Mini classic review: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the ageing Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

It feels so wrong of me to admit that I did not enjoy this book as much as I thought I would. I genuinely had no idea A Tale of Two Cities is set during the French Revolution and, let me say, it was a big shock when I found out.

Before getting into why I disliked this book, there were quite a few things I also enjoyed, primarily, Dickens’ writing and portrayal of despair and tragedy. I have previously read Dickens’ Bleak House which is fantastic at depicting Victorian society and the horrors of it, and I would also say that’s the case in A Tale of Two Cities as well. I also found Dickens’ depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder so fascinating, as Dr Manette (who was an English prisoner trapped in Paris for decades prior to the Revolution, reducing to making shoes) has several relapses and often forgets he is no longer a prisoner. This was an impressive depiction. However, all of the incredible writing and representation is left to the men in this novel.

One of my biggest issues with this book is the character of Lucie Manette, the daughter of Dr Manette. Lucie is explicitly stated as perfect and beautiful and unfailingly king and its just … write better women, this is so boring. She is nothing but an archetype and I couldn’t care less about her, including her relationships or love triangle. Yes, I completely understand when this book was written and the society Dickens’ was writing in, but I genuinely cannot stand picture-perfect women who don’t have a single individual thought in classic literature … I also can’t stand women written by men in classical literature. No offence.

A Tale of Two Cities is chock-full of characters that it was often difficult to keep up with all of them. I frequently found myself Googling characters names when the narration changed, as I couldn’t remember which character was which. All in all, I expected better from this book. The devastation of the Revolution was raw, but the sheer amount of characters, and the archetypal nature of them, made this a poor read for me.

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