So far, I’m really loving this re-reading the classics project. I’ve always struggled with Dickens. A few years ago I spent an entire summer reading Bleak House, off and on, and found it … difficult. The only other two Dickens novels I’d read were Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities, both decades ago so that I didn’t remember a lot of detail about them. I did have a vague sense that back when I read A Tale of Two Cities, I had a big crush on Sydney Carton, plus it’s one of the shorter Dickens books, so it was the obvious choice for a re-read.
BOY I WAS NOT REMEMBERING WRONG ABOUT THAT CRUSH. Sydney Carton really is one of the great hotties of literature, especially given my love (in a literary sense, not so much in real life) for doomed but charming young men. He’s all that and a bag of chips. Even though I knew how the book ended (not so much from remembering my previous reading of it, as from general cultural awareness), I couldn’t put it down for the last few chapters. I stayed up late, reading and crying.
It’s a beautiful book, very tight and non-rambly by Dickens standards, and very much, of course, an Englishman’s view of the French revolution (and a historical novel even in its time, having been written more than 50 years after the events it describes). It was interesting to read it so soon after Les Miserables, which was written at about the same time, because there’s so much to compare between the two. Both writers share that rambling, discursive style so typical of nineteenth-century novelists (though Dickens far less so than Hugo, at least in these two novels). There’s the French revolutionary setting – one novel by a French writer, writing not about the 1789-92 Revolution but about a later insurrection that’s very much in the shadow of the original one, and the other an English writer trying to capture a sense of what it might have been like for an outsider in Paris during the Reign of Terror. Even some of the characters echo one another: Doctor Manette, though a much less compelling and complex character than Jean Valjean, shares with him a long and unjust imprisonment that gives him trouble readjusting to “real life.” Manette is as completely dependent on the love and support his daughter Lucie as Valjean is on his foster daughter Cosette — with the important difference that Lucie knows about her father’s imprisonment whereas Cosette is completely in the dark. Both girls, however, are idealized images of beautiful and perfect young womanhood — good, virtuous, selfless, golden-haired, lovely and just a little, um, dull. And each is loved devoted by a young man who’s not terribly interesting either, though Marius Pontmercy at least has the saving grace of being a bit more complex and a bit less virtuous than Charles Darnay, who is little more than The Good Guy.
In each story, too, the most interesting character is the one who’s in the throes of unrequited love. And despite my long-term affection for Eponine in Les Mis (more in the musical than in the novel, actually) I have to admit that Sydney Carton is the undisputed king of Unrequited Lovers, because he sacrifices himself, not just to save Lucie, which would be impressive enough, but to save Charles Darnay because Lucie loves him. Now, that’s pure gold. And after 150+ years, it hasn’t gotten old.
Should I attempt another Dickens novel? I won’t read Bleak House again — you can’t make me — but maybe Dickens fans out there can suggest one I haven’t read that might charm me. A sort of “If you liked A Tale of Two Cities, you might like …” kind of recommendation? What have you got for me?
ADDENDUM: After I posted this, my dad read it and sent me this cartoon, which he describes as his favourite from his days working in the publishing business: