“ It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair” (Book 1, ch. 1)
A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1859) is one of Dickens’s darkest tales and one of his two historical novels (the other one is Barnaby Rudge). The novel was published in weekly installments (not monthly, as with most of his other novels). The first installment ran in the first issue of Dickens' literary periodical All the Year Round appearing on 30 April 1859.
It is set in Paris and London (the two cities) in the years before and during the French Revolution. Its widely known opening (above) was the description of that terrible time but it is also considered the author’s literary description of his own age, the Victorian era. Some have argued that in A Tale of Two Cities Dickens reflects on his recently begun affair with eighteen-year-old actress Ellen Ternan, which was possibly asexual but certainly romantic. The character of Lucie Manette resembles Ternan physically, and some have seen "a sort of implied emotional incest" (not my words!) in the relationship between Dr. Manette and his daughter. Dickens was first inspired to write this novel after starring in a play by Wilkie Collins entitled The Frozen Deep ( yes! They say he was a good performer!). In the play, Dickens interpreted the role of a man who sacrifices his own life so that his rival may have the woman they both love; the love triangle in the play became the basis for the relationships between
Charles Darnay (Xavier Deluc)
Lucie Manette (Serena Gordon)
Sydney Carton (James Wilby)
in The Tale of two cities. (In the pictures above, the protagonists in the 1989 TV adaptation)
The impression you get while reading this novel is that Dickens doesn’t believe in justice, human justice, and doesn’t trust revolutions. Neither against incredible unjust tyrants. Like Orwell many years later in his Animal Farm, Charles Dickens shows how every revolution turns into its contrary, an involution, and how the rebellious subjects become as evil and unjust as the tyrants they overturned. Men always make the same mistakes in history.
The 1989 TV Drama
In 1989 Granada Television made a mini-series starring James Wilby as "Sydney Carton", Serena Gordon as "Lucie Manette", Xavier Deluc as "Charles Darnay", which was shown on American television as part of the PBS television series Masterpiece Theatre.
It is a two-part series, a good product with good performing standards, a mixed Anglo/French cast. It depicts the tragedy of the French peasantry under the demoralization of the French aristocracy in the years leading up to the revolution, the corresponding brutality demonstrated by the revolutionaries toward the former aristocrats in the early years of the revolution. Quite accurate and respectful to the book, though shortened of course.
It follows the lives of several protagonists through these events, most notably Charles Darnay, a French once-aristocrat who falls victim to the indiscriminate wrath of the revolution despite his virtuous nature, and Sydney Carton, a dissipated British barrister who endeavours to redeem his ill-spent life out of love for Darnay's wife, Lucie Manette. (If you need a detailed summary of the plot click HERE )
The two male protagonists
1. Sidney Carton
Sydney Carton proves the most dynamic character in A Tale of Two Cities. He first appears as a lazy, alcoholic attorney who cannot muster even the smallest amount of interest in his own life. He describes his existence as a supreme waste of life and takes every opportunity to declare that he cares for nothing and no one. Eventually, Carton reaches a point where he recognizes and can admit his feelings to Lucie herself. Before Lucie weds Darnay, Carton professes his love to her, though he still persists in seeing himself as essentially worthless. This scene marks a vital transition for Carton and lays the foundation for the supreme sacrifice that he makes at the novel’s end.
2. Charles Darnay
Novelist E. M. Forster famously criticized Dickens’s characters as “flat,” lamenting that they seem to lack the depth and complexity that make literary characters realistic and believable. Charles Darnay (and Lucie Manette!) certainly fits this description. A man of honor, respect, and courage, Darnay conforms to the archetype of the hero but never exhibits the kind of inner struggle that Carton and Doctor Manette undergo. His opposition to the Marquis’ snobbish and cruel aristocratic values is admirable, but, ultimately, his virtue proves too uniform, and he fails to exert any compelling force on the imagination.
The theme of the Double and other autobiographical hints
Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay may also have a connection to Dickens' personal life. He hinges on the near-perfect resemblance between Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay; the two look so alike that Carton twice saves Darnay through the inability of others to tell them apart. Carton and Darnay do not simply look alike they seem to anticipate a certain more modern dualism: Carton is Darnay made bad.
Carton suggests as much: 'Do you particularly like the man [Darnay]?' he muttered, at his own image [which he is regarding in a mirror]; 'why should you particularly like a man who resembles you? There is nothing in you to like; you know that. Ah, confound you! What a change you have made in yourself! A good reason for talking to a man, that he shows you what you have fallen away from and what you might have been! Change places with him, and would you have been looked at by those blue eyes [belonging to Lucie Manette] as he was, and commiserated by that agitated face as he was? Come on, and have it out in plain words! You hate the fellow (Book 2, chapter 4)
Dickens like Stevenson? An anticipation of his Jekyll and Hyde? Did you notice? Carton and Darnay = Charles Dickens. He did the same with David Copperfield = Dickens Charles. The author reveals part of himself through these characters.
Just a fragment of this adaptation which I cut for you to enjoy
Carton's profession of love to Lucie
Carton's profession of love to Lucie
While Sidney Carton's , in the end, will keep his promise.