I 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.
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