It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. That line, and the cadence it sets in place, opens one of the best known beginnings to a novel in all of British literature. And if Martin Amis, JK Rowling, or Stuart MacBride tried to duplicate Dickens’ opening paragraph, we’d throttle them all within an inch of their lives.
That said, Charles Dickens thus begins one of his few historical novels, A Tale of Two Cities. The book is in three parts, the beginning aptly called “Recalled to Life.” The title comes from a message delivered to Mr. Jarvis Lorry, a London banker, as he learns that a very important client has been found alive in France. He travels to Paris with Lucie Manette to retrieve her father, Dr. Alexander Manette. The good doctor has been locked up in Paris’s infamous Bastille for seventeen years, driven mad and taken to shoe making to keep his demons at bay. He leaves a political hero to the underground peasant movement plotting to overthrow the repressive monarchy.
Little do they realize this has set a series of events in motion. It will bring Lucie in contact with Charles Darnay, her future husband. When two British spies try to frame Darnay as a collaborator with those upstart Americans flipping King George III the royal bird, she also meets Sydney Carton, a brilliant, but thoroughly self-loathing, barrister who gets Darnay off. Both men fall hard for Lucie. Sydney is too spineless to press his affections (or stop his law partner from using him to further his own career). Darnay, on the other hand, has told his vicious uncle, known as The Marquis, to take his inheritance and shove it. The peasants, led by Monsieur and Madame Defarge, give Darnay the chance to put his money where his mouth is by killing the Marquis rather brutally after Darnay leaves for England.
It’s the Defarges who are the true villains in this story. One can certainly understand why the peasants and merchants were ready to overthrow the monarchy and the Church in France. Whereas England had a semblance of democracy and had just unwillingly spun a real one off over in North America, France’s nobility and clergy had elevated bastardry to a level that would make the Spanish Inquisition shiver. Over the course of the book (and 20 years) Madam Defarge goes from the secret keeper for freedom fighters to a twisted, evil copy of the people she seeks to overthrow.
The Defarges lure Darnay back to France with only one purpose in mind: To kill him for the crime of being the nephew of a hated noble, and his wife and child for the crime of being his family. Darnay is tried, freed, tried again, and sentenced to the guillotine. It is only when Sydney Carton, still hating life and still carrying a torch for Lucie, comes to France to defend Darnay that he is saved. However, no amount of Carton’s legal brilliance does the trick. Carton realizes he bears a resemblance to Darnay. Drugging the condemned man, he calls the jailer and sends an ill “Sydney Carton” home to England with “his” wife and child.
We often hear stories of the American Revolution, how patriots and loyalists argued over independence up to the day Cornwallis surrendered, then set about patching things up with England. Most revolutions don’t go so well. In France, in Russia, in countless South American countries, the old regime is overthrown, usually after a prolonged period of repression, only to have the victors indulge in even worse repression than what was overthrown.
Dickens not only captures this well, but the causes of the French Revolution from a purely human standpoint. Yes, the Defarges and their cohorts eventually perform unspeakable acts. However, it’s pretty clear the nobles and clergy in France brought this on themselves with their sense of superiority and entitlement that was completely unearned.