When I decided to take part in the Classics Club Spin last month, in which a book would be chosen for me from a list of twenty, A Tale of Two Cities was not one of the titles I was hoping would be picked. I have to be in the right mood to want to read Dickens and I wasn’t really in that mood. Expecting it to be a long and boring read, I thought it would be a good idea to start immediately so that I would have a chance of being finished by the end of December…
I actually finished it within a week and despite my lack of enthusiasm when the spin number was announced, A Tale of Two Cities is one of the best books I’ve read this year!
The novel is set before and during the French Revolution; Paris and London are the two cities of the title. The story begins with Doctor Manette being released from the Bastille after eighteen years as a political prisoner. Reunited with his daughter, Lucie, and returning with her to England, the lives of the Manettes become entwined with the lives of two young men who are both in love with Lucie. One of these is Charles Darnay, a former French aristocrat, and the other is Sydney Carton, an English lawyer. We follow these characters and others as they return to France where they become caught up in the dramatic events of the French Revolution – and the scheming of wine shop owner, Monsieur Defarge, and his sinister wife, who is never seen without her knitting!
This is the sixth Dickens novel I’ve read and my favourite so far. I find it interesting that everyone who reads Dickens has different favourites and least favourites; there doesn’t seem to be one book that is universally regarded as his best. I think part of the reason I loved this book so much was that in many ways it was very different from the others I’ve read but I know that some readers will probably dislike it for that same reason, so it’s really a matter of personal opinion.
One of the things that struck me about this book was the absence of humour, in comparison to the other Dickens novels I’ve read – and as Dickens and I don’t usually share the same sense of humour, this was definitely a positive thing for me! Of course, the French Revolution is a serious subject, so the more serious tone of the writing was quite appropriate. I also thought the characters felt more realistic and well-rounded than usual (if there is a comedy character in the novel, it’s probably Jerry Cruncher). My favourite character, which probably won’t surprise anyone else who has read this book, was Sydney Carton – although I didn’t fall in love with him until the last few chapters. I hadn’t guessed when we first met him that he would turn out to be so heroic and self-sacrificing.
I was also impressed by how tightly plotted the book is. The focus stays firmly on the main storyline which makes it easy to follow, unlike Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend which have more complex structures with lots of subplots and lots of long descriptive passages. In A Tale of Two Cities, everything feels relevant and helps to move the story forward. The novel begins with some of the most famous lines in literature (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…) and closes with some that are almost as well known (It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known). I’ve seen those final lines quoted many times before but out of context they didn’t mean much to me; now that I know who and what they refer to they have much more significance. I don’t want to say too much and spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but the ending is heartbreaking. This is the first Dickens novel that has made me cry!
The Classics Club spin was a success for me this time, then. I do have some other Dickens novels on my Classics Club list and feel much happier about reading them now!