The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 15. A Tale of Two Cities
In the new paper, he used his energies in a more strictly literary, and a much more permanently delectable, fashion, starting off with an elaborate historical romance, A Tale of Two Cities, and contributing to it, from time to time, exercises in his own earliest kind but of much greater power, variety, originality and artistic value. He put them forth as reports entitled The Uncommercial Traveller, under which form they were separately published, in successively enlarged collections, during the remainder of his life. Sometimes, but not too often, he made them the vehicle of his social-reform purpose; sometimes, they were sketches of scenes and manners in the style of the earlier “eye-witness” papers of Household Words, to which Charles Collins had been a main contributor; sometimes, more or less fantastic pieces; but, almost always, good. A Tale of Two Cities belongs to quite a different type, in almost all respects, from that of any of his previous novels, save that, like Barnaby Rudge, it has a historical subject. It would seem as if he had intended to leave out the comic element altogether; and, though, for him, this was nearly an impossibility, there is certainly very little, except in the grim-grotesque of the body-snatcher Jerry Cruncher and his family; the grotesque, if not grim, ways of the faithful Miss Pross; and a very few other touches. Taking for canvas The French Revolution of his friend Carlyle (for whom he had a strong admiration), he embroidered upon it a rather strictly constructed, but not very richly furnished, story of action and character, bringing in a victim of the ancien rÈgime, a wicked example of it (unfortunately, as much a caricature as is Sir John Chester, in Dickens’s most nearly allied book), a younger aristocrat, who would fain atone for his family’s crimes and who loves the victim’s daughter, who nearly falls a prey to the vengeance of “the people,” but who is saved by the self-sacrifice of his rival, a ne’er-do-weel barrister. In contrast to all this, we have some leaders of “the people” themselves, especially a much overdone wine-shop keeper and his wife—a still more exaggerated tricoteuse of the guillotine. The book has been said to be more of a drama than of a novel, and it has been actually dramatised more than once—recently, it would seem, with considerable success. Even as a novel, it has been highly praised by some good judges. To people not acquainted with Carlyle’s own book, and even to some who are, the vigour of its sketches of the oppression and the terror might, no doubt, carry it off sufficiently; and the character of Sydney Carton is altogether of a higher type than any other that Dickens ever attempted. But the rival for whom Carton sacrifices himself is entirely uninteresting; Lucie Manette, the heroine, has little more attraction than any pretty and good girl, so labelled, might have; and even her father’s sufferings and madness are doubtfully treated; while the mannerisms of expression are stronger than ever, and the glaring high lights and pitchy shadows weary more than they move.