Instead of eliminating the upper class and raising the standard of living for the poor, Schama believes “that the Revolution had not only not reversed, but actually intensified, the differences between the relatively well-off and the impoverished populations” (Schama 696). It is feasible that the Darnays of revolutionary France actually got richer if they became citizens of republican France, while their poorer brethren struggled to subsist. This is certainly a far cry from Dickens’ social upheaval and guillotining of the “aristocrats,” but it seems much more logical and complicated than Dickens’ simplistic assumptions.

Schama doubts that Dickensian class rivalries were the cause of revolutionary violence. He puts the blame for the violence primarily on “Romanticism, with its addiction to the Absolute and the Ideal” and “the neoclassical fixation with the patriotic death” (Schama 861). Crediting romanticism and neoclassical ideals is certainly more poetic than blaming accounting blunders by Turgot or the excesses of Old Regime aristocrats. Because Citizens presents an “unfashionably “top down” rather than bottom up approach” it is not surprising that Schama ultimately credits elite ideals for causing the violence of the Revolution rather than the hostility of Dickensian class struggle or of fear resulting from institutional crisis (xvi).

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. Schama’s 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 threat to decent people during French Revolution. After all Schama had the advantage (or maybe disadvantage) of over one hundred years of accumulated social science and well footnoted histories of the French Revolution to formulate his conclusions, and Dickens did not.

Works Cited

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

Proverbs. Holy Bible: The New Revised Standard Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989.

Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York:Vintage/Random, 1989.

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