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…half of the half-dozen had become members of a fantastic sect of Convulsionists, and were even then considering within themselves whether they should foam, rage, roar, and turn cataleptic on the spot….

The Convulsionists were a group of religious enthusiasts in France (“les convulsionaires”), so-called for the “convulsions” they performed under divine inspiration. During the reign of Louis XV, they occupied a prominent place in fashionable and aristocratic circles (Sanders 85). Dickens’ source for the “Convulsionists” is Mercier’s Tableau de Paris (1781-8), where they are described in a chapter called “Amour du Merveilleux” (“Love of the Marvelous”). Catalepsy – one of the symptoms attributed to Dickens’ Convulsionists – is a disease characterized by seizure and prolonged unconsciousness, described in the Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859) as follows:

CATALEPSY – A disease purely of a nervous character, in which certain parts of the nervous system are in a state of profound coma, or sleep, and others preternaturally excited. The patient remains exactly in the position and attitude, in which he was taken in the fit, for from two or three minutes[;] sometimes the period extends to several hours. The chief characteristic of this disease is the rigidity of the muscles and entire body; and though the limbs may be moved into any position, the patient himself has no control over them, or knowledge of what is done. The remote cause of this disease depends upon some of those half revealed phenomena that give rise to other maladies affecting the brain and spinal marrow; while the more immediate cause is often any sudden paroxysm of joy or anger, strong emotions of the mind, or inordinate grief. The attack generally comes on without any previous warning. The treatment is first to discover and remove all exciting causes and sources of irritation, and then by a course of alteratives and tonics, purify and brace the system. At the same time change of scene, exercise, and sea-bathing act as powerful auxiliary means. Should the attack be attended with headache, suffusion of the eyes, or ringing in the ears, blood-letting must be resorted to, and a blister applied on the nape of the neck, before adopting the course of systematic tonics already mentioned. (250)

Catalepsy agrees with the general behavior of Dickens’ Convulsionists in its unexpected onset, and its relationship to “exciting” causes of undiscoverable origin. Mercier describes the behavior of the Convulsionists as follows:

The convulsionaries have accomplished tours de force which surpass, it must be admitted, the most shocking things one could see at a fair. Few have the secret of it; in addition, their contortions rightfully astonish us and even scare the most intrepid glances and the spirits most on guard against the marvelous. One can be assured that these tricks have something truly extraordinary about them, although it is well known how much ardour, fanaticism and the desire to make conversions can accomplish. If it all seems a bit supernatural at times, this is highly understandable. (qtd. in and translated by Maxwell 414)

Beside these Dervishes, were other three who had rushed into another sect, which mended matters with a jargon about ‘the Centre of Truth’…

A dervish is “[a] Muslim friar, who has taken vows of poverty and austere life. Of these there are various orders, some of whom are known from their fantastic practices as dancing or whirling, and as howling dervishes” (OED). Like the French Convulsionists of Louis XV’s time, dervishes – especially the “whirling” or dancing dervishes – were religious enthusiasts who danced under the influence of divine inspiration. The “jargon about ‘the Centre of Truth’” refers to a pseudo-spiritual position described in Mercier’s Tableau de Paris (1781-8), in a chapter on the “Love of the Marvelous”:

A new sect [writes Mercier], composed above all of young people, appears to have adopted the widespread visions in a book titled Errors and Truth, work of a hothead mystic who has had, nonetheless, several flashes of genius.

This sect is driven by vaporous affections; a singular sickness common to all France for half a century [previous to the 1780s, when this account was written]; a sickness which favours every divergence of the imagination and gives it a tendency towards the prodigious and the supernatural. According to this sect, man is a degraded being, moral evil is his own work; he has departed from the centre of truth; God, by his clemency, keeps him within the circumference, when He might have allowed him to wander out towards infinity; the circle is nothing but the explosion of the centre: it is up to man to get back to the centre, by way of a tangent.

In order to follow this tangent, the sectarians of these hollow ideas live in the most rigorous continence, fasting up to the point of wasting away altogether, thus procuring themselves ecstatic dreams, and keeping at a distance all earthly things, in order to leave the soul its complete liberty and to keep open a path to the centre of truth. (qtd. in and translated by Maxwell 414-5)

Such frizzling and powdering and sticking up of hair, such delicate complexions artificially preserved and mended, such gallant swords to look at, and such delicate honour to the sense of smell, would surely keep anything going, for ever and ever.

Aristocratic fashions of the second half of the 18th century included – in both France and England – wigs and headdresses of unprecedented proportions and elaborateness. 19th-century English histories of costume like Fairholt’s Costume in England (published in 1860, and thus roughly contemporary with A Tale of Two Cities) commemorate the 18th-century penchant for elaborately-dressed false hair.

These engravings from Fairholt, which accompany the text given below, demonstrate the extent to which “frizzling and powdering and sticking up of hair” increased in France and England from the 1760s through the time of the French Revolution:

By contrasting the head-dress of the lady in the cut already given
upon page 310 [above left] with the following group [above right, figures
1-4], the reader will at once detect the great change effected by fashion
in this particular portion of female costume. Fig[ure]s 1 and 2 are copied from engravings by G. Bickham to The Ladies Toilet, or the Art of Head-dressing in its Utmost Beauty and Extent, translated from the French of “Sieur Le Groos, the inventor and most eminent professor of that science in Paris,” published in 1768. The figures in this very curious book (of which there are thirty) were so much admired in Paris, that we are told, “not only all the hair-dressers of any note have them, both plain and coloured, in their shops, but every lady’s toilet is furnished with one of them, very elegantly bound, and coloured to a very high degree of perfection.” To describe fig[ure] 1, in the author’s own words: – “This head is dressed in two rows of buckles (or close curls), in the form of shellwork, barred and thrown backwards; two shells, with one knot in the form of a spindle, composed of a large lock or parcel of hair, flatted, or laid smooth, taken from behind the head, in order to supply the place of a plume or tuft of feathers.” Fig[ure] 2 is “dressed with a row of buckles, the roots whereof are straight, two shells (on the crown of the head), and a dragon or serpent (at the side of the head, reaching to the shoulders), composed of two locks of hair taken from behind the head, with a buckle inverted (running upwards from the nape of the neck to the crown, where it is fastened by a comb). These serpents or dragons are seldom worn but at court-balls, or by actresses on the stage.”

Figures 3 and 4 in the illustration above are taken from A Treatise on Hair by “David Ritchie, hairdresser, perfumer, etc.” Ritchie’s title suggests that the individuals responsible for fashion in hairdressing were also professionally concerned in what Dickens calls “delicate honour to the sense of smell.” Indeed, Fairholt notes that hairdressers enjoyed an especially elevated status during this period, and pretended to diverse areas of expertise:

[I]n these days, hairdressers were great men, and wrote books upon their profession, laying no small claim to the superior merit of “so important an art”; and not content with merely describing the mode of dressing the hair, “favoured the world” with much learning on the origin of hair, affirming it to be “a vapour or excrement of the brain, arising from the digestion performed by it at the instant of its nourishment”; with many other curious and learned conclusions, into which we cannot think of following them. The figures selected from this book [3&4 above] will show with what care and dexterity ladies’ heads were then dressed, “with many a good pound of wool” as a substratum, over which the hair was dexterously arranged, as the reader here sees, then bound down with reticulations, and rendered gay with flowers and bows. (312-3)

Dickens’ apparent disapprobation for the processes described here, though obviously a matter of personal preference, evidently has significant basis in fact. Fairholt describes how

[h]eads thus carefully and expensively dressed were, of course, not dressed frequently. The whole process is given in the London Magazine of 1768: “False locks to supply deficiency of native hair, pomatum in profusion, greasy wool to bolster up the adopted locks, and grey powder to conceal dust.” A hairdresser is described as asking a lady “how long it was since her head had been opened and repaired; she answered, not above nine weeks; to which he replied, that that was as long as a head could well go in summer; and that therefore it was proper to deliver it now, as it began to be a little hasardé.” The description of the opening of the hair, and the disturbance thereby occasioned to its numerous inhabitants, is too revolting for modern readers; but the various advertisements of poisonous compounds for their destruction, and the constant notice of these facts, prove that it is no exaggeration. (313)

Despite such drawbacks, however, huge wigs and headdresses remained in style up to the time of the French Revolution. Dickens is describing French hair of the early 1780s, and it was not until 1782 that headdresses topped out. As Fairholt describes the trend,

The head-dress of the ladies still continued as monstrous as ever, until in 1782 it reached the extraordinary size depicted in our engraving [see below]. It consisted of a heap of tow and pads, over which false hair was arranged, and hung with ropes of pearls, gauze-trimming, ribbons, feathers, and artificial flowers; until it added two or three feet to the stature of the fair wearers. (320)



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