A Tale of two Cities

Dickens is up to his old tricks in this – a novel I’ve been planning to read for a long time now.  The dark, gothic opening on the mail coach to Dover is gripping, and the two characters, Jarvis and Jerry are mysteries in themselves.  The events of the coach journey, and the nervous inhabitants of the coach – all aware of the dangers of travelling by night – invite the reader into an estimation of what it was like, at this time, to travel along muddy roads in fear of the highway robber, and to trudge through thick mud alongside the coach as the tired horses mount the slope of a hill.

It’s when it comes to describing women that Dickens fails us.  The “wild looking woman..all of a red colour” is scarcely credible as she rescues Mmoiselle Manette, who is frozen in horror at the feet of Jarvis.  Manette, the young girl herself, adopts melodramatic poses and language, and Dickens uses these to describe her: “The daughter laid her head down on the hard ground close at her father’s side,” or “his daughter fell upon her knees before him, with her appealing hands upon his breast.”

The character of the father, too, is weakly drawn at this point – as he tears his grey hair at the thought of no longer being in the tower, and listens with half an ear, staring blankly at the ground, to the strange voices of his friends and rescuers.

I’m certainly going to read on, hoping and expecting that there will be more of the dark excitement, and less of the sentimentalisation – but I’m not that optimistic.


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