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A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens *** (of 4)

taleRoughly sixty years after the event, Charles Dickens takes his hand to historical fiction, doing his best to recount the French Revolution.  Simultaneously ambitious, and at least for Dickens, concise, he covers several decades of history, but accomplishes this by following only a handful of characters.  What he does most effectively is describe the madness that overcomes ordinary Frenchmen, here represented by the LaFarges, who, caught up in revolutionary fever, call out anyone currently or formerly aristocratic for a date with La Guillotine.  For a Nineteenth Century writer Dickens does a creditable job of creating a few characters with ambiguity.  Charles Darnay is a French nobleman seeking to distance himself from the  his family’s aristocratic indecency.  Dr. Manette, a former Bastille prisoner, dotes on his daughter, Lucie, but he too keeps a secret.  Lucie, unfortunately, is a paper-thin personage: pure, pretty, faultless.  The contradiction of stiff upper-lip, repressed Brits to their rip-off-their-shirts French peers is a subtext.  You have to like writing from this period.  Dickens got paid by the word so he’s verbose.  For a book whose characters number fewer than you’d find in many plays, there is a lot of excess.  A Tale does best when it recounts dialogue and is slowest when Dickens pulls out his broad historical brush.