A Tale of How Dickens Revolutionised My Reading

A review of A Tale of Two Cities.

Readers, it’s time to dip your toes into Dickens.

My bargain £1 copy!

My bargain £1 copy!

I speak having just finished my third book by the author, A Tale of Two Cities, which, if you don’t know, is set during the French Revolution. I must admit, this book made me realise just how poor my history actually is; I dislike reading books set in times I don’t know much about and actually planned on reading Bleak House next- certainly I would never have picked up this book without the release of The Invisible Woman and perhaps not even then if I hadn’t seen it for a bargain £1 at my local bookstore!

The book focuses on London and Paris- the two cities mentioned in the title. It begins with the reunion of Doctor Manette, a political prisoner, and his daughter Lucie, who is soon racking up an impressive list of admirers, despite her easily being one of the most passive, weak and boring characters I’ve ever read. I suppose that reflects the context in which Dickens was writing: passive, weak and boring women were ideal for marriage, and in Victorian times what were women for but to be married off?

However, if Lucie isn’t to your taste, and she’s certainly unlikely to be, following feminism and social change, the French female characters may catch your interest. Madame Defarge captures the image we all have in our head when we think of the French Revolution: women knitting and chatting as the Guillotine lops people’s heads off. She comes across as disturbingly cold-hearted, even when faced with the pathetic and miserable Lucie, and is eagerly at the front of the Revolution, bringing behind her a wave of female rebels including her (amusingly named) friend, The Vengeance.

It’s quite interesting to note that it’s the violent and cold-blooded French women that are the most interesting of the French characters, whereas of the English characters the men are easily the most fascinating. You can only admire Mr Lorry’s strength and loyalty to his friends and also his workplace, the bank, Tellson’s. The cynic in me thinks that he’d have been quite useful in the recent recession!

I also suggest you don’t overlook the lawyer, Sydney Carton. He’s easily my favourite character and, in my view, is like a Dickensian Severus Snape. He spends the vast majority of the book drunk and being generally unpleasant, and pining after Lucie (sigh). He’s not a nice character but he’s interesting- you can’t help but pity the lonely soul wandering the streets of London (and later Paris) through the night. Carton is well aware, though young, of wasting his life, yet it’s also clear that he holds no real value to it. He redeems himself at the end of the book in an action I foresaw (and spent two or more chapters going “DON’T DO IT, SYDNEY, DON’T YOU DARE!” on a loop ending with, “… he did it.”).

The characters are not the only parts of Dickens’ novels that make them worth reading. They are, of course, wonderfully realistic, and the plots are fantastic, but, for me, Dickens’ actual writing makes the novels. I loved Great Expectations but Dickens’ writing in A Tale of Two Cities blew me away. I’m sure he brushed over a few details in the French Revolution, but at the end of the day he was writing in the 1850’s and it really shows the power of his imagination that he could capture the period so well. It wasn’t as if he could just pop on Google, right?

It frustrates me when people view Dickens’ work as dusty heavy tomes to dredge yourself through so you can say you’ve read Dickens. It’s really not. Throughout the novel, I was engrossed in Dickens’ writing. I find his style engaging and he’s a real inspiration for me as a writer. As a reader, I find his works page-turners despite their size (though I love massive books, so that really isn’t a problem!) and Dickens has quite a dark, sly sense of humour that really appeals to me, for example Madame Defarge knitting the names of the dead as they go to the Guillotine.

The book is also extremely quote-worthy- who hasn’t heard of its opening “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”? However, it was actually the beginning of the third chapter that most interested me: “A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that dark and profound secret and mystery to every other”. I picked up on this because of an interview I watched with Ralph Fiennes on the subject of his new film. Fiennes plays Dickens in The Invisible Woman, which focuses on Dickens’ affair with a young woman, Nelly Ternan (played by Felicity Jones). I haven’t seen the film, though it’s supposed to be great, but I was fascinated by this quote because Fiennes says in the interview that A Tale of Two Cities was written during Dickens’ affair with Nelly. It makes me wonder whether the quote refers to Nelly and, if that is the case, what it reflects about their relationship.

Ralph Fiennes as Dickens in The Invisible Woman

Ralph Fiennes as Dickens in The Invisible Woman

A Tale of Two Cities was undoubtedly worth the read and I would recommend it to everyone. Despite my worries about finding it difficult due to my lack of knowledge about the French Revolution, this wasn’t a hindrance and, as a result, I’m not going to let similar worries stop me reading other texts set in times I don’t know much about in future. My advice is to not read it as your first Dickens- reserve that slot for Great Expectations. Personally, while I love Great Expectations, I (to my own surprise) found A Tale of Two Cities more engaging (I expected that it would be a bit of a difficult and boring read). I can’t decide whether I prefer it to the former- maybe I’ll have to reread Great Expectations to be certain (mock horror: oh, no!).

The next book on my reading list is To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, so I’ll post a review once I’ve finished it. If you have any thoughts on what I’ve written, or if you yourself love/hate Dickens, have read A Tale of Two Cities yourself, or if you have anything to add about To the Lighthouse (no spoilers please!), go ahead and post a comment below. I’d love to know what you think.


Picture from: http://www.nbcbayarea.com/entertainment/entertainment-news/Ralph-Fiennes-tackles-Dickens-the-invisible-woman-kristin-scott-thomas-236758581.html


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