A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Despite my interest in Victorian Literature, it actually took me a long time to get stuck into any novels of Dickens and this is the first one I have read without it being required for a course. I studied Great Expectations during my undergraduate degree, followed by Bleak House and Oliver Twist; of these, I probably connected with Bleak House the most, although I did struggle with the long passages about the law. I will admit that my main reasoning for reading A Tale of Two Cities was mostly to do with its opening and closing lines: without doubt among the most famous opening and closing lines in the English language. However, I didn’t know much about the plot before I started reading and it was definitely not what I was expected.
A Tale of Two Cities is set during the French Revolution with the eponymous ‘two cities’ being London and Paris. Boiling the plot down to its heart, this is the tale of a family reunited and the secrets from the past which will threaten their present safety. These secrets follow them from France to England, and then back to France, all during a time of intense change and unrest. The historical aspects of the novel were particularly interesting to me as I do find the French Revolution a fascinating period of history.
For me, as well as being a novel about two cities, this was a novel of two halves. I really struggled to get into the first half of the book, in which London features most predominantly. Dickens takes his time introducing his characters, yet I still felt like none of them were truly established by the time the main catalytic events took place. If you have been reading this blog for a while, you will probably have picked up that engagement with characters is key for my enjoyment of a book, so I really struggled to persevere with the novel in the first half of the narrative. It was beginning to feel like too much prologue and preamble.
However, once the action moved to Paris, I was completely engaged and very much enjoying the novel. Again, this was due to the characters: it was only once they were placed in moments of extreme tension that I, as a reader, felt that I was getting to know who these characters were. Now that I’m thinking about it in more detail, I wonder whether there is a conscious decision behind this difference: Dickens describes London as very ordered and reserved while Paris is turbulent and open, and I wonder whether this is being reflected in the narrative. Everything in the London part of the narrative revolves around keeping emotions in check and secrets hidden; in Paris, every emotion and secret is brought into the open.
I mentioned that A Tale of Two Cities was not the book I was expecting it to be, and a large part of that is down to the ending. The build up to the switch out made it obvious what was going to happen, yet despite having a good idea what was going to happen I was still surprised by the abrupt way in which Dickens ends the narrative. The ending quote is one of the most famous in British Literature, but I had no idea the context for it; I have to say that I did find it quite an emotional and affecting resolution to the novel.
In spite of my struggles with the first half of A Tale of Two Cities, this is probably now my second-favourite Dickens novel (behind Bleak House). It is rare that the resolution to a narrative is so well crafted that it redeems everything that has come before it yet that is the case with this novel. I am definitely glad that I persevered with this, although I do think that if I were to recommend it I would need to add a word of warning about how slow the London side of the narrative is.