My wife and I used to rent a house every autumn on different islands off the coast of Maine. In one we found a cache of old paperbacks: romances, thrillers and historical novels. Opening one of the latter at random, a story set in America in the 1850s, I read a line of dialogue that went something like this:
“If these Abolitionists don’t stop their agitation, we’re going to have a civil war!”
It was a fine example of reading history backwards, seeing events as inevitable just because you know they actually happened. It’s why I tell our kids to never get their sense of the past from movies. Or historical novels.
Since here we’re dealing with Charles Dickens and not John Jakes (or whoever it was) the reading backwards is more nuanced. Still, I don’t think I’m overstating much when I suggest that every single preconception, misconception and cliché about the French Revolution springs from this novel.
As an antidote to Dickens’ grass-eating peasants, self-besotted aristocrats and Mysteries-of-Udolfo-like Bastille, please read Simon Shama’s excellent book, Citizens. Yes, I know Dickens wasn’t writing history. The problem is, too many people have taken what he wrote as history—or, even worse, skipped his novel altogether and simply ingested the clichés borrowed from the novel for movies, mini-series and other lesser novels. This is not to say that there was no oppression or injustice in Ancien Regime France; it’s just to suggest that the real story is far more nuanced and interesting.
That said, the story is undeniably breathtaking. The first two books carefully set up the third; by the time you get there, the story has become a roller coaster of danger, intrigue and double-dealing, all plausible and terrifying because the personalities and past history have all been so patiently prepared in the first two books. I do think Dickens goes one step too far in making Madame Defarge a direct relation of the family oppressed by…but now I’m giving more away than I should. You decide.
Dickens was able to be tender, funny and admonitory by turns and, it sometimes seems, all at once. He is simply a master craftsman of our language; the story rolls along effortlessly on the tide of his wit and humanity. Yes, there are those details that delighted his original audience and now make us wince. The death of the heroine’s young son, part of a telescoped series of events Dickens employs to get us to where the French Revolution begins, is the kind of thing that made an easy target for P. G. Wodehouse. And deservedly so. But it is no more than a speed bump on an otherwise satisfying journey.
A larger reservation: Dickens knew Englishmen through and through, from the highest to the lowest. At least, he writes as if he did. The “honest tradesman” is vintage Dickens, the kind of character any actor would love to get his teeth into. But his Frenchmen come off, by and large, as just a tad ersatz. A little cardboard-y. And the disease is common to his Jacobins and much as his Aristos. My guess—and it’s only a guess—is that he was stepping off his home ground (not just leaving England but also his own century) and trying to create characters from the facts he found in history books. Certainly his peasants are pathetic, but they aren’t really human in the way Pip or Scrooge are or, in Tale of Two Cities, that wonderful "man of business", Mr. Lorry.
Still, this is a 5-star listen all-round for the characters that are realized and the story they share—and for the flawless performance by the always-enjoyable Simon Vance. It feels good to get another classic under my belt, one I have been ignoring for decades. Especially as now I understand what Bertie Wooster means when he refers to “a touch of the Sydney Carton spirit”.
It's been decades since I read this book, and honestly, it had become conflated in my memory with all the other books, movies and biographies I have read from the time of the French Revolution. Literary types will tell you this is not 'Dicken's best work'-- but it's darn good... and though completely predictable it's worth revisiting if you haven't read it as an adult.
I like Charles Dickens books! But this one was particularly hard for me to keep up with. I would keep getting lost, keeping up with the characters was hard. This book might be one of those that I might need to read on paper.
This is the best audio book I have listened to so far. Simon Vance is a master reader and his subject material is well written. The unlikely hero Sidney Carton is believable and likeable. You really get a feeling for the build up of the revolution and the effects on all stratas of society.
Sad and glad ending at the same time.
I have just finished listening to The Man In the Iron Mask. While the themes are different and Charles Dickens story is more moralistic it was good to follow up a novel of Louis the IV with France 2 generations later.
Simon Vance read the Man In the Iron Mask and I was so impressed by this reading that I looked for other books read by him. He is very good at creating substantial differences between characters.
This book moved me greatly. There is humour but the storylines of people imprisoned brought home the horror of the situation-Dr Manette in the Bastille. Charles Darney in the Concierge and the nobleness of the unlikely hero Sidney Carton.
I Highly recommend this book
This is a wonderful classic which vividly brings out the conditions in France just before the revolution.
The one thing which clearly comes out of the story amidst all the deep shades of good and evil is the human side - their capacity to do both good and evil, to rise up in love and stoop down in malice - the author has beautifully shown how both co-exist.
The scene where Sidney Carton kisses the child of Lucy and murmurs his expectation to be remembered by the family just before leaving brought tears to my eyes.
This is a pretty long book, and not of the type where you don't want to leave it wondering what will happen next. Moreover, I had read the book, so knew the story. This is a pure classic where you move along the narration at at an easy pace, and pick up seamlessly from where you stopped last time.
This has been the most satisfying experience I've had with audio books so far. The others were good, but so far this has been the best.
The language is compelling and thought provoking. Dickens weaves an amazing story fleshing out all the characters to the fullest, arriving finally to a perfect finish.
I have not listened to Simon Vance before. The voice he gives to each character is perfect, well delivered, and perfectly timed. I'm sure to listen to him again.
The book surprised me. It's been quite a while since I've felt such a large variety of different emotions in a single book. Charles Dickens creates so believable a set of characters and situations that I found myself hoping and fearing for them often. Just fiction, but such a display of the human condition that I could identify with the many truths behind the fiction, and so felt real grief and hope and love.
An old broad that enjoys books of all types. Would rather read than write reviews though. I know what I like, and won't be bothered by crap.
Yes, this is a classic and in this day and time with income inequality getting further apart this book is pertinent today. Don't pass this one up.
The first chapter and the last paragraphs are my favorites!
He has the voice that draws you in and makes you hold your breath while he tells the story of the French Revolution and the extremes that happen when people are ignored. He is a master!
This is a great cry! Sidney Carton is one of those antiheroes that you love, who breaks your heart by being the most noble of all the characters in the book.
Don't miss this book! Simon Vance reading Dickens? Nothing gets better than this!
Very exciting story. Loved the performance! Dickens is so sympathetic to all his characters, he fleshes them out beautifully.