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Keith Tse


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A Tale of two cities

Charles Dickens’ masterpiece deals with the state and fortune of two pre-eminent cities in Europe in the 18th century, namely London and France, capitals of England and France respectively. It must be one of the greatest pieces of literary text of all time, since it is such a beautiful story of love and sacrifice set against the political turmoil and chaos of the French Revolution in early modern Europe. The main character, Monsieur Charles Darnay, is of aristocratic birth and due to the Revolution he is forced to move to London where he meets the young and beautiful Madamemoiselle Lucie Manette, a French girl who is unaware of her father, Dr Alexandre Manette, a revolutionary and political prisoner in the lead-up to the Revolution, and whom she meets in dramatic fashion at the beginning of the story. As this French trio settles in London, there is also a lovable Englishman named Sydney Carton, who loves and pursues Lucie, but as Lucie falls for Charles, he gracefully sacrifices himself and lets her be happy with the man she loves. Everything goes well in London for these characters as they seek to re-build their lives from the ruins of the French Revolution in the prosperous English capital until they are caught up by the events of the Revolution and are summoned by moral duty to return to France where, by a twist of fate, Charles is sentenced to death (along with many other aristocrats) and condemned by none other than his father-in-law, old man Manette, who had sworn many years ago in the prison of Bastille to destroy and kill all the aristocrats. As these characters are caught in this tragic dilemma, they are left to face the consequences, and as Lucie is devastated by the seemingly inevitable doom that awaits her beloved husband, Sydney, the Englishman who was once willing to sacrifice his own love for Lucie’s happiness, agrees to sacrifice himself again by substituting himself for Charles and die in his place. The novel then ends in a most beautiful and poignant note where as Sydney (pretending to be the convicted Charles Darnay) walks up to the guillotine, he envisages a happy future for his beloved Lucie and happily sacrifices himself for her happiness.

‘A Tale of Two Cities’ is truly a fantastic tale and an absolute tear-jerker. I read it as a child and it left a huge impression on me. I read it again in recent years and this time many new things emerged from a more mature interpretation, which seems to be the norm these days. I think it fair to say that England and France have always had a love-hate relationship with each other, since although they have been very intimate historically and politically since the Norman invasion in 1066 (if not before), there have also been numerous conflicts between them, some of which absolutely catastrophic and disastrous, like the Hundred Years’ War which spanned more than a century and three royal generations. The relationship between England and France is particularly interesting in Dickens’ historical novel, as it is set during the years leading up to the French Revolution when the French people achieved what was then the impossible and inconceivable, namely overthrowing the class of ruling aristocrats and thereby subverting the traditional sociopolitical hierarchy which had been set since feudal times. The result was spectacular, as the French people established the world’s first Republic in the modern sense, which subsequently inspired the creation of a series of Republics throughout the world and hence radically transformed world politics. England, on the other hand, despite the English Revolution a hundred years prior (one could also add the Magna Carta and the curtailment of King John’s monarchic power in favour of the nobles in the 13th century, which laid the foundation for the English Constitution and parliamentary politics), had always been a somewhat bureaucratic society in which the aristocrats had a much firmer political hold over the masses, which gave a (superficial) sense of peace and stability. This contrast is made particularly stark and clear in Dickens’ story where we see French aristocrats like Charles Darnay flee the eruption of the masses in France and seek safe haven in London where they can resume their lives. 

2017 is another pivotal year for the United Kingdom and France, since both nations have held national elections to determine the ruling party and political leader for their respective governments. In the U.K., the conservatives (‘Tories’) won, though probably by a much smaller margin than they had hoped for. It was certainly not the landslide victory of two years prior where the then Tory leader, David Cameron, charismatically and powerfully outdid his political opponents, or the coalition goverment of 2010 where the Tories and the Liberal Democrats successfully (and predictably) forged an alliance in the parliament and defeated the Labour Party for the first time in more than ten years. This is particularly significant in light of all the negativity surrounding the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union (‘Brexit’), and one might have expected the conservatives to lose popular vote, yet they still managed to outnumber the Labour Party despite the meteoric rise of the current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. In France, a completely different picture emerged, that being the comfortable victory of a populist leader, Emmanuelle Macron, over the conservative and nationalistic Marine le Pen, which has been widely hailed by the people in France and abroad. It is interesting how two countries with contrasting societal configurations can have such contrasting domestic politics, since while in England (or Britain in general) the conservatives seem to have had an edge over the leftists, in France left-wing politicians seem to be much more popular than their English/British counterparts and can afford to be much more adventurous and ambitious in their domestic political endeavours. One cannot but draw parallels with Dicken’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ in which the historical French people united and defeated the ruling aristocrats (and even executed every single one of them ruthlessly by the guillotine, a grotesque medieval killing machine) while the English live in relative harmony and peace in a society where the ruling aristocrats maintain a top-down sociopolitical order. All this seems to suggest that domestic politics is closely tied to traditional societal and cultural values and that certain politicians can thrive in one particular political setting but not in another, which is perfectly intuitive and hardly surprising. I have a lot of respect and admiration for the French Republic, and I believe that the French Revolution was one of the most important and significant events in human history, since it created a new form of society through the selflessness and unity of the French people (albeit with a huge amount of human sacrifice, blood and terror, but, as the saying goes, one has to break some eggs in order to make a (French) omlette…!). This is a glorious form of democracy, which now lies at the core of French values and culture. Salut.

#British #french #socialism #revolution #capitalism #englishrevolution #democracy #frenchrevolution #Literature #marxism

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© Keith Tse (2015-) 

London, United Kingdom