Throwback Thursday: Charles Dickens, Spy Novelist

This post was originally published on January 12, 2012.

Reading Dickens pleases my husband.  He has no idea that the first line of A Tale of Two Cities is, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” yet I could detect his pleasure at seeing me sprawled out on the couch with that heavy volume balanced on my stomach (281).  He bought that volume of four novels for me.  It’s one of those leather-bound books with gold edges from Barnes and Noble.  Each Christmas, my husband gives me one or two of these coveted books.  This year, he bought five of them after paying close attention to a conversation I had with a neighbor about all of the leather books on our shelves.  This neighbor quizzed me on my top five favorite books – Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Dracula by Bram Stoker, anything by William Shakespeare, and Willa Cather’s My Antonia.  However, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith or Mama Day by Gloria Naylor could easily be on that list depending on my mood.

My husband, whom I thought was completely uninterested in such literary conversation (he’s a CPA), apparently made mental notes.  I received fancy versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray and Dracula a few weeks later as presents to my extreme delight.  I find the books to be treasures, but more joy comes from knowing that my husband cares enough to listen so closely and surprise me.

Anyway, back to Mr. Dickens, pictured below.  I recently read A Tale of Two Cities (number 57 on the BBC book list) for the first time.  I felt smart reading those famous first lines, as if I were about to accomplish something great.  However, that feeling soon turned to yawns and difficulty keeping my eyes open.  I am not saying that Dickens is boring.  Far from it.  But, one must be an attentive and active reader in order to gain the most from a Dickens novel.

Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

And gain I did.  His treatment of the relationship between Lucie and her father is tender and emotionally honest.  When she first meets him after being separated for years, she falls upon her knees and gives the most beautiful speech to remind him of his former life and her devotion to him.  She is selfless and loving, everything a good daughter should be.

However, the true beauty of this novel comes at the end, as with most great novels.  The events leading up to the denouement pale in comparison to the awe inspiring actions of Sydney Carton.  As Carton entered Charles Darnay’s prison cell, I had no idea what was about to occur.  However, as soon as he insists on changing clothes with him, I knew.  And the tears would not stop.  It is the ultimate sacrifice to give up one’s own life for another.  There is no act like it.  However, I worried that this plan would not be carried off smoothly, for how would Carton convince Darnay to leave him there to die?

At this point, I should have remembered all of the episodes I’ve watched of 24 with daring Jack Bauer or of Burn Notice with Michael Westen’s spy tricks.  But I did not think of these things, for who knew Dickens to be a spy novelist?  Yet, he is.  After convincing Darnay to switch clothes with him, Carton uses a chloroform-like vapor to render Darnay unconscious against his will.  Carton then completes the rest of the switcheroo.  How action packed and exciting is that?  No need for yawning and forced active reading.  Dickens now had my full attention.  My heart raced, my hands gripped the book, and I began to read with speed that probably left some of my comprehension to be desired.  I worried for daring and heroic Sydney Carton.  Would he actually meet the guillotine?  I worried for Darnay and Lucie.  Would they meet again?

And then, while Darnay is being removed from the prison unconscious, the scene changes to Miss Pross, who whips out her ninja skills and defeats Madame Defarge in a cat fight any boy at my high school would have paid to see!  (Once I witnessed a fight in which one girl ripped the other’s shirt and bra off, but she kept on swinging with one arm while she covered herself with the other!)  Miss Pross engages Madame Defarge to protect Lucie, who is fleeing France.  The best line: “‘You might, from your appearance, be the wife of Lucifer,’ said Miss Pross, in her breathing.  ‘Nevertheless, you shall not get the better of me.  I am an Englishwoman’” (501).  Well, you can’t argue with that!  Miss Pross continues talking to keep Madame Defarge guessing over Lucie’s whereabouts as long as she can.  When that gets old, the two women engage in a hand-to-hand battle.  Miss Pross handily defeats the knitting monster by shooting Madame Defarge with her own gun.

Overall, my first moments of excitement at reading a classic novel, which everyone should read, returned with the climax of the action.  Dickens is a literary genius who should also have written scripts for Hollywood.  Because Hollywood is so adept at using cliffhangers (a literary device actually invented by Thomas Hardy), I will leave you with one.  If you’d like to know what happened to Mr. and Mrs. Darnay, you’ll have to read the book.  Are the lovers reunited?  Tune in next time on A Tale of Two Cities.

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31 thoughts on “Throwback Thursday: Charles Dickens, Spy Novelist

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  1. Emily, good and timely post. My daughter just completed reading “A Tale of Two Cities” for her English Literature class. She had a hard time getting into it, but it finally prevailed on her. I kept reiterating the story has a great plot and it does make a great movie. Plus, it has two of the most quoted lines in literature, which is not bad for a novelist. I kept waiting for her to finish it, so we could talk about it. Since one of her favorites movies and play is The Scarlett Pimpernel (another spy novel), I had a feeling she would like this. Thanks, BTG

    1. I love hearing about her experience as a teenager in reading it. It is tough to get into but I’m glad the ending won her over as it did me. Good for her for sticking with it.

  2. Particularly love “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” and if you haven’t seen the movie — it’s old — it’s well worth the time. What a responsive hubby you have, Emily. Who was the woman who was Dicken’s muse? I think there was a movie about her/him.

  3. Hi, Emily, I don’t know if you have tried any more Dickens, but I think A Tale of Two Cities is one of his worst novels, although one of his shortest (the only historical one). Try David Copperfield. It is very entertaining. A lot of people consider Great Expectations to be his best, but I prefer some of the others.

  4. This might sound crazy, but I’ve never been convinced to read A Tale of Two Cities, especially due to the mixed reviews on whether it’s the worth the read or not—but you’ve really captured the spirit of it in a few select scenes that really appeal to me! Thanks for opening my eyes to a great book. I’ll definitely be picking it up on my way home today.

  5. I read this last year, and really enjoyed it. Even in such a depressing topic, there was a lot of humour. I’ve read three books by Dickens and have liked all of them, but Bleak House is my favourite so far.

  6. I never liked Tale of Two Cities, despite having tried to read it numerous times. I love most of Dickens (D. Copperfield and Great Expectations being my faves.) But a few months ago you raved about Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I had hated in high school. So I got a copy and am re-reading it, and loving it. Who knew?!

    I think that reading classics takes a bit of knowledge of the times in which they were written—certainly more knowledge than a high school kid has—to understand it all, and get the jokes and the pathos, and even the story line. But it seems that I’ve somehow absorbed enought knowledge about Victorian times that Tess makes sense to me. So I will give TToC another shot. Thanks.

    1. No problem! I love what you are saying about time and experience making a difference. I had a similar experience with The Grapes of Wrath. It is silly to expect kids to understand everything about a classic novel or to appreciate it as much as we can once we have lived a little longer. I hope you enjoy a reread of TToC!

      1. That’s funny, because I loved Grapes of Wrath. But maybe because my mom and grandparents had lived that life during the depression (without the Rose of Sharon ending) I felt closer to it. However, they hated that book. They always said Steinbeck made the dispossessed look like trash.

  7. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. A classic I loved and the enduring pure beauty of love of young girl. I cannot remember the name of the song but the artist admonished listeners for breaking young girl’s hearts. Or guard your heart All meaningful and sadly used.

  8. I have read “A Tale of Two Cities” as a teenager. But I think it was an abridged version. I wonder why? At that age I should have been reading the original, and my parents actively discouraged any abridged versions from being brought in over the threshold. I have never been a fan of Dickens, but now, you have inspired me to read it. 🙂 Clever reference to Jack Bauer, that! Thanks.

    1. Ah, good old Jack Bauer! I have always been a “snob” about abridged versions too, although my daughter has enjoyed a few. Sometimes they can be a good gateway into “higher” fiction. I hope you change your mind about Dickens. I slowly have been. 🙂

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