The list of ‘classic books’ yet to fill my waking hours is long, but whilst I am embarked on a lengthy (albeit belated) campaign to put that right, I was inspired to elevate this Dickens novel based on a recommendation read in ‘The Big Issue’. Alas, I don’t remember the name of the celebrity endorser, but my reasoning was that if the book is worthy of inclusion on anyone’s list of five favourite novels, it has to be worth a read. In any event, it proved a good call.
The titular cities are of course London and Paris, towards the end of the eighteenth century, when the capital cities of England and France were presiding over tumultuous and historic social change. As our Gallic cousins warmed to the task of revolution and the permanent overthrow of their aristocracy through systemic decapitation, a newfound population of Anglophiles crossed the channel to escape the carnage. However, what is so delightful about Dickens’ approach to this dramatic backdrop and a hallmark of the author’s writing, is his primary focus on the working and middle classes and an exposé of his characters’ experiences, amid the shifting tectonic plates of European politics. Dickens can also be relied upon to craft for the reader extravagant phrases in which to luxuriate and there can be few more famous openings.
“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 directly to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way….”
The novel is split into three ‘books’. ‘Book the first’ (“Recalled to life”), set in 1775, introduces Mr Jarvis Lorry, dutiful employee of Tellson’s bank and regular traveller between the firm’s London and Paris offices. He is to chaperone Miss Lucie Manette, whom he previously escorted to safety in England upon the death of her parents, back to Paris, to explore news that her father may in fact be alive. Dr Manette was a physician of some repute and has been imprisoned for many years ‘in secret’ before being released, an apparently broken man, to the dubious care of his former servant, Monsieur Defarge, now proprietor of a wine shop in the St. Antoine district. Indeed, Dickens’ description of the garret room in the attic used to incarcerate Dr Manette, as surely as the Bastille, the pitiable occupant and the loathsome landlord quickly establish for the reader a vignette of the approaching tempest and the descent into wider chaos.
Book 2 – “The Golden Thread”, picks up the story in London five years later (1780) and establishes Manette’s daughter, Lucie, as another key character. Uniting her father “to a Past beyond his misery, and to a Present beyond his misery…” Lucie dotes on her resurrected father and nurses him back to relative health and in so doing comes to the attention of another imperilled refugee from France, Charles Darnay and the two English lawyers who help successfully defend him from a charge of treason at The Bailey.
Notwithstanding Darnay denounces his heritage, the nephew of a despised French Marquis, any return to the country of his birth is likely to be fraught with danger. Moreover, his marriage to Lucie and their subsequent child confers similar risks to his family. Throughout, Dickens cultivates a stark contrast on either side of the channel and the operation of Tellson’s bank as the means of connecting affairs in Paris and London feels remarkably contemporary. But, while England plays host to the peaceful pursuit of life among family and friends, exemplified in Charles and Lucie, in France Monsieur and Madame Defarge are at the eye of the revolutionary storm. By 1792, the rising tide of discontent is watched ominously, as the Monseignor are scattered and take to their elite heels. For those with foresight, a foreign bank is a sensible depository for assets, but also acts as a magnet for revolutionary agents, to ensnare the treacherous upper class and slake the public thirst for bloody retribution.
However, though safely ensconced in England, when Darnay receives a letter from an imprisoned loyal servant of his family, clearly he does the honourable thing and returns to France, leaving letters for his wife and father-in-law.
Finally, Book 3 – “The Track of a Storm” magnifies the tension surrounding Darnay’s inevitable imprisonment and impending execution, through the selfless courage of his family and friends, who attend despite the risks. The cat and mouse tactics of Madame Defarge especially, desperate to seal the fate of the whole family, merely preying on casualties of a depraved process of social cleansing.
Still, cometh the hour, cometh the man and the final sacrifice is tragically heroic, but Dickens also reinforces the notion that nobility of character is not the sole preserve of the aristocracy. Indeed, the doctor, the banker, the lawyer and the daughter are all exceptional in their courage and fortitude and provide a glorious panoply of the human spirit. Again, Dickens has the turn of phrase to match the poignancy of the moment
"…It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
For me, this is tale that stands the test of time and though the reader glimpses exceptional demonstrations of love, its examination of the corrupting potential of power is the more potent lesson, as is the need for good people to show courage and resolve for what is right.
In a timely update of the story, an adaption by BBC Radio 4 last weekend also gave the tale a contemporary twist, linking London instead with Aleppo (Syria). It remains powerful stuff, though perhaps sobering that the human experience continues to incorporate such destructive tendencies centuries later.