History, villains and feels

Dear Charlie,

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.


Travel Advisory: Avoid France when they’re chopping people’s heads off.

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.


Madame Defarge was not the only angry woman.

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.


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.

Affectionately yours,


On top of the covers

Dear Charlie,

A Tale of Two Cities is the 29th volume of your complete works that I’ve picked up to date, and I’ve been staring at its lovely dark green, faux-leather-faux-gold-circa-1960s pomp and circumstance of a cover. Not that it’s weird in any way. It’s exactly the same binding as the other 35 volumes. This massive collection is unlike anything else on my bookshelves, and it got me thinking about the pros and cons of owning (and reading) such a uniform collection of books (it also got me thinking about historical fiction and revolutions and such, but we can chat about that later).


OK, this isn’t my library, but damn I wish it was. Let’s see you pull *that* off with Kindles and Kobos!

I confess that I do own an ereader, and what it does well it does really well. You can’t beat it for travelling, reading lengthy books without hand cramps or spine-breaking (grr, spine-breaking), looking up words on the fly, or hosting fragile books that you don’t want to bung into a bag with your lunch and keys. But for me it will never replace the look/smell/feel of real-live books. My bookshelves are a self portrait that I wouldn’t want to lose. I have to really loathe a book before I can part with it – even books that I didn’t particularly like and will likely never re-read I can still point to as a part of my literary development (I’m looking at you, American Psycho). My bookshelves make kaleidoscopic and colorful statements, and I really like that.

As well, for me, a book’s cover is an important mnemonic device, helping me to recall not only the book’s plot and characters, but where I was and what I was doing as I read it. And they’re sometimes lovely to look at in their own right. My dear Kobo just doesn’t do any of that as adroitly.


36 volumes of faux-leather goodness

Your works, Charlie, fall into a strange no-man’s land between these two extremes. The bubbly escapades of The Pickwick Papers and the emotional intensity of Dombey & Son are both presented to the reader in exactly the same way, and if you don’t know anything about the plots (as I didn’t), there’s no way to tell at the outset what you’re going to get.

I wonder, now, if the sheer uniformity caused much of the unfounded fear I had going in to several of these volumes that they would be dry, dull and hard to get through.

Of course, this black box approach might not have been such a bad thing. Doing a quick image search for covers of A Tale of Two Cities makes me realize that a silly or inappropriate cover can set up certain expectations of the contents that the story itself might have a hard time overcoming.

Most instances of A Tale of Two Cities feature appropriate imagery of burning buildings, French flags, guillotines and angry French mobs. Good stuff. Even if not particularly earth-shattering from a design perspective, at least I know what I’m getting into.


Yup. Pretty sure this book will be about the French Revolution.

But there are alarming exceptions.

For instance, I might be really disappointed that this edition of A Tale of Two Cities didn’t tell me which hotel was the best value or where to eat or the best time to ride the London Eye. The London Eye? Seriously?


Hey! Dickens contains NO hotel recommendations or Tube maps! Some tour guide you are…

And this one, although awesomely clever from a graphic design point of view, annoys the historian in me because neither Big Ben nor the Eiffel Tower existed during the French Revolution.


A Tale of Two Anachronistic Structures That Have Nothing to Do with the Plot

Aaaand then there’s this, which my brain can’t even come to grips with right now.


Yes, please tell me how to code-knit the names of Enemies of the People who should be beheaded at the first opportunity. Also a tea cosy.

You know, Charlie, maybe it’s best that I stick with my green and gilt volumes, and remain uninfluenced and always,

Affectionately yours,