Happy Birthday, Charles Dickens

I have known a vast quantity of nonsense talked about bad men not looking you in the face. Don’t trust that conventional idea. Dishonesty will stare honesty out of countenance, any day in the week, if there is anything to be got by it.

– Charles Dickens, “Hunted Down”

“There’s no writing against such power as this – one has no chance! Read that chapter describing young Paul’s death: It is unsurpassed – it is stupendous!”

— William Thackeray, after finishing the fifth installment of “Dombey and Son”

I was so obsessed with the musical Oliver! when I was 10 years old that I had to read the book it was based on. Although I knew of Christmas Carol, and had seen movie versions of it, as well as attending the yearly production at Trinity Rep in Providence, reading Oliver Twist at age 10 was my real introduction to Charles Dickens. It was tough going. It was tough going because I kept wondering why it was different from the movie. I was 10. But I was so obsessed that I struggled through it. We were on our yearly family summer vacation (to the lake where we all still go every summer), and I had my big copy of the book and my older cousin Nancy, who was a teenager, had also read it, so she encouraged me to keep going with it. It was the biggest book I had ever read in my young life. I had never read a book so long, a book that clearly was a little bit beyond me. I loved it. I was proud of myself when I finished it.

It would be some years before Dickens came into my life again, when Tale of Two Cities was part of the curriculum in my 10th grade English class.

I have written often about the books I was forced to read in high school, the ones I loved, the ones I hated, the ones I couldn’t even remember. As an adult, I went back and re-read them all. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, The Red Badge of Courage, Billy Budd … Many of these had been chores to finish. How wonderful to go back and rediscover them.

My Real “Way In” to Dickens: Tale of Two Cities

However, there were a couple of books on the high school curriculum that excited me, where I couldn’t wait to come to class to hear what our awesome teacher (Mr. Crothers) would have to say about the chapter we had had to read, where I loved thinking about the books. The Great Gatsby was one, Catcher in the Rye was another, and, strangely, A Tale of Two Cities was the most exciting of all.

Tale of Two Cities is unique in the Dickens pantheon. Most people fall in love with Dickens through David Copperfield or Great Expectations, but my “way in” was Tale of Two Cities. I was a teenager when I first read Tale of Two Cities. I FLIPPED over that book.

I grew up in a family devoted to the stories of the American Revolution. I actually thought that I might be related to John and Abigail Adams, because their names were thrown around so casually. I knew about Bunker Hill. I had walked with my dad on that hill. I knew about capturing the cannons from Fort Ticonderoga and transporting them over frozen rivers and mountains back to Boston. I knew about the Minute Men. I could sing the score to 1776 by heart. By age 10, 11, I already knew about France’s key role in the American Revolution, which, seen in retrospect, was kind of a crazy thing for them to get behind. France was a monarchy. Financing our revolution emptied their coffers, creating the financial crisis that was the spark that lit the flame. They hated England so much that they helped the fledgling colonies overthrow a King. But in so doing, they put their own monarchy in peril.

France’s revolution set the tone for the “revolution eating their young” phenomenon, and many in the United States watched with horror as the events unfolded. (Thomas Jefferson watched with glee and excitement, the “blood of patriots watering the tree of liberty” and all that.) Edmund Burke, in his masterpiece Reflections on the Revolution in France lays it down for all time: what went wrong? There was no guillotine in the American Revolution. The loyalists either went back to England, or sucked it up and stayed put. France was the opposite. As each round of the revolution progressed, the enemies would stack up, and those who were the judges in the first round, became casualties in the second round. And on and on, until it burned itself out in mayhem and outright terror, with heads rolling in the gutters. With each phase, the rhetoric about the Revolution got more and more pure. Purity in politics is bad news. It means tyranny and anyone who tells you different either doesn’t know their history or is lying to themselves and to you, so RUN.

The American experiment, from the get-go, incorporated mess, uncertainty, and compromise. It was built that way. The Declaration of Independence declared that all citizens would have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Transcendent words. But mess is right there in the words: My pursuit of happiness may make YOU unhappy. And vice versa. Therefore, we have to fight it out. In the courts, hopefully, although sometimes it happens elsewhere. It’s not perfect or pure, it’s not meant to be. The end result is not promised in the Declaration. We are not guaranteed to “be happy”, remember. We are guaranteed to be free to “pursue” our happiness.

On the flip side, the slogan for the French revolution was “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”. By declaring that “equality” was the yearned-for end result, a great leveling took place in French society, a leveling that, once it started, could not be stopped. Things that had been held in high esteem needed to be brought down so that everyone was on the same level, were “equal”. This was Edmund Burke’s main criticism. “Brotherhood” is also a dangerous thing to require of a revolution. It sets up sides: you are with the Brotherhood, or you are against. And we all know how that played out in France, as everyone became an enemy of the State, and the cobblestones ran with blood. France had so decimated itself that it opened the doors for a Napoleon to stroll in and crown himself Emperor.

None of this was “news” to me when I was 15 and first picked up Tale of Two Cities. Maybe that was why I latched on to Tale of Two Cities so viscerally. I remember reading it late into the night, far surpassing the amount I had been assigned to read for the next day. There is, of course, a great subplot in the book, with the love affair, and the father, and Sidney Carton, but that’s not my memory of what hooked me about the book when I first read it. I loved it for the politics. I loved it for the Defarges. I loved the intrigue and violence, the very real sense you got of those “two cities” across the Channel from one another, warily keeping an eye on each other, important messages galloping across the distance in the dead of night. I have never forgotten my first experience of reading Tale of Two Cities.

As I have grown older, so many different aspects of Tale of Two Cities come to the foreground, elements I flat out could not have clicked into when I was a teenager. Sidney Carton, for example. That sourpuss of a man, cynical and distant, who eventually makes the ultimate sacrifice: he is one of Dickens’ most indelible and heartbreaking creations. I couldn’t see past the surface when I was a kid, and I had no experience of what Love does when it is not allowed to express itself, how it can twist you, mark you forever. Now I understand that in my DNA, so a paragraph like the following brings me to tears:

When his host followed him out on the staircase with a candle, to light him down the stairs, the day was coldly looking in through its grimy windows. When he got out of the house, the air was cold and sad, the dull sky overcast, the river dark and dim, the whole scene like a lifeless desert. And wreaths of dust were spinning round and round before the morning blast, as if the desert-sand had risen far away, and the first spray of it in its advance had begun to overwhelm the city.

Waste forces within him, and a desert all around, this man stood still on his way across a silent terrace, and saw for a moment, lying in the wilderness before him, a mirage of honourable ambition, self-denial and perseverance. In the fair city of this vision, there were airy galleries from which the loves and graces looked upon him, gardens in which the fruits of life hung ripening, waters of Hope that sparkled in his sight. A moment, and it was gone. Climbing to a high chamber in a well of houses, he threw himself down in his clothes on a neglected bed, and its pillow was wet with wasted tears.

Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.

It reminds me of the great exchange in Men in Black:

Jay: You know what they say. It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
Kay: Try it.

Madame Defarge represents everything that is despicable about the human race. She is what makes a revolution. She still lives. She is among us. We’ll never get rid of Madame Defarges. She’s not an “aberration”, or a mistake. I got that about her in high school. I don’t think I got all of it but I got most of it. Stalin would have loved Madame Defarge. And then he would have killed her. Because that’s what happens to fanatics like her in a revolution. That fanaticism you helped create, that rigid unforgiving unhuman pure atmosphere you helped promote, will turn around and get YOU. And you have no one to blame but yourself.

I have so many favorite scenes from Tale of Two Cities:

— when the wine bottle breaks and goes into the cobblestones outside the Defarge shop
— the whole section about the increasing sound of footsteps outside the London house (Dickens at his very best)
— the famous opening
— the whole chapter called “the Jackal”
— the two chapters about “knitting”

Here is an excerpt that is one of my favorite bits of writing in the book: the sun coming up over the Monsieur the Marquis’ stone home. Not to put too obvious a point on it, but here goes: Obviously, there were no motion pictures in Dickens’ day, but there is something very cinematic and downright modern about his writing that, on occasion, predicts the swooping subjective eye of the movie camera. (I feel that in Stendhal too.) Dickens writes cinematically, and his books usually translate very easily into movies because he has already done half the work for the adaptation. This section about the sun coming up over the stone house is a perfect example.

You can see the slow camera pan over the objects Dickens describes. You can see him start in a wide shot and pan over the landscape into closeup.

EXCERPT FROM A Tale of Two Cities – by Charles Dickens

The stone faces on the outer walls stared blindly at the black night for three heavy hours; for three heavy hours the horses in the stables rattled at their racks, the dogs barked, and the owl made a noise with very little resemblance in it to the noise conventionally assigned to the owl by men-poets. But it is the obstinate custom of such creatures hardly ever to say what is set down for them.

For three heavy hours, the stone faces of the chateau, lion and human, stared blindly at the night. Dead darkness lay on all the landscape, dead darkness added its own hush to the hushing dust on all the roads. The burial-place had got to the pass that its little heaps of poor grass were undistinguishable from one another; the figure on the Cross might have come down, for anything that could be seen of it. In the village, taxers and taxed were fast asleep. Dreaming, perhaps, of banquets, as the starved usually do, and of ease and rest, as the driven slave and the yoked ox may, its lean inhabitants slept soundly, and were fed and freed.

The fountain in the village flowed unseen and unheard, and the fountain at the chateau dropped unseen and unheard – both melting away, like the minutes that were falling from the spring of Time – through three dark hours. Then, the grey water of both began to be ghostly in the light, and the eyes of the stone faces of the chateau were opened.

Lighter and lighter, until at last the sun touched the tops of the still trees, and poured its radiance over the hill. In the glow, the water of the chateau fountain seemed to turn to blood, and the stone faces crimsoned. The carol of the birds was loud and high, and, on the weather-beaten sill of the great window of the bedchamber of Monsieur the Marquis, one little bird sang its sweetest song with all its might. At this, the nearest stone face seemed to stare amazed, and, with opened mouth and dropped under-jaw, looked awe-stricken.

Now, the sun was full up and movement began in the village. Casement windows opened, crazy doors were unbarred, and people came forth shivering – chilled, as yet, by the new sweet air. Then began the rarely lightened toil of the day among the village population. Some, to the fountain; some, to the fields; men and women here, to dig and delve; men and women there, to see to the poor live stove, and lead the bony cows out, to such pasture as could be found by the roadside. In the church and at the Cross, a kneeling figure or two, attendant on the latter prayers, the led cow, trying for a breakfast among the weeds at its foot.

The chateau awoke later, as became its quality, but awoke gradually and surely. First, the lonely boar-spears and knves of the chase had been reddened as of old; then, had gleamed trenchant in the morning sunshine; now, doors and windows were thrown open, horses in their stables looked round over their shoulders at the light and freshness pouring in at doorways, leaves sparkled and rustled at iron-grated windows, dogs pulled hard at their chains, and reared impatient to be loosed.

All these trivial incidents belonged to the routine of life, and the return of morning. Surely, not so the ringing of the great bell of the chateau, nor the running up and down the stairs; nor the hurried figures on the terrace; nor the booting and tramping here and there and everywhere, nor the quick saddling of horses and riding away?

What winds conveyed this hurry to the grizzled mender of roads, already at work on the hill-top beyond the village, with his day’s dinner (not much to carry) lying in a bundle that it was worth no crow’s while to peck at, on a heap of stones? Had the birds, carrying some grains of it to a distance, dropped one over him as they sow chance seeds? Whether or no, the mender of roads ran, on the sultry morning, as if for his life, down the hill, knee-high in dust, and never stopped till he got to the fountain.

All the people of the village were at the fountain, standing about in their depressed manner, and whispering low, but showing no other emotions than grim curiosity and surprise. The led cows, hastily brought in and tethered to anything that would hold them, were looking stupidly on, or lying down chewing the cud of nothing particularly repaying their trouble, which they had picked up in their interrupted saunter. Some of the people of the chateau, and some of those of the posting-house, and all of the taxing authorities, were armed more or less, and were crowded on the other side of the little street in a purposeless way, that was highly fraught with nothing. Already, the mender of roads had penetrated into the midst of a group of fifty particular friends, and was smiting himself in the breast with his blue cap. What did all this portend, and what portended the swift hoisting-up of Monsieur Gabelle behind a servant on horseback, and the conveying away of the said Gabelle (double-laden though the horse was), at a gallop, like a new version of the German ballad of Leonora?

It portended that there was one stone face too many, up at the chateau.

The Gorgon had surveyed the building again in the night, and had added the one stone face wanting; the stone face for which it had waited through about two hundred years.

It lay back on the pillow on Monsieur the Marquis. It was like a fine mask, suddenly startled, made angry, and petrified. Driven home into the heart of the stone figure attached to it, was a knife. Round its hilt was a frill of paper, on which was scrawled:



Letterhead for Charles Dickens’ literary magazine, ‘All the Year Round’, founded in 1859

Queen Victoria wrote in her journal two days after Charles Dickens died in 1870:

It is a very great loss. He had a large loving mind and the strongest sympathy with the poorer classes.

Michael Schmidt writes in Lives of the Poets:

[William Cullen] Bryant became a big noise in American journalism, a champion of liberal causes, and a catalyst. When [Charles] Dickens arrived in New York, he is reported to have asked on coming down the gangplank, “Where’s Bryant?”

Charles Dickens kept up a voluminous correspondence. He responded to fan mail, to reader questions, to any letter that came across his desk. In 1866, a woman wrote him about her desire to be a writer and if Dickens had any advice. Here is Dickens’ reply, dated December 27, 1866:

Dear Madame, you make an absurd, though common mistake in supposing that any human creature can help you to be an authoress, if you cannot become one in virtue of your own powers.

I love to hear about the influences on writers, who the writers I love read for inspiration. And so this quote from Dickens very much satisfies:

I don’t go upstairs to bed 2 nights out of 7 without taking Washington Irving under my arm.

Along those same lines, after reading the manuscript of Robert Browning’s “A Blot in the ‘Scutcheon’ in 1842, Dickens wrote:

“I swear it is a tragedy that MUST be played; and must be played, moreover, by Macready. There are some things I would have changed if I could (they are very slight, mostly broken lines); and I assuredly would have the old servant [Gerard] begin his tale upon the scene [II, i]; and be taken by the throat, or drawn upon, by his master, in its commencement. But the tragedy I never shall forget, or less vividly remember than I do now. And if you tell Browning that I have seen it [ms.], tell him that I believe from my soul there is no man living (and not many dead) who could produce such a work.”

L.M. Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables, wrote in her journal:

I first read [Pickwick Papers] when a child — there was an old coverless copy lying around the house and I reveled in it. I remember that it was a book that always made me hungry.”

George Orwell wrote an essay on Dickens that is a must-read for any Dickens fan, as well as anyone interested in literary criticism. It’s a fascinating vigorous analysis of Charles Dickens, although it does take a scolding tone. Orwell was not noted for his sense of humor, and Dickens, above all else, is FUN. He should be FUN. Still, it’s a must-read. Here are two excerpts:

The fact that Dickens is always thought of as a caricaturist, although he was constantly trying to be something else, is perhaps the surest mark of his genius. The monstrosities that he created are still remembered as monstrosities, in spite of getting mixed up in would-be probable melodramas. Their first impact is so vivid that nothing that comes afterwards effaces it. As with the people one knew in childhood, one seems always to remember them in one particular attitude, doing one particular thing. Mrs. Squeers is always ladling out brimstone and treacle, Mrs. Gummidge is always weeping, Mrs. Gargery is always banging her husband’s head against the wall, Mrs. Jellyby is always scribbling tracta while her children fall into the area — and there they all are, fixed for ever like little twinkling miniatures painted on snuffbox lids, completely fantastic and incredible, and yet somehow more solid and infinitely more memorable than the efforts of serious novelists. Even by the standards of his time Dickens was an exceptionally artificial writer. As Ruskin said, he “chose to work in a circle of stage fire”. His characters are even more distorted and simplified than Smolett’s. But there are no rules in novel-writing, and for any work of art there is only one test worth bothering about — survival. By this test Dickens’s characters have succeeded, even if the people who remember them hardly think of them as human beings. They are monsters, but at any rate they exist.

And here Orwell writes about Dickens’ gift for writing about childhood:

No one, at any rate no English writer, has written better about childhood than Dickens. In spite of all the knowledge that has accumulated since, in spite of the fact that children are now comparatively sanely treated, no novelist has shown the same power of entering into the child’s point of view. I must have been about nine years old when I first read David Copperfield. The mental atmosphere of the opening chapters was so immediately intelligible to me that I vaguely imagined they had been written by a child. And yet when one re-reads the book as an adult and sees the Murdstones, for instance, dwindle from gigantic figures of doom into semi-comic monsters, these passages lose nothing. Dickens has been able to stand both inside and outside the child’s mind, in such a way that the same scene can be wild burlesque or sinister reality, according to the age at which one reads it.

David O. Selznick, independent movie producer, was a huge fan of Charles Dickens. He said later on in life that he could point out punctuation errors in new editions of Dickens’ novels, so well did he know all of those books. Here are two memos from Selznick (who was famous for his memos):

To: Mrs Kate Corbaley
June 3, 1935

It is amazing that Dickens had so many brilliant characters in David Copperfield and practically none in A Tale of Two Cities, and herein lies the difficulty. The book is sheer melodrama and when the scenes are put on the screen, minus Dickens’s brilliant narrative passages, the mechanics of melodramtic construction are inclined to be more than apparent, and, in fact, to creak. Don’t think that I am for a minute trying to run down one of the greatest books in the English language. I am simply trying to point out to you the difficulties of getting the Dickens feeling, within our limitations of being able to put on the screen only action and dialogue scenes, without Dickens’s comments as narrator. I am still trying my hardest and think that when I get all through, the picture will be a job of which I will be proud – but it is and will be entirely different from David Copperfield.

My study of the book led me to what may seem strange choices for the writing and direction, but these strange choices were deliberate. Since the picture is melodrama, it must have pace and it must “pack a wallop”. These, I think, Conway can give us as well as almost anyone I knew – as witnessed by his work on Viva Villa! Furthermore, I think he has a knack of bringing people to life on the screen, while the dialogue is on the stilted side. (I fought for many months to get the actual phrases out of David Copperfield into the picture, and I have been fighting similarly on Two Cities, but the difference is that the dialogue of the latter, if you will read it aloud, is not filled with nearly the humanity, or nearly the naturalness.

As to Sam Behrman, I think he is one of the best of American dialogue writers. Futhermore, he is an extremely literate and cultured man, with an appreciation of fine things and a respect for the integrity of a classic – more than ninety per cent more than all the writers I know. He can be counted upon to give me literacy that wiol match. On top of this, he is especially equipped, in my opinion, to give us the rather sardonic note in [Sidney] Carton.

Here is another one of Selznick’s memos:

To: Mr. Nicholas M. Schenck
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.
October 3, 1935

I should like also to call to your attention the danger of treating this picture [Tale of Two Cities] as just another [Ronald] Colman starring vehicle. Granted that Colman is a big star; that any picture with him achieves a good gross; A Tale of Two Cities, even badly produced, would completely dwarf the importance of any star … The picture is beautifully produced. If I do not say this, no one else in the organization will. It has been splendidly directed by Jack Conway; and Colman is at his very top. Further, bear in mind that the book of A Tale of Two Cities would without Colman have a potential drawing power equaled only by David Copperfield, Little Women, and The Count of Monte Cristo among the films of recent years because only these books have an even comparable place in the affections of the reading public. This is no modern best seller of which one hundred thousand copies have been published, but a book that is revered by millions – yes, and tens of millions of people here and abroad.

Tens of millions. Indeed.

Happy birthday, Mr. Dickens.

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33 Responses to Happy Birthday, Charles Dickens

  1. Sharon Ferguson says:

    All I can say about TOTC is YES! YES! YES!

    Summer reading for me EVERY year after first introduced to it in high school.

    Even wrote a fanfic story for it, even tho at the time I didnt know I was writing fanfic. If Lucy didn’t want Sydney, *I* did.

  2. sheila says:

    Sharon – I remember us discussing our love for Sidney years ago. Love that lithograph!! He is a true hero. And best of all: he doesn’t expect to be thanked for it, he doesn’t expect to be acknowledged. He is a cynical bitter man on the surface, but with a character so impeccable that he would make that sacrifice so that someone else could be happy. A phenomenal character.

  3. Sharon Ferguson says:

    The American experiment, from the get-go, incorporated mess, uncertainty, and compromise. It was built that way. The Declaration of Independence declared that all citizens would have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Transcendent words. But mess is incorporated into them. My pursuit of happiness may make YOU unhappy. And vice versa. Therefore, we have to fight it out. The end result is not declared in the Declaration. We are not guaranteed to “be happy”. We are guaranteed to be free to “pursue” our happiness. Huge difference.

    I so love these words. Thank you for saying them.

  4. Sharon Ferguson says:

    I wish we had known each other growing up – I could have stood to have a reading friend. Seemed like a lot of the people I knew in my little country town could not have cared less. And I envy your parents – that sounds horrible doesnt it? I love my parents, but they were not reading people either. I was the oddball in the family (for a reason).

  5. sheila says:

    Sharon – We totally would have been acting out Tale of Two Cities in the back yard!!

  6. george says:


    I also loved Tale of Two Cities and was led to read it by seeing the 1935 movie. More specifically, the great, great Ronald Colman making Sidney Carton’s cynicism to all things but his dissipation so wondrous a thing that I found myself believing, inexplicably and God only knows why, that here was a life to aspire to – well before learning of his sacrifice at the end.

    As for Dickens himself, what a creator of characters; every one of them, good, bad or middling, a reminder of the limitless palette and media and complexity that nature has to work with in the making of human beings.

    And finally, yes – “there is something very cinematic and modern about his writing that, on occasion, predicts the swooping subjective eye of the movie camera.” Is there, in Dicken’s works – haven’t read nearly everything – an excuse to have made a bad movie?

    And finally finally, this time for sure, I took note of this (the source I don’t recall):
    The Times observed, in a snide obituary notice on his death, that Dickens “was often vulgar in manners and dress … ill at ease with gentlemen”.
    And this:
    “All through the first half of the 20th century Dickens was regarded as a great entertainer and nothing more.”

    Poor sod. All he could do was entertain a reader.

  7. Dan says:

    Funny – I recently posted about my inability to come to grips with Dickens beyond A Christmas Carol, which I adore, adore, adore.

    I feel I should be able to appreciate his work, which accounts for my periodic attempts. Maybe a historical like Tale of Two Cities is the entry I need?

  8. sheila says:

    Dan – well, to me, they’re all good. Tale of Two Cities certainly holds a special place in my heart, but Bleak House is one of the best books I have ever read!

  9. Doc Horton says:

    We had in my childhood home a complete set of The Works of Charles Dickens. As a teen, I began at one end of the shelf and read to the other end. I’ve read David Copperfield the most times. Bleak House is second. Twice for TOTC and most of the others. Love his work and have a particular soft spot for the delightful names he invented. All movies and television series ever made of his work are required viewing. (I don critic hat for one second: Original Broadway cast album of ‘Oliver’ absolutely crushes the movie’s song renditions.)

  10. sheila says:

    The scene in Great Expectations when they go to the amateur production of Hamlet still makes me laugh out loud!

  11. Kent says:

    Dickens has provided lifelong reading pleasure. I feel this way about Zola and Studs Terkel as well. It is a rare miracle of talent when a writer can create vivid human life in words. His characters stick in your head like brilliant friends you always wish you could see more often.

  12. Nondisposable Johnny says:

    I was similarly floored by TOTC at a similar age—and I didn’t know a thing about the French Revolution (though, like you, I knew an awful lot abouut the American one). What I really remember about it though is that is was the first novel I read in which I began to grasp the importance of language. Basically that style could elevate a book into something greater than its story or even its characters. There’s a lesson you never forget!

    Love those quotes from Selznick. I’m a huge fan of his movies but I never knew he was also a first rate literary critic. His comments are every bit as incisive and penetrating as Orwell’s…and in a memo no less!

  13. Lou says:

    “Purity in politics is terrifying. If you look for purity of theory in your politics, then you yearn for tyranny in your heart.”

    Every now and then I am forcibly reminded why I read your blog. if this is orginal, can I quote you sometime? : )

  14. sheila says:

    Lou – this is totally original- at least the wording. Certainly not the thought. I learned from the masters – Robert Conquest, Rebecca West, George Orwell. But yeah, this one is mine.

  15. Rinaldo says:

    We read Tale of Two Cities in high school too. I enjoyed it, while surely missing a lot. It’s one of the Dickens books I haven’t reread later in life while I was acquainting myself with the others. I’m now renewing my determination to do so.

    It was adapted into an opera, composed by Arthur Benjamin and premiered in 1951. I don’t think it has been done much, if at all, since — judged from reading the score, it runs into the problems mentioned in the Selznick memo.

    To someone trying to get further into Dickens, I would say that A Tale of Two Cities is at least the “most different” from the other, so maybe it’s a possible entry point if other Dickens hasn’t appealed. (Or it may be that he’s just not your thing; we all respond to different things in writing.) But though I love many of Dickens’s books, I too find Bleak House my favorite. There’s just so much in it.

    Reading Oliver Twist after responding to Oliver! (one of the very greatest movie musicals, in my opinion) had to be a jarring experience. I can’t think of many other movie adaptations (Wuthering Heights aside) in which a full half of the novel’s story was excised in the adaptation.

    • sheila says:

      Rinaldo –

      Can you talk more about what you mean vis a vis the score of the opera you mentioned?

      Bleak House is just incredible. What a book. Dickens is also great for re-reading – I re-visit his books like they are old friends.

      and yeah, Oliver!! In the movie, I was so clicked in with the ending of Artful Dodger and Fagin skipping off into the sunset – that the ending in the book was too much for me. But … what?? NOOOOOO!

      I didn’t give a shit about Oliver Twist, really – it was Fagin and the boys I loved.

      • Rinaldo says:

        Sheila, I didn’t mean anything terribly deep about the opera score — just that reading and playing through it, I could see that it inevitably focused on the personal story, Lucie and Charles and Sydney. And of course you have to have Madame Defarge. But the epic picture, and the Dickensian narrative voice, are inevitably missing, when it all gets put onstage in six scenes. Music can supply a lot that words don’t, but probably not enough to fill the gap.

        • sheila says:

          Yes – I can see that. Somehow the grandness of the scale – the world in upheaval, the “two cities” is lost in translation – Without that political background, the minor love stories have no resonance. It is the big challenge of adapting this work.

  16. Maureen says:

    I thought I didn’t like Dickens-until our book club read David Copperfield for January. I was captivated! I know I read, or maybe I just skimmed- his books for school, but they never appealed to me. I was dreading the book, and imagine my amazement when I became totally caught up in it. When Dora died, I was sobbing my eyes out-and how he managed that when I had previously felt so frustrated with her-I don’t know! I almost feel like a fool after all these years of saying “I’m just not a fan of Dickens!”.

  17. Rinaldo says:

    Sheila and/or Maureen: Do you know that movie of David Copperfield that was shown on TV in 1969? It had a crazy flashback structure: he’s trying to pull himself together after Dora’s death, and see if he can “be the hero of his own life,” so he’s thinking back on his whole previous life. But the cast is the best you could hope for at that date: Edith Evans as Aunt Betsy, Richard Attenborough and Laurence Olivier as the schoolmasters, Ralph Richardson as Mr. Micawber, Ron Moody (Fagin!) as Uriah Heep, and so on.

  18. devtob says:

    Another Bleak House fan here, read it when assigned in college, then reread after seeing the great BBC serial starring Gillian Anderson, Charles Dance, a very young Carey Mulligan, and so many perfect character actors like Burn Gorman as Guppy, Alun Armstrong as Bucket, Phil Davis as Smallweed, Nathaniel Parker as Skimpole, etc.

    It’s not just about a ruinous lawsuit, though that’s the pivot to explore class, love, regret, ambition and charity in Victorian England.

    The BBC serial is available for free on YouTube. Anyone who likes Dickens should see it.

    • sheila says:

      That BBC serial was incredible – Bleak House needs to be a “mini series” not a feature, there’s just so much in it. You’re so right that that lawsuit is “the pivot” . I need to read it again. I was blown away by it.

  19. Dg says:

    Love this post. Personally Great Expectations is my fave with Aged P(( Wemmicks deaf father) one of funniest Dickens characters.
    This might sound wierd but I was thinking since I’ve been on a bit of a Stephen King bender lately, some comparisons could be made between the two. The sheer volume for one. And as Orwell notes that Dickens writes children well, I’m noticing the same in these King novels. I’m halfway through his latest-Doctor Sleep- the 30 years later sequel to The Shining. One of the main characters is a 12 year old girls that he has down really well.
    Anyway it could be time for a TOTC reread very soon.

    • sheila says:

      I know King loves Dickens – and I think you’re right about the influence there. I also think his popularity, which is often (unfairly) used to denigrate him – will be in his favor in the end. People will be reading Stephen King long after he dies – whereas (my punching bag) Don DeLillo, Mr. Important Writer? Nobody is going to remember him at all. King’s stuff will LAST.

      I got Joyland for my birthday – haven’t read it yet, will do so this year at some point. Looking forward to it.

  20. Kent says:

    Re-reading your Dickens post is a joyful as re-reading Dickens himself, Sheila! Thank you!

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