A Tale Of Two Cities

2 citiesI had forgotten how satisfying it is to read a Dickens’ novel, I don’t know why I hadn’t read this one before but from the very beginning it was like putting on my favourite cosy jumper. It feels safe being in such good hands and despite being half the length of his other novels, this was a masterclass in story telling. Written in 1859, the action is set between 1775 and 1793, between London and Paris and the French Revolution.  Slowly building up the tension from the loving family life of Lucie and her father Dr. Manette in London to Madame and Monsieur Defarge, the blood stained streets of revolution in Paris, and the whirling of La Guillotine.

I usually think of characters when I think of Dickens’ novels, but not this time, this is about action and plot. On the first page the date is spelt out, ‘It was the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy five’ and it’s repeated in detail ‘that friday night in november one thousand. . . ‘ until it’s imprinted on our brains.

In London, the home of Lucie and her father Dr. Manette, her husband Charles Darnay, their children and nanny Miss Pross, is a quiet refuge, where they sit under the Plane tree in the garden. The meaning of home ‘like the breathing of a summer sea asleep upon a sandy shore’, and the love of Lucie does get mawkishly sentimental at times but it’s a home where they strive to find peace and one that gives meaning to Sidney Carlton, a man who feels he’s never good enough, that there is nothing in him to like and so drinks every day to forget.

In Paris, Monsieur Defarge is busy in his wine shop looking after his regular customers while Madame Defarge is in the background,knitting, knitting knitting. Such a gentle occupation.

All the while the date is counting down, ‘Anno Domini seventeen hundred and eighty’ until it’s 1789 and wham it’s the storming of the Bastille ‘the sea raging and thundering on its new beach, the attack begun.’  And then 1793 and the Reign or Terror.


a sea rises

All pretence of civilisation has gone in a bloodbath of destructive violence. Madame Defarge swaps her knitting needles for an axe and in her girdle she wears a pistol and a sharpened dagger.

‘Every pulse and heart in Saint Antoine was on high-fever strain and at high-fever heat. Every living creature there, held life as of no account, and was demented with a passionate readiness to sacrifice it.’

The tension was built up brilliantly, the sea and storm metaphor, the reality of the dates and the wonderful use of anaphora which gave it such rhythm:

‘Deep ditches, double drawbridge, massive stone walls, eight great towers, cannon, muskets, fire and smoke.  Through the fire and through the smoke – in the fire and in the smoke. . . Deep ditch, single drawbridge, massive stone walls, eight great towers, cannon, muskets, fire and smoke.’

Thrilling to read now but I couldn’t help thinking that in 1859 when England was still so scarred by what had happened in France, this must have been terrifyingly real.



A Tale of Two Cities was my 19th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge









20 thoughts on “A Tale Of Two Cities

  1. Isn’t it great? I love how he portrays the mob – utterly terrifying. And as you say, it must have been even more powerful at the time of writing – he was clearly warning those in power of what can happen when the poor are left to starve. What a writer – I’m always so glad I live in a world that once had Dickens in it!

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    1. There was a point with the mob where I was genuinely shocked, something to do with Madame Defarge and an axe, and then showing them all at home having supper. I thought it was really amazing writing.

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  2. I still have an illustrated copy of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ that my mother bought me when I was a child. After reading your review, I realized that it has been quite some time since I read a Dickens novel. He’s such a fantastic author, and this is a lovely review.

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    1. I hadn’t read one for ages either but it was like riding a bicycle, as soon as I opened it, I just sighed ‘ah yes, I know you’! It’s made me want to read them all

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  3. I read this a few years ago and I was completely surprised by the action and suspense about midway through the book. I did enjoy it and as I think about It, this one might have gotten short changed because I was reading (laboring) through a tome. I wasn’t as smitten with this one more than likely for that reason. So I will probably read it again one day but it will have to be after Great Expectations.

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  4. “I had forgotten how satisfying it is to read a Dickens’ novel…” Yes! I forget every time. And I feel the same way about a few other Victorian novelists.
    I read this one a few years ago and loved it. But, yes, I am so glad I was not really there – how terrifying!

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      1. For some reason I’m rarely taken by Dickens. I read them and they are usually fine but not my favourites.

        I usually read them on my ereader at times when I’ve run out of my planned reading material for which they are perfect. As that is a situation in expect to end up in many more times I’m sure I’ll eventually get around to giving A tale of two cities a second chance…

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