A Tale of
Two Cities

Charles Dickens
Richard Pasco, Reader

(Audio Partners
It's too bad that the thing most remembered about A Tale of Two Cities is but the first twelve words: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," because the entire opening paragraph of the book is a study in counterpoint. And if we parse the lines, it turns into a not unreasonable bit of poetry:

    It was the age of wisdom,
    it was the age of foolishness,
    it was the epoch of belief,
    it was the epoch of incredulity,
    it was the season of Light,
    it was the season of Darkness,
    it was the spring of hope,
    it was the winter of despair...

    We had everything before us,
    we had nothing before us,
    we were all going direct to Heaven,
    we were all going direct the other way.

Not only does it turn out to be a bit of doggerel worthy of Poe --- if not Bach --- the entire novel is a high art, making its author one of those --- along with Fielding, Austen, Thackeray, James, Twain --- who could hammer together a lengthy, absorbing epic, worthy of his time and times.

Dickens' novels were meant to be read out loud. Father in his smoking chair, with the grandchildren gathered around his knees; or me driving around the city (another city!) with this in the cassette: there we all are, caught up by Charles Darnay and Jarvis Lorry and the worst of the French Revolution, spun out with such gore and cynicism that we now know why La Guillotine was called "The Shave." "Ha ha," says the wood-sawer, "He is so droll, that Samson" (referring to the head-chop). "Such a Barber!"

The blade comes down quickly, the women, suddenly elevated to power, sitting by with their knitting, counting the stitches, counting the shaves.

Like any good novelist, Dickens sets out all the threads (or traps) and slowly reels them back in with the care of --- what? --- a careful knitter. According to Pavel Medvedev (quoted in a recent TLS), a writer "must learn to see reality with the eyes of the genre ... the novel adapted to understanding the unity and inner logic of a whole epoch." Dickens knew the epoch of the French Revolution.

Midway through A Tale of Two Cities, Lucie Manette begs Mme. Lafarge to keep her husband from losing his head. Lafarge, the peasant wine-shop owner ("knitting, always knitting") says, finally, that being one who has lost much --- family, virtue, home --- to Lucie's father-in-law, the Marquis Evrémont,

    All our lives, we have seen our sister-women suffer, in themselves and in their children, poverty, nakedness, hunger, thirst, sickness, misery, oppression and neglect of all kinds? .... Judge you! Is it likely that the trouble of one wife and mother would be much to us now?

Hearing the novel read allows the listener to pick out the keystones, the mannerisms that Dickens used to make each character unforgettable, to, so to speak, tag each of them. There may be a multitude of them but they never get crossed as they do in Tolstoi or Trollope. Repetition is the key: Dr. Manette's white hair, Lorry's reiteration of his life's work: "business, business;" Mme. Lafarge's knitting, the man in the tribunal jury-box whose hands "fluttered before his lips;" the red wine spilt on the street, the red sun, the red blood, the red caps of the Citizens, the blood on the grinding-stone used by the revolutionaries to hone their knives; the graved stone faces on the house of the Marquis, which, when the house finally burns, howl into the smoke and wind.

This particular reading came out several years ago in England, and is now released here. The reader, Richard Pasco, is a prize. I give you below one bit he read. It can be impossible to work out on the page, but, in Pasco's best Cockney, it comes to life:

    A man don't see all this here a goin' on dreadful round him, in the way of Subjects without heads, dear me, plentiful enough fur to bring the price down to porterage and hardly that, without havin' his serious thoughts of things. And these here would be mine, if it wos so, entreatin' of you fur to bear in mind that wot I said just now, I up and said in the good cause when I might have kep' it back.

As a final prize, there is the Tellson's Bank, as much a character here as "La Guillotine." Pasco reads with such verve that we now know why Dickens was considered, like Twain, is a master of the fictive Tall Tale:

    After bursting open a door of idiotic obstinacy with a weak rattle in its throat, you fell into Tellson's down two steps, and came to your senses in a miserable little shop, with two little counters, where the oldest of men made your cheque shake as if the wind rustled it, while they examined the signature by the dingiest of windows, which were always under a shower-bath of mud from Fleet-street, and which were made the dingier by their own iron bars proper, and the heavy shadow of Temple Bar.

    If your business necessitated your seeing "the House," you were put into a species of Condemned Hold at the back, where you meditated on a misspent life, until the House came with its hands in its pockets, and you could hardly bunk at it in the dismal twilight.

    Your money came out of, or went into, wormy old wooden drawers, particles of which flew up your nose and down your throat when they were opened and shut. Your bank-notes had a musty odour, as if they were fast decomposing into rags again. Your plate was stowed away among the neighbouring cesspools, and evil communications corrupted its good polish in a day or two. Your deeds got into extemporised strong-rooms made of kitchens and sculleries, and fretted all the fat out of their parchments into the banking-house air. Your lighter boxes of family papers went up-stairs into a Barmecide room, that always had a great dining-table in it and never had a dinner, and where, even in the year one thousand seven hundred and eighty, the first letters written to you by your old love, or by your little children, were but newly released from the horror of being ogled through the windows, by the heads exposed on Temple Bar with an insensate brutality and ferocity worthy of Abyssinia or Ashantee.

--- David Brantley
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH