‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’. Well, at least old Charles was half right. An era where any embittered scumbag with a grudge and a loud mouth could get you a night in jail and a date with Madame Guillotine (Gillette has nothing on the close shave this woman gave), was probably not a nice time to be around. ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ is set in the time of the French Revolution and gives a short taste of what it was like to be alive (or not) at this pivotal historical event. This is one of the problems with the book.
The story was first published in weekly instalments in Dickens’ periodical, ‘All the Year Round’. Although it was later published in eight monthly parts, and then in a hard-back edition, most people at the time read the book in its serialised form. This format led to a very concise result, condensing forty-odd years (some of them among the most dramatic in human history) into just under 400 pages. There is a sense of the ferocity of the revolutionary years, but we miss out on a lot of the events necessary for a complete understanding of the time. Of course, when the book was written, this was unnecessary as the events were still (for some people at least) within living memory; for the modern reader, it seems a bit rushed, especially having read Dickens’ door-stop novels such as ‘Bleak House’.
It’s important to point out, however, that there are still many good things about this book. the typical Dickensian characterisation is there, and Jerry Cruncher and Madame Defarge are wonderfully executed personalities (even if one wants to put people under the ground while the other just wants to get them back up again). The scenes in Paris, while a little contracted, make you feel as if you are at the Bastille, or La Place de la Guillotine; you can see the squalor and rancour of Saint-Antoine.
The book is saved, in my opinion, not just by the above bright spots, but by the sacrifice made by Sydney Carton. When I first read this book (a long time ago), it didn’t dawn on me until the end exactly how the tale would unfold. Having read it again with this knowledge of events, the denouement was just as powerful, if not even more moving, having been foreshadowed by all the actions leading up to the tragic end. Being able to make such a sacrifice for love, Carton makes Darnay look transparent in comparison. Perhaps Lucy chose the wrong bloke after all…
When I first read ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, it was one of my favourite Dickens novels; however, after this re-reading, I’m not so sure. The content matter was made to be turned into an epic (and has been, many times); I don’t think this book quite reaches those heights. It may well be a case of great expectations (sorry…), but I had some hard times (sorry again…) with this story. So far in 2009, I’ve read two books by Dickens, one brilliant, one not-so great; I’ve got ‘Oliver Twist’ waiting on my bookshelf, so I’ll give that a go sometime soon and let that be the decider!
In short? Good book, great start, memorable ending – it’s just a shame that there wasn’t more in between. Definitely not the best of times for Mr. Dickens (OK, I’ll just stop now).