(e-book, originally published 1859)
My track record with Dickens isn’t great: I’ve managed to finish only Great Expectations of his novels, and that’s only because I had to read it at school for GCSE*. I’ve previously started, and failed to finish, Oliver Twist, Our Mutual Friend and The Pickwick Papers, and it’s only because I’m convinced that I should follow Miss Cromwell’s** advice (that “every educated person should have read some”) that I kept trying! A Tale of Two Cities was a free download for the Kindle, and I read it while working for a few days in the Netherlands. I have to say that it was a very pleasant surprise.
The story is probably better known than many of Dickens’ novels, and it’s one of only two historical novels he wrote: the story grabbed me and didn’t let go.
The story’s set over several years, before and during the French Revolution, beginning in 1775, and the two cities of the title are London and Paris. A London businessman, Mr Jarvis Lorry of Tellson’s Bank, is on his way to France with the daughter of a friend: he has had word that the friend has recently been released from twenty years in the Bastille prison, and they are going to return with him to England. When they reach Paris, and find poor Dr Manette in the care of his former manservant, the wine-seller Defarge, Lucie is sincerely distressed to see the affliction of a parent whom she has never met before. The Manettes and Mr Lorry return to London, and Lucie’s love and some time and rest help to return Dr Manette to health and sanity. At this time, Manette remembers nothing about why he was imprisoned, and is quite content to remain in ignorance.
Some time afterwards, there is a trial for treason in which the accused is a Charles Darnay, a Frenchman. Among the witnesses are the Manettes – giving evidence reluctantly – and his lawyer is Mr Stryver. By throwing doubt on the prosecution’s chief witnesses, Stryver is able to secure his client’s acquittal, but as a result, the two principal witnesses are left with a grudge against Darnay (which will become important later on). As a result of the trial, three men fall in love with or determine to marry Lucie: Darnay, Stryver and Stryver’s “jackal”, Sydney Carton; though Darnay becomes the lucky suitor, and he and Lucie marry. Carton becomes the most interesting person in this novel: he’s a bit of a layabout; evidently intelligent and with a fine legal brain, he seems content to do the legwork in Stryver’s cases while having absolutely no ambition himself. Also of importance to the plot is that he looks very like Darnay, and, having once studied in Paris, speaks excellent French.
Although Darnay is of aristocratic family, he abhors the way the poor are treated on his family’s estate, and supports his family in London by teaching. After his uncle’s death, he becomes heir to the title and estates, and returns to France to try and save the life of his servant, who has been imprisoned. Darnay is himself soon imprisoned, and then Mr Lorry, Dr Manette and Lucie follow him in an attempt to get him released. It doesn’t go well.
Unlike a lot of Revolution-set novels, Dickens has a great deal of sympathy for the rebels – even Madame Defarge, who looms large in English fiction as an implacable and somewhat ghoulish character, is treated sympathetically by Dickens (at least to begin with), and it’s revealed that her motivations for her actions against Darnay’s family are understandable, if extreme. He draws mob violence very well, and the fickleness of the crowd, which can be swayed from extremes of feeling. The portrayal of the starving and hungry, the desperation of the poor, the anguish of the father whose child is run over by a nobleman’s coach, are stated in dispassionate terms, but are no less powerful for that. Dickens also compares and contrasts the social injustice occurring in France and Britain, and concludes that they’re not much different. Interestingly, Dickens seems to concentrate his attention on the urban poor in England but the rural poor in France.
The characters are variable in their well-roundedness: Carton is definitely the most interesting, but Dr Manette’s portrayal appears to be psychologically accurate and realistic, and Mr Lorry is admirable. Jerry, the Tellson’s Bank employee (who also has a sideline in body-snatching) is well-drawn, but not entirely pleasant, and is intended, I think, as a comic lower-class character, though the humour doesn’t entirely come across to the modern reader. His treatment of his wife, for example, does not even appear to be criticised by the authorial voice, though it’s an example of his failure to reason. Lucie is a bit of a cipher – all idealised sweetness, purity and beauty – but she does at least have courage, which isn’t explicitly acknowledged: her characterisation probably suffers from Dickens’ ideas about women. Darnay is always shown from the outside: he’s a nice enough chap (and thus probably well-suited to Lucie) but Dickens doesn’t waste much time on making him as real a person as Mr Lorry or Carton are. The Defarges are really interesting, and Dickens makes a good deal of their authority and planning skills, as well as Mme Defarge’s implacability and single-mindedness.
The plot is relatively fast-moving, and almost free from sub-plots and extraneous characters: it’s not as dense and wordy as a lot of Dickens’ works, and thus is an exciting and thought-provoking read.
*For US readers, GCSEs are exams taken at age 16 in England and Wales.
**Miss Cromwell is a character in Antonia Forest’s series of children’s books about the Marlow family: she teaches mathematics at Kingscote School, which the younger Marlow girls attend.