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.”
“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)

Happy Birthday, Mr. Dickens

It’s the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth. (Also, on a much smaller scale, my second anniversary on my job, but who cares?)

LibraryThing is having a “Dickens of a” ReadaThing. Go read some Bleak House or something. I’ll wait.

Bleak House
A Christmas Carol
Cricket on the Hearth
David Copperfield
Edwin Drood
The Old Curiosity Shop
Oliver Twist
Our Mutual Friend
Pickwick Papers
Tale of Two Cities
Barnaby Rudge

I do like Google doodles –

I don’t know if this is a real Dickens quote, but it’s marvelous: “There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate.”

Perhaps in honour of his birthday it will finally penetrate the layers of my brain that it’s ENS, not INS. *sigh*

A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens via Tom Baker

I don’t do abridged. I cordially despise abridgements. Reader’s Digest Condensed versions? Abominations. But this particular abridgement is an audiobook read by Tom Baker. I will listen to a calendar read by Tom Baker. I think I would even listen to Sarah Palin’s autobiography read by Tom Baker. (Maybe.) Tom Baker is magnificent.

He’s Tom Baker.

His voice is deep and rich and pleasurable as the center of a dark chocolate truffle. When Dickens’ humor comes out in the text, Baker’s amused tone deepens it. In more dramatic moments, the passion in his voice is tangible. His characters are beautiful. Truly, I don’t think he put a foot wrong in the whole lamentably short reading.

Oh, and Dickens is pretty fantastic too. One of many reasons I curse the school system is that it made me hate Dickens for a while there. I resent that. This is a gorgeous story – and yes, I will be reading (or listening to) the unbutchered version before long.

As I’ve said so often this year about so many books, I read A Tale of Two Cities a very long time ago, and had forgotten quite a bit. As these things go, I think this audiobook – from Audible – was a very good abridgement. Quite a lot of dialogue and a fair amount of character development was retained (though not the revelations about Madame DeFarge’s knitting); I wouldn’t want to sit listening to this with the book in hand, but whatever reason there was to cut the book down, at least they did it rather well. But I’d pay good money (if I had it) to hear the whole 400-500 page novel read by Tom Baker.

Or, you know, the phone book.

Jacob T. Marley – R. William Bennett

At some point, every conceivable fan-fictiony alternative point of view in classic fiction will have been used. There’s the story of the girls’ father in March; coincidentally there is the story of Huck’s father in (also coincidentally) Finn. And of course there’s Wicked. Jacob T. Marley belongs to this family, spinning Dickens’s A Christmas Carol to explore the story of Scrooge’s partner. How does a man come to be a spirit weighted down with chains and money boxes, wailing in the dark? Here Marley’s past is postulated, a past that makes him almost worse than Scrooge (or gives him less of an excuse, in a way). In A Christmas Carol Marley is unredeemed, perhaps unredeemable; here that is rectified.

I’m not entirely sure the writing is successful as an echo of Dickens. For one example, I could well be wrong, but such open discussion of pregnancy was impossible in 1843… The language is enjoyable, but is not Dickens; of course, it doesn’t need to be, and hopefully was not trying to be. I’m not entirely sure it was necessary to tell Marley’s story; I’m not entirely sure much was added to the original. But it is well-told, and is overall lovely.

This was a Netgalley ebook – thank you.

Who the Hell is Pansy O’Hara?

Over dinner one night, apparently, the writers of Who the Hell is Pansy O’Hara? (Jenny Bond and Chris Sheedy) began discussing popular books and the paths taken to their publication – and this evolved into a book about books: as the subtitle says, “The Fascinating Stories Behind 50 of the Best-Loved Books”.  It’s a great idea, which is why I ordered the book from paperbackswap – there have to be hundreds of stories out there about the trials and tribulations and mutations and evolutions of hundreds of books.

Unfortunately … three things.  First, some of the writing was awful.  Toward the end an essay contained two glaring typos on one two-page spread: “extracurricula activities”  and a line about how someone “towed the line” (what kind of gear does it take to tow a line?).  More frequently, there were sentences that ran along the lines of: “The youngest of seven children, the family moved to London that year…”  That would be a case of misplaced modifier, I believe, with some comma splice thrown in?  I can spot ’em, but I can’t name ’em.  It happened several times, though, and was a bit sad.  I have a feeling one of the two authors wrote some entries and the other handled the rest, because some were fine, while others had iffy moments. 

Secondly is that even with the minimal knowledge I had of a few of the writers, I knew most of what was considered the Fascinating Story of their lives; there was very little groundbreaking information here.  For writers like Austen and Dickens and Tolkien, for three, this was a rehash of well-known anecdotes.  I thought it was fairly common knowledge that A.A. Milne didn’t write Pooh for his son, and that Christopher Milne hated the fame that came to him because of his namesake and the silly old bear.  And for Stephen King, I wonder if Bond and Sheedy looked any further than On Writing…

The third thing is that apparently, rather than taking fifty books with fascinating stories behind them, they came up with a list of fifty of the most popular books ever, internationally, and determined that for each they would fill five pages.  For some, like Jackie Collins (Jackie Collins!), what they used to fill the five rattled a bit, and I for one found it ridiculous that “Valley of the Dolls” was included in a list that highlighted Oliver Twist and The Grapes of Wrath and War and Peace… “Best-Loved”, though, was the adjective in the title, not “Good” or “Respected”, so … Okay.  (But … really?  “Valley of the Dolls” is beloved?  And The Origin of Species is well-respected, but – one of the best-loved books in the world?  And the dictionary?  And may Stephen Hawking forgive me, A Brief History of Time?  From my understanding, BHofT holds a record as the simultaneously most-bought and least-read book ever.  I tried; I couldn’t do it.

And seriously?  Who actually “loves” Lord of the Flies?  I was forced to read it in high school; a great many people have to read it in high school.  I can’t imagine loving it.  
The result of the choice made to pick the fifty and then work to fill an entry spot on each makes for a very uneven read, definitely not meant for reading straight through as I did.  I think the book I was expecting is what I said above, the biographies of fifty books.  The titular entry was what I was looking for: I enjoyed reading about the roots of Gone With the Wind, and about the process involved in Margaret Mitchell’s writing: putting each chapter into an envelope, tucking notes into the relevant envelopes as changes occurred to her or revisions needed to be made, Mitchell’s hesitatancy about being an author.  I like the tidbit that the heroine’s name changed from Pansy to Scarlett because the latter suited her “fiery personality” better.  That was fun.

The pages devoted to The Hobbit, though, (for example) weren’t really so much to the point, and this is why a different approach might have been better – again, either fifty books with discrete interesting backgrounds, or brief overviews of fifty beloved writers.  The Hobbit entry talked about Tolkien’s childhood, his war experiences and his romance with Edith Bratt, and of course the famous anecdote that on coming upon a blank page in a student’s test booklet JRRT wrote “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit” without really knowing why … and then talks about how the film trilogy of LotR made millions and won awards and set records.  Which has little to do with the book The Hobbit.  Peter Jackson shouldn’t have even come into any discussion of The Hobbit written longer ago than late 2010.  He just shouldn’t.

Dickens’s entry is similar; the title chosen for the book is Oliver Twist, but the section is an overview of his life and views – a few things I didn’t know or had forgotten, and relevant to Oliver Twist, but also relevant to just about everything Dickens wrote.  Huckleberry Finn focuses on Mark Twain with a dollop of how Huck became what it is.  The entry on Pride and Prejudice spends at least as much time talking about Sense and Sensibility.  These entries could probably have been a good deal shorter, if they stuck to the premise, but except in the cases of authors like Harper Lee with the one book much of a person’s work is inevitably intertwined.

On the whole, it was a quick read, and interesting – and as a quick read it was interesting to see how often the theme “although [  ] was very bright, s/he was an indifferent student at best” was repeated – almost every author addressed fit that description.  It’s a nice encyclopedia, and I can’t say I didn’t learn from it, but I wish it had been what I expected.  I mean, The Hobbit seems to have been included because it sold more copies than The Lord of the Rings – but LotR, to my mind, has a more fascinating back story.  The student’s test story is fun – but I think the tale that Strider, who is in the finished work the uncrowned king of Gondor, was originally envisioned to be a hobbit whose feet were mangled by orcs, after which he wore wooden clogs, leading to the nickname Trotter – I think that makes for a better story.  And knowing that Edith was Tolkien’s Luthien means a great deal to me, and adds depth to the history of the book.  It had its moments, but wasn’t a keeper.