A TALE OF TWO CITIES

Author: Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870)
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics (1999 edition)
Bought from: NoQ Store

Introduction

Charles John Huffam Dickens is one of England’s most beloved writers. His novels and Christmas–themed novellas were well–received on both sides of the Atlantic during his lifetime and have remained popular to the present day. He helped make the novel the dominant form of English literature during the Victorian Period (1837 – 1901), in place of poetry from the preceding Romantic Period. The literary world celebrated the bicentennial of Dickens’ birth on 7 February 2012.

A Tale of Two Cities is Dickens’ 12th novel. It was first published in weekly serials in Dicken’s literary magazine All The Year Round from 30/04/1859 to 26/11/1859 and concurrently republished in 8 monthly serials from April to November 1859.

All of Dickens’ novels were set in the Victorian Period except two, namely Barnaby Rudge (1840 – 1841) which was set in 1780 and A Tale of Two Cities which was set between 1775 – 1793. A Tale of Two Cities is noticeably different from David Copperfield or Bleak House in a number of ways, eg. it is shorter and has fewer characters and less comedy.

A Tale of Two Cities takes place against the backdrop of the early years of the French Revolution (1789 – 1799). Dickens depicts both the aristocracy and the revolutionaries in equally poor light. Two minor characters, The Marquis St. Evrémonde and his brother, whose misdeeds were recounted through Dr Manette’s letter, are two of Dickens’ most unequivocally evil characters. But the oppressed turned oppressor and launched the wave of executions known to history as The Reign of Terror. Madame Defarge, one of the leaders of the revolutionaries, had a back story that invited sympathy but ended up as evil as the very people she was seeking revenge against.

A Tale of Two Cities was voted number 63 in the BBC Big Read’s poll of the Top 100 best-loved novel (2003).

What is the story about?

Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay found themselves at the mercy of the vindictive Madame Defarge at the onset of the French Revolution. Sydney Carton, who harboured an unrequited love for Lucie, rose above his alcoholism and self–loathing and sacrificed himself to save his beloved and her family.

Themes

Sdyney Carton recalled the following words (from John 11:25–26) spoken at his father’s funeral:

I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.
(p 269)

One of the major themes in A Tale of Two Cities is death and resurrection. The first book of the novel, aptly titled Recalled to Life, deals with the discovery of Dr Manette who had been left for dead after nearly 20 years of imprisonment in Paris. The second book builds up to the thousands of executions that would occur during the French Revolution. In the final book, Carlton redeems himself with the ultimate act of self–sacrifice.

How is the book?

This is a complete and unabridged edition from Wordsworth Classics. It comes with an introduction and brief notes written by Peter Merchant, Canterbury Christ Church University College. And, as a bonus, there are also illustrations by Hablot K. Browne aka Phiz (1815 – 1882) from the monthly editions of 1859. The weekly serialisation did not contain illustrations. Historical side-note: A Tale of Two Cities was the last time Dickens worked with Browne. Dickens never gave a reason for this break from his collaborator  of 23 years.

Dickens’ works are available online for free. But this edition, costing only S$3.32 net, bought during a free-delivery promotion, is attractively priced.

Finally …

The novel is bookended by two of Dickens’ most famous passages. It begins with a look back at 1775 from the time of writing, one hundred years later:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way …
(p 1)

The novel ends with Carton’s final thoughts as he went to the guillotine:

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.
(p 321)

Christopher and Jonathan Nolan revealed that their movie The Dark Knight Rises (2012) was inspired by, amongst others, A Tale of Two Cities. The most explicit Dickensian reference was Gordon’s quotation of the novel’s last line during the eulogy to Bruce Wayne/Batman at the end of the film.

Et cetera

This has not been adopted as often for the screen. The last big screen adaptation was in 1958 while the last BBC production was in 1980.

Advertisements