A Tale of Two Cities– Charles Dickens (through Craftlit)

ETA: I’ve been a little surprised to see the number of hits on this post, and maybe it’s made me a little paranoid. But paranoid or not, I need to say: I’m hereby placing a curse on any homework this might be illicitly recycled into. May your paper shrivel; may your ink fade; may your dog suddenly be really, really hungry for a nice chunky essay, and may your teacher be perspicacious enough to catch you in the act. So mote it be. And shame on you.

Everybody else – welcome, and enjoy!

There are spoilers herein, but – well. It’s 153 years old.

I’ve had Tale high up on my tbr since listening to the magnificent abridged version read by Tom Baker; it was well done and gorgeously performed, but when’s all’s said an abridgement is an abomination before Thoth, and I wanted the whole thing. (It’s also been on the “reread-soon” list since I read Paula Volsky’s Illusion a while back.) I was pleased when Heather Ordover of Craftlit landed upon Tale for the next Craftlit offering, and though the readers are various and of a range of talent (a very wide range), she promised she would read the chapters that were unacceptable (thank you, ma’am). Now, none are Tom Baker. (Who is?) (heh) Some are absolutely wonderful, while others are horrendous. Still and all: volunteers. I do always feel badly about running down volunteers. (But why would you volunteer to do something you have no talent for?) And it’s fun to listen to it book-ended by Heather Ordover’s commentary and the emails and comments she received from listeners.

One thing I wholeheartedly agree with is that Lucie and Charles are rather boring partly because they’re meant to be a bit boring. They are the Happy Couple, beset, around whom the action plays out, taking little part in any of it (though Lucie is a pretty tough dame when she needs to be). They are foils for the vivid Characters of the piece, the ones who mirror each other in some of the dualities that begin to appear in the first paragraph. Miss Pross and Mme Defarge; Jerry Cruncher, perhaps, versus M. Defarge. It could be argued that if Lucie and Darnay were wildly unique voices it might all be a bit much. Also, as Heather points out, Sidney’s sacrifice and redemption must be as valuable and meaningful and necessary as possible – therefore, Lucie and Charles must be very very good indeed, and therefore … kind of dull.

As always, I enjoyed Heather’s criticism – which doesn’t necessarily mean I always agree, of course. Case in point was an early chapter in which Lucie meets her newly freed father for the first time. Heather spent a goodly time warning her listeners that this was written for the Victorian reading public, who ate up melodrama with a spoon – and Dickens knew his audience. She warns that this particular chapter is high on emotion and will probably cause eye-rolling in modern readers. And … I don’t see it. Yes, it’s a very emotional chapter – but how could it not be? Here you have a girl who has thought for the majority of her life that her father was dead; here is the father, in solitary confinement for eighteen years, broken and barely able to look up, apparently upset if his door is not locked as he has known it for almost two decades – it has to be emotional, even sentimental. This is an inherently dramatic, even melodramatic situation. (Plus, 18th century corsets + high emotion = fainting. It’s almost inevitable.)

Like Heather, I adore Mr. Lorry. He’s a beautiful example of Dickens’s gift of characterization, the man of business who is all heart. I think I want to be Mr. Lorry when I grow up.

It would be kind of fun to have been a little more Sydney Carton when I was younger … He too is a magnificent character. The redemptive power of love is, I think, not easy to pull off without things going all gooey, but Carton’s story is rich and deep. He is a self-aware man, perfectly conscious that he could have done a great deal more with his abilities, and so, however young he is when he falls unrequitedly in love with Lucie, he determines there’s no point in changing. If he can’t have her he’ll have no one, and both Lucie and the hypothetical alternative are better off for not marrying him, and since his self-ruination has brought him to this point it is therefore too late for him to become a better man, so he might just as well keep on with his drink and hard living. It’s no detraction from his sacrifice that he feels his life to be worthless. The only worth it has is in its ending.

M. Defarge is also extraordinarily well-drawn: for a man of many words, Dickens is frugal with Defarge, but makes the evolution of his outlook very plain. Whether on behalf of his wife or of his class, or probably both, he is set upon seeing the nobility torn down. It is his wife who has the calm confidence, when he begins to lose faith that all of their preparations will only bear fruit when it is too late for them to see it. But, in the end, it is in M. Defarge that something of calm might be found; while the blood lust still continues to rise in those around him, especially his wife, he has clearer vision, recognizing that they have more than reached the limit to which the slaughter might by any stretch of sympathy be excused. His growing discomfort is in marked contrast to his cohorts, who have become connoisseurs of the severed head (I’m going to remember the dispassionate wish to have the two Lucies on the block because they’d be such pretty victims). One wonders if Carton’s seamstress is an exceptionally pretty girl.

Apart from the evil characters and doings, it’s Doctor Manette who leaves a bad taste in my mouth. He shouldn’t; I should be able to dredge up a great deal more compassion for him. Having read The Count of Monte Cristoearlier this year, about a man who spent seventeen years in what was supposed to be solitary confinement, it is painful to read about the doctor’s eighteen years “in secret”. I don’t know if his post traumatic stress disorder is accurately shown; enough time has passed after his “return to life” when he is next seen that a great deal of healing would have occurred, so it may be well done. But it frustrated me endlessly that because of his fragility and extreme dependence on Lucie she very nearly selflessly turned down Darnay’s proposal. I have personal reasons to understand her willingness to sacrifice herself to keep her father happy – and I also have personal reasons to be completely fed up with his utter inability to see her go off and live a happy life of her own. Spoilers: When he uses his past to save Charles, to my eye he becomes just a little too puffed up about it, and I wanted to smack him. And then, when – another spoiler, sorry – he falls apart in Paris after failing to save Charles a second time I just growled under my breath: exactly what Lucie needs at that moment, I don’t think. Exactly what all of them

Heather Ordover’s “favorite” movie image

did not need right then. Again, is it compassionate of me to feel this way? Hardly. Under the circumstances, could he have helped his condition? Probably not. But that doesn’t stop me from wishing that for God’s sake he had held on a little longer. Poor Lucie.

Lucie should be a much more interesting character than, in the end, she is. She is sweetness and golden hair, the perfect daughter and wife and mother and unrequited love interest (and surrogate daughter and mistress, to cover Mr. Lorry and Miss Pross too). She is charming and efficient and probably whistles while she works – wait, that wasn’t ladylike; sings like a lark, then. When misfortune happens, she is strong and brave. When catastrophe hits, she is even stronger and braver. And then there is the long period during which she braves the terrifying streets, and the almost equally terrifying sawyer, to take up that position every single day without fail where Charles might – might see her and take a little pleasure from it. Wind or rain or snow or sun, she is there. This girl is, as I said, tough.

All the women are in this book. There are no wilting lilies here. Yes, Lucie faints several times (again: corset, and conventions of the period as well) – but good grief. Miss Pross is a lioness with a single cub, and she is marvelous. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the Republican patriots, the women who never had the option of wilting, who became some of the fiercest and most fearsome actors in the revolt. It’s bad enough to imagine them as Dickens described them, one moment storming through the streets of Paris covered in blood and shrieking for more, the next moment sitting before the guillotine and knitting.

Knitting … my mother has had knitting in her hand for as long as I can remember. It carries all the associations one would think: familiar love, familiar soothing calm and reassurance … Mom. Afghans, mittens, sweaters, scarves – all things which bring comfort and warmth. For Dickens to take this homely occupation and invert it as he does is brilliant. There is no comfort or warmth, calm or love, and in fact no blankets or mittens –

All the women knitted. They knitted worthless things; but, the mechanical work was a mechanical substitute for eating and drinking; the hands moved for the jaws and the digestive apparatus: if the bony fingers had been still, the stomachs would have been more famine-pinched.

I have to say, given the descriptions of the people wearing rags I find it remarkable that “they knitted worthless things”; if they had the yarn, how could they not make clothing? This is the antithesis to today’s Stitch & Bitch group. Knot and Plot? Crochet and Betray?

And Madame herself, of course:

“What do you make, madame?”
“Many things.”
“For instance — ”
“For instance,” returned Madame Defarge, composedly, “shrouds.”

Well, given the numbers of dead to come, there would be plenty of need for shrouds. Which raises the question of what did happen to the bodies of those guillotined? Was there an army of gravediggers, or periodic pyres, or a patchwork of mass graves?

“JOHN,” thought madame, checking off her work as her fingers knitted, and her eyes looked at the stranger. “Stay long enough, and I shall knit ‘BARSAD’ before you go.”
“You have a husband, madame?”
“I have.”
“Children?”
“No children.”
“Business seems bad?”
“Business is very bad; the people are so poor.”
“Ah, the unfortunate, miserable people! So oppressed, too — as you say.”
“As you say,” madame retorted, correcting him, and deftly knitting an extra something into his name that boded him no good.

So Barsad never had to worry about Carton giving him up – his days were numbered from the moment he set foot in France. I wonder; given that all the women knitted, did that mean they were all busily working in incriminating details and names to be denounced when the time came? Or just Mme. Defarge?

Dissertations could be written – and I’m sure have been – about her alone. She is the product of her time, hardened by privation and brutal loss, her entire family demolished by the hated aristos. She is the embodiment of the desire to uproot Christianity, which exhorts all to forgive – no, to love their enemies, which has nothing to do with what the peasantry wants of this revolution. Madame is as much Vengeance as The Vengeance, in no way conforming to the Victorian ideal of womanliness. She is not a mother, and is entirely lacking in softness and gentleness; even her role as wife is more that of consort to a general, though she is in some ways a better soldier than her husband. She is apparently compared often to Lady Macbeth, and it is toward the end that that truly comes out, as her husband’s zeal for Saint Guillotine diminishes.

One excellent point explored by Heather and the listeners at the time was that of allegorical characters, particularly the Vengeance. Was she an actual person in the book’s world, a character who could interact with all those around her, or was she indeed The Vengeance: the embodiment of Madame Defarge’s lust for reprisal? (Both, I think.) Most telling though, as a podcast listener pointed out, is that in a place and time where no one has enough to eat, the Vengeance is plump. Is it possible that, as Vengeance, she is the only one with plenty to feed on? She’s not purely an allegorical character, I don’t think, unless Jacques 3 is as well; she interacts too much with those around her besides Thérèse Defarge, but her small role is a masterstroke.

Something I found remarkable listening this time is the time that passes without conditions in France markedly improving for the people. The revolution begins; years pass; blood continues to flow, almost unabated; the aristocracy evaporate. Yet with that goal (not gaol) accomplished, the average Jacques doesn’t seem any better off: the citizenry is still gaunt, still dressed in rags. Where did all that wealth belonging to the dead and fled aristos go? Is hunger still such an issue because so many of the peasantry are out hunting guillotine fodder rather than planting and harvesting? I think continuing to dress in rags was part of the movement – they were peasants, and that was what they became most proud of: they were the poor who had obliterated the rich, and it would be a betrayal of that identity to don the silks and lace of the dead and departed wealthy. That I understand. It’s the continuing hardships of want and hunger that I can’t comprehend.

One of the things Heather talks about in her commentary on the text is how Dickens slowly, patiently sets up his dominoes (not Anna Dominoes) in precise, well thought-out patterns, and then – at last – in the final chapters just tips one over with a fingernail for the reader to watch in amazement as they all fall in perfect sequence. In much the same way it is shown that the Defarges and their cohorts have been setting up dominoes of their own for a long, long time. This wasn’t a spur of the moment uprising. The aristocracy has been asking for retribution for longer than anyone can remember, but is very skilled at squashing attempts at rebellion; knowing this, slow and small steps had to be taken to smooth the path, preparations had to be laid long in advance, and the time had to be chosen very, very carefully – a time when enough people would rise up in unison to carry the rest of the populace along with them. To carry away the nobles on a tide of blood.

It was inevitable that I kept comparing this revolution with ours. I think if the last quarter of the 18th century were written as fiction the two revolutions would have been switched – it just seems logical that the two would be connected, but that having seen blood flowing like rainwater through the streets and the horrors of the mob mentality that took over the one country the second country desiring its freedom would choose to do so through a more straightforward and – in its way – cleaner war. It just seems bizarre to me that so soon after these Colonies stood up, made war, made peace, and made a country, France stood up … and engaged in wholesale slaughter, against men, women, children, rich, poor. War is one thing; it was possibly the only way the break could be made from England. But what happened in France…

If this revolt happened today there would be UN councils, and sanctions, and diplomatic missions, and finally armed intervention by allied countries. I know nothing about how the Revolution is viewed in France; are there any memorials to those who were swept up in it, and butchered for no real reason at all, like Carton’s little seamstress?

What happened in France also pointed something else up to me, something obvious, I suppose, but which hadn’t really been so very clear to me before. Which is: there isn’t a country in the world (probably) that doesn’t have some chapter in its history to be ashamed of. I don’t think there’s a land which can take up a position on a high horse and get shirty and righteous over what other countries are up to. We have our reprehensible treatment of Native Americans. England has Ireland and Scotland, and the small matter of the ebbing and flowing tides of religious persecution a few hundred years ago. Germany has a bit of blood on its hands. And France has no right to claim a higher moral ground. There’s a lesson somewhere in that.

There were some stellar narrators in this multi-voice Librivox recording: Chip of Florida is wonderful, as is Andy Minter. As with Karen Savage, I will listen to anything they read. Andy, British, kept reminding me of someone, and I finally put my finger on it: there is a quality in his voice and accent that evokes the tapes (yes, tapes) of J.R.R. Tolkien reading bits and snatches of The Lord of the Rings. No wonder I love Andy Minter. There were, however, some who made me seriously question their motives. One gentleman – unfortunately the one who read a pivotal, emotional scene between Lucy and Carton – was … my goodness. His reading was extraordinary. The strangest words were accentuated, the strangest syllables were stressed, and add to this a touch of the William Shatner … School! … of Acting! And … yeah. It was painful. Then there was the woman who read as though bored, and who mispronounced all sorts of words. Like gaol. Which she pronounced “goal”. Ow. These folks would be the only reason I might knock off a star from the five-star rating I’ve given the book – I’m hesitant to recommend this multi-reader recording – except that missing it would mean missing Chip and Andy Minter. Who are not to be missed.

English: Dickens's Dream." Painted 1875. ...

English: Dickens’s Dream.” Painted 1875. Donated by the artist’s grandson – 1931.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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5 Responses to A Tale of Two Cities– Charles Dickens (through Craftlit)

  1. How lovely of you! And holy smoke, now–years later–I agree with everything you’ve written here. I love it.
    I ALSO love that there is new audio on Librivox and we’re replacing the old with the new. Getting rid of some of the sloppier voices but trying to leave Andy and Chip.
    I’ll try to remember to ping you when we’ve gotten that audio up.
    All the best,
    H

  2. stewartry says:

    My pleasure! I am verrrrryyy slowly catching up on Craftlit, morbidly determined not to skip ahead. I love it too!

    I would love a heads-up when the new audio is up – my email is talavera1809 at hotmail dot com.

    Andy and Chip rule.

  3. Heather is a knitter and I actually got the pleasure of meeting her last October at the New York Sheep and Wool Festival. She’s just as cool in person as I’m sure she is on CraftLit. :-)

    She edited a book published through an indepedent publishing company (Cooperative Press) called “What Would Madame DeFarge Knit?”. In fact, she co-designed a shawl pattern inspired by A Tale of Two Cities that I’m looking forward to making.

    I really need to catch this podcast sometime. I’m always looking for good podcasters and there’s nothing better than a knitter talking about literature.

  4. stewartry says:

    I saw the book on her blog – fun. You met her! I’m jealous! I’d probably go all gloopy. She does seem like a warm, cool person – if you know what I mean!

  5. Actually I’m pretty dull–but CraftLit people are all the most awesome people in the world which makes me look good (people…. people who need… peeeeeepuuuulll… are the–yeah, okay, I’ll stop).

    The new audio is up and in the Shoppe at crafting-a-life.com/shop under “audiobooks”. It was a complicated edit–shouldn’t take as long to get Dracula and Woman in White up for you.

    Oh, and Grounded–the novel by me–is up in the Shoppe, too.
    ; )

    btw, I think it’s hilarious that this page has gotten so many hits. Those whippersnappers are doing exactly what I would have done had I access to the Internet when I was in school. Hated this book. Maybe if it gets them to listen it’ll be okay…

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