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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
In his lifetime Charles Dickens achieved a popularity we associate nowadays with rock stars. His works were international best-sellers, and Dickens himself was in great demand: he excelled as a speaker, an actor-director of amateur theatricals, and a dramatic reader of his own fiction. At times Dickens' skill as a public performer threatened to overshadow his writing career. It was said that women fainted by the dozens on hearing his narration of the murder scene from Oliver Twist. On the whole he gloried in recognition and strove to be a crowd-pleaser. He wrote novels in monthly, even weekly installments, publishing them as newspaper serials. His goal was to satisfy the tastes and expectations of a mass audience.
Playing to an audience had both a good and bad effect on Dickens' art. On the one hand his works have had wide, lasting appeal. On the other, his urge to please sometimes made him overly sentimental: once, anticipating audience demand, he even tacked on a happy ending.
What fueled Dickens' ambition? Biographers have pointed to the events of his childhood and youth, which reverberate throughout his books, including A Tale of Two Cities. He was fascinated by prisons, the home, the ideal woman, dual personalities, and even violence. All these concerns may be partly traced to Dickens' life; all play a role in A Tale of Two Cities.
Born in 1812, in Portsmouth, England, Charles Dickens was a sensitive, imaginative child. He enjoyed his schoolwork and showed promise; when a family crisis interrupted his studies he suffered an emotional trauma. Charles' father, John Dickens, was a hospitable fellow who tended to outspend his modest, government clerk's salary. After the family moved to London, John Dickens' excesses caught up with him and he was arrested for debt and sent to prison. His wife and youngest children moved into prison with him, while Charles, lodging nearby, went to work full time in a shoe-polish factory, pasting labels on bottles. He was twelve years old. The job ended within months, but Charles' memory of its humiliation never faded. As an adult he hid the incident from all but one close friend; even his wife remained in the dark.
Given Dickens' bent for concealing his own past, it's no accident that secrets and mysterious life histories lie at the heart of A Tale of Two Cities. The famous prisons that loom in the novel may well be by-products of young Charles' exposure to the debtors' prison. As for the blacking-or shoe-polish-factory, it must have struck the impressionable boy as his own private jail. A serious result of the experience was Charles' growing resentment of his mother, who tried, even after John Dickens' release, to keep her son on the job. "I never afterwards forgot," confided Dickens in a letter, years later. "I never shall forget, I never can forget that my mother was warm for my being sent back."
Dickens also never forgot any of his early troubles with women. As a rising young reporter in London he fell passionately in love with Maria Beadnell, a girl from a prosperous, middle-class background. Influenced by her parents, Maria rejected him. Dickens was devastated, and his enduring but limited conception of the ideal woman began to take form. In A Tale's Lucie Manette you'll meet the typical Dickens heroine: young, beautiful, submissive.
A self-taught shorthand reporter, Dickens worked his way into writing for newspapers, and in the early 1830s began publishing fictional sketches about London life. In 1836 with the phenomenal success of his second book, The Pickwick Papers, he was free to write full time. A man of amazing energy, Dickens produced frequent novels and short stories, edited the papers in which these appeared, and commented on and dabbled in politics. In the flush of Pickwick's success he married, and soon had to cope with the demands of an ever-increasing family. By the mid-1850s Dickens' wife Catherine had given him ten children-and Dickens was questioning his life's scheme.
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,..." The famous opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities describes the year 1775, but Dickens might well have been characterizing his own era. Victorian England (1837-1901, the span of Queen Victoria's reign) was a society of rapid change. Dickens himself saw the coach system give way to a railroad network, and England shift from a predominantly rural to an urban, industrial society. It was the best of times for aristocrats and wealthy industrialists; it was surely the worst of times for the urban poor, slum-dwellers who labored from childhood in sooty factories. These years also saw the rise of Victorian morality, with its ideals of family life and puritan habits, even as prostitution flourished and drunkenness grew to a national epidemic.
A self-made man acutely aware of his near working-class origins, Dickens both battled prevailing trends and followed them. He was sensitive to the needs of the poor, yet delighted when he could finally afford a country house and live like an upper-middle-class gentleman. Such works as Hard Times, David Copperfield, and Oliver Twist had satirized or railed at contemporary social abuses, making Dickens' popular reputation as a great reformer.
Yet a depression had settled on him. He was feeling more and more unsuited to Catherine. The atmosphere darkens in the novels of the 1850s: Bleak House, Hard Times, and Little Dorrit. Readers during these years missed the simpler pleasures and humor of The Pickwick Papers.
A Tale of Two Cities ran between April and November 1859 in weekly installments. It was intended both to boost sales of Dickens' new publishing venture, the journal All the Year Round, and as an experiment in fiction. Half the length of a usual Dickens novel, A Tale depends on a swiftly moving, tightly resolved plot. Dickens deliberately avoided using his trademarks of eccentric dialogue, elaborately drawn characters, and massive detail. It's important to keep in mind that A Tale is an historical novel, only the second one Dickens wrote. Dickens got the idea of drawing on the French Revolution as background, and took much of A Tale's political philosophy from The French Revolution, a popular history written by his friend Thomas Carlyle (this is further discussed in this guide under Sources).
Since it is set in another era, A Tale of Two Cities doesn't target a specific problem of Dickens' own day. As you read look for clues to Dickens' attitude toward the common people he portrayed. Readers of A Tale have variously sketched Dickens as an out-and-out radical, a conservative fearful of the mob, even as a man ignorant of politics.
The novel was also influenced by Dickens' domestic troubles. In 1857, acting in a benefit performance of a play called The Frozen Deep, Dickens was smitten with an 18-year-old cast member, Ellen Ternan. The infatuation served to complete Dickens' break with Catherine. Several years would pass, though, before Ellen became his mistress. By coincidence, The Frozen Deep supplied the important renunciation theme we'll follow in A Tale.
Critics of the day gave mixed reviews to A Tale of Two Cities, but the book was very popular and holds its place as one of Dickens' best known. Reading the novel today we note the author's artistry: the concisely constructed plot, the suggestive imagery and atmosphere, the thrilling and horrifying scenes of revolutionary turmoil. For some readers the revolutionary scenes reflect Dickens' inner demons-a fascination with violence, and ambivalence toward the raging mob. But for many other readers A Tale's intensity largely reflects Dickens' storytelling genius.
Dickens lived only twelve more years after finishing A Tale of Two Cities. His next novel, Great Expectations, is a return to the "Dickensian" mode-that is, it moves at a leisurely pace, boasts a gallery of complicated characters, and is concerned with contemporary social issues. Great Expectations is biographical, dealing with a young man's lessons in life. Yet it shares some themes with A Tale of Two Cities, these themes include prisons and the narrow division between reality and unreality.
In his last years Dickens was nearly the property of his public. His lifelong love of theater enticed him into giving dramatic readings of his own works. Marathon touring, including an exhausting series of performances in America, affected his already failing health. In 1870, aged 58, Dickens died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage. Though he can no longer address us from a platform, Dickens still has the power to move vast audiences.