Friday, February 14, 2014

French Revolution Novel #3

And, at long last, my thoughts on the third of the novels that indirectly inspired my own attempt at bringing events of that terrible time to life on the written page.

May I present:

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

One of my favorite books of all time, this classic novel is easily the most famous novelized version of the French Revolution. Writing historical novels was as difficult in Dickens’s time as it is now, quite possibly more so, for every version of a historical event will differ slightly in details, in political leaning, and sometimes even in major points like dates, times, participants, and outcome—all of which causes confusion and consternation for a novelist who desires to write with any modicum of authenticity.

Charles Dickens wrote his novel in the late 1850’s, which was almost as distant in time from the scenes he portrayed as is a novel written now about World War II. He was obliged to rely on written histories for his factual events, and apparently he was accused of stealing his basic plot and dramatic closing scenes from certain plays that were produced and running while Dickens’s book was being serialized. Interesting.

In reviewing and making any criticism, direct or implied, of the writings of other authors, I realize that I open myself to similar criticisms. Not that accusations won’t come anyway, because all of us armchair historians love to believe ourselves more knowledgeable than others! In researching my novel, I used a few of the same sources Dickens used, including Thomas Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution, and scenes depicting imprisonment during the September Massacres from Beaumarchais. Much of this information was easily accessed, for Carlyle’s complete work is available to read on the Internet, and facts from many sources, including Beaumarchais, have been compiled into an excellent work, The Days of the French Revolution, by Christopher Hibbert.

But I digress—this is supposed to be my thoughts regarding Dickens’ novel! Sorry about that. I will write another post on the research and development of mine.

A Tale of Two Cities is so beautifully written! Dickens was a master of omniscient narrative, which he uses to riveting effect in this novel. This is one of his shorter works, yet his descriptions and dramatic narrative absolutely live on the page. He focuses largely on the plight of the lowest classes in both England and France, and his depictions of the elite vs. the peasants are quite well balanced, in my opinion.

This not a flawless novel, of course. I agree with critics who find Lucy Manette and Charles Darnay rather dull as our main protagonists. They are ideals rather than characters. And the villains, including the marquis and Madame Defarge, are almost entirely evil. Yet Dickens always sprinkles his novels with memorable characters amid the symbolic cardboard cutouts. Sydney Carton is one of my favorite literary anti-heroes. His redemption is not a miraculous transformation from worthless drunkard into superhero; he is a tormented man who makes a heroic sacrifice for the sake of the people he loves and honors most. Doctor Manette is another fascinating character with good and evil wrestling for dominance.

Jerry Cruncher and his son and Miss Pross provide comedy relief, although the subject matter of this novel did not allow for much comedy. And Jerry Cruncher is comical partly for his very dreadfulness—he is abusive and crooked, yet his complete lack of self-awareness is played up for laughs. The scene of his son running from an imaginary horror is truly funny.

Several years ago, I read A Tale of Two Cities aloud to my youngest son—we often started each home-school day with a chapter from a novel. We both cracked up over the amusing scenes and tensed with dread over both the dramatic and the horrifying scenes . . . and I will NEVER live down my collapse into sobs while trying to read the most famous scene of all. *sigh* Ça suffit (Suffice it to say), I will never attempt to read this novel aloud for a book-on-tape.

This novel is a must-read for any lover of literature or student of history. And after you have read it, be sure to check out the classic movie adaption starring Ronald Coleman. *fluttery sigh*

No comments:

Post a Comment