A Tale of Two Cities may be the best-selling novel of all time. Wikipedia’s list of best-selling novels gives it top spot, but the citation for its sales is a Telegraph article by novelist David Mitchell in which he makes a passing comment to that effect. Other sources agree, but I’ve come up with nothing authoritative. Still others say Don Quijote or Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. But the Tale is definitely up there. For the Dickensian, it’s an odd one. It is not very Dickensian, in some respects. It has little in the way of comedy, with only the grave-robber Jerry Cruncher playing a comic role, with his constant suspicions that his wife is “floppin'” against him. Even that has an uncomfortable edge of darkness in the suggestions of domestic abuse. Reading the book, I was reminded of George Orwell’s comment on Dickens:
He is all fragments, all details – rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles.
The Tale is pretty short and streamlined, so it has very few gargoyles. If Orwell is right, it’s lacking the very thing that makes Dickens special. Ironic, then, that it’s apparently his most read book.
But the great advantage the book has had is its historical setting. The French Revolution remains fascinating as an example of things falling apart, humanity going way out there, a civilized society giving way to wholesale butchery of its own citizens. It is, and certainly was in the 19th-century, something that needs to be made sense of. Even very recently, Jonathan Nolan, co-scriptwriter of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) cited this as the reason he tried to draw on the Tale for his script:
A Tale of Two Cities was, to me, one of the most harrowing portraits of a relatable, recognizable civilization that completely folded to pieces with the terrors in Paris in France in that period. It’s hard to imagine that things can go that badly wrong.
So the book can appeal to the many people to whom the idea of literature in its purest form is uninteresting. This isn’t just literature; it’s an interpretation of a great and cataclysmic historical event. It’s both dramatic and instructive. There’s a way into the story for the non-literary. Dickens and his contemporaries would have been more aware of this element than many academic readers of today. They had read their Carlyle, for starters:
[L]et any one bethink him how impressive the smallest historical fact may become, as contrasted with the grandest fictitious event; what an incalculable force lies for us in this Consideration: The Thing which I hold here imaged in my mind did actually occur; was, in very truth, an element of the All, whereof I too form part; had, therefore, and has, through all time, an authentic being; is not a dream, but a reality! (“Biography”, 1832)
What Carlyle wanted, and what he got, was novelists using the raw materials of society and of history to construct their works upon. Fiction is not a realm apart, but is, to a great extent, a way of making sense of the world and of humanity.
And Dickens certainly had a message about the French Revolution and how his readers were to make sense of it, albeit a fairly obvious one: it was a result of aristocratic greed, selfishness and negligence. It was payback. If the peasants had been better treated, it wouldn’t have happened.
It was too much the way of Monseigneur under his reverses as a refugee, and it was much too much the way of native British orthodoxy, to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown—as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it—as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitably coming, years before, and had not in plain words recorded what they saw. (Bk. II, Ch. 24)
This philosophy provides part of the architecture of the book: show the evils of the ancien regime, and then show the “harvest”. In the many reflections of such themes throughout the book, Dickens adopts a sternly portentous tone, contributing to the impression of humourlessness the book creates. It’s Dickens playing the role of the sage, incorporating his reading of Carlyle into his writing style. But it’s probably the seriousness of tone of this book that recommends it to latter-day readers like Jonathan Nolan. Indeed, the time may be ripe for a new adaptation of the Tale – incredibly, there doesn’t seem to have been a cinematic adaptation since the Dirk Bogarde one of 1958, according to an IMDb search. Maybe 2011-2012 would have been the time, with the Arab Spring, the European financial meltdown, and a generalized anger against political structures and politicians, for a Tale for our times.
Any new approach to the book would have to change a lot. Though Dickens’ humour is mostly absent, his other prominent characteristic of sentimentality is very much present. This centres mostly on the egregious Lucie Manette, one of the Dickensian dolls modern-day readers (me included) find insufferable. Despite the subject, there’s also a surprising smugness to Dickens’ portrayal of the English national character as it is demonstrated by Jarvis Lorry and Mrs Pross. Lorry is the English man of business, associated with dullness, solidity and honesty. Pross represents the born servant, fit for little else but happy with her lot:
[Miss Pross was] one of those unselfish creatures—found only among women—who will, for pure love and admiration, bind themselves willing slaves, to youth when they have lost it, to beauty that they never had, to accomplishments that they were never fortunate enough to gain, to bright hopes that never shone upon their own sombre lives.
Her final struggle with Madame Defarge is a sort of stereotype death match, in which English self-denial, practicality, and honesty defeats French excitability and passion. Here again, Dickens reminds me of Carlyle, who had praised stupidity in Past and Present (Bk. III, Ch. 5) as being a predominantly English characteristic, and one allied with practicality and good sense. Dickens, like Carlyle, seems to be positing that for such people, national glory can and should be a substitute for any sort of commitment to oneself. For Dickens, Prossian self-denial is also dubiously linked with gender. She’s a little like the heroine of Flaubert’s “Un Coeur Simple” as a character, but the authorial ideology surrounding them is totally different, and Flaubert’s treatment of his protagonist is much more searching and less complacent.
So there’s quite a bit to cavil at in this book, as in most of Dickens. It has that wonderfully dramatic and iconic last scene, which can probably be pictured even by those who have never read the book, so deeply is it entrenched in cultural memory. As much as anything, it’s the iconography of the guillotine, awesome and terrible, that we think of when we think of the Tale, and that gives such resonance to the work. The intrinsic merits of the book, when divorced from its status as the pre-eminent fictional approach to a milestone in history, are not that great. But because that historical context is there, the Tale is still relevant to modern approaches to fictionalizing history, like The Dark Knight Rises. The book is a way in to all sorts of speculations about history and civilizational development. Like animals for certain Amazonian tribes, A Tale of Two Cities is “good to think”.