Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | June 11, 2020

It was the worst of times, and yet it was the best of times …

They are among the most famous opening lines in literary history— “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The book is of course Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities.

The two cities were London and Paris. Over the course of the story, Paris and all of France explodes into insurrection, anarchy, and the toppling of the monarchy. It was the French Revolution, the one that inspired Les Miserables. It was written in 1859, just as the U.S. was about to explode into a war between northern and southern states over slavery and states’ rights. The French Revolution started in 1789—less than a decade after the American Revolution had ended. All of these were civil wars, with one strata of society at war against another. (Does this sound familiar and pertinent to our present times?)

In the French Revolution, it was the Citizens (the comrade-like term that French revolutionaries were required to use when addressing each other) against the Aristocracy, who were, in Dickens’ telling, hunted down like dogs and gleefully led to the guillotine, described in lurid and gory detail. Though his story makes clear that the Citizens were justified in their cause—they were literally starving and treated like slaves—Dickens also portrays some of the revolutionary characters, the Citizens, as sadists and brutes who, in their bloodthirsty lust for dismantling the whole aristocratic system, went after even innocent men, women, and children. Hence, the worst things about these times was the how the absolute worst of humanity was exposed.

However, Dickens also characterized these as the best of times. Citizens uniting and rebelling against entrenched historical injustice was to be applauded. The best of humanity is also portrayed through a love story which winds its way through the book, and in the love, support, and loyalty shown by the key family-and-friend characters towards one another as they navigated extremely difficult times. And the culmination of the book involves the most selfless, noble act a human being could ever make, that of willingly sacrificing one’s life for the lives of others.

So, it was indeed the worst of times, but also the best of times, and I won’t bore you with the whole plot of this book and descriptions of Dickens’ usual huge array of characters, always drawn so vividly that you can practically see them on screen or stage playing their roles. SparkNotes provides a wonderful little summary.

I adore Dickens works (almost as much as Jane Austen’s works!). I love his memorable characters—David Copperfield, Peggoty, Mr. Micawber, Uriah Heep and Betsy Trotwood, Oliver Twist and Fagin and the  Artful Dodger and Nancy, Tiny Tim and Scrooge, Pip and Miss Havisham, and all the rest. Many of them were delightfully captured again recently in the 20-episode BBC series, Dickensian, which is not an enactment of one of his  books, but instead brings many of the Dickens characters together in a newly imagined plot.  The casting was impeccable.

However, until now I’ve never been able to get past the first few pages of Tale of Two Cities.  It was not only the best/worst of times—because the sentence doesn’t end there—but it was also the age of wisdom/foolishness. It was the epoch of belief/incredulity. It was the season of Light/Darkness. It was this, but it was also that, the opposite, and so on and on and on until, finally—as I discovered when I committed myself to reading past Chapter I— in Chapter II some characters are introduced, with their typically Dickensian 19th century personalities and ways of talking, and then the action begins.

In Tale of Two Cities Dickens is, like all his works, a bit melodramatic, and sometimes downright vaudevillian, which is why he’s not every reader’s cup of tea. However, it was the age of Victoria, and that was the style. And nobody did it better than him. And nobody milked it better than him for all it was worth. Tale of Two Cities, like most of Dickens’ novels, was published first in serialized form (he must have been anticipating streaming video!) in a magazine, All the Year Round, a new publication that he was launching. The first chapter of the book was featured in its first issue. At the time, Dickens was as popular in America as he was in Great Britain—a regular rock star!—so much so that people stormed the docks in New York In 1841, “waiting for a British ship to dock with the latest chapter of The Old Curiosity Shop and word of whether the orphaned Nell had died in poverty or yet survived.”

 On his only trip to America, Dickens arrived at Boston Harbor in 1842 having already made it into literary upper circles. At the time he was the most famous writer in the world. He milked the experience for everything it was worth, but not just to enhance his reputation and pocketbook. He used every opportunity to make the case for international copyright law, partially because he never made a farthing on all those editions of his stories that were printed in the U.S. In 1891, the U.S. finally did pass the International Copyright Act, but that was 29 years after the author’s death.

Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, was inspired by Thomas Carlyle’s “massively influential” The French Revolution (1937), which was a non-fiction historical book, but contained “intensely dramatic scenes of the falling of the Bastille.” Prisons—like the infamous Bastille in Paris that several key characters in the book wind up in—also figured prominently in Dickens’ life. His father, who was somewhat of a spendthrift and n’er-do-well, landed the family in debtor’s prison, causing pre-teen Charles to have to abandon his studies to go work in a bootblacking factory to support the family. His embarrassment and resentment of this episode of his life was depicted in his most autobiographical work, David Copperfield.

In addition to everything else going on in his life at the time of writing Tale of Two Cities, Dickens was in the process of leaving his wife of twenty-three years, mother of his ten children, because he had become enamored of a young actress he’d met during one of his many forays into the theater. So, you might say that for Dickens himself, it was indeed the best/worst of times, and obviously a time of wisdom and a time of foolishness.

Recently, the Charles Dickens Museum in London announced a new exhibit, in which they have colorized many of the vintage photos of the man, including replicating the colors of the clothing he wore at the time. The exhibit includes a new photo of Dickens when he was 47, the year he wrote Tale of Two Cities. The curator of the exhibit notes that the “technology of the times”—studio photography—usually made Dickens appear very stiff. But “that is not at all what Dickens was like,” the curator said. “He had a great sense of humour and was full of passionate energy. He absolutely loved fashion and loved quite colourful and daring clothing and of course all of that is lost in those images. That’s the power of colourising, it is putting some of that personality back.”

I hope to see those colorized photos in that museum one of these days. In the meantime, I guarantee you that if you read any of Dickens’ novels—including Tale of Two Cities—you get a pretty good idea of just how colorful the man was. But also you get a sense of how passionate he was about social injustice, and how compassionate he was about his fellow humans.


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