Review: A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

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.

Rating: 8/10.

I read 50 books in 2020. Here are my top 10.

No one is more surprised than I am that I managed to read a round 50 books in 2020, almost certainly more than double what I’ve ever read in a year before, but if any year has been the year for reading, it’s 2020.

I read a lot of excellent books in 2020, so it was hard to pick my top 10, but here they are. Here’s to another 50 great books in 2021!

10. The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

61jqvy7dgslIn a year when all my exciting travel plans were unexpectedly binned, this book went some not inconsiderable way to whetting my appetite for foreign adventure. It’s popular travel writer Paul Theroux’s most acclaimed work, a report of his journey by trains, big and small, across Eurasia, from London to Tokyo and back. He rides the Orient Express and the Trans-Siberian, but also the Khyber Mail, the 16:25 from Galle and the Hikari Super Express to Kyoto (among many others). It’s not all about trains, though: the trains are the vehicles that bring him to the obscure and exotic sights and sounds that feature in this book, and are the scene of his many interesting and often comical interactions with other passengers. A great read for travel junkies.

9. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell


As someone who avidly read the Goosebumps books when I was a kid, it’s no small thing for me to say that Nineteen Eighty-Four is the scariest book I’ve ever read. No, I’m not one of those excitable people in the comment sections of articles about government surveillance and the like who think we’re living in Nineteen Eighty-Four or that Nineteen Eighty-Four is just around the corner. No, this book frightened me because the overreach of state power frightens me, and it’s easy to see how we can get from here to there. Every totalitarian device and institution in Nineteen Eighty-Four exists in contemporary Western democracies in germinal form, and that’s what’s scary. In some places—North Korea, China—society is much further along the road to Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s a book that will stay with me, for sure.

8. Dominion by Tom Holland


The hypothesis of this book by ancient world historian Tom Holland is that the Western mind and psyche is fundamentally shaped by Christianity. So much so that we modern Westerners, even in our secular, irreligious contemporary society, don’t even realise the extent to which our values and our mindsets are defined by Christianity. This isn’t a Christian screed, but a genuine and extremely readable historical study by a celebrated historian of the ancient world. Among the more controversial (yet persuasively argued) ideas presented in the book is that notions of human rights and individualism are rooted in Christianity, and would have struggled to emerge in non-Christian cultures. The book is packed with information and interesting historical detail, and is one of the books on this list I feel I definitely need to read again.

7. History Has Begun by Bruno Maçães


This is a captivating book. It is a “theory of America” that describes the way American culture is moving away from its European colonial roots and becoming something new and unique. The primary driver of this cultural shift is the forms of screen storytelling Americans have perfected and which have come to permeate their culture: film and television. America is becoming a postmodern civilisation, a “land of stories”, where Americans yearn for narrative meaning both in their own personal lives and on the grand political stage. Donald Trump’s presidency can be seen as the beneficiary and the ideal of this phenomenon: an unlikely President who saw himself as the star in a TV drama, one Americans just couldn’t stop watching (no matter how much they disliked him).

6. A Mencken Chrestomathy by H.L. Mencken


H.L. Mencken was a prolific American journalist and writer of the 20th Century. He wrote, it seems, on every subject under the sun, from women, men, morality, the death penalty, politics, Southerners, Northerners, Calvin Coolidge, the Greeks, chiropractors, the Ku Klux Klan, to Brahms. This is a collection of Mencken’s “choicest” writings, on these subjects and many more. Mencken is an utterly riveting writer, witty, intelligent and clear, a testament to which is that he caused me to find myself enjoying his writings on such unlikely subjects as a boxing match from 1921 I’d never heard of, Charles Joseph Bonaparte (whom I doubt anyone has ever heard of), and zoos. The appeal of this book really is the brilliant writing of Mencken: the kind of writing that really inspires me to practise my own neglected skills.

5. The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom by James Burnham


To use a contemporary term, this book is an instant “redpill”. Ostensibly, it is about the theories of four Italian Neo-Machiavellian political theorists: Gaetano Mosca, Georges Sorel, Robert Michels and Vilfredo Pareto. In synthesising their political theories, this book elucidates a framework for looking at political institutions and phenomena which is radical, subversive and fundamentally anti-statist, if not anarchistic (although none of these thinkers were necessarily anarchists or proponents of any particular ideology, but rather political “scientists”). Even as a political radical sympathetic to such ideas myself, I found my thinking challenged by the ideas in this book, which are original and penetrating. Anyone reading this book would find it difficult to look at the world the same way again. 

4. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand


At nearly 1,300 pages, Atlas Shrugged is easily the longest book I’ve ever read. That itself feels like a major achievement—it took me two and a half months to finish, mostly reading during my lunch breaks at work. At no point, though, did it feel like making progress with this book was a chore because, even though it moves slowly (with one or two 50-page speeches by various characters thrown in), it’s an absorbing and exhilarating read (with as much sex and gunfights as turgid, self-indulgent monologues). The worldview propagated in this book (pro-capitalism, pro-egoism, anti-“altruism”) is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I can’t see how it can fail to at least make anyone think, given how compellingly Rand’s ideas are presented in narrative form.

3. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh


Now, I’ve actually read this one before. However, as it’s my favourite ever novel, and I found an audiobook version narrated by Jeremy Irons (who played Charles Ryder in the excellent TV adaptation), how could I resist a re-read (albeit via Audible)? I don’t really have a very interesting answer for when I’m asked why Brideshead Revisited is my favourite ever novel. I simply love the characters and I love the story. The characters, particularly the “main” character Sebastian Flyte, are beautifully realised in Waugh’s writing, and Waugh has a gift for riveting and often hilarious dialogue. The first half of the book, set in aristocratic 1920s Oxford among plover’s eggs and claret and country houses, is delightfully sumptuous. It’s an emotional read full of tragedy, though, and the climax is a gut-wrencher. I highly recommend it.

2. Modern Times: A History of the World From the Twenties to the Nineties by Paul Johnson


I was prompted to read this book after hearing it praised by Tom Woods on his podcast as being the must-read, most penetrating history of the 20th Century. Oh, was he right about that. At 800 pages, it’s a long trek (but that’s a given with history texts), but Johnson’s prose is so lucid and pleasing as to make it a leisurely read.

What distinguishes this book, for someone who enjoys reading history, is that Johnson goes into a level of detail about historical events that rewards your effort for persisting on every page. To say you learn something new on every page is a cliche, but if it’s fair to say about any history text, it’s this one. All this, without allowing the narrative to become bogged down in detail: Johnson researches and analyses like a historian, but writes like a journalist (which is a good thing).

Johnson frequently, and quite openly, inserts his own subjective interpretations of events, some of which are unusual or controversial, but I find this adds to rather than detracts from the text. After all, it is impossible to analyse historical data without taking a subjective interpretation of that data at some level.

Highlights of this book, for me, were the chapters on the early years of the Soviet Union, interwar France and Germany, America in the 1920s, the Great Depression, the Chinese Civil War, the rule of Mao Zedong, and postwar Britain and Germany. There’s also much interesting material on parts of the non-Western world that wouldn’t normally be covered in a 20th Century history text.

Easily the best history book I’ve ever read.

1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky


What to say about Crime and Punishment that hasn’t already been said? It’s simply a masterpiece. It’s an utterly engrossing read that transports you into the disturbed mind of the main character, Raskolnikov, and leaves you there for quite some time after you’ve reached the end of this book. The genius of Crime and Punishment is that, while the murder that is the main act of the story takes place over only a few pages, Raskolnikov spends the rest of the book psychologically stuck at the scene of the murder, brooding over his horrific crime and the warped philosophical idea that inspired him to commit it. Despite being a long read, the story moves quickly, and introduces a cast of interesting and eccentric characters. The writing is luminescent, at least as rendered in the David McDuff translation that I read. This one will stay with me for sure, and has gone straight back onto the “read again” list!