Another classic novel, highly regarded by readers and scholars, #63 A Tale of Two Cities is available for free on Project Gutenberg and Kindle.
A Tale of Two Cities is set in London and Paris, before and during the French Revolution. Two men are caught up in the injustices of both eras, one facing aristocratic retribution, the other punished for being an aristocrat. As the blood runs in the streets, they find their lives are more entwined than they ever thought possible.
Published in 1849, the novel is set 60 years earlier, yet the events of the French Revolution would have still been fresh in readers’ minds – like novels written today and set during the Second World War.
It’s more alien today, and although I remember learning about the French Revolution, the events were chaotic enough that I don’t have a clear picture of how it unraveled – and Dickens doesn’t explain much.
While I don’t expect a novel to be a history book, I like to know what’s going on, and I found the first part of the story hard to follow. There was so much foreshadowing that I felt Dickens had stopped shoveling it on and started beating me about the head with the spade instead, yelling ‘IT’S COMING!’. Despite this, I didn’t really know what was coming – uprising, yes, blood in the streets, yes, guillotine, sure – but how much, how soon and where? And since we’ve been in London for ten years, why do we care?
I read A Tale of Two Cities between reading the first half of Great Expectations (last year!) and finishing it (more on that next week), and the comparison helped me realise: I just don’t like Dickens’ style of build up. In both cases, I would have happily jumped in at the deep end about half to two-thirds of the way through, and probably enjoyed the book rather more without the flanneling at the front.
What actually happens
Stripped of the waffle, the story is interesting, in a melodramatic way. I don’t want to spoil anything (I didn’t know what happened at the end when I started reading the book, one reason I was reluctant to do any research while in the middle of it) but you’d be forgiven for thinking that there are only about a dozen people in London and Paris combined. That said, after I got through Book One (in which the author talks about tumbrils for quite a while but none are seen) and the action came back to Paris, I got quite interested and didn’t manage to predict the end.
However, I was disappointed with the book – and for an entirely irrational reason. One of my favourite books ever is Diana Wynne Jones’ A Tale of Time City. I think it’s brilliant and I’ve loved the book from when I first read it in primary school and still loved it (uncritically, you’ll be shocked to hear) last time I read it a year ago. As you can see, the title is based on Dickens’ book – and so I thought I’d like his, too, by association. A childhood dream, crushed by a wordy description of a tumbril – that’s pretty much A Tale of Two Cities in a nutshell.
On balance, I’m glad I read the book – but only because I can say I did, and it’s one of those classics one is “supposed” to read, so I’ve got a few more bragging points.