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.
One hundred and fifty years ago today, readers in London flocked around newsstands to get the last installment (and read the famous last sentence above) of a rare foray by Charles Dickens into historical fiction, A Tale of Two Cities, a sweeping story of the French Revolution through the personal stories of a few people, particularly the Englishman Charles Darnay and the Frenchman Sydney Carton. Sydney is a better man, but is in love with Charles’ wife, whose father has been imprisoned and… Well, it all ties together.
When people disparage classics as boring, stuffy books nobody wants to read, it’s clear they haven’t read Dickens, whose books are crammed with excitement, great characters, and everything we want a novel to be. That’s hardly surprising, since what we expect of a novel has largely been formed by the works of DIckens in the first place..
All that being said, this is one holds up even better than other Dickens novels for 21st Century readers. Why? Because it is historical anyway, so the dated clothes, speech, and ways of life are supposed to be dated and there’s no distance between the author and us. What’s more, as one of his shorter novels, a reader isn’t likely to stall out half way through, as I have done many times with books like David Copperfield and Great Expectations, or one tenth of the way in, as I did with Bleak House.
What about young readers? My brother read this when he was 12 or 13 and I was 10. I remember well his pronouncements of the grotesque delights he found… “There’s a guy who gets his hands cut off!” he’d tell me. “You should read it!” He’d get a few pages further. “There’s a guy who gets stuffed full of straw!” So yes, it is a perfect book for boys who never read the classics.