A Tale of Two Cities

Cited as one of the top 5 best selling books of all time, [not including the Bible or the Qu’ran], Charles Dickens’, ‘A Tale of Two Cities‘ is a stand-out seller at over 200 million copies world wide. Though exact numbers of book sales is debated, it is interesting that Dickens’ 1859 novel, set in London and Paris during the French Revolution, is his best-selling work.

‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ ranks only slightly behind Miguel Cervantes ‘Don Quixote‘ and Mao Tze-Tung “Quotations From Chairman Mao” [or the Little Red Book], to beat out any individual Harry Potter book, The Lord of the Rings and  The Hobbit for all time popularity stakes of fiction novels.

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What makes this novel, of all Dickens’ novels, so great?

Born in 1812 and living until 1870, Dickens was within his own lifetime a legend. Best known for his comedy, unique characterisations, and social criticism, his writing style is so distinctive, that the term Dickensian has come to be used to describe stories featuring poor social conditions and comically repulsive characters.

His fiction was so effective he shifted Victorian public opinion in regard to class inequalities.

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Karl Marx wrote that Dickens:

…issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.

A Tale of Two Cities, is unlike many of Dickens’ other works in that it is a work of historical fiction, less reliant upon comedy, satire, caricature and class idioms. He sides neither with the working class nor the aristocracy in his account of the bitter Revolution, telling the story of people on both sides caught up in the violence and turmoil.

It opens with famous lines describing its setting:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …

The story recounts the release of Doctor Manette from 18 years of imprisonment in the Bastille, the infamous Parisian fortress prison beloved by french nobles. Manette an old man, much broken by his years in prison, is reunited with his now adult daughter Lucie, and with the help of friend Mr Lorry, immigrates to London.

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In London, they are befriended by Darnay, a man who unknown to them is the nephew and heir of a French Aristocrat, the Marquis of St. Evrémonde, the very man who imprisoned Doctor Manette years ago. Darnay, disgusted by the cruelty of his aristocratic family had taken the name of his mother and sought a new life in England.

Here however, Darnay is accused of treason to the British crown for leaking documents to the French in North America. He is acquitted on the grounds that his appearance is strikingly like a Barrister present in the court by the name of Sydney Carton and so therefore cannot be irrefutably linked to the crime.

Darnay and Carton, while copies of one another physically, are entirely unlike in nature. Carton is a drunkard while Darnay is a man of integrity and character. Both love Lucie and confess their love to her, however Carton knowing she will not love him in return, promises to “embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you.”

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As the years pass, Darnay and Lucie raise a young family and Carton is accepted as a close friend of the family becoming a favourite of their daughter, little Lucie. Across the channel however, as the French Revolution sparks into flame, and the Bastille is stormed, Doctor Manette’s former cell is searched. A detailed account of his imprisonment at the hands of Darnay’s uncle, the Marquis de Evremonde is found hidden in the cell.

Throughout the countryside, officials and representatives of the aristocracy are dragged from their homes to be killed, and the St. Evrémonde château is burned to the ground. Darnay is summoned to France to aid his uncle’s servants who have been imprisoned by the revolutionaries. They plead for him, the new Marquis to help secure their release. Once there, Darnay is caught and put on trial for the crimes against Doctor Manette.

Manette, Lucie and Mr Lorry travel to Paris to seek Darnay’s release, however Doctor Manette’s own testimony discovered in his cell in the Bastille is used to accuses Darnay, the now Marquis de Evremonde.

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Carton, true to his promise to Lucie, arranges a secret visit with Darnay in prison. There he drugs Darnay, and then trades clothes, arranging him to be carried out. Carton has given his own identification papers to Mr Lorry to present on Darnay’s behalf and urges them to flee to England. In London, Darnay can live out his life as Sydney Carton. Meanwhile, Carton walks to the guillotine as the Marquis de Evremonde.

Carton’s unspoken last thoughts speak of the life he sees beyond the horizon of his own death:

I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more….

I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

The story reaches beyond social commentary and into heroic epic, touching on resonant symbols of sacrifice and redemption. Sydney Carton transforms from dissolute man to heroic saviour through his own death, and foresees the future lives of Lucie, Darnay and their children, yet unborn living free because of his sacrifice.

Carton, a scoundrel, goes to his rest a peaceful man.

 

Former Things – The Taxidermy of Polly Morgan

It’s an exciting day for Bear Skin Blog.  It’s the day of the first ever guest blog. Damien has been a reader and follower of Bear Skin for some months, offering feedback and suggestions which have led to this guest post. He introduces himself in his own words:

Damien Shalley is a highly caffeinated and totally overworked researcher for the Australian government. His artistic tastes lean toward the esoteric. His record collection includes Dean Martin and The Cramps. He is thinking about buying a sphynx cat and calling it “Geoff.” He lives near a store that sells three hundred varieties of cheese.

If you are a reader and follower and have your own article to share please submit to jennifer@bearskin.org.

Questions, comments and feedback always welcome.

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 Former Things – The Taxidermy of Polly Morgan – by Damien Shalley

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Death: the ultimate negative.  No matter how magnificent one’s life was, death destroys it.  Prince or pauper, all men are equal when their memory fades.  Is it possible to salvage something from death?  Christian tradition tells us that faith in God will result in salvation.  But a sceptical, rational world isn’t always willing to accept this point of view.  That’s why the works of English taxidermist and art world sensation Polly Morgan are so intriguing.  Morgan creates unique pieces which seem to suggest that rebirth and resurrection are a true possibility, not simply the wish-fulfilment fantasy of deluded souls.
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Many people possess preconceived notions about taxidermy, due in large part to traditional manifestations of the process as represented by three primary examples.

  1. The preservation of beloved pets;
  2. Hunting trophies;
  3. Anthropomorphic dioramas of animals engaged in human activities.

Morgan subverted the conventions of all three and delivered genuine artfulness in her pieces, due in part to her professional skill and in equal part to her thematic constructs or “point of view”.  Her vivid and groundbreaking work – apparently inspired initially by her inability to find a suitable piece of taxidermy to decorate her flat with – caused a genuine sensation in the art world, the effects of which continue to reverberate.

The rebirth of doomed creatures into something beautiful and elegant has many parallels with spiritual concepts of resurrection.

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One such piece is “Morning”, a robin impacting a pane of glass but retaining its physical form and essence.   It has been noted by more than one observer that the scenario depicted by Morgan is not at all what happens when a robin crashes into a window pane.  That is exactly the point.  Morgan has presented something that suggests “breaking through” in a magnificent, glorious, ethereal way.  And in a nutshell, that may well be the precise point of Morgan’s work.

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Morgan’s ability to bestow dignity upon creatures that have died in ugly circumstances is a hallmark of her work.  Evocative and uncanny, her artistry seemingly possesses the power to instil new life into empty shells.  Cynics argue that this is purely superficial, but Morgan is genuinely capable of recreating the essence of a creature in her work – and instilling a sense of wonder into audiences.

Fox and Chandelier

There is something very positive in her imagery.  Morgan’s “Fox and Chandelier “ bestows a quiet dignity and peaceful reverence upon a creature whose existence was unceremoniously obliterated.  A viewer of her work was quoted by as saying that the beauty of her “corpses” somehow transcends death to demonstrate the beauty of the animal…in life”.  This seems to be her motivation, so indeed she may be regarded as a success regardless of her “art world pop star” status and elevated public profile.

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Morgan famously created “Carrion Call” featuring chicks breaking free from a coffin.  Something universally associated with death becomes a vestibule or birthing place new life.  Morgan said of this piece “Coffins are fairly egg-shaped. It’s a symbol of life triumphing, emerging from death.” [Eyre. H, (2010) Polly Morgan: Death Becomes Her, The Evening Standard].  Her reference to this work as an example of life emerging from death might be soundly criticised as counter intuitive.  Is she not in fact depicting death springing from death?  No, she is not.  She has spent her entire professional life drawing upon death to create something hopeful – transcendental – and her ultimate motivation is positive.  Life will ultimately triumph over all obstacles – even death.

Anthropologists often describe Western culture as death denying.  It is indeed quite uncommon for most people to see a deceased person in our society, or to engage with the often unpleasant realities of death.  Even departed loved ones are regularly farewelled without family members viewing the deceased.  We are interested in – some might say obsessed by – success, achievement, material wealth and the achievement of power.  But to some degree at least, these pursuits are ultimately hollow.  On an individual or personal level, they are all rendered void by our ultimate demise.  We “pass away” – die – and all is lost.

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Morgan puts all this before us too.  She does not soft sell death, nor does she promote a sentimental approach to the stark reality of extinction.  Death is often ugly, and many of her works present this ugliness in a very confronting manner.

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Prior to her studies at Queen Mary College, London, Morgan struggled with the death of one her best friends from an accidental heroin overdose.  She viewed the body – the lifeless shell of a previously vibrant young woman with whom she had recently holidayed, laughed and loved.   Does this represent the genesis of her fascination – some might say determination – to rescue something positive from death?  Not according to Morgan herself, who is a resolutely practical woman unimpressed with psychological interpretations of her work and disinterested in self-analysis.   “It was upsetting mainly because it didn’t look like her: that’s not her. It’s surreal. Very hard for a human being to get their head around.” [Eyre. H, (2010) Polly Morgan: Death Becomes Her, The Evening Standard].  It is very possible that this sad event did subconsciously inspire her artistic endeavours at least in some way, and it is certainly a pointer to where much of her work would lead.  Morgan goes to great lengths to create beautifully realistic taxidermy which captures the quintessential beauty her subjects possessed in life.

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Morgan has also previously spoken of her country upbringing in the Cotswolds, where she was regularly exposed to the realities of the natural world through her participation in agricultural life.  She observed the cycle of existence first-hand – both the confronting and the beautiful –.and developed a sensibility capable of recognising both the tragic and the redemptive.

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Morgan herself represents “life” in all its fullness.  She is young, attractive, intelligent, articulate, accomplished.  The juxtaposition of her beauty with the morbid subject matter of her work may well be part of her appeal.  She fits the “acceptable” pop culture celebrity model.  She is very much a member of the current coterie of English art stars, alongside Damien Hirst, Peter Blake and Banksy. (Banksy invited her to exhibit in his Santa’s Ghetto gallery in 2006).  When the world’s most famous purveyor of street art thinks your work is worthy, you really have “arrived”.  She is unpretentious but self-assured, and her work possesses a strong ethical foundation.  She utilises only pre-deceased creatures – nothing is killed for her work.  She frequently uses donations from vets and pet owners as source material for her artworks.  Morgan has been quoted as saying that “…killing something and trying to make it look alive again is not a very natural thing to do.”  [Collinge, M. (2010)  Polly Morgan’s Wings of Desire, The Guardian].  Her underlying commitment to the ethical use of her animal subjects seems to inform her inherent confidence in her work, and also represents an effective repudiation of critics who might argue that her art is morbid or ghoulish.

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In recent times, Morgan’s work has become more expansive.  Her pieces are larger and some of the intimacy of her earlier work is – perhaps – missing.  This could reflect an artist’s response to the challenges of career evolution.  One cannot stand still in the art world, nor be a “one-trick pony”.  A rise in the popularity of taxidermy after Morgan’s well-publicised career success may have something to with this as well – there is nothing more pressing than the need for differentiation when one is facing persistent competition.  Regardless, Morgan does not appear to have lost sight of the essence of art, and even if she is no longer subverting conventions to quite the same degree, her work retains the power to inspire.

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It is often said that where there’s life, there’s hope.  Polly Morgan’s amazingly evocative work suggests that – perhaps – where there’s hope, there’s life.

Polly Morgan Exhibitions

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