Everyone knows the opening lines from A Tale of Two Cities; It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…What I didn’t know was just how graphic Dickens depicted the French Revolution and its subsequent Reign of Terror.
A French doctor is falsely imprisoned for 18 years, reunites with his daughter who falls in love with the nephew of a cruel Marquis who, in turn, is later imprisoned, released, arrested again and sentenced to death. Egads and with a bloody backdrop of bloodthirsty and vengeful peasants, murderous rampages and much use of the guillotine.
Doctor Manette paces in his room and continues shoemaking, habits used to while away his time in prison. He eventually adjusts to life outside and is happy living in England with his daughter. When a crisis arises, he uses his reputation to help keep another man out of prison and succeeds only to have him eventually sentenced to die. He never quite restores his reputation and seems to falter thereafter.
The unlikely hero, Sydney Carton is an alcoholic attorney who most tolerate without any attempt at understanding him. He has as much contempt for himself as others do of him and he does not deny its appropriateness. Of course he falls for the doctor’s young daughter, Lucie, knowing a union will never be, yet he earns her admiration and ultimately her utmost gratitude. This was a truly tender and honorable gentleman.
The poster child for the Reign of Terror, Madame Defarge, is a cruel, relentless and vengeful woman. She knows no mercy and holds her place near the guillotine, knitting while she eagerly awaits the multiple executions. She holds onto a grudge against the doctor’s son-in-law and bestows her judgment to his new extended family without an ounce of pity for wife or child. This is a woman you should run from, screaming, and quickly.
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.
The faintness of the voice was pitiable and dreadful. It was not the faintness of physical weakness, though confinement and hard fare no doubt had their part init. Its deplorable peculiarity was, that is was the faintness of solitude and disuse. It was like the last feeble echo of a sound made long and long ago. So entirely had it lost the life and resonance of the human voice, that it affected the senses like a once beautiful colour faded away into a poor weak stain. So sunken and suppressed it was, that it was like a voice underground. So expressive it was, of a hopeless and lost creature, that a famished traveller, wearied out by lonely wandering in a wilderness , would have remembered home and friends in such a tone before lying down to die.
Then, began one of those extraordinary scenes with which the populace sometimes gratified their fickleness, or their better impulses towards generosity and mercy, or which they regarded as some set-off against their swollen account of cruel rage. No man can decide now to which of these motives such extraordinary scenes were referable; it is probable, to a blending of all the three, with the second predominating. No sooner was the acquittal pronounced,than tears were shed as freely as blood at another time, and such fraternal embraces were bestowed upon the prisoner by as many of both sexes as could rush at him, that after his long and unwholesome confinement he was in danger of fainting from exhaustion; none the less because he knew very well, that the very same people, carried by another current, would have rushed at him with the very same intensity, to rend him to pieces and strew him over the streets.
I would relish a moment with Mr. Dickens and would love to hear his opinion on current day world affairs. Perhaps he’d share what got his creative juices flowing and how he was able to sustain his serial publications. Whether discussing the old or the new, this is one gentlemen I’d be in awe of.
My rating for A Tale of Two Cities is a 9 out of 10.
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Next up, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure…