YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Having a Dickens of a time with 'A Tale of Two Cities'

Thanks to a Stanford University project, a modern reader receives Charles Dickens' novel the way his 19th century fans did -- in chunks.

June 09, 2004|Bob Thompson | The Washington Post

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' 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 website.

Paulson says the idea originated not long after Sept. 11, 2001, when she and some colleagues were asking themselves how they could reach out to people at such a difficult time. "I'm a Victorianist, 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 subway platform 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' world for longer than such a binge would have allowed.

The action begins in 1775 as the obsessively dutiful London banker Jarvis Lorry 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. 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.

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.

Los Angeles Times Articles