A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

“Tell Wind and Fire where to stop,” returned madame; “but don’t tell me.”


In an attempt both to write about more of the books I read—not just the ones I get for free off of publishers—and to make that process less intimidating, I’m experimenting with different ways of posting, e.g. not always my usual essay. I’m structuring this review around my Goodreads updates on the book, sharing and annotating them as examples of how my feelings about the book changed as I read. As always, feedback appreciated.

page 38, 8.0%: “I read recently that A Tale of Two Cities was not representative of Dickens, and I can now say that’s pretty much true. I much prefer the fat tomes—Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend. I spent my first reading session of AToTC thinking ‘why can’t this banker arsehole just tell the girl her father isn’t dead? And why does the girl have to be golden-haired? And why do we even care? When does the guillotine come out?'”

Okay, so the opening section of A Tale of Two Cities is kind of weird. It starts with a character whose relevance to the plot isn’t at all clear; Dickens conjures atmosphere, in the meteorological sense, as well as ever (all that mist and mud and darkness on the Dover road! All that fear of being robbed by highwaymen! It’s terribly evocative) but, at least in this section, his prose reads more densely than I remembered it. It’s a little like late-period Shakespeare, where about once a paragraph you go “Hang on, what?” and have to trace the twisted syntax back to its start.

The character we meet first is Jarvis Lorry, a banker on his way to France via Dover. At the port, he pauses in an inn to wait for someone coming after him: a golden-haired seventeen-year-old girl. (In this, Dickens never changes: his ideal woman is always small, physically angelic, disgustingly sweet-tempered, and underage.) The girl, it turns out, is the daughter of French physician Alexandre Manette. Her father, thought to be dead for years, has been discovered alive: he’s been kept for eighteen years without charge as a political prisoner in the Bastille. Lorry, for reasons best known to himself and Dickens, doesn’t come right out and tell the girl (Lucie) this; instead, he fannies around saying things like “If someone were to tell you that there was a girl who thought her father was dead, and then it turned out that he wasn’t…” This is a manner of news-breaking I have never understood, and have little patience for, but it gets the job done in the end.

page 100, 22.0%: “Ok, Dickens wins this round—the trial scene is gripping and I now want to know how Darnay and Carton end up in Paris, since so far they’re still in London. I think the legal stuff has really swayed it for me; why is Dickens so good at it?”  

Having read the Introduction, I think the reason Dickens is so good at legal stuff is because he was a court reporter for a time, in his early twenties. Anyway, things pick up five years later, when Charles Darnay is on trial in London for being a French spy. Lucie and Doctor Manette are witnesses at his trial, since they were also passengers with him on the return boat from Calais five years ago. Sydney Carton, a dissolute young lawyer, saves Darnay’s life by pointing out that there’s a strong physical resemblance between the two of them, so that the witnesses can’t be completely sure it was Darnay they saw. (He isn’t a spy, of course, but that isn’t really the point.)

As seems to happen fairly often in Dickens, people who have come together publicly in this manner end up becoming bosom pals. Darnay and Carton both end up visiting the Manettes frequently, as does Jarvis Lorry. Both young men fall in love with Lucie (of course they do! Of course!), and Darnay ends up marrying her. Before he does, he confides a “terrible secret” about his real name to Dr. Manette, who is seriously disturbed by it but promises never to reveal the truth to his daughter. (Because telling the truth to women leads to all sorts of complications!)

page 185, 41.0%: “I have decided that I quite like Madame Defarge. I’m probably not meant to—at least, from everything I heard about this book in childhood, I think I’m not meant to—but she seems like a pretty boss biddy and a champion of the people, so what’s not to like?”

Okay, so here is where things are actually interesting, because I’ll be honest with you: I don’t care that much about the English party. Like, I don’t want Darnay to die, and I want Carton to stop getting wasted every night and realise his full intellectual potential, and etc., but they’re kind of dull and rich-ish and we’re so obviously meant to like them that I don’t really want to. But Madame Defarge is a Bloody Difficult Woman, and therefore worth our attention.

The thing that got me about A Tale of Two Cities—the thing that I think makes it an astonishing book, as opposed to a basically sentimental tale about self-sacrifice—is the way Dickens handles the Defarges. Around page 185, Madame Defarge is being painted as a leader of her people. The women of her poor urban neighbourhood rally around her as they would around a general. She is an intelligence channel, a node in a network of revolutionary spies, a sleeper cell. Her husband does most of the legwork, and she knits names into her register of the condemned, but basically it’s all up in her head. She carries a pistol and a dagger. She is the brains. And she takes the long view:

“I tell thee,” said madame, extending her right hand for emphasis, “that although it is a long time on the road, it is on the road and coming. I tell thee it never retreats, and never stops. …Look around and consider the lives of all the world that we know…the rage and discontent. …Can such things last?”

“My brave wife,” returned Defarge, “…I do not question all this. But it has lasted a long time, and it is possible—you know well, my wife, it is possible—that it may not come, during our lives.”

… “We shall have helped it,” returned madame. “Nothing that we do, is done in vain. I believe, with all my soul, that we shall see the triumph.”

It’s actually quite stirring rhetoric, quite beautiful and inspirational: I believe with all my soul that we shall see the triumph. It’s the sort of thing that oppressed people, from the slaves of the Deep South to the peasants of Siberia to the suffragettes of England, have said throughout history. And, in and of itself, it is righteous.

The brilliance of A Tale of Two Cities is in how Dickens shows that righteousness spiraling out of control into bloodlust. By page 345, with Darnay condemned to die for the crimes (which are serious and awful) of his aristocratic ancestors, we have this conversation occurring amongst the Defarges and their co-conspirators:

“The Evrémonde people are to be exterminated, and the wife and child must follow the husband and father.”

“She has a fine head for it,” croaked Jacques Three. “I have seen blue eyes and golden hair there, and they looked charming when Samson held them up.” Ogre that he was, he spoke like an epicure. …”The child also,” observed Jacques Three, with a meditative enjoyment of his words, “has golden hair and blue eyes. And we seldom have a child there. It is a pretty sight.”

That, undeniably, is sick. No Revolution’s aims can be achieved by murdering children, no matter who their parents and grandparents have been. And yet, as Madame Defarge says with dispassion in reply to Lucie’s pleas for mercy, “The wives and mothers we have been used to see, since we were as little as this child… we have known their husbands and fathers laid in prison and kept from them, often enough… We have borne this a long time. Judge you! Is it likely that the trouble of one wife and mother would be much to us now?”

A Tale of Two Cities also captures the sense of what it’s like to live in the midst of civil unrest as a foreigner. The English party—Jarvis Lorry, the Manettes’ servants—are basically safe, since they are not French citizens, but the upheaval in the city is so profound that they can never be sure, from day to day, whether their situation has changed. I imagine it’s a little like being a BBC correspondent in a war zone, or a Red Cross worker: your status ought to be enough to protect you, and often, in a formal sense, is; but no one can account for the mistakes, the accidental car bomb or the ricocheting bullet. In the same spirit of constant fear and vigilance, we see Miss Pross, the Manettes’ housekeeper, set out on her errands: a more English woman you could hardly hope to see, but she still wants to buy the tomatoes as quickly as possible and get back inside. I would like to see someone adapt the story to a modern-day revolutionary zone, perhaps the Sudan in the early 2000s.

Anyway, I’ve now read my Annual Winter Dickens (trademark pending) and I’m glad I did, even though it felt in many ways not very Dickensian. I’m entering the realm of the obscure Dickenses now; the ones left are Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, Edwin Drood, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, and The Pickwick Papers. Any suggestions for which to tackle next year?

My copy of A Tale of Two Cities is published by Oxford University Press, as part of the Oxford World’s Classics series.

25 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

  1. I agree that Two Cities is not typical Dickens, and I much prefer the more expansive novels. You’ve managed to read more Dickens than me, I think, if that’s your whole list of titles remaining. And I call him my favourite author! Sigh. The last time I attempted one of his books was in 2012. It was his bicentennial year and I had these grand plans of reading all the rest of his books but only got 1/4 of the way through Dombey and Son and gave up. I think my epic fail that year discouraged me. So I’m looking for my next Dickens too — the one that will get me back into him! I quite enjoyed Nicholas Nickleby and would recommend it as your next one.

    1. I’ve been thinking about Nickleby for a while now! It’s a relatively early one, I think, so it has that maniacal, larger-than-life quality; even the villains are so excessive you can’t really be alarmed by them (unlike, say, Great Expectations; I’ve always found Magwitch proper scary). Dombey and Son takes a while, I agree, and though it isn’t one of my favourites, I remember getting into it eventually!

    2. Also! I don’t know which ones you’ve read, but I loved Our Mutual Friend (although Bleak House will forever be my favourite) and it’s one of the big ‘uns—maybe the one to get you back into him?

      1. I haven’t read Our Mutual Friend, so you may well be right. I vaguely remember a TV adaptation some years back, but that shouldn’t spoil anything for me. (David Copperfield is my favourite.)

      2. I liked Copperfield, too! I was expecting not to, so it was a pleasant surprise. (Betsey Trotwood really made that book for me.)

      3. (“Don-KEYS!” Yes, Aunt Betsey is wonderful.) I’ve been remembering that John Irving says though he’s read the rest of Dickens many times, he’s saving Our Mutual Friend for his deathbed read.

  2. I haven’t read nearly as much Dickens as you, but Bleak House is my favourite so far. I’m actually a little worried that I won’t be ably to top it.
    I did like A Tale of Two Cities, though. I didn’t like the way Lucie was portrayed – she was pretty irritating. And poor Carton… But I did like so many things about it. Thanks for the refresher!

    1. So far, nothing has topped Bleak House for me, but Our Mutual Friend came close, and I also think Great Expectations might be, objectively, the most perfect book he wrote (the big ones, though great, are kind of baggy in places—loveable but I guess a technical flaw in some eyes!)

  3. Well I’m going to read The Pickwick Papers sometime soonish. May or may not be the start of a very long term chronological read of all of novels. As Madame might say, I beleive in my soul I’ll finish them in my lifetime, heh.

    1. That’s a cool idea! I’m focusing on the novels at the moment, but he wrote SO much other stuff (stories, plays, pamphlets, ephemera). Mostly I’ve decided I don’t care about those, but I’ll run out of novels eventually and maybe then they’ll be tempting…

  4. This is actually my favourite of all the Dickens novels I’ve read so far – and I think that’s partly because it’s so different from his others. I have most of the same obscure ones left to read too, although I have read Edwin Drood and enjoyed it, despite it being unfinished!

      1. Unfortunately it stops halfway through (probably a bit more than halfway, actually) and although I could guess how it was going to end, it was still very frustrating! I was really enjoying it up to that point, though, so I do think it’s worth reading.

      2. How tantalising! Yes, I’m definitely going to have a go at it—but maybe after I’ve finished all the completed ones.

      3. There have been various attempts to ‘finish’ Drood over the years. I remember there was a BBC adaptation a few years back, but I never saw the end to see what they did with it.

      4. Have you read Jasper Fforde’s books? There’s a bit in the third one (The Well of Lost Plots) where a fictional character threatens another one by demanding, “Did you ever wonder what happened to Edwin Drood?!”, which always makes me giggle.

      5. The third is my fave; the other two were enjoyable but The Well of Lost Plots is where you can really book-nerd out.

  5. Funny how your list of obscure Dickens is all the early ones (except the unfinished Edwin Drood). Those were the ones most loved by the Victorians, but now the order has been inverted.

    I’m quite partial to Martin Chuzzlewit, which has a great portrait of hypocrisy in Pecksniff and a funny grotesque in Mrs Gamp. All of the ones in the list are a bit patchy, though. The art of skimming comes in handy with Dickens, at times.

    1. Really?! Who knew? I suppose I knew about the excessive adoration for Little Nell, but I can’t imagine a time when Barnaby Rudge was ever flying off shelves… (That’s probably just me lacking imagination. I’m sure it’s great. Also, Martin Chuzzlewit is very tempting…)

  6. You make me want to tackle this book! Very interested in your comments about Madame Defarge and this novel does sound more nuanced in its take on the revolution than I had assumed. Have read only two of Dickens- Bleak House and Great Expectations and they are superb if a little exhausting.

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