Although I have seen screen adaptations of Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol before, A Tale of Two Cities was the first of Charles Dickens’ novels I’ve read. I picked the book up after reading the gushing praise, via tweet, directed at it from the historian Tom Holland as he also read it for the first time. Tom Holland, one of my favourite historians and, no less, one of my favourite people to follow on Twitter, never misses the mark in his reading recommendations, so with intent I sought out a copy of Dickens’ most popular book according to Goodreads.
I was not disappointed. A Tale of Two Cities is a beautiful story of two lovers and their circle of loyal friends and family in the time of the French Revolution. There is a diverse cast of characters from varying classes, ages, professions and ideologies across two nations. Although the maiden Lucie, her father Dr Manette, and her husband Charles Darnay, are the central characters of the plot, the narrative sweeps back and forth between Paris and London, from character to character, giving you an intimate feel for the diversity of people’s experiences and lives in the world of the 1760s to 1790s.
The most extraordinary and captivating character’s story is of course the story of Dr Manette, who was imprisoned for 18 years in the Bastille and close to lost his mind in the process. His character’s arc, from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs (and, briefly, rapidly down again), is the most satisfyingly plotted in the novel. Other characters won my heart in their several ways, most of all the heroic Sydney Carton (who, in his early appearances in the story, reminded me uncomfortably of myself, so I am glad he was redeemed), but also the wonderful pantomime villain, the terrifying Madame Defarge. Some characters, though, could have done with being given more attention and development, such as Barsad and Cly (I never did work out who they actually were).
The book also evokes its setting in the time of the French Revolution quite expressively. It exposes the injustices and outrages of the ancien régime, and then lays bare the horrors of the French Revolution and its bloody, fevered Reign of Terror. A roguish Revolutionary Tribunal condemns scores of the denounced to the Guillotine daily. Drunken, liberated Citizens dance the frenzied Carmagnole through the streets of Republican Paris. The cream of the overthrown nobility—gentle men, women and children—are corralled in La Force Prison like cattle awaiting slaughter.
It’s a simplistic, picture book representation of the pre- and post-Revolutionary conditions in France, but it’s what the story calls for—A Tale of Two Cities is, after all, basically a Victorian YA novel penned by a consummate writer and storyteller, not a serious work of literature (which is not a bad thing). It’s also very much the picture of the times an (English) writer from 1859, informed both by 19th Century Romanticism and Victorian English chauvinism, would paint. Dickens’ historiography is also picture-book (and reflects his own political predilections): he makes clear his view that the horrors of the Revolution followed the injustices of the ancien régime as inevitably as night follows day, and would reappear anywhere else the conditions of the pre-Revolutionary society reproduced themselves:
Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seeds of rapacious licence and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.
My only criticisms of the book would be that the dialogue of some of the characters is somewhat contrived and unrealistic, although this is forgivable in pre-modern, Victorian literature. The Second Book (of three) also drags a bit, but the Third Book (which includes the storming of the Bastille and Darnay’s imprisonment and trial) more than makes up for it.
I was not ready for it, I was not expecting it, but the final line of the book is one of the most powerful and moving I’ve read in any book: “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.” Those who’ve read the book know. As the climax of the events leading up to that line, and as the climax of the arc of the character who spoke it, it just hits the right spot. Since I finished the book yesterday I’ve been reciting it over and over in my head, so perfect it was. The perfect, if tragic, ending to a wonderful story.