“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.”
That is how one of the best ever written books ends. If you haven’t read ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ yet, pick it up immediately. I can’t believe it took me this long to read it. When I started it, I was afraid that I wouldn’t get it of fail to see what everyone went on about and it was a difficult first few pages but then Dickens describes a scene where wine spills on the cobbled streets of France and from then on I was taken in and there was no turning back.
Dickens has a mastery of the English language that is unequalled. He uses even the simplest words, sentences to take any kind of reader on his journey with him. There is no embellishment, the imagery is vivid because he wields his words like a painter would his brush and actually paints you the picture so beautifully and flawlessly that there is no chance you won’t want to go with him. Open any random page of this book and you will see what I mean.
“If it had been possible, Miss Manette, that you could have returned the love of the man you see before you – self-flung away, wasted, drunken, poor creature of misuse as you know him to be – he would have been conscious this day and hour in spite of his happiness, that he would bring you to misery, bring you to sorrow and repentance, blight you, disgrace you, pull you down with him. I know very well that you can have no tenderness for me; I ask for none; I am even thankful that it cannot be.”
Dickens continues to be excellent in the way he connects everything so seamlessly. It might be a tale of two cities but it is basically a tale of one group of people. Everyone you meet in the book is indispensable and somehow connected; there is not one wasted character. Watching the way he weaves the story is breath taking and as you read the excitement mounts as you guess at what might happen, where it might be going and then as you see where it actually goes and how he gets you there, this book is pure genius.
And I haven’t even talked about the plot yet. (I should warn you, there are spoilers ahead.) The book is set in 1775, at the time of the French Revolution. The French people had been oppressed for so long by their monarchy and their church and if there is a story that advocates for the separation of state and church this is it. The people were forced to tend land off of which they could not sustain themselves.
“…in the towers of the churches, where no prayers were said, for the popular revulsion had even traveled that length of self-destruction from years of priestly impostors, plunderers, and profligates…”
“Monseigneur had one truly noble idea of general public business, which was, to let everything go on its own way; of particular public business, Monseigneur had the other truly noble idea that it must all go his way – tend to his own power and pocket. Of his pleasures, general and particular, Monseigneur had the other truly noble idea, that the world was made for them. The text of his order (altered from the original by only a pronoun, which is not much) ran: ‘The Earth and the fullness thereof are mine, saith Monseigneur.”
They paid incredibly high rent and were in turn paid nothing for the work they did and the food they grew was taken by the richer nobles who owned the land they lived on.
“Doctor, they are very proud these nobles; but we common dogs are proud too, sometimes. They plunder us, outrage us, beat us, kill us; but we have a little pride left, sometimes.”
“We were so robbed by that man who stands there, as all we common dogs are by those superior beings – taxed by him without mercy, obliged to work for him without pay, obliged to grind our corn at his mill, obliged to feed scores of his tame birds on our wretched crops, and forbidden for our lives to keep a single tame bird of our own, pillaged and plundered to that degree that when we chanced to have a bit of meat, we ate it in fear, with the door barred and shutters closed, that his people should not see it and take it from us – I say, we were so robbed, hunted and were made so poor, that our father told us it was a dreadful thing to bring a child into the world, and that what we should pray for was that our women might be barren and our miserable race die out!”
“You know, Doctor, that it is among the rights of these nobles to harness us common dogs to carts and drive us. They so harnessed him and drove him. Taken out of harness one day at noon, to feed – if he could find food – he sobbed twelve times, once for every stroke of the bell, and died on her bosom.”
The suffering of the people is evident and the revolution is inevitable but the scale of it is unbelievable. The people and been dehumanized to the extent that taking a life of anyone of noble status and anyone connected with any such person was incredibly easy.
“I know how hard it has grown for me, the wearer of this, to support life in myself; but do you know how easy it has grown for me, the wearer of this, to destroy life in you?”
“It was nothing to her that an innocent man was to die for the sins of his forefathers; she saw, not him, but them. It was nothing to her that his wife was to be made a widow and his daughter an orphan; that was insufficient punishment, because they were her natural enemies and her prey, and as such had no right to live. To appeal to her was made hopeless by her having no sense of pity, even for herself. If she had been laid low in the streets, in any of the many encounters in which she had been engaged, she would not have pitied herself; nor, if she had been ordered to the axe tomorrow, would she have gone to it with any softer feeling than a fierce desire to change places with the man who sent her there.”
But more than all of this, it is a story about love; the love of a father for his daughter and of his daughter for him, the love of a husband and a wife which takes them through births, deaths, two possible executions and dark secrets, the love of a man for a woman who can never love him back and most of all the love of freedom, of liberty, of equality and of fraternity.
I will say again, if you haven’t yet read this book, buy it, borrow my copy but whatever you do, read it.