When Charles John Huffham Dickens was born onBut
February 7, 1812, the great nineteenth century of political, social and literary change was only beginning. The Victorian Age, when Dickens was to reach his greatness as a novelist lay ahead; and in the year of his birth, Napoleonic France received its first setback at the gates of Moscow, which was followed in 1817, 1830 and 1848 with the liberal movements that overthrew some of the revolutionary message, of the French Revolution.
The Tale of Two Cities—
and London —shifts, as its name suggests, from Paris to England , arid back again settling down finally in France . In its English episodes, Dickens tells us something of the condition of England at the time of George III: the squalor of everyday life—which grew considerably worse in Victorian England as the industrial revolution gathered momentum—the conduct of justice—and injustice—as administered in the London courts; the close-packed, haphazard, drunken London of old times. Through one of his characters in this novel, Jerry Cruncher the bank messenger and ‘Resurrectionist’, Dickens even gives a glimpse of the illicit violation of the hallowed churchyards and sale of dead bodies for the dissection table of the doctor. Dickens does not bring out the sordidness of Victorian England to the extent he does in Oliver Twist and David Copperfield but he does tell us something of the life and times in the first half of the nineteenth century in England when the industrial revolution began to make its impact on the lives of ordinary men and women. France
But it is with France and the French Revolution that the main theme of the story is concerned. It is the first five years of the Revolution, 1789-1794, when the Terror was at its height and thousands were executed or guillotined, that forms the backdrop of A Tale of Two Cities; subsequent events when ‘the Revolution ended and the Republic began’, are mentioned en passant but do not form the core of the novel. But it is important to remember that while Dickens wrote a historical novel there are some deviations from the actual course of events and a historian would not take it as an accurate picture of how the revolution developed its elan and then petered away. A Tale of Two Cities must therefore be read as a novel where the novelist’s imagination is stretched to its limits and allowed full play.
The book, written in 1859, has in fact been regarded as one of Dickens’ most mature works and differs from his earlier novels in three noticeable points. First, it has an elaborately constructed plot: his characters are carefully delineated and are not allowed to run away without any aim or purpose. Second, in the semi-historical nature of his theme, the descriptions of courts of justice, the French Bastille, the old aristocracy in Britain and France are as close to the actual conditions as possible. In fact, the bulk of the background information for A Tale was drawn from Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution and from “about two cart loads” of books that Carlyle sent Dickens while he was writing the novel! Third, Dickens’ description of “the topmost stratum of the social world in
and England ” and the lowest layer of all, “the uncultured, the poor, the quaint, the ruffianly, the oppressed” are so true that social historians have used the material in A Tale as source material for a social history of the times. Dickens was to say later that he regarded A Tale of Two Cities as perhaps his best work (he was equally fond of David Copperfield) for which he Lad to do an enormous amount of research, quite apart from using Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution as a basic guide to the momentous events of the Revolution France
THE STRUCTURE OF THE STORY
The story opens in 1775 when the troubles were just beginning in
. Dr Manette, an old Bastille prisoner, long believed to be dead is brought away from France . It continues in 1780 when the troubles had begun to reach a boiling point with the trial in London, on false charges of treason, of one ‘Charles Darnay’ who was believed to be a member of the French aristocratic family which had imprisoned Dr Manette. Meanwhile ‘Darnay’ had married two years later the Doctor’s daughter and had two children. The Revolution in 1789 brings to the surface all the pent up emotions of the poor and the oppressed who storm the Bastille and unearth an old confession of Dr Manette in one of the prison cells. Darnay, in the meantime, goes to Paris to rescue an old friend and is immediately arrested by the French revolutionary council as a member of the French aristocracy. The year is now 1793 and the beginning of the Reign of Terror. Darnay is tried, acquitted, and then re-arrested and condemned to death. Darnay is rescued from the guillotine much against his wishes by his friend and look-alike, Sidney Carton who sacrifices his life for Darnay and his family, and above all for his love for Lucie Manette. France
But A Tale is considered a great novel not merely for the story that Dickens weaved with the French Revolution in the background. It is remembered for the array of characters that Dickens brings into play in the drama of terror and for the self-sacrifice of Sidney Carton, a drunken and dissolute advocate.