Sometimes, when the world feels bleak, I make the deliberate decision to lose myself, forgetting all pains and woes for a while, in a book. And because, in these circumstances, I want to be sure that the book is good enough to get lost in, I turn for comfort to an old favourite which can be guaranteed to freeze out a cold world, at least for while. I don’t mean to provoke, but the EU referendum results that emerged on Friday morning and the responses to it since then, have left me saddened and feeling in need of a good comfort read. So this morning I picked up a dear old friend, Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, which I have loved since I first came to know it as a O’level text. And on page one, this is what I found:
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–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Although Dickens’ penned this in the 1850s, and was of course commenting on the times of the French Revolution some 70 years earlier, his words seem remarkably apposite this weekend.
There are other themes, too, in A Tale of Two Cities, which seem to pre-echo today’s political debates – relations with Europe, the role of the banks, disconnects between different sectors of society, rapidly shifting political powers playing out in the day to day lives – often with violence and hatred and rarely with understanding or tolerance – of less empowered people, driving wedges between friends and among families.
Dickens uses A Tale of Two Cities to show, to the point of ridicule, just how rich and powerful the rich and powerful actually are. One character needs four, yes four – count them – servants to make his daily drink of hot chocolate. He shows how that sort of excess breeds discontent among those struggling to survive. He portrays the start of the French Revolution as a critique of the aristocracy and then vividly recounts how the fine ideals of the new classless Republic become an even harsher and more bloody form of class warfare than that which went before. Let’s hope that, despite starting in very similar scenarios, the outcomes of the political turmoil we find ourselves in now do not play out to in the same way.
I think that’s enough of Dickens novels for me today. I’m off to find my copy of Pride and Prejudice…oh, wait…may be today is a day to stick to a good crime thriller.