For Christmas my wife gave me a Kindle. I took the opportunity to download onto various classics of literature that I have not read (my reading of the classics is actually shockingly poor). However, given the extra-ordinarily good price for many wonderful books (free, or very nearly so) I decided I really didn’t have an excuse not to indulge in these classics anymore.
Amongst my Kindle acquisitions were The Complete Works of Charles Dickens for, I think, the grand sum of £1.79. Given Charles Dickens was, shall we say, somewhat prolific I thought it was a rather good deal. Besides, this year is also the bicentenary of his birth, so it seemed right to read something of his. The only other Charles Dickens I have read is A Christmas Carol, which is one of my favourite stories. What to read though? Well, for me there was only one option: A Tale of Two Cities.
Few starts to a novel are as famous. Perhaps Tolkien’s “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” is a twentieth-century equal, but sadly I doubt it. I was nervous however, when first I approached that magnificent opening with just a little trepidation.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst 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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Today as I was finishing it, I was struck by the thought that this was actually, for Charles Dickens and those who read it, an historical novel. The first portion of the book takes place nearly thirty years before his own birth – and more than eighty years before he wrote it. No different, in fact, from us today reading (or watching) a story crafted today about the events of the 1930s. Think a moment, and the above paragraph can quite reasonably be applied to what W H Auden described as “the low dishonest decade“. I also think it can be applied to our own … and in this I think it shows one of the things that kept me reading … this is not just a story about the French Revolution: it is a story about humanity, about human crises, and it speaks to today just as it spoke to Dickens’ own time.
At first, however, I was not sure I was going to like it. I sometimes get that way, especially with older authors where it can sometimes take a little while to “tune in” to their style – particularly if one previously has no, or only limited exposure. However, after a very few chapters – which were not in of themselves taxing – I found this a very pleasurable read. To be sure, it is rather more verbose than novels of today generally are, but there is something wonderful in the way that Dickens builds some of his descriptions. His characters are also brilliantly realised and portrayed, and in the madness of Madame Defarge more than a little scary when one thinks just how accurately he conveys the madness of the mob or how inhuman hatred can make us – but also how high our common humanity can reach to when it is motivated by love.
In short – if one is not turned off by Dickens’ loquaciousness – I do very much recommend to anyone who wishes for a good read. Also for anyone interested in what someone in England in the mid-nineteenth century thought about the events of the late eighteenth (I know I find this interesting – I figure I can’t be the only one)!