1. Why did Charles Dickens write A Tale of Two Cities? Many reasons, yes. Imagining the germ of the story, or a character or two, was sufficient. But I also presume that Dickens had another purpose.
Is this novel his own response to Hard Times, published five years earlier? In Hard Times, the Condition of England is Not Good, and the workers are up in arms, but only figuratively. In some sense, Dickens is on the side of those workers, but in some other sense he is on the side of everyone. If only we would all be nicer to each other, etc. The practical politics of Hard Times are incoherent, and I’m not sure the impractical policitcs are much better.
I’m currently, oh, a third of the way into Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855), listening to her characters rehash the same arguments. Listening patiently, I hope. This sort of thing is not the great strength of the novel as a form. A strike is about to begin. Perhaps the workers will begin breaking machines, forming committees, building barricades, and beheading noblemen. There’s something the novel is pretty good at.
Charles Dickens does not want the workers to get to the point of beheading the mill-owners. It would be easy enough to shade Hard Times into part of a call for revolution. The events of 1848 left England untouched, but the example was fresh. Perhaps A Tale of Two Cities is a piece of an extended novelistic argument – reform should go far, and Dickens is not quite clear on how far, but not that far, not as far as the French Revolution. Earlier parts of the novel, the “Two Cities” sections, emphasize the poverty of London as well as Paris, but Paris and the Revolution swallow the novel. The French go too far.
2. Now, this will probably be of no interest to anyone who has not read the novel, and I believe I just made some unwarranted assumptions about those who have.
Please just go ahead and tell me this is nonsense:
Sydney Carton is Charles Darnay’s cousin or half-brother, yes? We have the set of French twin brothers, Darnay’s father and uncle, and then we have his inexplicable English look-alike, who is, who must be, the illegitimate son of one of the brothers.
Dickens never mentions any of this – or there’s my question – did I miss it? The idea only occurred to me with about sixty pages left in the novel. This passage did it:
‘But you are not English,’ said the wood-sawyer, ‘though you wear English dress?’
‘Yes,’ said Carton, pausing again, and answering over his shoulder.
‘You speak like a Frenchman.’
‘I am an old student here.’
‘Aha, a perfect Frenchman! Good night, Englishman.’ (III.9)
A perplexing business. Dickens wants to reassure me about Carton’s facility with Paris and with French, skills he needs to move the story along. He sure does it in an odd way.
What I like about this idea – and, again, feel free to point out the so-obvious-they-are-not-even clues that I missed – is that Dickens, no stranger to over-explaining, omits all of this from the novel. Maybe the resemblance between Darnay and Carton is just a freakish coincidence. Maybe not. Dickens never says. Good for him.