But I really wanted to join Fanda's Celebrating Dickens event this Feb (and still had four Dickens titles on my list), so I decided to give A Tale of Two Cities a try. It's different from his other books in that it's historical fiction so isn't just set in Victorian London. I knew it was about the French Revolution, which is fascinating, so I was cautiously optimistic! It turns out I had good reason to be - A Tale of Two Cities is already destined to be a favourite.
A Tale of Two Cities starts with a prisoner, Doctor Manette, who has been released after spending eighteen years wrongfully imprisoned in the Bastille. His daughter Lucie travels to Paris to bring him home to London, where their lives become entwined with those of Charles Darnay, a half-French aristocrat and Sydney Carton, a lawyer. Meanwhile revolution is beginning in the streets of Paris, stirred by the wine shop owner Defarge. As events turns deadly and the guillotine falls into greater use, the main characters are caught up in a desperate battle for survival. Long hidden secrets are revealed and humanity itself falls into question.
The main reason I loved this book is that it is so tightly and cleverly plotted. It's a reasonable length at 400 pages, but not a word is wasted and there's enough twists and turns to keep the entire story captivating. Although I guessed the final twist (I hoped I was wrong!), there was plenty of surprises and most of them left me in awe at Dickens' skill. So many clever little clues that only made sense later on in the novel! As with all good historical fiction, the story ran alongside the historical setting with equal importance, rather than either one being dominated by the other.
The writing about the revolution was beautiful, even if it was about a less than beautiful subject. Dickens manages to make your heart swell with revolutionary fever when the people first rise up against clear injustice, but later the same characters disgust you. There's a lot of 'long range' stuff about key events and it works well. There's one scene where Mr Lorry (a friend of Doctor Manette) is watching citizens return repeatedly into the night to sharpen their weapons as blood drips through the streets and it's very powerful. Although Dickens' perspective can be a bit simple (and anti-French), he does a great job of portraying what it would have felt like to be swept up in a storm of events like the French Revolution.
I also loved the way Dickens wrote about humanity in this book. There's a lot of profound observations about life and love that had me whipping the highlighter out! I especially loved this one about Doctor Manette because it so reminded me of myself;
"It may be the character of his mind, to be always in singular need of occupation. The less it was occupied with healthy things, the more it would be in danger of turning in the unhealthy direction."
All this great writing about the characters made me very attached to them and I did have a bit of a cry at the ending, especially as Darnay had never even thought to write a letter to Carton. Sydney Carton is a fascinating character with plenty of ambiguity about him. Lucie was the only character I couldn't get on with, mainly because she was just too good all of the time. And everyone was in love with her, because she was so good. I prefer my characters to be more of a mix of good and bad.
On the whole, I was surprised at how much I loved this book. It's now on my favourites shelf on goodreads and it will certainly be revisited at some point in the future. Hopefully my new found friendship with Dickens will continue into the next book of his I read!
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1859
Score: 5 out of 5
The Classics Club: book 8/72