Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

First off: Thank you all for helping make the Bells of Paradise release such a party! For just a few more days, till March 5th, you can still get a beautiful free mp3 download of inspiration song Down in Yon Forest with your purchase of the Bells of Paradise ebook. 

And moving on to the review...

I'll be honest: I've been putting off writing this review. I wanted to do a bit more study on the French Revolution before I dipped in, but the sad fact is that I simply don't have the time. So I'll do my best with what I've got.

A Tale of Two Cities is only the second Charles Dickens novel I've read as an adult. I'd read some of his shorter classics years ago (A Christmas Carol, A Child's History of England) and was also traumatised at about age five or six when my mother read us Oliver Twist. Dickens, therefore, has never been a favourite of mine. However, everyone highly recommended A Tale of Two Cities to me, and in addition, we had an illustrated edition when I was growing up, which I often snooped through, enjoying the dramatic illustrations, usually when I was supposed to be doing my maths (Sorry, Mum). Because I was so uninterested in Dickens as a general proposition, I never tried to avoid spoilers. I'd even read bits and pieces of the final chapters, and of course I knew exactly what the famous "far, far better thing" line referred to.

As a result, when I actually went to read the book properly a few months back, I was thoroughly spoilered. It's a rare story that can still grip and thrill you, even after you know exactly what happens at the end. And to my utter astonishment, even though I'd even read bits of it before, the ending of A Tale of Two Cities blew me away. It was unputdownable and incredibly powerful. Five stars.

What I didn't like so much was the first 75% of the book.

Part of this was for philosophical reasons. As Schuyler of My Lady Bibliophile will tell you, she and I have a running disagreement about Dickens. When I read Bleak House, I came away convinced that that the book demonstrated a far from Christian worldview, which, with Rousseau, saw mankind as basically good, corrupted not by indwelling sin but by the outward pressures of society. As I slogged through the first three hundred pages of Two Cities, I saw plenty more to convince me that this was Dickens's ruling philosophy, not only of the world but also of the French Revolution. While I'd like to give Dickens the benefit of the doubt, this (as well as his highly irregular personal life) disposes me to think he must not have been more than culturally influenced by Christianity.

So, in A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens is fairly even-handed in portraying both the revolutionaries and the aristocrats as vicious, depraved, and animalistic. I was surprised to discover that his treatment of the revolutionaries in this story is seen by many modern critics as unduly critical. I would have thought this a trick question. You have people lynching other people from lamp-posts and participating in things with names like "The September Massacres" and "The Reign of Terror", and you want me to spend a long time trying to figure out who were the goodies and who were the baddies?

But although all his protagonists are well-born, it's the aristocrats that Dickens saddles with the heaviest amount of guilt for the blood-letting of the French Revolution. He paints pre-revolution France as a place where the few rich spent their days mercilessly oppressing the many poor. He gives us vignette after vignette describing the sufferings of the crazed and overburdened poor at the hands of their oppressors. He gives us only one admirable aristocratic Frenchman, who redeems himself by quarreling with his uncle, disinheriting himself, and moving to England--apparently the only conceivable way for a French aristocrat to cleanse himself of his family's wickedness. Finally, Dickens concludes that it is these oppressions which have driven the lower classes of France completely out of their minds with grief and rage. The poor wretches who slaughter the aristocrats in the Revolution would have been quiet and happy if they had only been treated more kindly: their savagery is the result not of indwelling sin but of outer social pressures.

I didn't find this a particularly convincing picture. Again, I don't know quite enough about the history to say for certain; but I do know several things. I know, as an article of faith, that everyone is responsible for his own ill-doing, and that the heart is corrupted not by what is imposed upon it by outside forces but by what comes out of it. No matter what the outside pressure, Thou Shalt Not Kill is still a binding moral obligation. I know that the Revolution was in large part driven by extremist atheist and Enlightenment thinkers, many of them of the aristocratic class, who (the Duc d'Orleans, for instance) may have intentionally fomented revolution and then attempted to ride it to power; and that many of those who bore the brunt of the Revolution were commoners caught in the bloody mill. I know that, if nothing else, before the extremists grabbed control of the Revolution, many quiet yet extensive reforms were being put into place, with the king's full support, for several years before the bloodshed began. In conclusion, I thought Dickens's characterisation of the whole affair something along the lines of, "The aristocrats got what they had coming, and if anyone else had been willing to do something for the peasantry then they wouldn't have had to help themselves." I think the picture was a good bit different to that. But then, as I say, I haven't studied it in terrific depth.

Also, it may just be me, but I find Dickens's social commentary generally smug and irritating. I reserve particular distaste for the character of Lucie Manette, an almost unbearably vapid heroine, whose only apparent distinguishing characteristics are youth, beauty, insufferable (and inspecific) goodness, and a propensity to faint at the drop of a hat.

That after three hundred pages of teeth-gritted determination and nose-holding, this novel was able to turn around knock me senseless with one of the greatest endings I have ever read, is a testament to Dickens's sheer storytelling powers. Up until the last hundred pages, I had been distinctly unimpressed with the book and everyone in it (except Miss Pross) (Miss Pross was a duck). It was then that the Good Bits started, and built up to a thundering pitch of epic heartstring-rending that will make you howl if you are at all human. I won't spoil it for you (if by any chance you haven't figured it out already); I'll only say that this is some of the finest storytelling you will ever see, and worth every page that it'll take you to work up to it. I adored it, and while I may have strident differences with much of Dickens's worldview, I'd still give my eye-teeth to be able to write like that.

In conclusion, I both liked and disliked this Dickens more than Bleak House. It had a much better ending; but I found the first three-quarters much harder going. Next time I read Dickens, I plan to tackle Great Expectations, which by the sounds of it I'll find much easier to like.

Find A Tale of Two Cities on Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.


Kate said...

". . . an almost unbearably vapid heroine, whose only apparent distinguishing characteristics are youth, beauty, insufferable (and inspecific) goodness, and a propensity to faint at the drop of a hat."

that right there is my biggest problem with Dickens. The (young) female characters that Dickens likes tend to be brainless and pretty (and it's almost worse when they aren't brainless (see: David Copperfield)).

Personally, I think A Tale of Two Cities is some of Dickens' best work, and I really like Bleak House, don't care for Great Expectations, and really like A Christmas Carol (the best film version is, of course, the Muppets).

I like Dickens because he is intensely concerned with social justice, writes clever characters, and has a wonderful use of imagery (some of the images in A Tale of Two Cities are amazing).

I dislike him because he goes on too long, and can't write female characters. I'm not much of a fan of the Victorians in general, though.


Joseph J said...

First of all, it’s ridiculous and amusing that it took you six years to get around to covering A Tale of Two Cities! It is arguably one of the top three Victorian 'vintage novels' along with Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. You really must have been traumatized!

No one ‘got’ Dickens better than Chesterton, and I would recommend his wonderful ‘biography’ of Dickens, even if it characteristically only contains about five biographical facts. I’m not sure if you want to commit to reading an entire book about an author you don’t even particularly like, so may I suggest you just read chapter nine which I quote from below:

“The tone of Dickens towards religion, though like that of most of his contemporaries, philosophically disturbed and rather historically ignorant, had an element that was very characteristic of himself. He had all the prejudices of his time. He had, for instance, that dislike of defined dogmas, which really means a preference for unexamined dogmas. He had the usual vague notion that the whole of our human past was packed with nothing but insane Tories. He had, in a word, all the old Radical ignorances which went along with the old Radical acuteness and courage and public spirit. …

In dignity and eloquence [A Tale of Two Cities] almost stands alone among the books by Dickens. But it also stands alone among his books in this respect, that it is not entirely by Dickens. It owes its inspiration avowedly to the passionate and cloudy pages of Carlyle's "French Revolution." And there is something quite essentially inconsistent between Carlyle's disturbed and half-sceptical transcendentalism and the original school and spirit to which Dickens belonged, the lucid and laughing decisiveness of the old convinced and contented Radicalism. Hence the genius of Dickens cannot save him, just as the great genius of Carlyle could not save him from making a picture of the French Revolution, which was delicately and yet deeply erroneous. Both tend too much to represent it as a mere elemental outbreak of hunger or vengeance; they do not see enough that it was a war for intellectual principles, even for intellectual platitudes.”

Dickens suffered from a lack of formal education, which is why I go easy on him about his intellectual views, and focus more on the elemental humanity he expresses so well. And so badly. Dickens is nothing if not inconsistent. If Austen and the Brontes represent the best of aristocratic Victorian England, than I think of Dickens as representing the best of lower-class (urban) Victorian England. His emotionalism is what people love about him, much like van Gogh or Robin Williams, but like these two I think it was partly the result of psychological distrubances. Speaking of trauma, he was very traumatized as a child by his rough and difficult cockney up-bringing, in part probably because he was so emotionally sensitive.

I think of ATTC as representing his most carefully-constructed and successful attempt to be a ‘serious’ novelist. But I don’t think that’s necessarily where he shines best. One of the things I love most about Dickens is his mastery of Victorian verbosity, and I love him best as a wild and rambunctious comic author, like in his first two novels (really meandering serial stories) The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby. I would strongly recommend you try reading some of Pickwick before you try reading another of his serious novels. You might enjoy it better. As Wikipedia astutely points out, ATTC probably has the least amount of humour of any of his novels, although that distinction might go to Great Expectations (I haven’t read them all so I can’t say for sure). Speaking of Great Expectations, I should warn you that I loved the first part of the book - the protagonists’ childhood and adolescence - which was so vivid and exciting, but found the second part boring and unremarkable. Its probably because I favour adventures stories to mere human dramas about people in starched collars.

Suzannah said...

Kate, I agree - I've realised I don't really appreciate Victorian fiction much either, for much the same reasons you cite! Too sentimental half the time, shallow female characters. I have to say, though, Anthony Trollope is one Victorian author I love, and his female characters are MUCH better than Dickens's. I also prefer his social commentary.

My main problem with Dickens's social criticism so far is the fact that he was usually closing the stable door late. His critique of Chancery in BLEAK HOUSE, for instance, seems groundbreaking until you realise reforms were already well underway - reforms which were to continue pretty steadily into the twentieth century.

But his characters are great fun, I agree!

Joseph, thanks for the GK Chesterton quote! That's actually a really good summary of my problems with his view - "Both tend too much to represent it as a mere elemental outbreak of hunger or vengeance; they do not see enough that it was a war for intellectual principles, even for intellectual platitudes.” Yes! Exactly!

Unknown said...

Having read this for school just a few years ago, I really enjoyed reading a non-school related review of this book! I admire how tightly plotted the whole book is and Miss Pross is wonderful. :)
I was wondering, have you read Brothers Karamazov? I finished it about a month ago (again for school) and thought it was one of the most realistic yet hopeful books i have read, partly due to the amazing main character, Alyosha. All the characters have amazing depth. I disagreed with Dostoevsky's theology on a couple points, but overall, and it was beautiful and inspiring book to read.

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