Madeira Mondays: Is A Tale of Two Cities worth reading?

Charles Dickens was very much a man of his time.  Much of his fiction (almost all) was inspired by the world around him: specifically, the plight of the London poor. One of his most famous works (which happens to be a favorite of mine!), A Christmas Carol, was partly inspired by a visit to the Field Lane Ragged School, one of several homes for London’s destitute children. He famously used to take long walks alone, all around London, and observe the world around him, getting inspiration for his books. Dickens and his characters – Oliver Twist, Ebenezer Scrooge, David Copperfield etc. – are basically synonymous with 19th century London. Which is why I think it’s so interesting that one of his most famous novels – A Tale of Two Cities – isn’t set in Dickens’ familiar stomping ground, but rather in the late 18th century, during the French Revolution and The Terror.

A Tale of Two Cities is a work of historical fiction, and it takes place between London and Paris (those are the titular ‘two cities’) in the 1780’s and 90’s. I was drawn to it because I love A Christmas Carol (the book) and also because I was curious to see what Dickens, a man writing in the 1850’s, had to say about the late 18th century. The equivalent would be someone now writing about the 1960’s. There’s still a removal of time, but a much smaller one than if it were me or you writing about the 18th century.

A Tale of Two Cities is also considered a ‘classic’ and while I think that one shouldn’t feel any pressure to read any book simply because it’s well-known and famous – that goes for ‘classic’ as well as contemporary lit – I do think Dickens (like Shakespeare) is an author whose work has endured for a reason. Or several. One reason, I think, is that Dickens (again, like Shakespeare) can be read on two levels – for entertainment value (if you purely want a rollicking good read!) and also on a more analytical, thematic level. His books are amusing but also rich and thought-provoking. He’s a bit over-the-top sometimes, but he also writes with so much empathy and with close observation of humor behavior. And his outage at societal inequalities is sadly still quite relevant, just as it was in the 19th century.

So now you know what I think of Dickens generally, but how was A Tale of Two Cities specificially? A ‘classic’ worth checking out, or one to skip?

Overall, I really liked this novel. No surprise, because I like Dickens’ writing and I like the 18th century (as you know!). But there’s a lot to like here even if you aren’t crazy about either of those things.

It tells the story of one family that is caught up in the events of the French Revolution, and it asks a lot of questions about justice and guilt. One man is basically asked to pay for the crimes committed by his cruel, aristocratic family on the Parisian poor. He has rejected his family long ago and deplores their actions, but the revolution is imminent and the oppressed want blood. How do we make amends, when our ancestors and sometimes even our close relatives, have committed atrocities or acts of oppression? And how far is ‘too far’ when it comes to gaining justice and retribution for the crimes of the past?

My copy had brilliant black and white illustrations – like this one.

These questions are always interesting and I think they’re especially interesting in Dickens’ hands because this is a man who really fought for the rights of the London poor and has a clear empathy for the oppressed French poor and makes it clear why they revolted. We see that, to certain aristocratic nobles, these poor people’s lives are meaningless and expendable  A boy is crushed to death under a nobleman’s cart wheel and the noble doesn’t bat an eye. A noble looks down at one of his tenant farmers, on the verge of death, ‘as if he were a wounded bird, or hare, or rabbit; not at all as if he were a fellow creature.’

Yet Dickens also condemns the violence of the Revolution fairly explicitly. The primary antagonist of the story, the sinister Madame Defarge, is an embodiment of the Revolutionaries’ desire for revenge and for heads to roll (quite literally). She is a ‘ruthless woman’ with an ‘inveterate hated of a class’ which has turned her into a ‘tigeress.’ She’s violent, excessive and without mercy, but we do see why she’s this way and how she personally has been abused by members of the upper class. So her behavior is, at least, understandable. It’s this keen sense of specifically class-based oppression throughout that makes Dickens a good writer for this subject, because he’s quite ambivalent – the violence is reprehensible, but he gets why it happened. And he’s aware that it could happen again.

Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.

One of my favorite things about the book was Dickens’ descriptions of people. No surprise, the characters were super vivid and easy to visualize, down to the smallest player. A random jailer is described as: ‘so unwholesomely bloated, both in face and person, as to look like a man who had been drowned and filled with water.’ And all of the main characters are vivid, and relatively complex, except one: Lucie Manette. She’s worse than Mina in Dracula. She has no personality or life outside of her self-sacrificing devotion to her husband and father. Dickens seems to have no interest in either her bodily or intellectual reality – she has a child and it grows to the age of a toddler in the space of about a paragraph or two. (How do these events change her?!) She’s gorgeous, everyone loves her and would do anything for her – in short, she’s a very silly and unexamined character. With another author I’d let it slide but there’s no excuse for it when Dickens can create a character like Sydney Carton – the sarcastic, drunken, intelligent, self-loathing, spiteful yet surprisingly tender character who plays a central role in the novel’s climax.

Sydney Carton is great and, quite frankly, the whole book is pretty great too. It asks if a man, a family, even a society, can be redeemed. It isn’t spoiling much to say that, for Dickens, the answer is yes. I’m a bit more cynical, but even so, it’s nice to hope.

It would be perfect reading if you enjoy things like Poldark, or other dramas set in this period revolving around one family. I cried a lot at the end of the book, actually. Dickens can be a bit melodramatic, but his earnestness gets me every time.

Let me know what you think of A Tale of Two Cities: have you read it before? Did you read it in school? Do you plan on reading it in the future? I’d love to have any reading recommendations from you as well, particularly any spookier books as autumn approaches!

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘Bonaparte aux Tuileries – 10 August 1792’, a painting depicting Napoleon (who would later become Emperor of France) witnessing a mob attack on the Tuileries Palace.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Thomas Jefferson, James Hemings and French Cooking

Thomas Jefferson is known for several things.

He is considered one of America’s ‘Founding Fathers’ and is probably most famous for writing The Declaration of Independence in 1776, a list of grievances that the American colonies sent to King George III which kicked off the American Revolution.  He’s also been in the press recently as Monticello, his home (which is now a museum and research center), grapples with how to represent the more uncomfortable truths about Jefferson’s life: namely that he kept hundreds of slaves (despite expressing a belief that slavery was morally repugnant) and fathered several children with an enslaved mistress, Sally Hemings.

So, he was a complicated man. And an endlessly interesting one.

I was actually fortunate enough to live at Monticello for a month in 2016 as a visiting research fellow while I was working on my PhD. During that time, I got to know Jefferson pretty well. And one of the most interesting aspects of his life that very few people know about is that he was a major foodie. This guy LOVED his wine and his culinary experimentation; he tried growing all kinds of things at his home in Virginia.  So it is no surprise that when he went to France in 1784, as an Ambassador of the new United States of America, he was keen that one of his slaves, James Hemings, go with him and be trained up as a French chef. So Jefferson and Hemings struck a bargain. If Hemings learned how to become a French chef in Paris and returned to Virginia to teach another slave the skills of French cookery, then Jefferson would free him. Hemings agreed.

This story, of James Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, their intertwined lives and culinary journeys, forms the basis of Thomas J. Craughwell‘s book Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brûlée: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America

book cover

It’s a fascinating story and Craughwell’s short, entertaining book covers their time in France as well as their return to the early Republic, when Jefferson became President and attempted to introduce French cuisine to the United States. Some of the foods that Jefferson and Hemings brought back included things we consider staples now, like macaroni and cheese and ice cream. Although they can’t be solely credited with introducing these to America, these foods certainly weren’t popular at the time, so Hemings and Jefferson were some of the first.

IMG_5103

Photo taken in the kitchens at Monticello in Virginia

One of the best things about Craughwell’s book is its informal, highly-readable style, from a non-fiction author who apparently wrote about many different historical subjects (from President Lincoln to Urban Legends). It’s an easy and accessible overview for those who aren’t too familiar with the time period. As someone who studies this period, I also learned some new things too, namely about the origins of modern French cooking (good and simple sauces, fresh ingredients sourced daily) and how its emphasis on simplicity was actually a reaction to the excesses of the Court of Versailles.

IMG_9361

From The Georgian House, recreated 18th century townhouse where I volunteer in Edinburgh

But as a whole the book felt a little too short and superficial. I wanted more description of the food James learned to prepare in Paris, and more about James in general as a person. Craughwell isn’t a historian and he does acknowledge that it’s difficult to find information about James, who did become a chef de cuisine, a master of French cooking, in Paris and was eventually freed by Jefferson. His story has a tragic end however: he committed suicide while drinking at the age of just 36.

Of course it’s significantly harder to learn about James’ character than about Jefferson. Jefferson was a U.S President and a wealthy white landowner who left an enormous amount of documents behind him: things he bought, letters he wrote, etc. James was born into slavery and although he ended up being free and self-employed as a cook in Baltimore, his life is, understandably, much harder to trace. I talk about this in my post about Juan San Malo from New Orleans, but it is a challenge trying to uncover the lives of those like James who don’t leave behind the paper trail of men like Jefferson.

Yet perhaps more information about how other French chefs were trained at the time in Paris (What their daily rituals were like? What sort of recipes they were learning?) would have given more insight into James’ situation. This would have been a good way to bulk out the James sections and wouldn’t have required gaining more information about him specifically. I just felt that there wasn’t enough about his life, or enough about the food he made, honestly. A lot of it focused on Jefferson’s life and his family, which is fine but there are other books which cover this and in much greater depth. With this book, I wanted to learn about French cooking and James Hemings.

That being said, Craughwell has clearly hit on a fascinating story and if you’re looking for a fun and fast-paced read about food and Early American history, then this wouldn’t be a bad one to choose. I’m a sucker for stories about food and am of the firm belief that someone should make a movie about James and his culinary adventures in Paris, his complicated relationship with Jefferson, his bringing French cuisine to America etc. It’s an interesting and unusual story. So get cracking, Hollywood!

Recommended Further Reading/Watching

The Featured Image of today’s post is a still-life painting with oysters and wine from Flemish painter Peter Jacob Horemans, c. 1769, accessed via the Wikipedia Commons.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!