Thursday, July 14, 2011

Storming the Bastille with Charles Dickens

Today is Bastille Day and all across France tonight you will hear the crackling boom of fireworks, designed to simulate the roar which could have been heard on this day back in 1789 when revolutionary mobs rose up and stormed the the country's notorious prison (known formally as Bastille Saint-Antoine).

As Wikipedia tells us, "the Bastille represented royal authority in the centre of Paris. While the prison only contained seven inmates at the time of its storming, its fall was the flashpoint of the French Revolution." On the morning of July 14, "the Bastille was nearly empty of prisoners, housing only seven old men annoyed by all the disturbance: four forgers, two 'lunatics' and one 'deviant' aristocrat, the comte de Solages (the Marquis de Sade had been transferred out ten days earlier). The cost of maintaining a medieval fortress and garrison for so limited a purpose had led to a decision being taken to close it, shortly before the disturbances began. It was, however, a symbol of the alleged royal tyranny."

Charles Dickens, of course, had his own version of the historical events.   And so, as our French allies celebrate their own version of the red-white-and-blue today, I turn my attention to Chapter 21 in "Book the Second" of A Tale of Two Cities.  Even sliced and dissected from the rest of the book, these words are proof of Dicken's incredibly forceful talent.   You don't have to know much about the characters or the previous scenes to appreciate the way these words writhe on the page like muscular snakes.   We join the action in progress:

      Saint Antoine had been, that morning, a vast dusky mass of scarecrows heaving to and fro, with frequent gleams of light above the billowy heads, where steel blades and bayonets shone in the sun. A tremendous roar arose from the throat of Saint Antoine, and a forest of naked arms struggled in the air like shrivelled branches of trees in a winter wind: all the fingers convulsively clutching at every weapon or semblance of a weapon that was thrown up from the depths below, no matter how far off.
      Who gave them out, whence they last came, where they began, through what agency they crookedly quivered and jerked, scores at a time, over the heads of the crowd, like a kind of lightning, no eye in the throng could have told; but, muskets were being distributed--so were cartridges, powder, and ball, bars of iron and wood, knives, axes, pikes, every weapon that distracted ingenuity could discover or devise. People who could lay hold of nothing else, set themselves with bleeding hands to force stones and bricks out of their places in walls. Every pulse and heart in Saint Antoine was on high-fever strain and at high-fever heat. Every living creature there held life as of no account, and was demented with a passionate readiness to sacrifice it.
      As a whirlpool of boiling waters has a centre point, so, all this raging circled round Defarge's wine-shop, and every human drop in the caldron had a tendency to be sucked towards the vortex where Defarge himself, already begrimed with gunpowder and sweat, issued orders, issued arms, thrust this man back, dragged this man forward, disarmed one to arm another, laboured and strove in the thickest of the uproar.
      "Keep near to me, Jacques Three," cried Defarge; "and do you, Jacques One and Two, separate and put yourselves at the head of as many of these patriots as you can. Where is my wife?"
      "Eh, well! Here you see me!" said madame, composed as ever, but not knitting to-day. Madame's resolute right hand was occupied with an axe, in place of the usual softer implements, and in her girdle were a pistol and a cruel knife.
      "Where do you go, my wife?"
      "I go," said madame, "with you at present. You shall see me at the head of women, by-and-bye."
      "Come, then!" cried Defarge, in a resounding voice. "Patriots and friends, we are ready! The Bastille!"
      With a roar that sounded as if all the breath in France had been shaped into the detested word, the living sea rose, wave on wave, depth on depth, and overflowed the city to that point. Alarm-bells ringing, drums beating, the sea raging and thundering on its new beach, the attack began.
      Deep ditches, double drawbridge, massive stone walls, eight great towers, cannon, muskets, fire and smoke. Through the fire and through the smoke--in the fire and in the smoke, for the sea cast him up against a cannon, and on the instant he became a cannonier--Defarge of the wine-shop worked like a manful soldier, Two fierce hours.
      Deep ditch, single drawbridge, massive stone walls, eight great towers, cannon, muskets, fire and smoke. One drawbridge down! "Work, comrades all, work! Work, Jacques One, Jacques Two, Jacques One Thousand, Jacques Two Thousand, Jacques Five-and-Twenty Thousand; in the name of all the Angels or the Devils--which you prefer--work!" Thus Defarge of the wine-shop, still at his gun, which had long gown hot.
      "To me, women!" cried madame his 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 age in hunger and revenge.
      Cannon, muskets, fire and smoke; but, still the deep ditch, the single drawbridge, the massive stone wails, and the eight great towers. Slight displacements of the raging sea, made by the falling wounded. Flashing weapons, blazing torches, smoking waggonloads of wet straw, hard work at neighbouring barricades in all directions, shrieks, volleys, execrations, bravery without stint, boom smash and rattle, and the furious sounding of the living sea; but, still the deep ditch, and the single drawbridge, and the massive stone walls, and the eight great towers, and still Defarge of the wine-shop at his gun, grown doubly hot by the service of Four fierce hours.
      A white flag from within the fortress, and a parley--this dimly perceptible through the raging storm, nothing audible in it--suddenly the sea rose immeasurably wider and higher, and swept Defarge of the wine-shop over the lowered drawbridge, past the massive stone outer walls, in among the eight great towers surrendered!
      So resistless was the force of the ocean bearing him on, that even to draw his breath or turn his head was as impracticable as if he had been struggling in the surf at the South Sea, until he was landed in the outer courtyard of the Bastille. There, against an angle of a wall, he made a struggle to look about him. Jacques Three was nearly at his side; Madame Defarge, still heading some of her women, was visible in the inner distance, and her knife was in her hand. Everywhere was tumult, exultation, deafening and maniacal bewilderment, astounding noise, yet furious dumb-show.
      "The Prisoners!"
      "The Records!"
      "The secret cells!"
      "The instruments of torture!"
      "The Prisoners!"
      Of all these cries, and ten thousand incoherences, "The Prisoners!" was the cry most taken up by the sea that rushed in, as if there were an eternity of people, as well as of time and space.

Illustration: "The Sea Rises" by Hablot K. Browne, Book II, Chapter 22. All the Year Round (October 1859)

No comments:

Post a Comment