If there was one thing I thought I already knew, as I plunged into "A Tale of Two Cities" for the first time, it was that Charles Dickens could write one heck of an opening line. But I had no idea it went on so long.
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness," I read, before I felt the need to pause for breath. Dickens, however, was just warming up. He would tack on 71 more words before he finally put a period to that first sentence.
Call this Surprise No. 1 of my recent encounter with the great Victorian novelist -- a time travel experiment for which I have Stanford University's Discovering Dickens project to thank.
Discovering Dickens is the brainchild of Stanford associate dean Linda Paulson, director of the school's Master of Liberal Arts program. It offers 21st-century readers a 19th-century reading experience by distributing free facsimiles of Dickens's work in weekly installments, replicating the serialized form in which his novels originally appeared. The first 5,000 people to sign up got their "A Tale of Two Cities" chapters in the mail, complete with cheap paper and 19th-century illustrations, beginning in January. Others could download them from the project's Web site.
Paulson says the idea originated not long after 9/11, when she and some colleagues were asking themselves how they could reach out to people at such a difficult time. "I'm a Victorianist," she says, "and I thought: What could bind people together more than families reading together?" Dickens seemed a natural choice, she adds, because he wrote for all generations in a style intended never "to bring a blush to the cheek of a young person." The project's first offering was "Great Expectations," in 2002. It drew readers from 46 states, the District of Columbia and 22 countries.
Do it again, Stanford's president told Paulson. Last winter, I heard about the project and signed on.
I'd read only a few Dickens novels over the years, perhaps because I was force-fed "David Copperfield" in junior high, and I didn't know that much about "A Tale of Two Cities." I knew it was set at the time of the French Revolution. I knew the "best of times, worst of times" line, and a portion of the one that ends the book ("It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done"). And I knew the name of the sinister character who sits by the guillotine, implacably knitting as it goes about its deadly work.
Madame Defarge and her clicking needles are introduced in the second installment of the Stanford serialization (it would have been the fourth in the 31-part original, but Paulson decided to reduce that total to a more manageable 15). I was reading it on a Metro platform at Crystal City when a train arrived, and I kept reading as I took a seat.
It was the wrong train, as I found out a few stops later.
I was hooked.
For nearly three months, I kept reading. Sometimes daily life intervened and I would fall behind, but most often I'd be ready for my next Dickens fix long before it showed up. I took to downloading the installments each week rather than waiting for the printed copies because, as third-class mail, their delivery dates were erratic. One night I came close to just grabbing a copy of the book and reading it straight through.
I didn't, though. I liked the idea of inhabiting Dickens's world for longer than such a binge would have allowed.
The action begins in 1775 as the obsessively dutiful London banker Jarvis Lorry -- "Feelings! I have no time for them, no chance of them. I pass my whole life, miss, in turning an immense pecuniary Mangle" -- crosses the channel to retrieve a French client, Dr. Manette, just released after 18 years in the Bastille. We meet the doctor's beautiful daughter, Lucie, and Charles Darnay, the young French exile she will come to love and marry. Arrayed beside these paragons are an assortment of less pure but more interesting characters, including the dissolute, depressed yet supremely talented legal assistant Sydney Carton.
Back in France, retribution is brewing against the breed of decadent aristocrats who crush innocent babes beneath the wheels of their carriages, then coolly blame their victims ("It is extraordinary to me that you people cannot take care of yourselves and your children.") Dickens lays on the angry social criticism pretty thick, and he doesn't spare his own countrymen, either. His portrait of the spectators' blood lust in an English courtroom is chilling, and his impassioned harangue against the death penalty feels distinctly contemporary.
It's a mark of good writing, of course, that its observations about the human condition can transcend a particular time and place. As I read on, I couldn't help thinking that if Dickens were writing today, the "two cities" of the title might easily have included Washington. In Paris, Dickens observes, the towers of Notre-Dame are roughly equidistant from the city's extremes of luxury and squalor. In the District of Columbia, scenes of debilitating poverty are routinely described as occurring in the shadow of the Capitol dome.
But the Washington echo that made me really sit up and take notice showed up in the person of Mr. Stryver (no first name given), the upwardly mobile lawyer who employs poor Sydney Carton and depends on Carton's brilliance for his success.
Dickens nails his description of Stryver with the single verb "to shoulder." In his thirties "but looking 20 years older than he was," Stryver "had a pushing way of shouldering himself (morally and physically) into companies and conversations that augured well for his shouldering his way up in life." Reading this, I felt as if I knew the guy. I could almost feel him glancing over my own shoulder at a Washington party, scanning the crowd for someone more influential to talk to.
Week after week the chapters kept coming: in February, March and on into April. The wait between them kept me in suspense, as intended, but it also allowed competing stories to shoulder their way into my brain. Compelling though it was, "A Tale of Two Cities" could be overshadowed by the serially grim news from Iraq, the continuing saga of my parents' move into a retirement home or the ups and downs of my daughters' basketball and soccer teams. Come baseball season, the Yankees and the Red Sox offered yet another story line to distract me: "Tale of Rival Cities" blared the headline in the Boston Globe.
All this narrative competition should come as no surprise. As Stanford's Paulson points out, one reason the serial form appeals to us in literature is that "it's not unlike living a life." Slices get served up, but we never know what's coming next. No wonder we like comic strips and long-running TV dramas; no wonder we wait so eagerly for the next fat Harry Potter to hit the bookstores. And no wonder someone with Dickens's flair for serials was wildly popular in 1859.
"Dickens was a rock star," Paulson says. He was a popular entertainer whose work "crossed class, crossed sex and crossed age lines in the way some TV programs do" -- and never mind that highbrow types like her have claimed him now.
Meanwhile, despite the distractions, I kept reading.
Things quickly turn ugly in revolutionary Paris -- too quickly to be true to history, but never mind that; Dickens is particularly good at showing how "liberators" can morph into tyrants themselves. Soon the virtuous Charles Darnay, who has returned to France to try to help an old family retainer, is languishing in prison just as his father-in-law once did. His prospects are worse, though, because the guillotine has been invented in the meantime.
I knew perfectly well that Darnay wouldn't lose his head -- that would have been too much of a nihilistic downer for Dickens's readership, and besides, like most readers, I'd long ago figured out how he'd be saved. But it didn't matter: I was still gripped by the pace and intensity of the concluding chapters, and I was deeply annoyed when a computer glitch kept me from downloading the final installment.
When at last it showed up in the mail, I was surprised by a climactic confrontation between Madame Defarge and a character I'd assumed was totally peripheral. I was moved by Darnay's rescue and Carton's redemption. And I found myself looking forward to next year's serialization: Paulson says it's likely to be "Hard Times."
I'll miss Mr. Big Shoulders, though.
Stryver drops out of "A Tale of Two Cities" two-thirds of the way through, yet he remains the Dickens character I can picture most clearly. I expect to see him shouldering through the downtown streets forever, "like some great engine forcing itself through turbid water," convinced that the fate of all humanity depends on how fast he, personally, can get ahead.
When next year's Discovering Dickens serialization is announced -- probably in November or December -- you can sign up at the project's Web site (dickens.stanford.edu). To be notified when signups begin, e-mail discoveringdickens @stanford.edu.