Ever notice how 19th century novels consist of extremely long sentences that seem to drag on interminably as the author demonstrates his or her skill in the use of subordinate clauses or timely semicolons in prolonging these unwieldly monstrosities while at the same time flaunting his or her unscrupulous avariciousness, keeping in mind that writers in those days were paid by the line?
I’ve always enjoyed reading 19th century literature, so it’s no surprize that some of that long-sentency style rubs off on me. Not only do I write in long sentences, but sometimes I even have that Charles Dickens narrator voice following me around in my daily life and narrating everything I do in an English accent, much like Emma Thompson in Stranger than Fiction.
This is perhaps cause for concern, especially since the novel I’ve just finished reading, A Tale of Two Cities, is one of the most boring and confounding sagas ever set down in writing.
First, there are many problems with the characters. Lucie Manette, a beautiful blond, blue-eyed young lady is portrayed as having a strange aberration plaguing her forehead. Professor VJ Duke of the Punchy Lands often points out less-than-skillfully executed descriptions by classic writers in his ripping book reviews. Usually, these blunders are quite subtle and hard to spot, but the one in Tale of Two Cities is a glaring example of grotesqueness:
…a forehead with a singular capacity (remembering how young and smooth it was), of lifting and knitting itself into an expression that was not quite one of perplexity or wonder, or alarm, or merely of a bright fixed attention, though it included all the four expressions…
So it seems her special super power is to make her forehead look older than it is as well as to convey this complicated expression through its walnut-like patterns. Later on, when Lucie receive some shocking news, we are informed that Lucie was
perfectly still and silent… with that last expression looking as if it were carved or branded into her forehead.
So the reader is forced to imagine some hideous aberration that makes this otherwise lovely young woman permanently look like a Klingon.
Aside from her weird forehead, Lucie is a very boring character. She has literally nothing to do but look and act angelic, as opposed to the evil Madame Defarge who is perfectly wicked and bad.
But if Dickens makes the female characters oversimplified, he compensates by making one of the leading male characters complicated beyond understanding. Who is this alcoholic lawyer creeping around and complaining about his own lack of achievement? Sydney Carton is the sort of character that would have been very appealing to my teenage self. He is quite mysterious, melancholy, and misunderstood. Instead of achieving great things in the profession of law, he chooses rather to help his friend, a particularly obtuse lawyer, rise to greatness. Nobody, perhaps not even Carton himself, knows why he is so messed up.
Indeed, he is almost as annoying as Heathcliff from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights…
Instead of pursuing the angelic Lucie, whom he loves, he mopes around, while the highly accomplished Charles Darnay swoops in and steals her heart. Darnay is a former french aristocrat, but he wants to give up that life of spoiled indulgence, so he moves to England. He earns his living as a language tutor, just like me, so I would have liked for him to be the main character, but alas he is just a pawn in this political game…
When Darnay nobly saunters off to Paris in order to save his former servant from the revolutionary hordes, he is immediately captured and is threatened with execution. Who will save him?
Of course, the brooding Carton now chooses this as a good time to cease brooding and start acting. Though the way he resolves the problem of the novel shows that he hasn’t changed one bit. He is still the same old Carton, willing to be self-effacing and self-sacrificing for the sake of others. When Charles Darnay is imprisoned, Carton devises an ingenious plan to free him. But ironically, his self-sacrifice will finally earn him some recognition.
In typical Carton fashion, instead of snatching Darnay from the Guillotine Scarlet Pimpernel-style, he enters the jail and takes Darnay’s place, thereby sacrificing himself and of course, forever ensuring that his memory lives on in his beloved Lucie’s heart. Isn’t that a bit manipulative?
Okay, so it is a very remarkable and moving ending. It almost justifies having to slog through the entire saga of Lucie’s angelic life. I have to admit, the book may have seemed extremely boring to me due to the fact that I had already seen the movie. This 1935 cinematic version was much more exciting and fast-paced as movies tend to be. Carton seemed like a nice, debonair sort of fellow who maybe had a bit of a drinking problem, but was otherwise very charming. Although the movie made everything more cute and bland, I think I prefer it to the original work.
So the final verdict? We shall not give Dickens the chop. Perhaps he can get away this time with a stern reprimand.
Since Dickens’ work inspired me to write this really long blog post complaining about how lame it is, I suppose he must have some merit as a writer. In fact, I regard one of his other books, Great Expectations, very highly. And now that I’ve recognized his genius, the least thing he could do is stop narrating my life!