Sunday, November 17, 2013

"A Tale of Seven Lamps" or "The Two Cities of Architecture"

During the summer of 1851, Dickens' reading "took in all the minor tales as well as the plays of Voltaire, several of the novels (old favorites with him) of Paul de Kock, Ruskin's Lamps of Architecture, and a surprising number of books of African and other travel for which he had an insatiable relish."

(from John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, Volume II, 439-440)

There is a vast quantity of idle energy among European nations at this time, which ought to go into handicrafts; there are multitudes of idle semi-gentlemen who ought to be shoemakers and carpenters;

(from John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Chapter VII. Published May 1849. Ruskin is here talking about the French aristocracy.)

The garret, built to be a depository for firewood and the like, was dim and dark: for, the window of dormer shape, was in truth a door in the roof, with a little crane over it for the hoisting up of stores from the street: unglazed, and closing up the middle in two pieces, like any other door of French construction. To exclude the cold, one half of this door was fast closed, and the other was opened but a very little way. Such a scanty portion of light was admitted through these means, that it was difficult, on first coming in, to see anything; and long habit alone could have slowly formed in any one, the ability to do any work requiring nicety in such obscurity. Yet, work of that kind was being done in the garret; for, with his back towards the door, and his face towards the window where the keeper of the wine-shop stood looking at him, a white-haired man sat on a low bench, stooping forward and very busy, making shoes.

(from Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, Chapter 6. Published in 30 installments beginning April 1859.)

The shoemaker in Dickens is, of course, Dr Alexandre Manette, gentleman and brilliant physician, who spent eighteen years in the Bastille. My claim is that Dickens first met the image in the Ruskin passage I have here quoted, and eight years later Ruskin's artistocrat-turned-shoemaker made its way into A Tale of Two Cities. I think this is an original discovery, or at least fifteen minutes on JSTOR has not proved me wrong. And even if I'm late to the party the way I was when I connected Rabelais and Melville, it's still awfully fun to stumble across this stuff. Yes, yes, even if it's just coincidence.

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