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  • A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  • David Paroissien
Charles Dickens. A Tale of Two Cities. Edited by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, W. W. Norton, 2020. Norton Critical Editions. Pp. xliii + 395. $13. 75; £5.95. ISBN 978-0-393-26423-4.

A Tale of Two Cities occupies a distinctive place in the Dickens canon. The novel has a dual role, combining the historian's vatic voice with that of a narrator using "popular and picturesque means" to advance the story of a young orphan summoned to France on the basis of "some new intelligence" sent to London. Contradictory ends also characterize its composition. While various threads have their origin as far back as 1847 and indicate a long gestation, Dickens found himself, a decade later, rushed to get the novel underway. As the joint owner of All the Year Round, he had to move quickly with an original story to give his new journal a good send off, a challenge further complicated for personal and professional reasons. In July 1858 Dickens had separated from his wife and shortly afterwards acted to dissolve his partnership with Bradbury and Evans, publishers of Household Words. That same year he also recast himself as a paid reader from his books. Taken together, these changes and other obligations formed the background against which Dickens struggled to "please [himself] with the opening of [his] story" (Letters 9: 30). Crucially, they also play into the informational context Norton Critical Editions characteristically supply.

A remark by Claire Tomalin in Charles Dickens: A Life (2011) throws light on the challenge editors face. We might note in passing that Tomalin has little respect for Dickens's historical fiction. In a dismissive remark about Barnaby Rudge (1841), Dickens's ambitious project set against the Gordon Riots of the 1780s, Tomalin sees little beyond "crude melodrama," "insipid" young women, and "absurd" plotting. Overall, she concludes, the novel fails to sustain readers on the grounds that history was not Dickens's "territory" (122). Nearly two decades later, according to Tomalin, not much seems to have changed. A Tale of Two Cities (1859) manifests many of the same hallmarks. Its plot is "too long drawn out and elaborate," the whole is peopled by "emblematic puppets" of good and evil, and awkwardly welded to a "somewhat mechanical" attempt to expose the horrors suffered by the poor in France. Perversely, however, Tomalin thought the novel could work as "entertainment," one route to which is to note its anachronisms. [End Page 189] "It took John Sutherland," she notes, to point out that Sydney Carton's use of chloroform in the prison scene, when he swaps his identity with Charles Darnay, occurred "decades before its use was known" (308–09). Impressed by Sutherland's playful exposure of the use of "ether anaesthesia," a wonderful drug "fully sixty years ahead of the British medical establishment" (Sutherland 153, 155), Tomalin concludes: his "clever essay should be reprinted with every new edition, because it adds to the entertainment, and A Tale of Two Cities was intended as entertainment" (309, 466 n. 13).

Readers who encounter the Norton Critical Edition of A Tale of Two Cities will welcome this addition to the series. Not only does the volume ignore Tomalin's counsel; it injects new life into old, tired discussions. Of course the novel contains "puzzles" that defy narrative plausibility; of course Dickens, as he freely admitted, drew on Carlyle's The French Revolution: A History (1837) when he referred to "the condition of the French people before or during the Revolution" (5; Preface). But rather than characterize the novel as "an adventure story set in the second half of the eighteenth century, […] inspired by Carlyle's study" and "researched" under his guidance (Tomalin 307), why not examine links between Carlyle's historiography and Dickens's own practice? Why not grant Dickens an interest in historiography and overlook the condescension Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities have customarily received?

Even a cursory glance at this edition supports the contention that Dickens took the depiction of historical events in fiction seriously. A generous selection of Contexts comprised of a mixture of Dickens's own writing and excerpts from...


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