So, Dickens. When I signed up, in the interests of full disclosure, I confessed that my experience of Dickens is very limited and that he intimidates me. In Book 1, my fears were realised. I’m sorry to everybody who lists this book among their favourites but Book 1 was really hard going. After the famous opening (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…“), we were treated to lots (and lots) of discussion about the Mail. I know that other things happened and I enjoyed the description at the opening of the chapter at the wine shop but the real memory that I have from Book 1 was the Mail. Bex, our host for the read-along, seems to be the only person that really enjoyed these particular ramblings.
I’m a lawyer. Reading oddly phrased, sometimes archaic documents is part of my job. Even that didn’t prepare me for Dickens’ musings on mist, mail carriages and horses. It wasn’t that there was a lot of description, it’s that what there was was nearly unintelligible. If that had been all we’d been reading for this part of the read-along, I’d be ranting and moaning this morning. Hard to follow, obscure metaphors and too much detail about things that I couldn’t be captivated by. Mail carriages do not do it for me.
It was with some relief that I finished Book 1 and with no small amount of trepidation that I started Book 2. It was like a completely different novel. Witty, acerbic, full of slights against the rich and the corrupt and featuring actual development of characters. I’m intrigued by Sydney Carton, largely because I can’t decide if he makes me feel terribly sad or if he fills me with rage and irritation. I want to know more about the slightly tragic figure of Doctor Manette and about the Jacques. There’s something suspicious about Charles Darnay and I want to know what that is. I want Lucie Manette to do more than simper and I’m curious about what her part in all this is. All in all, I’m not totally convinced yet but I do want to go back to reading the story, which is a significant step up from where I was at the end of Book 1.
Do I understand yet why it’s a favourite of readers the world over? To be honest, no. My Dad is one of those readers, though, so to give those of us that are still to be persuaded a little pick-me-up, I asked the man that made me the reader that I am to write a couple of paragraphs about why he loves A Tale of Two Cities…(incidentally, I’ve read this as someone that has only read this week’s portion and a blurb and I don’t regard it as having SPOILERS but if you’re particularly sensitive about these things, you might want to come back next weekend…):
It is generally accepted that the difference between writing reportage and writing a novel, or a story, is the use of characters and emotion. In A Tale of Two Cities we don’t just learn the facts about the disparity of wealth between rich and poor in 18th century Paris that led to the French Revolution; we see and feel it through people with names who laugh, cry and love. These people who in turn life, cry and love, with other people, and for other people.
The genius of Dickens is that he can create a work with such a momentous back-cloth as The French Revolution and can reflect it with the gravitas, but also the everyday, feelings and emotions of the characters he creates living through these events. He takes the general and momentous, but potentially abstract events of history, and breathes into them life. We can laugh, cry and love with characters through one of the most significant events in world history.
For the novel to succeed we must have a story and a balance that reflects these momentous events. Through the story of Madame Defarge we have an understanding of the cruelties and insensitivity that caused the revolution. Through the story of Dr. Alexandre Manette we feel the awful pain and injustice of the fledgling and emotionally driven First Republic. Through Charles Darney and Lucie Manette we have a story of love that finds itself at the mercy of this seemingly arbitrary system of law with the wonderfully described knitting ladies sitting beside the guillotine and enjoying the spectacle.
For Dickens to do this well is reason enough for ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ to be forever regarded as a masterpiece, but this isn’t the reason why I love this novel. As if the story of his characters living through the French Revolution was not enough, Dickens, as the master story teller he is, creates an ending that demonstrates how, in the most barbaric of times there is something in the human spirit that shines through. Sydney Carton could be seen as representing all that is a paradoxical in Christianity’s fallen man yet his final act is one of pure altruistic giving. It leaves you thinking that even The French Revolution was part of a bigger story. That Dickens pulls this off is his genius. Because of Sydney Carton I love A Tale of Two Cities.
Stop by next week for our thoughts on the remainder of Book 2…come on, Dickens.