Jenn Reads: A Tale of Two Cities

In general, I have a rule when it comes to selecting items for our Cheshire Cats Classics Club to read: it has to be something I have never read before.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, I like to read something fresh and new along with my clubbers. If I selected something that I’ve read in the past, I likely would not take the time to reread it. Second, the classics I have read are likely those my clubbers have already read, and one of my goals is to introduce

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

them to titles and authors they may have never read before. It’s a formula that has worked for 3 1/2 years.

For our March pick, I broke that rule.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is a book I was *supposed* to have read as a senior in high school. Let’s rewind 10 years: It’s April, senior year. I’m in my AP English class and we’ve already read at least 10 books this year. The end of this high school experience is near, and simply say to Charles Dickens: “Nah.” Totally not in my nature as a student to do this, but alas, I had had enough (sorry Mr. M.). So I Sparknoted it.

When I put together the set for the first quarter in 2014 for the Classics Club, I looked back at Tale and thought I should give it another shot. At least this time, I could truly say that I read it and if I didn’t like it, well, then I didn’t like it.

A Tale of Two Cities, written in 1859, was serialized from April to November of that year. Dickens was a master at serialization and was one of the few authors of his time to make money off his books in his lifetime. In general, the story deals with the French Revolution through the eyes of both British and French citizens. Just about everyone, even though who have never read the book before, can quote you the opening line, “It was the worst of times, it was the best of times…” Dickens’ friend and biographer, John Forster, wrote that Tale had the least humor and least remarkable characters of all his novels. Well, at least he was honest.

Writing about the French Revolution during Victorian England was a topic writers used often, and readers were likely sick of it by the time Dickens wrote Tale. Dickens specifically chose the French Revolution for the background of his story because  it fit with the overall message he was trying to convey about social justice in England. His initial inspiration came from (or was stolen from, however you see it) his acting experience in friend and fellow author Wilkie Collin’s play The Frozen Deep, which is about two men, one of whom sacrifices his life so the other can be with the woman they both love. Sound familiar?

There are many parallels to Dickens’ own personal life throughout Tale, including the inspiration for Lucie Manet/Darnay. At the time of writing Tale Dickens had begun an affair with actress Nelly Tiernan, who has a strong resemblance to Lucie. As well, it has been hinted that Charles Darnay and Sidney Carton, who are almost the physically the same person, are Dickens himself.

So what did I think about A Tale of Two Cities? I’m glad I finally slogged through it. In typically Victorian fashion, there is too much time spent on the minutiae, with loooonnnnggg descriptions. In the first half there is little movement or action, and dare I say, no character development. When Lucie and Charles get married, the storyline starts to pick up. However, at that point, we’re almost halfway through the novel.

There was a lot I liked about the book: the end (no spoilers here), the villains (loved to hate them), and the setting. This is a book that takes lots of time to get where it’s going, so it’s something that a reader needs to stay with. Dickens writes with purpose, meaning he is one of those authors who inserts definite themes- he wants you to pick them out.

If you get a chance, check out the new movie which highlights this time in Dickens’ life and his affair with Tiernan called The Invisible Woman.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5 (it’s a hearty 3)

See you in the stacks,
Jenn

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