The first time I had to read A Tale of Two Cities was in the ninth grade and, like many Americans raised on television, I had no patience with the unhurried prose of Charles Dickens. But when I was assigned the book in college I suddenly found myself enjoying it despite my previous bad experience.
Dickens remains the great storyteller, although one can’t overlook his fanciful portrayal of conditions under the ancien regime, prior to the French Revolution. What Dickens knew about those events was picked up second-hand from the gifted but unreliable Thomas Carlyle. For example, the cruel oppression of the Marquis St. Evremonde (the uncle of the virtuous Charles Darnay) is absurdly exaggerated. There were problems in France, but no serious scholar maintains that the reign of Louis XVI was “tyrannical.”
Revolutions seldom occur under despots, but they often happen under inept rulers. Pre-revolutionary France suffered from incompetent government, social and economic rigidity, and the lack of a vibrant middle class. The radicals did nothing to fix these problems. They merely substituted a murderous and impatient zeal for the tortuous formalities of the old system.
In Dickens’ story the leading revolutionaries are Ernest Defarge, the wine merchant in the poor Saint Antoine suburb of Paris, and his bloodthirsty wife Madame Defarge. The well-organized and secretly armed “Jacquerie,” which Defarge has been building up for years prior to the storming of the Bastille, is pure fiction. Contrary to Dickens’ populist view of history, the urban mob had nothing to do with organizing the events of 1789, though its volatility was eagerly exploited by political subversives. Edmund Burke more correctly deduced that a “literary cabal” of upper class freethinkers had “formed something like a regular plan for the destruction of the Christian religion” in France. It may not have been the sort of conspiracy found in novels, but it was certainly influential in setting the expectations of the left-wing republicans and fomenting unappeasable discontent.
Dickens accepts the vision of Carlyle insofar as it explains, if not justifies, the manic politics of the Revolution. His common sense, however, prevents him from embracing the Jacobin agenda. It is too bad that he fails to connect the corrosive libertinism of the fashionable upper crust with the real architects of the Revolution. Dickens is right, however, to censure the “leprosy of unreality” which surrounded this “enlightened” clique, and to mock the “Unbelieving Philosophers who were remodelling the world with words… making card-towers of Babel to scale the skies with.”
Whether in the France of Louis XVI or today, it is very often the pampered members of the elite who seem most disgruntled with the imperfections of the world, posing as society’s “victims” even as they inflict new forms of injustice and stupidity on the rest of us. Political nuances aside, Dickens is ultimately on the side of normalcy and against the reign of the revolutionaries, for whom terror and vengeance becomes an end in itself.