A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities 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!

Sir Percy Leads the Band by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

Sir Percy Leads the Band This is one of the many sequels to Baroness Orczy’s classic historical adventure novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel. The story is again set during the French Revolution and at the beginning of the novel, in January 1793, King Louis XVI of France – now known simply as Louis Capet – has been found guilty of ‘conspiring against liberty’.

With their former king sentenced to death it’s a dangerous time for the French aristocracy, and Sir Percy Blakeney and his men are in France to help the La Rodière family avoid the guillotine. Knowing that his old enemy Chauvelin will be determined to track him down, a disguise is necessary – so Sir Percy becomes the fiddle-playing leader of a disreputable band of musicians entertaining crowds of revolutionaries in a tavern near the Château de la Rodière. This means Percy and the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel are ideally placed to be able to protect the family when the mob decides to attack the Château…but could someone within the League be about to betray their plans?

After reading (and loving) The Scarlet Pimpernel last year, I wanted to try another book in the series. I wasn’t sure which one to choose as I’ve seen a few different recommended reading orders, but I decided on this one as it is set immediately after the events of The Scarlet Pimpernel. I enjoyed it but it wasn’t as good as the original book. With all the action taking place in France, this means we don’t see anything of Sir Percy’s wife, Marguerite, which I thought was a bit disappointing as their relationship had formed such a big part of the story in The Scarlet Pimpernel. Marguerite was not a particularly strong character but I connected with her more than I did with either of the two female characters in this book, Blanche Levet or Cécile de la Rodière.

We do spend a lot of time with the other men of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel. I remembered some of them from the previous book – Lord Anthony Dewhurst, Sir Andrew Ffoulkes and Lord Hastings – but there was also one who was new to me, St John Devinne. From the start it seems that Devinne is distrusted by everyone except Sir Percy and as Percy has previously proved to be so good at judging people and situations, the reader is made to wonder who is right and who is wrong. A lot of the novel’s tension and suspense comes from waiting to see whether he is going to betray Percy and the rest of the League.

Sir Percy Leads the Band was entertaining enough but I didn’t think it was anything very special and there’s really not a lot more I can say about it! Although I didn’t like it as much as The Scarlet Pimpernel it won’t deter me from trying some of the other books in the series at some point. Maybe those of you who are Scarlet Pimpernel fans can tell me whether it’s best to continue reading the series chronologically or if there’s another order you would recommend.

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

“The Scarlet Pimpernel, Mademoiselle,” he said at last, “is the name of a humble English wayside flower; but it is also the name chosen to hide the identity of the best and bravest man in all the world, so that he may better succeed in accomplishing the noble task he has set himself to do.”

The Scarlet Pimpernel is set in 1792 during the French Revolution, when every day more and more of the French nobility are being sent to their deaths. A secret society of Englishmen led by the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel are rescuing the aristocrats from the guillotine and smuggling them to safety in England. Who is the Scarlet Pimpernel? The French agent Chauvelin is determined to find out, but with his variety of clever disguises and daring schemes the Pimpernel continues to elude him at every turn. Will Chauvelin ever discover his true identity?

Since I started blogging I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve started a review by wondering why I’ve waited so long to read a book and regretting the fact that I never thought about reading it years ago. This is yet another one! I finally read it last week when I was choosing what to read next for the Classics Club – and for anyone else who has this on their Classics Club list or tbr pile, I recommend reading it sooner rather than later. Compared to many classics it’s a quick read and lots of fun too: a combination of swashbuckling adventure story, historical fiction and romance. It’s one of those novels where you sit down planning to just read one or two chapters and before you know it you’re halfway through the book!

Whenever I write about a book I always try to be very careful not to say too much and spoil the story for any future readers, so I won’t tell you any more about the plot and I won’t reveal who the Scarlet Pimpernel really is. You’ll probably be able to guess after a few chapters but if you don’t then part of the fun will be in finding out. This book was published in 1905 and it’s obvious that it’s been the inspiration for so many other books that have been written since then and that the character of the Scarlet Pimpernel has been a model for countless heroes with hidden identities. I also remember reading somewhere that Baroness Orczy was one of Dorothy Dunnett’s influences and I can definitely see how The Game of Kings in particular might have been inspired by The Scarlet Pimpernel. I was reminded of Georgette Heyer’s novels too, especially with the slang the characters used.

I found Baroness Orczy’s writing style very easy to read and the historical background was not too detailed or difficult to follow. The author’s sympathies are obviously with the aristocracy, whereas most novels I’ve read about the French Revolution are told from the opposite perspective so it was interesting to see the other side of the story. This is not really a book you would choose to read for the historical accuracy though, and it does require you to suspend your disbelief at times! I know I would have loved this book when I was a teenager but I’m still glad I got round to reading it at last and am definitely interested in reading more of the Scarlet Pimpernel series now.

Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

Scaramouche is set at the beginning of the French Revolution and tells the story of Andre-Louis Moreau, a young lawyer from Britanny who has been brought up by his godfather, a man who many people believe is really his father. Andre-Louis has little interest in politics until his friend Philippe, who is passionate about the revolutionary cause, is provoked into fighting a duel with the Marquis de La Tour d’Azyr. It’s a duel Philippe has no chance of winning and when he is killed by the Marquis, Andre-Louis considers it to be murder.

Deciding that his friend’s voice must not be silenced, Andre-Louis speaks out against the privileged classes but when his speeches turn out to be much more successful than he expected, he finds himself in trouble with the law and is forced to run for his life. Joining a group of travelling actors, he takes the role of Scaramouche and discovers he has a natural talent for both acting and writing plays. First as Scaramouche, then as a fencing master and a politician, Andre-Louis sets in motion a plan for taking revenge on the man who killed Philippe.

From the wonderful opening line of this 1921 novel by Rafael Sabatini (“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad”) I could tell I was going to love Scaramouche! And I did – it’s one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. The story involves a bit of everything: action, romance, history, political intrigue, humour and adventure.

Some readers might find Andre-Louis too unbelievable as a character, in the way he seems to succeed at almost everything he does, whether it’s acting, writing, orating or fencing, as well as being clever, courageous, quick-witted and charismatic. I can definitely understand this point of view, but it wasn’t really a problem for me. I thought he was a great character and I was able to suspend disbelief enough to just accept that he was good at everything! And he’s not perfect; he can be difficult to like at times and is often described by other characters as heartless (though we, as the reader, know that sometimes he’s putting on an act and not showing his true feelings). He does have flaws, he makes mistakes and his motives are not always easy to understand. His enemy, the Marquis, is another interesting character with more depth than he appears to have at first and some good qualities as well as bad ones – he’s more than just a stereotypical villain.

My favourite part of the book was the section in the middle where Andre-Louis joins the troupe of Commedia dell’Arte actors. Before I read this book I admit that I would have been unable to explain exactly what Commedia dell’Arte involved; now I know that it’s a form of improvisational theatre where the actors perform ‘scenarios’ or sketches, with each member of the group taking on one specific role. The best known of the stock characters found in Commedia dell’Arte, all of which have their own costumes and characteristics, include Harlequin, Pierrot, Pantaloon, Columbine and Scaramouche, who Wikipedia describes as a ‘roguish clown character’. Andre-Louis seems to identify with the character so much that even when he’s not acting he still sometimes thinks of himself as ‘Scaramouche’.

The events leading up to the French Revolution are central to the plot but this aspect of the book never became too overwhelming so if you don’t have much knowledge of the historical background it shouldn’t be a problem. There’s a good balance of historical detail and swashbuckling action, and there’s always something happening: a swordfight, a last-minute escape or a dramatic revelation. The fencing and duelling scenes are well written though I wished I understood all the terminology so I could fully appreciate Andre-Louis’ skill!

I’m not sure why it never occurred to me before to read Sabatini, considering he’s often compared to Alexandre Dumas, who I love. Having now read this book, I can understand the comparisons. Scaramouche has a lot in common with The Count of Monte Cristo, one of my favourite novels of all time (they are both historical adventure novels with a French setting, both have vengeance and justice as major themes and the character of Andre-Louis reminded me in some ways of Edmond Dantes). If you like Dumas or other books of this type, then I would highly recommend giving Scaramouche a try. I’ll definitely be reading more of Sabatini’s books – Captain Blood next, I think.

Review: The Time of Terror by Seth Hunter

In The Time of Terror, Seth Hunter introduces us to a new naval hero in the style of C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower.  Nathan Peake is a commander in the British Navy who spends his days chasing smugglers along the English coastline.  This is not really Nathan’s idea of fun and he longs to have some real adventures.  He gets his chance in the year 1793 when, with England and France at war, he is asked to run the blockade in the English Channel and deliver some important documents to the American minister in Paris.  Unknown to Nathan, however, his ship is carrying a cargo of counterfeit banknotes – putting his life in serious danger!

Although it’s not necessary to be an expert on French history to understand this story, you will get more out of it if you have some prior knowledge of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.  So if names such as Georges Danton and Robespierre mean nothing to you, it might be a good idea to do some research before beginning the book.

Readers who enjoy historical fiction novels that focus on real historical figures will be pleased to know that throughout the pages of The Time of Terror you’ll meet the author and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, the American agent (and Mary’s lover) Gilbert Imlay, the revolutionary writer Thomas Paine and many more – so many, in fact, that I began to feel Hunter was just trying to drop as many famous names as possible into the story, regardless of whether they were necessary.  The sheer amount of historical detail in this novel was slightly overwhelming, though usually interesting.  There were dinner parties with Camille Desmoulins and Lucile Duplessis, visits to the waxworks (including a brief appearance by the young Madame Tussaud) and vivid descriptions of the guillotine.  However, other parts of the story that interested me were barely touched on.  The romantic storyline, for example, is very weak, and I would also have liked to have seen more of Nathan’s American feminist mother who had the potential to be a fascinating character.

If you’re concerned that there’ll be a lot of unfamiliar nautical terms and difficult-to-understand naval battles you’ll be right to some extent, but the story can still be followed even if you find yourself confused or bored by the seafaring aspects.  The sea battle scenes, although very well written, actually contribute very little to the plot and the book would have worked better as a more conventional historical fiction novel in my opinion.  However, there was probably too much land-based action to satisfy fans of nautical fiction so I think the book suffered from not really knowing what it wanted to be or what kind of reader it was aimed at.

This book is the first in a trilogy.  In the second Nathan Peake book, The Tide of War, the action moves to the Caribbean and in the third, The Price of Glory, Nathan will meet Napoleon Bonaparte.  Although I did find this book entertaining and interesting, I’m undecided as to whether I want to invest the time in following Nathan’s story to its conclusion.

Genre: Historical Fiction/Year: 2010/Publisher: McBooks Press/Pages: 391/Source: Won copy from LibraryThing