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Please do let us know about your experience of the blog and of reading A Tale of Two Cities week-by-week. Even if you have only just discovered this blog, or you have only been dipping in and out, or you have been reading but not posting, we want to hear from you! Any and all feedback will be incredibly useful. The survey only consists of 10 questions and will take less than 10 minutes to complete:

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Week 31: ‘A Far, Far Better Thing’

 . . . gulp . . . What a pay off for thirty one weeks of loyalty. If the journey has ever felt long or weary, now we are well rewarded for our efforts. I’m very aware of writing into the poignant hush left by what are surely some of the finest last words on record. 

I’m not sure what to make of the fact that this marvelous closing speech is, itself, an unrealised phantom, what might have been heard of the thoughts inspiring Carton ‘if he had given any utterance to his, and they were prophetic’. That conditioning ‘if’ looms large for me, though I think Dickens wants us to see what follows as an accurate prophecy. Predictive of a post-novel future or not, these imagined last words give a fascinating psychological portrait. The aspects I’m most drawn to are the confirmation that Carton’s sacrifice has been for the whole family – “the lives for which I lay down my life” – and that it allows him to become/imagine himself as the emotional centre of the family structures of marriage and parenting. I love the image of a triadic eternal marriage of souls: ‘I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed, and I know that each was not more honoured and held sacred in the other’s soul, than I was in the souls of both’. Young Sydney Darnay embodies this three-part heritage, carrying forward his fathers’ names and his mother’s forehead. The potential rivalry of Carton and Darnay as fathers as well as husbands, which Pete mentioned last week, is here wonderfully resolved into a harmonious family of choice. Of course I can’t quite celebrate it in the way I would had Sydney been saved from the guillotine to live happily, as Mr Lorry does, as a beloved bachelor friend to the family. . . 

Though Sydney does not voice this speech, it works as a powerful piece of oratory. I’m imagining all the renditions of it in households on this equivalent week 153 years ago. And since then it has been invoked in situations of national and personal emergency – at Batman’s grave, for example, or, more profoundly, during the Boer War as performed by Baden Powell to give heart to the troops during the siege of Mafeking. Joss Marsh has done some fascinating work on the popularity of the play adaptation of the novel, ‘The Only Way’ with First World War troops. At times when mass violence threatens to become overwhelming Carton’s sacrifice has offered spiritual solace, and the hope that every life has a valuable legacy for those it has touched. 

‘All flashes away. Twenty-Three.’    


Drawing to a close

So far I’ve shared the illustrations by Phiz that accompanied the first six monthly instalment that appeared alongside the weekly parts. With the story finishing next week (just three days to go!), the end advertisement is not for the seventh monthly part, but instead for the complete volume, with 16 illustrations by Phiz. Here then, are the remaining drawings, courtesy as usual of Victorian Web. Rest assured there are no spoilers, I promise: in fact, what’s interesting is that there are no illustrations from the last three weeks; I can only assume this is the consequence of Dickens plowing ahead with his story while leaving everyone else, his poor illustrator included, trailing behind.

Anyway, the first picture is ‘The Double Recognition’, referring back (seems so long ago now) to Miss Pross’s discovery of her brother, back in the days when she was just a minor comic character instead of heroic vanquisher of she-devils.

The Double Recognition

Bearing in mind the illustrations recently provided by Ben, its interesting to see how decidedly unstout Miss Pross appears. Otherwise it’s a well-depicted illustration, Barsad’s back to us maintaining the intrigue and allowing for our focus to rest upon the reactions of Pross and Cruncher, while still recognising the importance of the figure they are looking at by his position in centre frame.

The next picture is ‘After the Sentence’ which shows Manette in full melodramatic pose:

After the Sentence

I really like this one – if it weren’t so close to the end of the story I would vote for this one as a cover picture. Lucie is the stereotypical sacrificial virgin in white, Carton looks suitable dishevelled and manly while holding her (and simultaneously almost like a haunting devil come vampire – that’s a very exposed neck Lucie has there…), while down in the left-hand corner among the nonchalant French there is one in particular who, leaning against the pillar, recalls that earlier illustration of Carton way, way back in ‘Congratulations’ (month two). So what Phiz is doing here, I would humbly suggest, is showing the progress of Carton from disengaged rake on stage left to passionate hero on centre stage. Looking at this I’m dumbfounded how people can write off Phiz’s contributions to this story.

Though that’s not the last illustration Phiz draws for ATOTC, it is the last one taken chronologically from the plot: there is nothing depicting any of the later events. There is, however, one final drawing included and that is the frontispiece for the whole novel – and the image he chooses to sum up the story – Phiz’s last comment on A Tale of Two Cities? Why it’s Doctor Manette of course, ‘In the Bastille’:

In the Bastille


We Want to Hear From You!

As we reach the end of our blog journey (break out the hankies!), we are very keen to hear from our readers and bloggers about their experiences of reading A Tale of Two Cities week-by-week and of reading and/or contributing to the blog. Even if you have only just discovered this blog, or you have only been dipping in and out, or you have been reading but not posting, we want to hear from you! Any and all feedback will be incredibly useful.

Click here to take our A Tale of Two Cities Users’ Survey 

If you have any further comments or feedback about any aspect of the project, then please do email us: djo@buckingham.ac.uk.

Also, discussions are afoot to blog a different novel in 2013. Let us know your thoughts and watch this space…

Week 30: Au Revoir Madame Defarge!

And so on to the penultimate part. I was watching the new series of The Killing on Saturday and I always love the montage sequence at the end of every episode, showing the key characters in telling scenes. This entire instalment is a little like that, although it’s a montage we must construct in our mind. Thus, Sidney is still clasping the hand of the seamstress, awaiting the tumbrils; Charles is still unconscious; and Lucie and Mr Lorry still peer fearfully from the carriage window as it races through the French countryside. Remarkably, given last’s week emotionally charged instalment, and given that this is the penultimate part, these major characters remain firmly out of sight. Continue reading

Plot and character

The nature of this project has led us to being very reactive and immediate in our responses, dealing with instalments almost in isolation as we focus our energies on the here and now, occasionally trying to remember the there and then. But as we are now approaching the end, I’ve begun looking back on all that we’ve read so far – as a contemporary reader would have done – to step back and take a look at the whole, and consider some of the issues that apply to the story we’ve been reading.

One of the main issues that has been raised continually throughout the blog (and indeed was raised again on Friday by Ben) is this turmoil and conflict between plot and character. I’ve been wondering how accurate it is ton look at the two conflicting, to consider that a book must be about either plot or character – that they are two distinctive ideas. Is this really the case? Surely everything we know about a fictional character is determined by the plot of the novel and their reactions to that, and often characters are described not purely by who they are but what they do: Emily in David Copperfield is a fallen woman, and Steerforth a rake, but is that facet of their character determined by the plot, or do their characters determine the way the plot unfolds? 

In ATOTC, certainly, it appears the Dickens has prioritised plot: there have been times when characters have acted questionably, their integrity sacrificed at the sake of moving the plot along, or complex emotions condensed to a paragraph in order to squeeze everything else in (e.g. Lucie’s outburst at Darnay’s trial, which sees her go through a range of despair, self-destruction and thoughts of the kids in less time than it takes to make a cup of tea). But just because Dickens intended it to be about plot, doesn’t automatically mean that we as readers are going to honour that and not focus on the characters instead, especially given our preconceptions about Dickens as a writer.

We’ve all of us at one time or another been brandishing Dickens’s intent to make this book about plot instead of character; simultaneously we’ve all been getting thoroughly involved with the characters as well, interrogating why they act in certain ways and whether this complements or contradicts what we previously thought of them. In doing this, interestingly, we have been responding very much as readers and treating the characters increasingly as real people rather than constructions of Dickens’s imagination (I don’t say this to criticise or commend, merely to comment: I think in responding this way we are being more honest and immersing ourself  more in Dickens’s world, which is a compliment to the story). But perhaps plot is important after all – we have spent more time sympathising with Lucie than with the unfortunate Mrs Cruncher: there is nothing intrinsic in the character of one or the other to impact upon how much attention we pay to them, instead it is determined by plot: Mrs Cruncher is a minor character who has been generally forgotten, while Lucie has been appearing in the majority of instalments: her role in the plot increases our focus on her character.

What do other bloggers think? Has Dickens prioritised plot at the expense of character? Are the characters in this book weaker than in his others? And do we as readers focus less on characters in this book than the others?