“Whatever the word great means, Dickens was what it means.” So wrote G. K. Chesterton—someone who knew more than a little about how to grab a reader’s attention.
And G.K.C. was also a master of the follow-up line. Dickens, he said, “is treated as a classic; that is, as a king who may now be deserted, but who cannot now be dethroned.”
That’s a spirited line, and a telling one. Chesterton was right to say many acknowledge Dickens as a classic writer. Yes, but do we read him? He might sit on a throne in the literary pantheon, but have we forsaken his banner? We are the more to be pitied if we have.
In this, the age of the sound bite, I wonder: Do we have the patience for Dickens’ art? Many of his novels tip the scales at 400 pages. Others, like “Bleak House,” exceed 600.
I would not say our forbears had a more noble fortitude than we for reading Dickens as avidly as they did. That does Dickens little justice. But whatever the right word is, there was surely something admirable about the way people a century ago took time over things, and writers, that were worth taking time over.
Dickens was one of those writers.
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I’ll say straightaway that “A Tale of Two Cities” is my favorite among Dickens’ novels. Sydney Carton utters the lines that I find most moving in the Dickens canon. At the close of the novel, he faces death, taking the place of his friend Charles Darnay—one of thousands unjustly sentenced to die at the guillotine. Close by him is a seamstress, also sentenced to death. Carton comforts her. They find courage, and faith, where none might think to find it: beneath a dark shadow.
The young woman wonders if, once in heaven, she will be long parted from a beloved cousin. “Do you think,” she asks, “that it will seem long to me, while I wait for her in the better land?”
Eternity draws near in Carton’s answer. “It cannot be, my child,” he says, “there is no Time there, and no trouble there.”
But Dickens gives us still more. We are allowed, as it were, to hear Carton’s unspoken thoughts. Facing death, these imagined thoughts show him to be something like a prophet. He descries a better life for Darnay and his wife Lucie, a time when the storms of revolution have fled France at last. His sacrifice will make all the good things he foresees possible. Then follows what many consider the finest close to a novel ever written. We seem to hear Carton say—
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.
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It is worth going a very long way for a sight of lines like that. And there are many lines like that in Dickens.
But one doesn’t have to travel far. His books are close at hand—online, in any fine library, or bookstore.
Let’s stay with “A Tale of Two Cities”for the present. Turn to the opening of the novel, and these lines are waiting there:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, 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. . . .
There has never been a better description of the contrasts that attend an age of revolution than this. Restive and inchoate, such days are a welter of uncertainty. All too often, visions of utopia become nightmares of coercion. We mourn over things done in the name of justice. And in France, at the close of the 18th century, the storming of the Bastille held no key for a better world. It was inexorably supplanted by a reign of terror.
To read “A Tale of Two Cities” is to see this tempestuous time set on an epic canvas. Dickens marshals peerless prose, and gives us scenes where people of character acquit themselves in an unreasoning time.
Far more than a cautionary tale, “A Tale of Two Cities” explores many of the things that are best about humanity, and worst. Some characters suffer and forgive—while others, who have known oppression, become oppressors themselves.
Contrast Dr. Manette with Madame Defarge, and such things become indelible. Dr. Manette’s nobility is shown in his eventual acceptance of Charles Darnay, the nephew of a one-time enemy. Darnay is everything that his heinous and cruel uncle, the Marquis St. Evrémonde, was not. In time, Dr. Manette sees this. Madame Defarge will not, and thinks only to exact revenge on St. Evrémonde family. It time, she becomes the very thing she hates—no better than the Marquis St. Evrémonde.
The reformer William Wilberforce once said that Shakespeare was “a masterly describer of human nature.” We might say the same of Dickens, if only because he gave us a novel like “A Tale of Two Cities.” To find all that lies within its pages is no bad reward for patience with Dickens’ art, no bad reward at all.
Illustration by Fred Barnard; image courtesy of Philip V. Allingham.
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