It’s taken a ridiculously long time to finish this, much longer than I would have liked. It’s been a busy couple of weeks. There’s just been too much life going on and poor old Dickens got put on the backburner for a bit, as did blogging. But it’s nice to be back now.
Despite the long hiatus, I loved reading this book again. And what’s not to love? There’s revenge, sacrifice, love, mistaken identity, revolution, murder… Occasionally it’s a bit overblown, a bit sentimental maybe, and you have to put up with Lucie Manette weeping and fainting all over the place and saying things like:
“I feel his sacred tears upon my face and his sobs strike against my heart. O see! Thank God for us, thank God!”
But she improves in time and Miss Pross and Madame Defarge more than make up for her shortcomings as a female character.
The novel begins in 1775 with the release of Doctor Manette from the Bastille, where he’s been languishing in secret for 18 years. On his release he’s met by Lucie, the daughter he’s never known, and they retreat to the quiet safety of London. A few years pass and Lucie, obviously burdened with many suitors, marries Charles Darnay, an émigré aristocrat living under an assumed identity as a French tutor. Meanwhile, France is hurtling towards revolution and Doctor Manette, Lucie, Darnay and their friends soon find themselves drawn back to a Paris now in the midst of ‘The Terror’. The people are in charge and they’re burning down the chateaux and beheading aristocrats in the streets.
It’s quite hard to pinpoint exactly what I like so much about A Tale Of Two Cities, especially because I know some readers really don’t get on with it at all. It doesn’t have the neat, satisfying ending of some of his other novels, nor does it have so many peripheral characters and comedy interludes. It feels much tighter because of this and the small cast of characters are really quite vividly portrayed (except Lucie of course). For me, it’s all about Sydney Carton, the alcoholic lawyer who befriends the Manette’s and defends Darnay against charges of spying. His speech to Lucie, shortly before her marriage, is one of my favourites.
“…Think now and then that there is a man who would give his life to keep a life you love beside you…”
There’s also the menacing Madame Defarge, who quietly encodes the names of her enemies in her knitting so they can be recalled and brought to ‘justice’ later. She’s quite terrifying.
The chapters set in Paris are of course the most gripping. There’s so much symbolism and such a sense of foreboding as the hysteria builds – it’s not particularly subtle but it’s hard not to get swept up in it all. I found myself switching very quickly between sympathy for the peasants to horror as they started dragging people to their deaths.
I’m not sure if this would be an ideal first introduction to Dickens; it’s not very typical of his usual style and it can be quite a hard read (some of those descriptive sentences are loooong). But I would still recommend it wholeheartedly. There’s so much atmosphere and it feels almost epic in spite of being quite a short book. I found myself rereading certain passages multiple times, savouring them almost, before I could bring myself to move on. It’s wonderful.