the original Modern Library version of A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities

  • Author:  Charles Dickens  (1812 – 1870)
  • Rank:  #83
  • Published:  1859
  • Publisher:  Chapman & Hall
  • Pages:  356  (Bantam Classic)
  • First Line:  “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 despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
  • Last Line:  ” ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done, it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.’ “
  • ML Edition:  #189 – three covers (1939, 1953, 1958)
  • Film:  1935 (dir. Frank Conway – **** – review here), 1958  (dir. Ralph Thomas  –  **)
  • Read:  Summer, 1995

The Novel:  Do I really need to write anything other than the first and last lines?  It is on the very short list of novels that have amazing and utterly memorable first lines and last lines (the only other books that really make that list are Lolita, The Princess Bride and The Catcher in the Rye).  That first line completely sets the scene (although it continues with the next paragraphs, giving an indelible impression of place and time — Dickens may have done his research in Carlyle, but his writing provides a better impression of the actual time and place).  The last line gives a poetic send-off to one of literature’s best characters.

This is, of course, Sydney Carton, the best of all Dickens characters.  He has a hard cynical edge, betrayed by the boredom of life.  He saves the life of Charles Darnay early in the novel almost as a lark.  He falls in love with Lucie Manette but allows her to marry Darnay because he knows what a waste he has made of his life.  But all this while, the shadow of history in France is close at hand:  “Not only would the echoes die away, as though the steps had gone; but, echoes of other steps that never come would be heard in their stead, and would die away for good when they seemed close at hand.”

But the magic of this book is not in individual lines (except for the opening and closing).  It is in the story, in the villainy of the DeFarges, of the heroism of Carton, of the terrors of the Revolution and the nightmare that followed.  But surely you must know this.  There are a lot of books on this list that you probably haven’t read, but can this really be one?  Can you have gotten this far and be interested enough in literature to be reading my list and never have read A Tale of Two Cities?  If you haven’t, go read it now.

the disappointing 1958 film version of A Tale of Two Cities

The Film: The 1935 version of A Tale of Two Cities was a success.  It received good reviews (it’s a great film) and was nominated for Best Picture.  It hinged on a brilliant performance by Ronald Colman, perhaps the best of his long career, as the drunken Sydney Carton, redeemed in a final choice from a lifetime of perceived worthlessness.  Then, 23 years later, the Rank Organization decided to make the first British version of the film in the sound era.

Too bad it wasn’t worth watching.  Here we are in the era of Technicolor and we have a film set in the glorious 18th century, with sumptuous costumes and art direction opportunities and they chose to make it in black and white.  That was their first terrible decision.  The second was that with all the brilliant actors around in Britain, they should cast Dirk Bogarde as Carton.  Bogarde was never a great actor, never had great charisma, lacked the ability of a Guinness or Hawkins or Mills or Quayle.

So we have a listless, lifeless film.  It doesn’t have anything to it.  It’s just a fairly weak costume drama.  And it’s the latest version.  Hopefully sometime in the future we’ll get a nice lush version.  But for now, you can skip this.  Go rent the classic 1935 version.  Don’t waste your time here.