I first read “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens, when I was at school around 14 or 15 years old. I remember little of the story apart from Jerry and his rusty fingers from his illicit grave digging (he is a “resurrection man”) and Madame Defarge and her incessant knitting. In the intervening years I’ve read little Dickens just “Christmas Carol” and “Great Expectations.”
I didn’t do well at English literature at school, I loved reading but not being told what to read and being asked questions on what I read. School can put people off reading for life! No sooner have you learnt the magic of deciphering the letters and making them into words and sentences than you are asked to retell what you have read and answer inane questions about a text. Our English Teacher also had a peculiarly perverse choice on what we should read for the O Level: “She Stoops to Conquer” by Oliver Goldsmith, “Richard II” by William Shakespeare and “Nun’s Priests’ Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer in Middle English. No novels at all English Literature was the first O level I failed. (O Levels (Ordinary Level) were taken at around the age of sixteen in England and Wales, they were phased out in 1986 in favour of GCSEs.)
When I first read “A Tale of Two Cities” I had visited Paris once and London a few times. Now I have more intimate knowledge of both cities having worked in both.
The two cities of the title are London and Paris at the time of the late eighteenth century. A time of bloody revolution in France focused on Madame Guillotine in Paris, dyeing the streets red with blood. The tale starts sometime before the revolution when a clerk of Tellson’s Bank takes the Dover mail to meet with Lucie Manette and to accompany her to France where her father Dr Manette had been imprisoned in the notorious Bastille for 18 years. They find Dr Manette and the house of his former servant and nascent revolutionary, Monsieur Defarge.
Five years later, in 1780, a young Frenchman, named Charles Darnay, is accused of being a traitor and a spy at the Old Bailey. Lucie and her father had met him while travelling from Calais to Dover. Lucie stresses the good qualities of the accused while giving her testimony. The evidence against him is overwhelming as the prosecution produces a number of witnesses who swear that he is a spy. However, it is Sydney Carton, an advocate present in the courtroom, who points out the resemblance between the prisoner and himself to the defense lawyer Mr. Stryver. The jury thus realizes that it could be a case of mistaken identity, and Darnay is acquitted.
The theme of the book is one of resurrection and both Dr Manette and then Charles Defarge are in a sense “recalled to life”.
Darnay is the nephew of a ruthless French aristocrat, who needs four strong men to prepare his chocolate in the morning such are the extravagances of the Monseigneur class in France. The carriage of the Monseigneur kills a child in the streets and the child’s father murders the monseigneur in retaliation.
The third part of the book is set in the times of the Terror, when no-one is really safe from the Parisian mob. Darnay goes to Paris to save his French steward, Gabelle and is imprisoned and sentenced to death. Madame Defarge and the revolutionaries are set on eliminating anyone with connections to the aristocracy.
The mood of the novel in keeping with its setting is rather grim. Dickens novel lacks his usual humour. Only the gravedigger Jerry Cruncher and his son provide a little comic relief.
Dickens is very wordy, not surprisingly as he was paid by the word, but he does write a good story.
My rating 4 out of 5