Spirit of the revolution

Last week was a bit of a French revolutionary week for me. Re-read my favourite (and most un-Dickensian) Dickens A tale of two cities, and followed it up with another favourite, Hilary Mantel's very different take on the revolution A place of greater safety.

A tale of two cities, in common I suspect with many people was the first full-length Dickens I ever read. It's one of his most accessible novels - a fast paced adventure story with few of the plot digressions and sentimentality that you normally get in Dickens. It's also wonderfully well written, and is far more than just another adventure tale. The novel opens on a stormy night with a coach trip to Dover, and a mysterious message being passed en route "Returned to life". This is rather more than just a password, as Dr. Manette, a French doctor, is about to be truly resurrected after his release from incarceration in the Bastille. He is spirited away to England, away from the evil Marquis, who had doomed him unfairly to imprisonment in one of France's grimmest prisons. We meet up with him again some years later, he and his daughter are now living happily in London, and are present at the treason trial of a French citizen, who is saved by some clever legwork on the part of the junior defence barrister, Sydney Carton. Lucie, the daughter, and Charles Darnay, the ex-prisoner, fall in love, and embark on married life. But just when everything seems perfect, the shadow of the revolution falls over them, and Dr. Manette is about to be party to a terrible betrayal.

I had forgotten till I re-read it how much I love this book. It's wonderful writing, on one level a cracking adventure story, but also wonderfully witty with extraordinarily black humour. Jerry Cruncher, the "resurrection man" is a great creation. Sydney Carton, the disillusioned anti-hero of the story, would make a great modern detective, laconic, a real loner, but intelligent and a man of action when need be. All the minor characters are well fleshed out, and the villains - notably Madame Defarge - are superb. This is very much a novel about ordinary people caught up in the maelstrom of the revolution, there are no major figures here, and indeed there is much sympathy for the revolutionaries. Madame Defarge may be evil, but Dickens explains quite clearly what has made her so.

I usually skate around any questions involving "what is your favourite book?" as I find it an almost impossible question to answer, but if stuck on a desert island and forced to just have one novel after re-reading A tale of two cities, I know that this would almost certainly be it.

Mantel's A place of greater safety (also one of my favourites) is a very different read. This was actually one of her earliest novels, but she had great difficulty in getting it published. Ironic really, as her Booker prize winning Wolf Hall showed she has complete mastery of the historical novel. Greater safety follows the lives of the movers and shakers of the French revolution - Danton, Desmoulins and Robespierre, and the women that surround them. Like the characters in A tale of two cities, they too are moulded by events, even though some of the events are of their own making. It is a remarkable piece of writing, and a wonderful guide to the history of that turbulent period. Both books come highly recommended.


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