Saturday, 30 June 2012

Review: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

(contains some spoilers)

Prior to this I’ve had mixed feelings about Dickens.  Bleak House is a fantastic book, with a brilliant cast of characters, targeted and effective satire and an extraordinarily complicated plot that all comes together for an excellent finish.  Little Dorrit is similar, but crumbles at the end, and the characters never quite reach Bleak House levels.  Oliver Twist was ok, but the plot was a little too contrived, and Nancy aside the characters fell on just the wrong side of caricature.  Great Expectations I hated, mainly because of a deep-seated loathing of Pip, and the ridiculous incredulity of Magwitch as a character.  With the decision of who to study as a ‘Special Author’ next year looming, A Tale of Two Cities was given the make-or-break position in my Dickensian life.

Luckily for Dickens (I like to think he has a particular posthumous interest in whether he is studied by undergraduates, and consequently has a fierce ongoing ghostly war with Virginia Woolf…), the novel is outstanding.  It uses its historical setting (the French Revolution) to just the right extent: it creates an epic backdrop to the action, but never in a way that seems forced.  The emotional tone is excellent, and the story is such that I stayed up until 2am finishing it.

To start with an area where Dickens is often brilliant but sometimes dull, the characters of the tale are a particular highlight.  Typically many of them are unashamedly two dimensional: the deeply evil Marquis St. Evrémonde, the dutiful and sarcastic Miss Pross (although she has a potential sapphic element…), the amusingly pompous Mr Stryver.  However all of these fit into the story very successfully, providing just the right amount of humour to what is (for Dickens) a comparatively serious novel.  The romantic leads Lucie and Charles are similarly conventional; however they provide a narrative centre for the story to revolve around.

These characters are fine; however the novel thrives on a core of far more impressive literary creations.  The Defarges shift from supportive positive characters to terrifying antagonists in a manner that is totally credible, and illustrates the power of the civil war to make villains of otherwise ordinary men.  This gives them far more credibility than Dickens’ numerous motivelessly evil characters such as Oliver Twist’s Monks and Bill Sykes.  The message here is that the movements of history can move anyone towards evil, a far more complicated a frightening idea than simply the presence of ‘bad guys’.  This fickleness of the fates and its relationship with people is typified by the caricatures of the mob, willing to release a prisoner mercifully and then bay for his blood in the space of 24 hours.

Better even than the Defarges is the character of Sydney Carton, who makes a similarly dramatic movement from minor character to Christ-like hero.  His mysterious origins are never really explained; the novel seemed set up perfectly for the final act ‘twist’ to be that Carton was a long lost relative of Darnay (as in Jane Eyre, Daniel Deronda, Oliver Twist, Bleak House… the list could continue).  Fortunately Dickens rejects this convention and finds a twist that is far more powerful.  By giving the novel’s defining role to such a figure the centrality of the two lovers is comprehensively undermined: we are prompted to look past Romeo and Juliet to see those who suffer to make such pleasant ordinariness even possible.

The Carton twist is not the only highlight of a narrative that manages to remain credible in spite of its coincidences.  As the novel draws towards its conclusion the elements fit perfectly into place: Miss Pross gets to demonstrate her heroism and loyalty (filling a role that very much parallels Carton’s); Dr Manette is allowed to reassert his masculinity in a way that is both deliciously constructed and touchingly heartfelt, only to have it snatched away from him again in order to disprove any claims of sentimentality; even Cruncher’s night-time activities are (at least partially) validated.  The long flashback scene is perhaps a weak point; however it provides crucial motivation that brings the plot together in a way that makes complete sense.

Overall then, this is a great success from one of English literature’s acknowledged titans.  It’s hard to find a way to sum it up succinctly as it operates on so many levels.  Carton might steal the show in the finale, but that does not detract from the quiet heroism of Lorry, the wild passion of the Defarges or even the steady love of the Darnays.  The catalyst of the revolution permits these characters to blend in a way that gives a reader a fresh perspective on the impossibility of black and white judgements of that event, and thus it is fitting that Dickens breaks his trend of black and white characters.  The only surprise is that there hasn’t been a TV adaptation since 1989: the cinematic scope and sprawling narrative would surely lend itself to another three or four part series.  And will I be studying Dickens next year?  Most definitely.

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