Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

"Ernest in Town and Jacques in the Country": Wildean Perspectives on A Tale of Two Cities

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

"Ernest in Town and Jacques in the Country": Wildean Perspectives on A Tale of Two Cities

Article excerpt

"Earnestness" became a familiar cliche about Dickens's generation through the mockery of Oscar Wilde and later Samuel Butler, but there is an Ernest in A Tale of Two Cities (1859) as well, and he is not mocked. M. Defarge, at the center of the Jacobin underground, calls himself and is called the communal "Jacques" (21, bk. 1, ch. 5), but Dickens has him insist to the government spy Barsad that "'that is not my name. I am Ernest'" (121; bk. 2, ch. 16). A generation later one of the dandy double-protagonists of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) gaily affirms, "'I am Ernest in town, and Jack in the country'" (Wilde 222). The repetition here draws on name and place resonances much older than either of the texts, interesting especially in the context of the Victorian attempt to stabilize, and destabilize, ideas about masculinity.

"Jacques" (Jack) is the resistant knave in the deck, outlaw, pleasurably larger than life; "Ernest" is cautious, orderly, and shaped by a moral sense. In English cultural terms a man is Ernest in town--masculine, public and active in national affairs, and Jack in the country--domesticated but also sexualized, licensed to private pleasure. Two chapter titles in A Tale of Two Cities signal how turned around and upside down the French are, in this respect, for the man who started the plot of the novel rolling is actually less masculine, less a part of national affairs, when he is "Monseigneur in Town" than when he goes home to be "Monseigneur in the Country."

A deliberately Dickensian echo in Wilde's play? (1) Unconsciously deliberate at most, though the echo may extend to the twinning of Dickens's comical governess Miss Pross and Wilde's Miss Prism. And more importantly--to Wilde's cultural politics, given the "aristo" Lady Bracknell's remark that the duplicity of her Jack/Ernest nephew "display[s] a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution" (235).

Wilde's play reminds us that both the joke of "Jack" and the Victorian "importance" of "Ernest" are inventions, necessary artifices for a volatile core of identity which is a mystery even to itself. One of Wilde's sardonic young dandies learns the Importance of Being Ernest not when he falls in love but when he wishes to marry. The same seems true of the men I want to treat here. M. Defarge is the owner of the tavern but his wife taught him the importance of being Jacques. And on the morning he marries Lucie Manette the never-less-than-earnest Charles Darnay is paradoxically restored to his position in the aristocracy that outlawed him when a flash of recognition in Dr. Manette, quickly suppressed, drags both men back from the country-garden of Soho to the town in France where Charles is now Monseigneur heretofore-the-Marquis Evremonde. There is a sardonic young dandy in A Tale of Two Cities too, Sydney Carton, whose schizophrenia as a skilled professional man and an idle sauntering "care for nobody" is a source of anguish, his Ernest and Jack selves signs of an invention run dry. Sydney too will invent, or in Victorian terms achieve, a stabilization around a female figure, not so much when he falls in love as when, in an earnest exchange of bodies and papers and souls, of lives and deaths, he appears to take his double's place as husband and father and grandfather.

To recap: in the great days of aristo power the Marquis Evremonde (in this Tale of Twos he is twin brothers, naturally) had casually enforced First Night rights on the daughter of a tenant, killing the girl and her brother and imprisoning for life the doctor who tended the dying pair. The elder twin had married a compassionate woman who influenced their son to redress or else flee this inheritance of absolutism and cruelty. Now, a generation later, "Monseigneur" the original rapist has lost power "in town"--both as this term means the French court, depicted as politically dead and culturally frozen before its mirrors, and as the term means this individual lord, out of favor at the increasingly effete court. …

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