Tuesday, May 15, 2012

I Read Books: A Tale of Two Cities

1. Dan Brown Eat Your Heart Out

My Dickens (re)-read has now reached A Tale of Two Cities, not just Dickens' bestselling book, not just history's bestselling novel, but according to the methodology adopted by the Wikipedia List of best-selling books page [1], the bestselling book ever. This is what it's all about people. Forget the characters, psychology, the foundations of the detective novel, the zany plots, the evocative descriptions, the campaigns for social justice. Dickens has sold 200 Megacopies of this one novel. You've got to respect that.

2. The Fellowship of the Best of Times

This will be more spoilery than my previous reviews, which I hope is okay for a 153 year-old out-of-copyright novel available from many good bookstores and for free on the internet[2] which has sold more copies than any other book. Anyway, compared to most of the Dickens novels I've read so far it has a much cleaner plot, smaller cast of characters, and, in fact, less pages and words. Could it's brevity be part of it's popularity? That and many other points are covered in this, the last in a series of essays on the top 10 bestselling books from that Wikipedia list I referred to earlier.

Anyway, we open on the road from London to Dover, where Mr Lorry is on his way to France. He meets with Lucy Manette and reveals that her father, Dr Manette, is not dead, but has been a prisoner in the Bastille for many years. He has been released, but has gone mad, obsessed with making shoes. They find him in the care of the Defarges, a husband and wife who were previously his servants, but are now wine shop owners and clandestine revolutionaries. Dr Manette initially doesn't recognise anything, but eventually compares Lucy to her (dead) mother and is convinced to journey with them to London.

3. A Tale of Two Towers

In part two we find ourselves at the treason trial of Charles Darnay at the Old Bailey. He has been framed, but is got off partly due to intervention of the self-loathing barrister Sydney Carton, who discredits some testimony by revealing himself to look almost identical to Darnay[3].

In Paris, a Marquis who is so posh that he needs four men to serve him his morning chocolate, runs down a child in his coach and tosses the father a coin. At his estate he meets his nephew, Darnay who is so ashamed of his families inhumanity as aristocrats, he has changed his name and moved to England. That night the Marquis is killed by the father. Sometime later the man is caught and hanged, above the village fountain which poisons the water.

Darnay returns to England and becomes the successful one of three suitors for Lucy Manette's hand. The other two are Darnay's barrister from the trial and his partner Sydney Carton[4], who promises to "embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you"[3]. Darnay reveals his family name to Dr Manette on the morning of the wedding which triggers a brief relapse, but Dr Manette soon recovers and Lorry and Miss Pross the housekeeper destroy the shoe making tools.

The Bastille is stormed with the Defarges in the lead. Following a comment of Dr Manette, M Defarge investigates One Hundred and Five North Tower. Meanwhile the Darnays have had a daughter (also a son who died) and have formed an extended family that includes Dr Manette, the bachelor Lorry, the housekeeper Miss Pross and (sometimes) Carton. Lorry is called to Paris to deal with the branch of the bank that he works for, because things have got a bit tricky what with the French Revolution. Then Darnay gets a letter from the agent/tax collector of his uncle who has been seized for being part of the ancien regime, although many years ago Darnay instructed him to only collect the Kings taxes, not rent or anything else.

4. The Return of the Worst of Times

Darnay goes to Paris to testify in favour of the agent but is arrested. Dr Manette, Lucy and family come to Paris to try and free him. As a skilled physician, former inmate of the Bastille, and friend of the influential Defarges, Dr Manette is greatly respected by the Republican authorities. However Darnay is nevertheless imprisoned for more than a year. He's finally tried, Manette gets him released and then he's arrested again that same day.

At the second trial Darnay is denounced as the new Marquis and Defarge reveals what he found in the Bastille - a manuscript written by Dr Manette that details the crimes of Darnay's father and uncle and that Manette was locked up to hide the truth. Darnay is sentenced to the Guillotine.

Carton then engineers an escape, taking the place of Darnay while forcing Darnay to take his carriage seat. In the end he finds redemption in the form of accepting his latent Christianity before being executed.

5. A Far Far Better Review

So we have secrets, conspiracy, a love story, legal dramas, redemption, rapid changes of fortune, unrequited love and sacrifice, not to mention Dickens' trademark concern for social justice - pay attention guys, because if you don't learn this lesson, the Terror could happen here too. Still bestselling book of all time? It's not that this is a bad novel - overwritten and melodramatic in that Dickensian/Victorian style as it is, it's still pretty cool - but it's no Bleak House or Great Expectations. Perhaps that's what makes it appealing - it's Dickens stripped down with a sleek plot and compact cast of characters. It's also a historical novel - of a period almost, but not quite out of living memory in 1859 when the book was published. It was late in Dickens career, when his reputation was unmatched in the world of English Letters. I don't know. I was expecting more somehow.

Read This: If you like to read Dickens, and want to see his version of a streamlined historical potboiler. Also if you like knitting.
Don't Read This: If you don't like 19th century fiction at all, or if your favourite part of Dickens are huge casts of wacky characters with funny names and convoluted subplots of dubious likelihood. Also not too many jokes in this one.
In Translation: There's a literalness to the translation of characters when they speak French. This is mostly fine, but sometimes a bit clunky.
Available online for free: All over the place, but here's Project Gutenberg.

[1] "This list is incomplete, since there are many books ... which are commonly cited as 'best-selling books' yet have no reliable sales figures."  "Religious books, especially The Bible, the Qur'an and the Bhagavad Gita are probably the most-printed books, but it is nearly impossible to find reliable sales figures for them. Print figures are missing or unreliable since these books are produced by many different and unrelated publishers. Furthermore, many copies of the Bible, the Qur'an and the Bhagavad Gita are printed and given away free, instead of being sold. The same goes for some political books..."
[2] If it's not okay, I suggest that you stop reading this post and complain in the comments. I will treat any such criticism with the respect it deserves.
[3] This is an important plot point.
[4] Carton, alcoholic and depressive, actually declares himself too dissipated to be considered, but, you know, if anyone could have saved him from his life of iniquity... Frankly that's not really the declaration you should make to a woman about to be married. Also, seriously, what is his problem? He's a good detail lawyer who wastes his talent as the partner of a brilliant trial lawyer? In some circles we call that a law firm. He drinks too much, but he seems pretty high functioning. If he has other sins, the hints are too subtle for my 21st century brain to pick them out. I can't help thinking that he needs some anti-depresseants, or possibly (and within the capabilities of an 18th century gentleman) just a change of scene, more exercise and a healthier diet with a minimal amount of booze.
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