“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
I love this opening passage of the novel because it’s so iconic and because it embodies so much of what characterizes Charles Dickens’ writing style.
For me, his writing style is what took centre stage in the novel– even before the plot line itself. I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy the book at first because it seemed to have such a slow start and pace, but as I continued reading it, I found myself really enjoying his writing.
I learned very quickly that Charles Dickens was a descriptive writer, who had the talent of describing characters and their mannerisms thoroughly. He was an observer of his time, noting the social and political issues, the people and the mood.
The story gradually becomes more engaging and intriguing with its mystery, foreshadowing and revelations. Maybe what I felt was a slow pace was just Charles Dickens’ way of building suspense and intrigue.
A Tale of Two Cities begins in 1775 with unrest in both England and France. Mr. Lorry, a teller from Tellson’s Bank in England reunites a young orphan named Lucie Manette with her father, Dr. Manette in a suburb of Paris, France. Dr. Manette, now a shoemaker, is mentally disturbed by his past imprisonment in the Bastille Tower. He doesn’t remember who imprisoned him but he leaves with Lucie and Mr. Lorry back to England.
Years pass and it is 1780, when Charles Darnay, a young and charming Frenchman, is accused of being a spy in England. A lawyer named Stryver pleads Charles’ case but it is Sydney Carton, a troubled but clever English lawyer, who acquits Charles Darnay. Lucie and her father are also involved in testifying during this trial. Lucie gives her account of meeting Charles Darnay on a ship from France to England and regards Charles with sympathy. After Charles is released, he and Sydney go to a tavern, and talk about Lucie. This foreshadows Sydney and Charles’ love for Lucie later on in the novel.
Sydney and Charles frequently visit Lucie and her father in Soho. It is through Charles and Sydney’s friendship, and through their love for Lucie that their fates become intertwined. Mystery surrounds Dr. Manette because there is a past and story he has mentally suppressed, and there is mystery around Charles Darnay as well, because he has another identity tied to his past. The novel shows how past is closely tied to present and how people’s lives are interconnected.
All of this is set against the backdrop of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. Danger, intrigue and suspense ensue as Charles and Sydney find themselves in France, in the middle of unrest, violence and bloodshed. There are twists and turns, revelations and surprises as the novel progresses, and finishes with an unexpected ending.
I really enjoyed A Tale of Two Cities and Charles Dickens surprised me. I think of him as a highly skilled and versatile writer. He was a little bit quirky in his writing style, which gave him a uniqueness and a flair.
Reading A Tale of Two Cities reminded me that reading a novel doesn’t mean rushing through it at breakneck speed (which always happens when I’m excited about a book and it’s a fairly easy read). You can’t just flip through a Dickens book–it takes patience, reflection and time to read his work. He wrote in great detail and in lengthy sentences with many pauses throughout, almost as if he were thinking out loud.
I never read or studied Charles Dickens in school, but wish I had. This was an excellent read to start my read-a-thon and I’m looking forward to the next classic!
What classics have you read or would you recommend? Did you read A Tale of Two Cities? If so, what did you like/dislike about it?