Charles Dickens' engrossing story of London and Paris during the French Revolution begins with one of the most famous lines in world literature - "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." - and ends with another - "It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known." And packed between those oft-quoted literary jewels is a very powerful historical novel that encompasses some of Dickens' finest work.
The curtain rises several years before before the proletariat take to the barricades in France. In fact, it opens in 1775, the year before the United States officially declares its independence from England, and it closes a couple of decades later at the height of the revolution in France where the "barber" does his deadly work at "le guillotine" many times a day.
One of the central characters, Charles Darnay, is put on trial for his life three times during the period covered by the novel - once in England for spying for France during the American Revolution, and twice in France for being related to French aristocrats. It is the life of Darnay, tied to both England, where he is a commoner teaching French, as well as to France, where he is a nobleman who is ashamed of the way members of his family have treated the peasants, that gives readers insights into the social workings of both countries. Darnay also serves as the vehicle for pulling the story back and forth between the two cities.
Sidney Carton does research for an English attorney, the man who does the writing and intellectual grunge work so that the lawyer can look good in court. Carton likes to drink, and attacks his liquor with much the same fervor as he attacks his work. It is apparent that he could be so much more than who he has become. He has an unrequited love for Lucy Manette, a pretty and pleasant young lady who is focused on taking care of her father, a physician who was imprisoned for a decade at the infamous Bastille in Paris. Carton keeps his love a secret because he knows he is not worthy of Lucy Sidney Carton is a man in need of redemption.
Ernest DeFarge runs a wine shop in Paris. His wife, Therese DeFarge, helps to run the shop and is continually busy with her knitting. When the storm of the French Revolution is loosed upon Europe, the DeFarges are at its vortex. Madame DeFarge has a regular seat in front of the guillotine where she can watch the heads roll - as she knits.
A Tale of Two Cities is, as with all things Dickens, peopled with very colorful characters with all sorts of connections to one another that slowly come to light as the story unfolds. There are complications aplenty, again as with all things Dickens, but this novel is different from his other works in that this story is essentially humorless. It is filled with threats of death, mass executions, and carts loaded with headless bodies making their way through the muddy streets of Paris. But as grim as all of that sounds, A Tale of Two Cities is very compelling and even inspiring.
Charles Dickens was at his best when he wrote this novel, and while the Revolution had ended before he was born, the wounds were still fresh. Dickens was able to capture the essence of this seminal event in human history and put it into a format that carried the sense and feel of bloody social upheaval well beyond his time. His tale is fiction, but, as history, it feels very, very real.