I never liked Charles Dickens.
My first encounter with Dickens was in seventh grade, when we read A Christmas Carol. This was OK, as those things went. The story is very famous and everybody knows it and it’s not a long story, so reading it wasn’t terribly difficult. I was less than thrilled, however, two years later when another English teacher handed out copies of David Copperfield, which I hated. Hated hated hated it. I just couldn’t see the point of the book, I thought the characters were all a bunch of melodramatic dunderheads, and as soon as the teacher told us how Dickens serialized his novels, I decided that David Copperfield and its ilk were basically soap operas for the Victorian age. And dead certain was I in these convictions, even though my own mother, when I opined thusly, said: “When it comes to literature, you’re pretty wet behind the ears.”
What can I say? If I had a nickel for every stupid thing I’ve ever believed, to paraphrase Stephen King, I could buy myself a pretty nice steak dinner. I’ve suspected for years that I was full of crap when it came to Dickens, but I never tried to rectify that situation by, you know, reading one of his books until just a few months ago, when I decided to give A Tale of Two Cities a go.
Now, the problem here was that I already knew how the book ended. I didn’t know all of the plot particulars, by any means, but I knew – from watching a teevee movie version of the book years ago – that the plot basically hinges on these two guys, one an Englishman and one a Frenchman, who happen to look nearly identical to one another, and I knew that the Englishman decides to save the Frenchman from the guillotine by putting himself in the other guy’s place and going to the guillotine for him. Basically I was watching these events unfold and see how the story got from Point A to Point B.
When I decided to read A Tale of Two Cities, I thought it might be fun to replicate the original reading experience in a way. As the book was serialized, the chapters are all fairly brief, so what I planned to do was read two chapters a week: one on Sunday, and one on Wednesday. I think the actual publication frequency in Dickens’s day was a bit less frequent than that, but I figured that in this way I would be able to experience the book in something approaching the way the original readers did: in small pieces, with the story being doled out slowly, over time, in a way that they couldn’t do anything about.
This lasted until Chapter six or seven, somewhere in there. From that point, I was hooked and read the thing every day. I couldn’t stop, and I certainly couldn’t wait a few days to read more of it. I soon had to parcel it out a bit, because I didn’t want to finish it too quickly. I didn’t want the book to end.
All the elements were there: the intrigue in revolution-era France, with the commoners rising up against the aristocracy and sometimes proving to be little better than their previous superiors; the long queues of condemned prisoners being brought to the guillotine; a love triangle that unfolds in front of this increasingly tense and violent backdrop; hiss-worthy villains whose comeuppance cannot come soon enough; heroic acts of self-sacrifice and redemption. I couldn’t be happier that I decided to give A Tale of Two Cities a try, because it propelled me along in a way that few books do. As the book’s concluding chapters neared, I found myself wishing that I actually didn’t know how it ended, and that I could come to Sidney Carton’s final moments unsullied by foreknowledge. I wondered what it must have been like, having this amazing story dolled out, one short chapter at a time, and I can only imagine the gasps of the readers – and more than a few tears – as they realized just what was involved in Sidney Carton’s final plan for Darnay and his final honoring of his pledge to Lucy to make any sacrifice that she might be happy.
The book’s opening sentence – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” — is justly famous, as is the book’s closing sentence (alluded to in the title of this post). The title is evocative, and it seems to me that it’s not just referring to Paris and London, but to the two Parises, the Paris of the wealthy aristocrat who can think to make atonement for accidentally running over and killing a commoner’s child by throwing his father a single coin, and the Paris of the poor, the Paris of those very commoners, where things like this can happen:
A large cask of wine had been dropped and broken, in the street. The accident had happened in getting it out of a cart; the cask had tumbled out with a run, the hoops had burst, and it lay on the stones just outside the door of the wine-shop, shattered like a walnut-shell.
All the people within reach had suspended their business, or their idleness, to run to the spot and drink the wine. The rough, irregular stones of the street, pointing every way, and designed, one might have thought, expressly to lame all living creatures that approached them, had dammed it into little pools; these were surrounded, each by its own jostling group or crowd, according to its size. Some men kneeled down, made scoops of their two hands joined, and sipped, or tried to help women, who bent over their shoulders, to sip, before the wine had all run out between their fingers. Others, men and women, dipped in the puddles with little mugs of mutilated earthenware, or even with handkerchiefs from women’s heads, which were squeezed dry into infants’ mouths; others made small mud- embankments, to stem the wine as it ran; others, directed by lookers-on up at high windows, darted here and there, to cut off little streams of wine that started away in new directions; others devoted themselves to the sodden and lee-dyed pieces of the cask, licking, and even champing the moister wine-rotted fragments with eager relish. There was no drainage to carry off the wine, and not only did it all get taken up, but so much mud got taken up along with it, that there might have been a scavenger in the street, if anybody acquainted with it could have believed in such a miraculous presence.
What an astonishing, amazing, heartbreak of a book. A Tale of Two Cities is one of those books that makes me temporarily despair as a reader (“What can I possibly read next to rival that?”) and as a writer (“That book is on a plane of existence that I’ll never reach.”). It also makes me rejoice as a reader and a writer, on much the same grounds.
I wonder if my ninth grade English teacher is still around somewhere. I’d like to tell her that I’m ready to give David Copperfield a better shot.