Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Monday, December 8, 2014

"Great Expectations" and "A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens

I've never liked Dickens. Well, that's only half-true, I suppose: I enjoyed reading Oliver Twist for O-level English (a lot more than I enjoyed Emma, anyway), and I have loved watching Scrooge - the 1951 movie version of A Christmas Carol, starring Alastair Sim - during many Christmases Past. So, I liked Dickens' stories; what I couldn't stomach was his writing, which generally struck me as pompous and prolix, and his characters, who too often seemed like caricatures and stereotypes designed to represent certain virtues or sins.

So I wasn't all that thrilled when Kathy suggested we read Great Expectations, but she assured me it was a wonderful story, and I trust her. And she was right - after a slightly slow beginning, I ended up LOVING Great Expectations! Technically, I didn't read it: Kathy did, for about ten minutes every evening as our baby son Finn drank down his bottle of warm milk and we cuddled together in our bed. Maybe you imagine that my critical faculties were softened by this sweet bedtime arrangement, but we did the same thing with A Tale of Two Cities, and I thought that was a steaming pile of crap.

So... why did I love the former and hate the latter? Where does the difference lie? I think, in Great Expectations, Dickens the Storyteller won out over Dickens the Rhetorician. Maybe he was just more inspired at the time? Maybe he had more belief in the story? I don't know, but it was, on the whole, very simply told, and the characters felt plausible, like real people rather than cartoonish representations. Sure, the female characters were either ludicrously virtuous (and boring) or ludicrously horrible, as they are in A Tale of Two Cities, but I believed in Pip and his reactions to his fate, and most of the time Dickens resisted the temptation to underline the moral lessons that can be learned from our hero's follies.

A Tale of Two Cities, on the other hand... First of all, I should say that I was really looking forward to this book, partly because I'd enjoyed Great Expectations so much, and partly because the French Revolution has always fascinated me. And I know it's possible to write a great novel based on that subject matter, because my favorite historical novel of all time - Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety - is set in Paris, during those infamous, bloody years.

So yes, I had great expectations of A Tale of Two Cities. And it began quite well, with plenty of mystery and action. But, on the whole, I found it a deeply frustrating read. Partly because the twist was so predictable, but mainly because the prose was so incredibly windy and bombastic. While Great Expectations seemed to be narrated in a quiet, deep voice in a candlelit room, A Tale of Two Cities was declaimed from a pulpit in the middle of a thunderstorm. And no, that is not how Kathy read it.

Basically, it's the difference between drama and melodrama. With A Tale of Two Cities, I thought the proportion of characters and narrative to rhetoric and moralizing was all wrong, like a cake that consisted of 90% frosting. And yeah, some people would love that, but it made me feel sick.

All the same, I haven't given up on Dickens. My expectations of the next book I read by him have been lowered a little bit, but maybe that's not such a bad thing.

1 comment:

Amy Crawshaw said...

Dickens is definitely an acquired taste! I'm reading A Christmas Carol now for the BerkeleyX Book Club and not sure yet that I'm actually enjoying it!