Monday, September 3, 2012

Classics Club: A Tale of Two Cities

The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers "I've read it already" to be a conclusive argument against reading a work.
~C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

It was the best of books.  It was the worst of books.

...and that 's a line that's been used so many times, I'm almost embarrassed to put it in my review.  Yet it so perfectly sums up my thoughts regarding A Tale of Two Cities that I just couldn't resist.

It was the best of books in that it almost overwhelmed me in its intricacy of characterization, clever narrative, feel-like-you're-there description and page-turning plot.  Sure, I knew how it ended but that didn't make me any less tense when... you know... things happened.

It was the worst of books in that it almost overwhelmed me in just how well-written it was.  I usually don't go all Drama Queen in my writing journal, but when I finished ATOTC on August 8th, this is what my entry for the day looked like: {WARNING SPOILERS}

Bawling unashamedly over the last few pages of ATOTC.  The worst of it all is that Sydney Carton never even got to actually SAY his iconic last words-- they were only a might-have-been like the rest of his life.  I wish I could write like that.  I did a good bit on The Color of the Sky this afternoon but I don't want to do any more today.  Not after that.  (Must have my melodrama, you know.)

I really did write the part about melodrama.  Must stick in my side comments at all times, you know.

Back to ATOTC.  It hasn't yet bumped Little Dorrit off the top spot in my list of Favorite Dickens Novels, but it's taking second right now.  (Sorry, Bleak House...)  And that is a huge concession for me.  Because, you see, this was my second go-round for ATOTC.  I'd read it in seventh grade during a big unit study on the French Revolution, and though I'd liked it well enough--it was, after all, the first school assignment that ever made me cry (tears of frustration don't count)--it didn't thrill me.

This time, it did.

I couldn't believe how much I'd missed the first time I read it.  From the first couple of pages, I was hooked.  Completely hooked.  Never mind the fact that it was a re-read.  I couldn't put it down.  I actually had to pace myself, drag it out to make it last.  That's unusual for Dickens.  (Sorry, but he tends to be weighty.  I had to set requirements each day to get through the first half of Little Dorrit--then the story picked up and I flew through the second half.)  Before I'd finished Book One, I'd come to the conclusion that I had done this wonderful novel a great wrong in not loving it the first time.

You know who else I wronged?
Lucie Manette.

She's not actually as wishy-washy as I thought she was.  Oh, she's no Esther Summerson, nor Amy Dorrit for that matter.  But she has a strength of character that I hadn't noticed before (having spent too much time snickering over her rather frequent fainting spells).  This woman stuck by her husband and her father through everything, shielded her daughter from the horrors of the Revolution and went every day to stand outside her husband's jail cell.  Not so that she could see him (she couldn't) but so that he could see her.  Two hours, every day, without fail, in the hopes that he might be cheered up for five minutes.  This woman is not a wimp.  Even if she does carry smelling salts everywhere.

Charles Darnay... eh, sorry, still not loving him too much.  He's okay.  But only okay.  Moving on.

As for Sydney Carton (hands down my favorite character in the whole shebang), he's moved himself up to a right nice spot in my list of top ten literary heroes. The fact is that I can't bring myself to remove any of the other heroes from the list to make room for Sydney, however, so my top ten heroes list is now really a top eleven list.  (Well, top twelve, since I have two gentlemen in the number one spot.)  I think he's going to have to get a post of his own sometime in the near future, though, so I'll let him slide at present and leave you with this quote:

Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him and resolving himself to let it eat him away.
~book 2, chapter 5

You know who else was pretty doggone amazing, though?  Mr. Lorry.  I'll wait while you rack your brain and try to remember who he was... oh, all right, I'll help you out.  He's the old lawyer guy who preserves, protects and defends the Manettes and Darnays throughout the course of the story.  Lawyers can sometimes get a bad rap in Dickens' books (think Mr. Tulkinghorn) but Mr. Lorry is the epitome of the old-school gentleman whose loyalty can't be shaken.  "Think now and then that there is a man who would give his life, to keep a life you love beside you," Sydney Carton says to Lucie.  He's referring to himself, of course, but the words could just as easily be applied to Mr. Lorry-- and I for one am grateful that Mr. Lorry at least wasn't called upon to do that very thing.

I could probably devote another whole blog post to dear Miss Pross (and maybe I will) but for now I'll just say that she's hilarious, loyal (hmm, theme going here), unswerving and tough as nails.  On the outside, that is. Inside she has a heart of gold.

Notwithstanding Miss Pross's denial of her own imagination, there was a perception of the pain of being monotonously haunted by one sad idea, in her repetition of the phrase, walking up and down, which testified to her possessing such a thing.
~book 2, chapter 6

Of course I can't possibly forget the wealth of Dickensian villains, most notably Madame Defarge and Jerry Cruncher.  Ally's dream cast probably had something to do with it, but I couldn't get Alun Armstrong's face out of my head every time Jerry appeared.  I could hear his voice in the words, see him snarling at his poor wife... yep, the character's practically Jeremiah Flintwinch all over again.  Only funnier.

Mr. Cruncher himself always spoke of the year of our Lord as Anna Dominoes: apparently under the impression that the Christian era dated from the invention of a popular game, by a lady who had bestowed her name upon it. 
~book 2, chapter 1

Madame Defarge, however... well, I have mixed feelings about this woman.  When I first read ATOTC, I had pretty much no idea of how the story was going to play out.  (Yeah, the whole ending thing with Carton and Darnay?  Did NOT see that coming.  I was in tears for an entire afternoon.)  So when Madame Defarge was first introduced, I decided I liked her.  She seemed like a strong-minded character, a welcome alternate to Lucie's wimpiness (although I've since retracted my less-than-favorable opinion of poor Lucie).  And hey, she was working with her husband to free the oppressed people of France from the wicked aristocrats, right?  Right?  (I hadn't read TSP yet.  Cut me some slack.)  So I was quite distraught when she was revealed to be the villainess.  Even today, I still like her a little bit.  A little bit.  It's probably just a testimony to Dickens' amazing ability to write well-rounded characters.  (And partially the fact that I tend to like people I'm not supposed to... ahem, Fanny Dorrit, Chauvelin, Carver Doone...)

I laughed over this book.  I cried over this book.  I bit my nails (figuratively) over this book.  Would I recommend it?

I would indeed.  And I'd recommend reading it twice at the very least.  It will stir you, thrill you, move you and humble you.  Trust me on this--after you finish the last page, you will never want to write again for the next twenty-four hours.  

But it's worth reading anyway.


Jillian said...

I adore this book. I DEFINTELY plan to re-read it. It's already on my Nook. :-)

PS - I'm currently reading To Kill a Mockingbird, too!

Melody said...


Grrr. However, I don't think a great many people don't sort of like Fanny Dorrit at some point... heeheehee. She's FUNNY.

Anyways. Remember back when I was reading Tale and you were saying about Lucie Manette, and I said that I actually rather liked her and that she wasn't like you thought she was? I'm glad you've come to your senses. ;D Besides, the descriptions about her forehead expressions reminded me of what has been said about myself before. ;P

I still don't understand about Sydney Carton, though. You said I would understand when I read the book. But I don't. In fact, I didn't like him any better than Charles Darnay.
Well, I didn't. :P What can I say? I can NEVER attach myself to alcoholics. EVER. Okay, he improved. A little. But he also annoyed me with his ceaseless I'm-a-dud-of-a-human-I-might-as-well-be-dead. Well make yourself better! I caaaaan't... it's too laaaaaate....

Argh. >.< I just can't consider him a hero.

(I can't imagine what you'll say to me in reply to THAT. Heh.)

BTW, Miss Laurie was reading this at the same time as me and we decided that Kimberley Nixon should be Lucie Manette. I probably already told you that, though...

Wasn't Miss Pross swellissimus at the end? It was one of Dickens' nice Bad-Guy-Gets-His (er, her)-Comeuppance bits. ;) But then, I never liked Madame Defarge. :P

So, I was thinking. Wouldn't it be funny if someone wrote a fanfiction novel where Sir Percy saved Certain Character from the guillotine? Hahahahaha. Really don't know how he could manage THAT one, though... but 'twould be interesting. Bit cheesy perhaps, but interesting.

Alexandra said...

One of my two favorite books evah evah, as you know.

And it's Dickens' own fault that he made a duddy hero that you couldn't quite like as much as the EPIC anti-hero. Sydney is so much awesomeness. And Lucie...she isn't a wimp, but she definitely isn't as epic as Marguerite...the fainting spells really got to me. :-D

Mr. Lorry was my AA casting, so naturally I think he's awesome if I bestowed so fine an actor on him. :-P

Anyway. Such gorgeous drama, such incredible storyline, so snifffy. LOVE.

Caroline L. said...

Oh yes, this wonderful book. The ending IS one of the most amazing things ever written. I remember just sobbing over the sadness and beauty of it.

And, yes! I have the same problem of often liking the people who are supposed to be "bad." At your suggestion, I started watching Lorna Doone. Try as I might,I cannot make myself like John (even when I tell myself that it really ISN'T Mr. Coxe) or Lorna (why does she like Mr. Coxe?!), but I really do like Carver. And I like Fanny Dorrit and Cynthia Kirkpatrick and Steerforth and Guy of Gisbourne. Can't quite say that I like Chauvelin, though! ;]

Unknown said...

I'm using the Club & my list to get to know Dickens better, but slowly. I've read one so far (Oliver Twist) that didn't thrill me... and I'm looking forward to Great Expectations and Bleak House. I may end up adding this one in too... but I first need a good experience to motivate me (A Christmas Carol doesn't count!) -Sarah

Margaret Hale said...

The ending of A Tale Of Two Cities is one of my favorite endings of any book I've ever read. It's so beautiful! And Sydney Carton is definitely one of my favorite literary characters.

Hannah said...

A Tale of Two Cities is a fantastic book. To be honest I found the first 60 pages a bit boring and draggy (maybe I wouldn't on a re-read?) However once Sydney and Darnay show up I was completely drawn in. It has a fantastic story and Sydney is hands-down one of the very best characters of all time
: ) I really want a new adaptation of it. We've had loads of Great Expectations & Oliver Twist adaptations. I think it's high time we had a new ToTC adaptation. A BBC miniseries would be great but a film would be really great too. Because of its length it's a lot more suited to a film than most of Dickens' other novels.

Anonymous said...

But Carton and Darnay are so much alike. They're noble, handsome, intelligent, loving and soooo haaandsome. Everyone loves Carton, but consider that Carton loves the Darnays and they are all three worth the price.