Book of the Month: October – A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities
Charles Dickens

I’m not really sure what to say about this book – I enjoyed it without ever really feeling that I’d got my head round it. I liked the characters, and the places, and there was some very vivid description and set pieces – although sometimes the description got a bit too poetic, and I was lost again. (Plus I kept thinking it was turning supernatural – pale men hanging under carriages and vanishing over cliffs, and strange messengers striding across France – and then it never did.)

But given that I went in expecting a book about the French revolution, I don’t really feel that I got what I wanted. Maybe I’m just wrong, because I really don’t know about it to judge, but the thing that fascinates me about the period is the attempts to set up something new, and the ways they go so wrong. And the revolution of this book is quite purely mob rule – an inevitable, justified result of previous actions, but only a breaking down, with no sign of an attempt to build something new:

‘There could have been no such Revolution, if all laws, forms, and ceremonies, had not first been so monstrously abused, that the suicidal vengeance of the Revolution was to scatter them all to the winds.’

The book may be a plea for a better system of government, but it’s addressed to those with something to lose, to save them from losing everything, not to those who might gain.

I found the structure of the book a bit odd – for most of it you are following various people through loosely overlapping lives, not only without any clear idea of how they tie together, but with no clear idea that they will tie together at all. Once they did, I felt a bit as if I had been reading a murder mystery which let you see all the clues and suspects as usual but didn’t tell you who had been murdered or how or when – it must be deliberate, but these days at least I think it might work better with the incident that sets it all off described at the beginning, at least so we knew where we were heading.

And there are definitely a few too many coincidences for my liking – I can cope with the one which sets up the story, of Charles and the Manettes meeting on the ship, and even the previous connection, but once we get into long lost brothers, and resurrection men provided only to be able to prove that a particular person wasn’t dead, it’s going a bit far – although that at least did tie into the theme of resurrection which runs through the book, from ‘recalled to life’ at the beginning to ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ at the end.

But, oh, the ending. In a way, there’s no tension, because Charles and Lucy are the kind of people who never will end up suffering, and people like Miss Pross and Sydney always will do their suffering for them – but the battle between the two women is superb, and if the very end is a bit overblown again, I can’t read ‘you will let me hold your brave hand, stranger?’ without crying. So maybe it is some of the people with the least power in the beginning who save the day in the end.

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