“Get out of my head, Charles Dickens!” A Tale of Two Cities and Other Annoying 19th Century Things

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.


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…


Comic strip from Hark, a Vagrant!

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…

[Spoiler alert!]

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?

ronald-colman-sydney-carton-tale-of-two-cities-1936Okay, 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!


9 thoughts on ““Get out of my head, Charles Dickens!” A Tale of Two Cities and Other Annoying 19th Century Things

  1. I have read A Tale of Two Cities and made it to the end. I do struggle with such long books. What I don’t like is that Dickens didn’t write “novels” but wrote them to be published in monthly (I guess) periodicals so they’re written in twenty-ish parts that allows the story to be broken up. So he must’ve had a word count he had to fill each month and so we ended up with long chapters.

    Did you know, it surprised me, that A Tale of Two Cities is the best selling novel ever! Probably. According to the Wikipedia list it’s sold over 200 million copies! Can’t quite work out why.


    • Well…it’s a tough call. Maybe it’s just me, but I found it quite boring. On the other hand, there are, some amusing comic relief characters such as Gerry Cruncher who gets mad at his wife for praying against him, or “flopping” as he calls it. I might recommend it on the basis of being curious how much repulsion it would cause for the professor! 😉

  2. Aside from reading A Christmas Carol, I haven’t read much Dickens. Although I do have Great Expectations on my “To Read” list, since it was mentioned in the movie The Lake House, I’m not exactly sure when I’ll get to it.

    A Tale of Two Cities sounds interesting. I’m not exactly sure if its my cup of tea, though. Ha, “my cup of tea”, isn’t that an 19-century cliché? Not sure. Anyway, I learned something new today from your post, Sonya. I learned publishers back then paid by the line. To me, that makes a lot of sense. Tell me if I’m on the right track…is it because people back then had nothing better to do than to read? I’m just guessing here.

    Anyway, maybe one day I’ll do what I’m doing now with John Grisham books, read the whole Charles Dickens bibliography. We’ll see, of course! 😉

    • It’ll be pretty impressive if you read all the works of Charles Dickens, Jack!

      I think the getting paid by the line thing had to do with the rise of periodicals and newspapers in the 19th century. Many of these novels were published as a series, with a chapter in each issue of a periodical. This way, the authors and publisher had more of an incentive to keep the novel going as long as possible, especially if it was a popular one.

  3. I have read the book quite a while ago, and I don’t remember the plot. Nothing. The only image I am left with is the image of knitters, those women who brought their knitting with them when they came to watch public executions. They always occupied the first rows watching guillotine in motion. Of course, madame Defarge was one of them. It changed my understanding of the French Revolution.

    And now I know what actually happened in the novel. Thanks Sonya!

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