Book review

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, 1859

A while back I decided to copy Susan Hill‘s excellent idea of reading one Dickens novel a year. The volume of his work is such that it can be daunting knowing where to begin, (and thus never actually starting), whereas one novel a year is eminently achievable, and quickly builds up into a decent list. I read most of Dickens whilst at university, so I am making a point this time round of catching up with the ones I never got round to, of which the most prominent remaining is (or rather was) A Tale of Two Cities.Image result for tale of two cities images

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, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

There are very few better openings lines to a novel than this. When I bought the copy of A Tale of Two Cities for this read, the shop assistant, (who was otherwise perfectly pleasant), took the opportunity to tell me how she ‘couldn’t stand’ Dickens. It’s not an uncommon reaction. Why do so many people feel this way? Dickens is often given to children as young as 10 or 11 to read. I can only imagine that this is done on the misguided basis that his works are considered accessible to the younger reader. But they clearly are not, on the basis of length and complexity alone. That might be one reason. The case against Dickens as a writer for adults is that his novels are slow-paced and overlong, his characters are two-dimensional, and his plots improbable. There is a lot in this. His novels are usually very long (possibly even too long, although how you could measure that I can’t imagine). The plots meander and take an age to develop. His characters are caricatures. Stupid characters are really stupid. Villains have not a single redeeming feature. Heroines are – well, you’ve got the picture. His plots, when they do finally reach a conclusion, depend massively on coincidence. His writing can be overblown and over the top. For all these reasons and more people struggle to appreciate Dickens. Which is a pity, because I think he is one of our greatest writers, and if evidence of this were required I give you the opening paragraph above. It is poetry in prose.

The case for the defence doesn’t just stand on this opening paragraph of course, but it is quoted in part as evidence of the strength of Dickens’ writing. While his characters may be two-dimensional, they are unquestionably memorable – Uriah Heep, Mr Micawber, Scrooge, the Artful Dodger and many others are known by people who would not come within a mile of one of his novels. They may be long, but reading isn’t a race. His plots wander, yes, but the wandering is the point, rather than the resolution. But all this would be as naught if he wasn’t a wonderful writer, and he is.

You will know the plot of A Tale even if you haven’t read a page of Dickens – and doesn’t that on its own tell you something about his abilities as a storyteller? Set in the time of the French Revolution, it follows the intertwined tales of an aristocrat refugee, Charles Evermonde (now known as Darnay), and the dissolute English lawyer, Sydney Carton. Dickens takes his time setting the scene, providing elements of the backstory that he will return to at the novel’s climax. In a vivid opening chapter the nightly mail-coach on route from London to Dover is flagged down by a messenger for Tellson’s Bank with the cryptic message “Recalled to Life.” We later learn that this refers to the release from the Bastille of a Dr Manette after 18 years inside. It is only at the end of the novel that we learn the reasons for his imprisonment. A reunion between the profoundly traumatised Dr Manette and his long lost daughter follows. The next chapters of the novel jump forward to 1780: Darnay is on trial for treason against the British Crown. Two spies claim that Darnay gave information about British troops in North America (where of course the American Revolutionary war was underway) to the French. Under cross-examination it is pointed out that fellow lawyer Sydney Carton bears a strong resemblance to Darnay. This coincidence is to play a key part in the novel’s resolution. Darnay is of course acquitted.

The novel’s focus then shifts to Paris, where Dickens shows the depravity of the aristocracy. The carriage of the evil Marquis St. Evrémonde runs over and kills a child. The Marquis casually tosses a coin to the parents as compensation. The Marquis is the uncle of Charles Darnay, who is also his heir, even though he has disavowed the family name. The die is thus cast – all the pieces are in place, and they fall domino-like, with the French Revolution leading swiftly to the reign of terror. At the height of the revolution Darnay suicidally travels to Paris where he is arrested as an emigrant and an aristocrat. In the novel’s least plausible development his wife, Lucie Manette, travels to try to secure his release. Bizarrely she takes an entourage with her – her father, Dr. Manette, her daughter, and two servants/travelling companions. Somehow they manage to live for over a year in the tumult of revolutionary Paris, a household of English people protected only by Dr Manette’s status as a former prisoner of the Bastille. I won’t spoil the novel’s ending for you, which you probably know anyway. I found it surprisingly moving, with that famous, resonant last line.

It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

Dickens’ perspective on the revolution is crystal clear – the terror is a direct result of the appalling way the French working classes were treated by the aristocracy.

Along the Paris streets, the death-carts rumble, hollow and harsh. Six tumbrels carry the day’s wine to La Guillotine. All the devouring and insatiate Monsters imagined since imagination could record itself, are fused in one realization, Guillotine. And yet there is not in France, with its rich variety of soil and climate, a blade, a leaf, a root, a sprig, a peppercorn, which will grow to maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this horror. Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.

This isn’t just a historical observation, but a pressing political point. The warning to the British ruling class is inescapable – abuse the working class and you will pay the price in blood. An academic analysis of the novel would talk at length about this being a work of opposites, a theme established clearly in that opening paragraph and indeed even in the novel’s title. I’m not going to dwell on that because it is so obvious. Instead I wonder what it would have been like reading this novel in those monthly installments in the 1850’s. In particular, would I have worked out what was going to happen, what was going to be the significance of the similarity between Darnay and Carton, and how the early promise of sacrifice by Carton was going to play out?

For you, and for any dear to you, I would do anything. If my career were of that better kind that there was any opportunity or capacity of sacrifice in it, I would embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you.

The repetition of “dear to you” is in hindsight something of a clunking clue, but it comes fairly early on in the novel and would have been easy to forget. I’d like to think I would have worked it out sooner rather than later, but of course you can never be sure.

There are some weaknesses in the novel, admittedly. The heroine Lucie is a blank canvas, with nothing much in the way of personality. Not all Dickens’ female characters are so bland – Madame Defarge is a bloodthirsty monster, although even she, when her backstory is finally revealed, is not without some sympathy. The cast of secondary characters is less expansive that many Dickens novels, and they don’t play a significant role. The revolutionaries are all labelled Jacques One, Two etc – no need to differentiate the huddled masses there. Jerry Cruncher the part-time resurrection man, and Mrs Pross, Lucie’s maid, are wheeled on and off the stage at the plot’s convenience and left in storage off-stage when not required. Dickens may have hoped that the improbability of their extended stay in revolutionary Paris would not have been noticed given the focus on the main characters, but it seemed an unnecessary lack of realism to me.

These are minor quibbles. This is Dickens near his best, and is thoroughly recommended.

Book review

The Russian Girl, by Kingsley Amis, 1992

366437._UY630_SR1200,630_This is late Amis: The Russian Girl was published in 1992, just three years before his death. Amis is one of those novelists who essentially wrote the same novel over and over again, with slight changes of character and the setting thinly disguised. But this novel was an exception to that rule – instead of the older cast of characters bickering, having tired affairs and drinking themselves to death, The Russian Girl’s central character, Dr Richard Vaisey, is in his forties, and vaguely behaves like it. His inevitable love interest, Anna Danilova, the titular Russian girl, is in her twenties. An older academic having an affair with an exotic Russian girl (note girl, not woman; Amis was never going be that up to date) – what an original plot? But the scenario isn’t what redeems this novel.  Continue reading

Book review

Put Out More Flags, by Evelyn Waugh, 1942

I re-read Scoop, Black Mischief, and Vile Bodies almost annually, yet somehow I had never got round to reading Waugh’s Put Out More Flags, which features many of the characters established in these earlier novels and could be seen as although is not explicitly a sequel. Why that is I have no idea, but I have now rectified the omission.

Image result for Put Out More Flags, by Evelyn Waugh, 1942

Waugh’s sixth novel was written and published in 1942, and as we shall see that date is significant. The plot looks back at the first year of the war, and contemplates the strange period in which at first little changed for many people followed quickly by the major upheavals thereafter.

Waugh’s characters are as usual wealthy and upper-class, and the war impacts them in (for them) unexpected ways. Country estates lose their servants. Billeting officers have to find accommodation for evacuees. Basil Seal, the louche ne-er do well of earlier novels struggles to find an army commission or any other constructive role in the war. Ambrose Silk, a gay Jewish intellectual looks elsewhere for a role, ideally in the Ministry of Information. Peter Pastmaster, about to go abroad into combat, decides he to marry and father an heir in case he is killed in action.

In my eyes, the novel is less than the sum of its parts. There are admittedly some fascinating character portraits. Ambrose Silk for example is an openly gay character who Waugh treats surprisingly sympathetically. In previous novels he would have been an object of ridicule, but here he is treated as the unhappy victim of his sexual desires:

A pansy. An old queen. A habit of dress, a tone of voice, an elegant, humorous deportment that had been admired and imitated, a swift, epicene felicity of wit, the art of dazzling and confusing those he despised – these had been his; and now they were the current exchange of comedians; there were only a few restaurants, now, which he frequent without fear of ridicule, and there he was surrounded, as though by distorting mirrors, with gross reflections and caricatures of himself.

While Waugh may be tolerant of Silk’s sexuality, society is not. He writes a novel about a former lover, a Brownshirt who is now in a Nazi extermination camp. Basil spitefully engineers a situation where this work is interpreted as pro-German and Silk is forced to flee to Ireland, disguised as a priest. Waugh’s writing directly about a gay character without hiding behind euphemism or suggestion was quite transgressive for its time, showing a progression in his treatment of character.

Put Out More Flags captures a very precise moment in time, starting with the weeks before the war (“days of surmise and apprehension which cannot, without irony, be called the last days of “peace”) followed by the phoney war in which nothing seems to change very much, (“Well, we’re at war now. I expect there’ll be a lot to put up with”) and the final grim realisation that the war is starting in earnest, people are dying, and there’s no going back: “There’s only one serious occupation for a chap now, that’s killing Germans. I have an idea I shall rather enjoy it.”

Waugh’s commentary on these phases of the war is, as you would expect, scathing. His characters speculate that the decadence of the 20’s and 30’s, portrayed in his earlier novels and exemplified by his characters, are what lead Germany to believe we would not put up much resistance:

“You can’t blame Ribbentrop for thinking us decadent when he saw people like Basil about. I don’t suppose they’ll have much use for him in the Army.”

The comic elements of the novel are the outstanding chapters, for example when Basil abuses his sister’s position as local billeting officer, finding homes for evacuee children sent to the country to escape the air raids. He uses three horrible working class children to extort money from country folk who pay him to rehouse them. Incidentally there’s a disturbing hint of incest in these scenes. Doris, precocious oldest sister of the profitable evacuees, notices the incipient attraction between Basil and his sister Barbara:

“He’s your boy, isn’t he?” she said, turning to Barbara.

“He’s my brother, Doris”

“Ah” she said, her pig eyes dark with the wisdom of the slums, “but you fancy him don’t you? I saw”.

Waugh makes no attempt to disguise his class hatred – Doris has ‘pig’ eyes, not ‘pig-like’ eyes. He suggests that her ‘wisdom of the slums’ gives her an insight into the attraction between siblings that has previously always been hinted at but never openly acknowledged. Waugh never returns to this topic, but even to open this door the smallest of cracks must have been shocking to contemporary readers.

Put Out More Flags is in many ways just a series of sketches with the barest of plots. I think it is best seen as a portrait of the period, and as a transition novel between the lightly comic, absurbist novels of the pre-war period and the later, more serious Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honour trilogy.

Book review

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K Dick, 1962

The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history novel. Although the author Philip K. Dick is best known as a writer of science fiction, and despite the setting, the novel isDick 2 realistic in tone, and contains very few sci-fi elements. The scenario of the novel is chilling if not wholly original – the Nazis and their Japanese allies have won the Second World War. They rule over the former United States, where the novel is mostly set, as well as the rest of the world. In the novel’s alternate history, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was assassinated (as he very nearly was) leading to the continuation of the Great Depression and US isolationism during World War II. Without American involvement the Nazis conquer Europe and Africa, and then join with the Japanese to defeat America.

Life under the Nazis is as barbaric as one might expect, although by the time of the events of the novel America is slowly coming to terms with being a defeated and occupied country. Japan has occupied most the Western side of the US and Germany the east, with a buffer zone of the “Pacific States of America” between them and a small Nazi puppet regime to the south. 


While victory was shared by the Japanese and the Nazis, the peace is clearly being won by the technologically superior Germans, who are already (the novel is set in the 1960s) sending men to Mars. This disparity of technology is to prove dangerous. The narrative is told through the eyes of several citizens of occupied America. An antique shop owner sells romanticized and often fake American cultural artifacts to Japanese trade officials and tourists. A high-ranking official visits the shop looking for a gift to impress a visiting Swedish industrialist. Meanwhile Frank Frink (formerly Fink), a secretly Jewish-American veteran, has lost his job and sets up a handcrafted jewelry business with a former colleague. His ex-wife meanwhile now lives in the neutral buffer zone and begins a relationship with a truck driver. Slowly Dick draws these story lines together to reveal the Nazis’ sinister intentions towards their former allies. 

A popular novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, depicting an alternative history in which the Allies won World War II. plays a key role in the narrative – a novel within a novel in which the central conceit is reversed. This inner novel haunts its readers with the suggestion that it in some strange way is actually a true representation of events, and the characters’s lives are themselves the fiction. In some ill-defined way the ‘truth’ is trying to impose itself on the fictional events portrayed. Dick leaves this idea unresolved at the end of the novel. 

It’s an intriguing if not particularly original central concept in the long tradition of invasion/alternate history novels. Not many works in this genre go so far as to imagining the US losing the war – even though Dick makes this plausible enough given the Nazis adapting nuclear technology before the Allies. Having set his scene, Dick seems a little lost where to go with it. This isn’t going to be a patriotic tale of valiant resistance fighters defeating the brutal invaders – in fact the Japanese seem perfectly civil, and there is no suggestion of their being an underground movement of any kind. The tensions between the remaining superpowers is well handled and convincing, and the descriptions of how Europe and Africa have suffered at the hands of the Nazis are chilling even if all-shown in passing references by the American characters. The eponymous Man in the High Castle is a bit of a disappointment – he is the author of the novel within the novel, but the High Castle ends up being just a suburban house, and the author only appears right at the end of the novel. He is not the omniscient, influential figure the title would suggest. 

I found the constant references to the prophetic powers of the I Ching quite irritating. Dick seems to take this nonsense seriously – certainly his characters do and there is nothing to suggest they are wrong to do so. The Japanese characters are all stereotypically inscrutable even when narrating the novel. All in all I couldn’t resist the feeling that there was a compelling story here trying but never quite succeeding to get out here, only appearing in flashes such as when the truck-driver is revealed as a German agent and is stopped by the plucky American judo-instructor. The television adaptation has wisely ignored almost all of the text, just using the central concept as a starting point, and as a result making a much richer, more interesting narrative.

Book review

The Five – the untold lives of Jack the Ripper’s victims, by Hallie Rubenhold, 2019

The FiveThe central concept of this popular history book (by popular in this context I mean some of the claims are not as strictly evidenced as I would normally expect) is to tell the stories of the five “canonical” victims of the Ripper, the women generally accepted to be the victims of a single murderer operating in Whitechapel in 1888.

Inevitably the author cannot avoid drifting into speculation on how they came to their deaths, and it is here where the book has caused some controversy. Rubenhold disputes the widely held view that all of the victims were prostitutes. Her case seems strong here, although I haven’t read the counter-evidence which I am sure exists. She also argues powerfully that several of the women were killed while rough-sleeping; again this seems to make a lot of sense – they certainly were living a lifestyle where rough-sleeping would have been a necessity on occasion, even if the precise locations of their murders suggest unlikely places in which to bed down. 

But these issues are not the focus of the book. What the author aims to do is to tell these women’s stories – from their births to how they came to be on the street on those nights in 1888. What decisions and events led them there. If you knew nothing about these women and were to guess you would expect drink to play a part, and of course it does. Abusive relationships and personal tragedy are also involved. More widely the author is extremely strong on the social, political and economic context of the mid nineteenth century, including of course the housing and public health crises that were at the heart of these women’s tragic stories. Things were not all consistently bleak for these women – for example some of them were reasonably well educated for their class and generation. All had been in stable relationships (so far as we can tell) and had families from whom they had slowly been alienated. They were given support from employers, charities and housing associations. There was nothing inevitable about their deaths. 

In books of this kind one is always left wondering how much of the author’s reconstruction is speculation or educated guessing. A good example is the claim that Catherine Eddowes, the fourth victim, whilst selling pamphlets and so-called ‘gallows ballads’ was present at the execution of her cousin, Christopher Robinson, at Strafford in January 1866. The evidence that Catherine was present at the execution is flimsy to say the least, but here it is presented as unquestionable fact. (This is one issue were I took a quick look at some alternative sources). The other thing that is is hard to be clear on is how much of the text is the result of independent research, and how much is simply a reheating of existing knowledge about the victims. Because despite the widespread claim that this book is the first attempt to tell these women’s stories, there have been several previous such narratives, and there is arguably not much more to be found out.

Was this a genuine attempt to give a voice to these women, or yet another cynical exploitation of the frisson of excitement caused by the monstrous nature of the murders? I am happy to give the author the benefit of the doubt here. The narratives are all well-constructed, and the decision to end them at the point of the murders removes any hint of titillation. It was nice to see photographs of the victims others than on the mortuary slab. These photographs are remarkable, and if Rubenhold is the first historian to track them down (and I have no way of knowing if that is the case or not) then this in itself was a remarkable piece of historical detective work.

I think there was another way to give some value to these women’s lives, and that would have been to show how – if at all – their murders changed society. Did the way police investigate murders change? Did the way they treated vagrants and prostitutes change? Were the Whitechapel slums cleared? What, in other words, were the political and social impacts of the Ripper murders? But that’s obviously another book entirely.