Book #32

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the ageing Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.

I found this particular Dickens incredibly difficult to read in comparison to his other works. Writing of the French Revolution, namely the storming of the Bastille, took us out of Dickens’s usual setting, and also seemed to dictate a change in style. The difficulty, and the change, however, did not in any way lessen the joy I always feel when absorbing a Dickens novel.

The deep, almost inquisitive, characterisation Dickens is known to employ is lacking here. He chooses to characterise through plot, through reactions to events, and through choices. The characters were glorious; some simple caricatures, some complex and redemptive. The usual humour present in other works is entirely missing here - the subject matter being entirely too dark to find any light within.

Dickens portrays the gory revolution perfectly, and his social commentary is exquisite. Mob mentality was particularly prevalent; that, and the conditions which caused the revolt, were laid out in stark detail, and I was utterly fascinated. There’s one memorable scene where a mass of peasants are sharpening their weapons on a grindstone; it’s laid out in such a horrifying manner that it’s almost impossible to eradicate from your mind. Despite Dickens’s refusal to sugarcoat anything here, he presents a balanced view of both peasants and aristocrats, depicting the trials placed upon the upper classes with an unparalleled tension, and a notion of them having been unavoidable: 

Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious licence and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.

It’s a slog through misery in the first two thirds of the novel, without a single glimmer of hope. When I managed to pick the book up, I read enthralled, but it often took some time to convince myself to continue reading. Such terror, such madness, such blood. And yet, the final section of the book redeems all. The misery continues, but the masterstrokes Dickens employs here are absolutely gorgeous, shocking, and breathtaking. I was in complete awe at his skill.

A very dark, very different Dickens, and yet something to be treasured. God bless Sydney Carton.