I’ve republished this from a little earlier in the year. It seems very appropriate today, as Brussels comes to terms with a terrorist attack, to remind us that terror is not new. It is our ability to love, forgive and empathise with the sufferings of others that redeems us, just as Dickens’s wrote about two different cities.
It’s ages since I read some Dickens, so one of my reading challenges this year is to re-read some I haven’t looked at for a long time and then read some I have never quite got round to, like Martin Chuzzlewit. This has been partly inspired by the BBC’s production “Dickensian”, which reminded me how vividly Dicken’s draws his characters and evokes Victorian London. So,why did I begin with one of his novels that is not set in his own time, but one of his historical novels. Well, one reason is that it was on my shelf. The Penguin Random House cloth bound classics are a guilty pleasure and I do buy a few each year, by a few I mean six- or seven. Book addicts probably underestimate the extent if their habit too. The other reason was because the lady who runs the book club I attend said she hated it as a novel and had never got to the end. The last time I read it I was a teenager and I wondered if the romantic, historical glasses I had worn from the age of twelve had clouded my judgement and memory of the story.
Being honest, it took me a while to get into the story. The first few chapters felt to drift along until Dr. Manette is finally reunited with his daughter and we meet Mr. & Mme. Defarge. I did at times put the novel down and read something a little less weighty, just to let the story sink in. I suspect that this is how it was read when first published as a magazine series, a little at a time. However, once the scene is set and all the characters introduced, I was hooked. Dicken’s ability to immerse the reader in the Terror of the French Revolution whilst showing how life goes on, bakers bake bread, pharmacists trade, wine sellers stay open and bankers hide assets, is almost like reading a first hand account of a war zone. His characters move between strength and failure, especially Dr. Manette whose personality shows the fragility of the human mind when hope is gone. Dicken’s does not demonise the Redcaps even though they threaten to end the life of his hero Darney, but identifies the failure of justice for the common people. Even the bloodthirsty Mme. Defarge is proved to have a motive for her vengeance though it remains ultimately un-sated. Of course, the real hero of the story is Sydney Carton whose self sacrifice for the love of Lucie gives the book one of the greatest of closing lines.
Though, reading the book later in life, I felt he also had a redemptive ‘awakening’, if not a religious conversion, a conversion to live his life differently, erasing the years of alcoholism. As it is nearly Valentines Day as I write this, I think a quote of his love for Lucie is needed.
I wish you to know that you have been the last dream of my soul.
Often, critics comment that if Dickens were writing today he would be writing for T.V. This book is long overdue for a TV adaptation. This is where the BBC should go after War and Peace, the French Revolution ( maybe followed up by a non musical Les Miserables?).