Friday, March 27, 2015

Adventure classics -- A Dickens of a take on revolution

A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens


After spending much of March looking at the lighthearted adventures of The Scarlet Pimpernel, it became increasingly difficult to overlook the contributions of Charles Dickens to what I can only call the subgenre of historical novels about the French Revolution. At a guess, writings about it, in fiction at least, outnumber those of any other revolution in history. It had everything great cinema should have, before cinema was even invented: casts of thousands rampaging through one of the world’s most supposedly civilized cities, beautiful people dying horribly, and that creepiest engine of mass slaughter, the guillotine.

And across the Channel, aristocrats already smarting from defeat in America were terrified by the close approach of revolution to their own shores while English reformers hailed the French Revolution as a victory for humanity. Midway through the next century, Charles Dickens added his 1859 A Tale of Two Cities to the discussion, coming down firmly on both sides.

There’s a reason you haven’t seen many of Dickens’ works in this blog: I’m terrified of the interminable length of most of his novels, the gigantic casts, the now often opaque humor. I didn’t realize I’d hit upon what literary scholar Norrie Epstein in The Friendly Dickens terms his least “Dickensian” book.

It’s comparatively short, about 135,000 words, compared to more than 183,000 for Great Expectations or nearly 300,000 for The Pickwick Papers, two Dickens’ novels I was force fed in school. The cast is small, too. There are, as Epstein notes, “no quirky characters with memorable tag phrases or gestures”. Meanwhile, the guillotine towers over everyone, including “the sexiest male character Dickens every created,” antihero Sydney Carton.

It’s the story of incognito French aristocrat Charles Darnay, twice saved from death by his resemblance to English lawyer Carton. Darnay is first saved when he is falsely accused of treason against England, when his defense relies on the resemblance to Carton to overturn the testimony of the perjured witnesses. In the courtroom, Darnay and Carton meet the golden-haired Lucie Manette they both love. Darnay wins Lucie. Still, Carton loves her enough to tell her that if anyone she loves is ever in trouble, she can count on him.

Then Darnay returns to France to aid an old servant and falls foul of one of Dickens’ most amazing villains, Madame Defarge of the knitting needles and the insatiable desire for vengeance for the wrongs Darnay’s family inflicted on hers. I was surprised to find Dickens dwelling almost as much on Madame Defarge’s comeliness as on her bloodthirstiness, “her dark hair looked rich under her coarse red cap” as she strode through the Parisian alleyways, walking “with the supple freedom of a woman who had habitually walked in her girlhood, barefoot and bare-legged, on the brown sea sand.”

Will Lucie dare ask Carton for help in this extremity? And will he be willing to perform that “far, far better thing” that has eluded him all his life? Don’t just flip to the last page or you’ll miss the story’s greatest suspense as Carton and the madam play a deadly game.

Which leaves me wondering: why couldn’t the heroine have been more like Madame Defarge instead of the passive “golden-haired doll” that is Lucie?

The answer is, because Dickens had fallen passionately in love with another golden-haired doll, actress Ellen “Nelly” Ternan. She was in her teens, he in his forties, with a wife and nine children, some of them older than Ternan. The affair destroyed Dickens’ personal reputation. But in the mysterious way of art, it gave birth to one of his greatest tales.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics begins an April of mysterious adventures with Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Yellow Room.)

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