The day after my birthday my husband took me out for a surprise birthday date. On our way, I was telling him that I wanted to start my project by re-reading A Tale of Two Cities. I don’t know why, but that book jumped to mind and I had my heart set on it. I also thought we had a copy on our bookshelf, but when I went to check we had plenty of Dickens, collected through years of joint graduate education and general overschooling, but no Tale of Two Cities. So I had been hoping to run out to the local chain of second-hand bookstores (you read that right – Houston has a chain of used bookstores!), Half-Price Books, which is really one of the best things about the city. When Mark and I snobbishly disdain what our elite urban sensibilities deem to be Houston’s insufficient cosmopolitanism, it’s not because of a lack of discount used bookstores. In any case, I never made it to the bookstore that afternoon, and I was getting anxious about getting started on the book and on the project in general without procrastinating so much at the beginning of the year so as to make the end of the year miserable or render the project simply impossible.
At that moment (and yes, I know this sounds like a reality show that is not only terribly boring but might also be scripted) we passed a Half-Price Books (really, we did – a less unbelievable development when you remember it’s a chain of stores). And my devoted and loving husband said, with no hint of mockery, which, of course, would have been warranted, “Do you want me to turn around?” I nodded, and after one harrowing hairpinny turn through the nearly full parking lot of what must have been a very popular Mexican restaurant, we were back at the bookstore. I’m pretty sure I’m the only woman on earth who would make her husband turn around to stop at a used bookstore while en route to a surprise birthday dinner, but that’s why he loves me, folks.
The wonders did not cease there, either. Not only were there five copies of A Tale of Two Cities to choose from – I chose on the basis of print size (largish), book condition (like new), and fabulous cover art (see for yourself) – but it cost me only 49 cents. And, dear readers, there’s nothing I love as much as a bargain, so it was a fine birthday present indeed.
Again, I’m not sure why I decided to start with this particular book, but I am a huge fan of 19th-century English literature, especially the usual suspects: Austen, Eliot, Hardy, the Brontes, and Dickens. Except I probably haven’t read any Dickens since high school, and am at risk of having my high-culture card revoked, so Dickens it is. Re-reading the book I realized again why I love 19th-century English literature: it reminds me that all of my first-world anxiety about how far the culture has fallen (hello, Kardashians!) is misplaced; people of all classes always had prurient interest in other people’s (especially rich or famous people’s) lives, it’s just that now we have many more and more efficient delivery methods for public intrigue. Dickens doesn’t gloss over the ill effects of our gossip mongering, allowing cultural elites of the digital age to feel a delicious bond of snobbery when he writes things like, “Whatever gloss the various spectators put upon the interest [in this case, in seeing a man sentenced to death], according to their several arts and powers of self-deceit, the interest was, at the root of it, ogreish.” Ogreish. Oh, snap.
A quick synopsis: the story details the lives of Doctor Manette, a former prisoner of the Bastille now living in England with his daughter Lucie; her eventual husband, the somewhat mysterious French teacher and former aristocrat Charles Darnay (né D’Aulnais né Evrémonde); Sydney Carton, an alcoholic lawyer who befriends the Manettes and is in love with Lucie; and an assortment of more or less Dickensian sidekicks and minor characters. In the first two parts, we are drawn into the lives of the characters, Charles and Lucie’s marriage and family, and their happy little circle of friends. In the third part of the novel, Charles returns to France in the midst of the Revolution in order to save a family functionary from a death sentence he believes is unjust, thinking that his long-distance and somewhat feeble attempts to not wholly exploit the peasants who live on his family’s land will save him from a similar fate. He’s right, up to a point. Then, enter Madame Defarge, a woman with a family grudge and a scarf knitted with the names of her enemies a mile long. Charles is sentenced to La Guillotine, and the last quarter of the book is occupied with the morally and narratively satisfying intrigue that (spoiler alert!) leads to a (mostly) happy ending.
A Tale of Two Cities’ claim to fame, of course, is one of the most famous openings in the history of literature: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” etc. The opening is also the first deployment of one of the primary themes of the novel – twinning. Here we have pairs of opposites – best/worst, wisdom/foolishness, belief/incredulity, and so on – presenting us with the fact of the constant coexistence of contradiction and ambivalence in everyday life, in a time very much “like the present period.” The historical moment in which the novel is set, the French Revolution, is “like the present period,” or our own, insofar as injustice and mob rule continue to reign supreme, which, if you have read the newspapers lately is, of course, the case.
This pairing of opposites extends to people, and the slightly melodramatic plot of the novel hinges on one of these twin pairings: the doppelgängers Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, the former a lapsed French aristocrat of impeccable morals and integrity, the latter a dissolute lawyer of, it turns out, impeccable morals and integrity. Our continuing fascination with doppelgängers makes sense: seeing a stranger who looks just (or nearly just) like you opens you to the possibility of the life unlived, the path not taken. You, too, could have been the star of Dirty Dancing (people always say I look like Jennifer Grey [before the nose job])! No spoilers, but here the payoff isn’t quite as enticing as grinding with Patrick Swayze, at least for Sydney Carton, but even he knows that in the assertively Christian moral universe of the novel, a narcissistic drunk has to meet a bad end. He tells Lucie early on, in what is not the most subtle piece of foreshadowing ever, “I am like one who died young. All my life might have been.” Well then.
The intrusion of that overt Christianity, with its suggestions of moral superiority and look-down-your-nose snobbery, is really the only irritating thing about a book that is otherwise socially, politically, and historically astute at the same time as it is a thoroughly engaging, plot-driven story. Even the Christian themes are handled nicely: there’s a charming little jokey subplot involving grave robbing (which later plays a key role in the main plot) that toys with the theme of resurrection, first introduced when Doctor Manette is released from the Bastille and, in the words of the novel, “recalled to life.” It’s only when Sydney wanders around Paris reciting the lines Jesus says to Martha before the resurrection of Lazarus (“I am the resurrection and the life,” etc., etc.) or the narrative characterizes the French revolutionaries as godless barbarians that it becomes a little heavy handed.
A small criticism, really, particularly as I’m now inclined to accept the bad with the good, the dark with the light, and the occasional authorial overreach in a classic novel.