I stayed up far too late on Sunday finishing A Tale of Two Cities. It’s an excellent story that moves at one hell of a clip, especially for you, and ends with a fantastically emotional wallop.
I can see why people compare this so favorably when set beside Barnaby Rudge, your only other historical work. The historical backdrop is arguably more dramatic, the cast is smaller, and the action is much more focused and tightly controlled for maximum impact. But I have to say that I think Barnaby Rudge has the advantage when it comes to the incorporation of historical fact into the narrative.
Maybe it’s because you had more pages to play with, or maybe it’s because I knew so little about the Gordon Riots that featured in Rudge, and so much more about the French Revolution, but the way you describe the unfolding of events in your earlier work is so seamless that I came away with a real grasp of the riots as a historical event, as well as a satisfying story. With A Tale of Two Cities, I feel that if I didn’t know anything about the French Revolution, I wouldn’t have gained that same level of historical knowledge.
Of course, the French Revolution lasted a lot longer, and you were probably banking on your audience already having a fairly intimate knowledge of the Revolution’s major developments, so you could focus less on the history and more on the plot. And speaking of plot, having your entire cast stuck in the middle of Paris during one of its most violent and dangerous periods was utterly nerve-wracking and really claustrophobic, and I very nearly yelled at the book during Darnay’s second arrest.
Thinking back to your History of England, it’s really interesting to me that you can be such an accomplished writer of historical fiction, and such a crap historian.
But to get back to the story.
I don’t know why I’m so hung up on your villains, Charlie, but I really dig Madame Defarge. For so much of the book she’s just sitting there, all quiet and observant and knit-y, content to let her husband run the show. But as soon as the violence and beheading starts, boy does she ever get her groove on! I love the way that she quickly becomes the central villain of the piece (if you don’t count Madame Guillotine herself). You may not have granted her any of your heroines’ angelic feminine virtues, but once I found out where her anger was coming from I began to really sympathize with her. Mostly, I really like that she’s a) female and b) not another evil-for-the-sake-of-it character like Rigaud. Here’s a woman who has some serious issues, and a horrific past that she’s been stewing over for years, waiting for her moment for revenge. So even though I was cheering for good ol’ British Bulldog Miss Pross in their final showdown, I was kind of sad that Madame Defarge had revenge snatched from her. (But seriously. Best. Catfight. Evar.)
Which brings us to Sydney Carton.
I mean, I figured out what he was planning. I could see it coming, and I didn’t even want to stop it, necessarily, but damn, Charlie! Just… argh…
I can’t talk about him coherently because I still have too many feels.
And so I try to leave the French Revolution behind. Rather than leaping straight into another novel, I thought I’d cleanse my palate by reading a volume of your “Miscellaneous Papers” instead.