Monday, 5 October 2015

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859)

Originally Written in 2008

A Tale of Two Cities is the first work by Dickens not to be predominantly set in Victorian-era England since those barnstorming scenes of attacks on Newgate Prison in Barnaby Rudge. This short novel is set in a similar timeframe (in this instance 1775-1792) and deals with similar themes such as revolution, but in my opinion it is all more dramatically handled here than the "No Popery" riots. A great deal of this story's success is at least in part attributable to its short length - it is quick, readable, fast-paced, exciting and best of all sheds the 200 pages of "private life" that open Barnaby Rudge and hamper its accessibility.

It feels like a distinct departure for Dickens, and that is in no small part due to the highly different setting - both the late 18th century and France make a pleasant change from his usual stomping ground. What I enjoyed most here were all the little details - like the description of London as an attractive, sunny place, very different from the London of the 1850s, ruined by industry and manufacturing. His portrayal of France is generally excellent, especially the scene in which wine runs over the cobbled stones like blood. There is also a unique tint of unreality to the story, despite the grounded, historical setting; more than once he talks of characters' "bare existence", at one point uses the phrase "the leprosy of unreality" and in several descriptions relies on very stylised, unnaturalistic metaphors that add to the picture of an unreal world.

The characters are certainly an interesting bunch - generally this is not an over-crowded novel, although it is probably more populated than the sparse Coketown in Hard Times. The trio of Lucie, her father and Charles Darnay form the principle "relatable" characters, although none of them especially stand out. It is in its terrifying depictions of evil that A Tale of Two Cities really soars: Monsieur and Madame Defarge, two frightening French citizens who end up leading part of the Revolution; Mr Stryver, one of Dickens' most revolting creations, and best of all of course is Sydney Carton, about whom the story really pivots, a marvellously complex character and 'antihero', driven to heroism by his love for Lucie. The final chapter, with his triumphant parading through the streets towards his fate at the hands of Madame Guillotine, is nothing short of epic.

A Tale of Two Cities is something of an oddity in Dickens' bibliography, but it's a fantastic piece of work nonetheless, more so for its pace and heart and vivid description than for its excellent cast of characters. And yet in this one novel Dickens gives us the magnificent Sydney Carton, one of his finest depictions yet of the pains and joys of being human.

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