Spirit of the revolution revisited

After the events of the last 6 weeks, it's perhaps not surprising that as well as some new reads, I've been drawing on several of my most favourite books to keep my spirits up. The Master and Margarita was one of the first to be called up, closely followed by my other desert island book - A tale of two cities

I was musing over my love for these two books, and it struck me that although they seem to be markedly different, they actually have much in common. They are both set in times of social turmoil, one during a revolution the other shortly after one. But although revolution and the possibility of freedom is in the air the streets are beset with spies, and alongside the alleged liberty of the times, there is fear, not least of betrayal. Despite the worst of humanity rising to power, there is still room for love, happiness, and loyalty. Both novels celebrate the ascendancy of life over death, of love over hate, of happiness against cruelty.

A tale of two cities is in many ways Dickens most accessible book. It is relatively short, has a rip-roaring adventure story, a hero who is guaranteed to make you weep, some great characters, and a rather nice seam of dark humour. It is also one of Dickens most un-Dickensian books. The rambling asides, in-depth characterisation, and heavy background are all pruned radically back to be left with a tale of love, loss, revenge and an escape against the odds. Unusually this means that the novel is rather more dialogue rich than most Dickens novels, so it's not surprising therefore that this has been one of his most successful novels in terms of its use both as a stage play (Dickens would have been thrilled) and in film.

In the edition I read (Penguin Classics, edited by George Woodcock, 1970), there's a fascinating preface in which Woodcock examines the relationship between Dickens and his three principal characters - Sydney Carton, Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette. As always when re-reading a much loved book you spot things that you never noticed before. This time of reading, besides Sydney Carton (one of my first literary heroes), I noticed the more minor characters than before. I particularly loved loyal, if slightly cranky, Miss Pross; and delighted in Jerry Cruncher, the "resurrection man" who has a change of heart after witnessing too many corpses. His recognition of the "sheep" of the prisons marked one of the few moments of genuine comedy in what is often a brooding narrative.

Tale of two cities is a wonderful read. If you've struggled to get into nineteenth century fiction, this would be the perfect place to start. Read it, and let yourself be rushed, like Darnay, into the heart of revolution.


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