Many people often seem to think of historical novels as a modern phenomenon. Indeed, the Guardian recently compiled a list of the ten best historical novels. All of them were relatively recent. A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens’s most famous historic novel is a shining example of the genre. Dealing with the French Revolution, a topic that is so far-reaching that it could lead to a novel of astronomic size and scale, this novel actually has quite an intimate feel to it. Focussing on a handful of characters, and how their lives interweave and impact on the other characters, with a backdrop of the French Revolution to bring it all into context.
Doctor Manette, having been imprisoned for many years, is reunited with his daughter, who becomes his saving grace. Holding very loosely on to his sanity, Lucie becomes an entirely essential part of his existence. When Charles Darnay enters and steals her heart, how is the Doctor to cope? When he discovers Darnay is part of the evil Evrémonde family, who were key to his incarceration, the plot thickens. They learn to live in harmony, but the events of the French Revolution are to make enemies of them once more.
The novel seems to assume the reader already possesses a certain level of knowledge of the events of the French Revolution, and doesn’t get bogged down in too much historical description. The horrors of the events are made clear, however, and the gruesome realities of life in this period are brought to life.
There are several moving moments throughout, not least when one of the characters is waiting to be taken for execution, counting down the last time they will ever see particular hours, and as another is taken to the guillotine. The focus on a small group of people, rather than scenes of large, faceless crowds really brings home the impact the events of the Revolution had on individuals, something that often gets lost in history, where statistics often seem to take the heart out of events.
Dickens’s writing is a treat to read, with beautiful descriptions, and hard hitting scenes. Being written in English, you often forget half the characters will be speaking in French. There is one scene that I particularly enjoyed where this is made apparent. The stand-off between Miss Pross and Madame Defarge is almost humourous, as they stand in front of the other and speak words of truth without the other understanding. Their inability to understand the words of the other, and the information they can glean from the tone of voice, and gestures build up to a dramatic scene not to be forgotten quickly. I’ve certainly finished this novel with a thirst to read more of Dickens’s work.