This is the third year I’ve concluded with Dickens. When I wound up 2019 with Great Expectations (I realize how ironic that sounds now), and liked it so much, I made an intention of exploring more Dickens in the fourth quarter of the year.
Last year was David Copperfield, which I enjoyed, but it felt a bit self-congratulatory on Dickens’s part. Certainly more so than Great Expectations.
This year was A Tale of Two Cities. This book is the only Dickens I had read prior to 2019, although that “prior” was close to forty years ago. I remember liking it when I read it in high school, and I remember really liking a TV movie version we got to watch in class. In that rendition, Chris Sarandon played both Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay. I loved him, especially his portrayal of Sydney Carton. When The Princess Bride premiered just a couple of years after I saw that version of A Tale of Two Cities, I was a touch disappointed to see him play such a heel of a character as Prince Humperdinck.
Flash forward to now, when I’ve seen The Princess Bride more times than I can count. I found that old TV movie A Tale of Two Cities streaming somewhere, and watched it last month. I can no longer unsee Chris Sarandon as Prince Humperdinck, especially since his voice sounds exactly the same in his portrayal of all three characters. Although his Sydney Carton certainly has more of a drawl. Another fun fact lost on me back in the mid-80s — Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin from Star Wars) played Dr. Manette.
But I’m burying the lede. What has bubbled up to me through the sedimentary layers of decades is how much I love the character of Sydney Carton. He’s the reason I liked the book so much the first time I read it, and the TV movie the first time I saw it. He’s the poster child for “damaged goods.” And he knows it, and has no illusions about it. He never tries to redeem himself through multiple, abortive, attempts at self-improvement. Actually, his commitment to keep his damage self-contained, and not inflict his misery upon others, is one of the most heroic things about him. (Is his self-containment why Dickens chose the name Carton?)
No, Sydney Carton’s foregoing any small-scale redemptive attempts during his lifetime, sets up his final act in a huge way. He makes the ultimate sacrifice, but it’s not to win a battle, or save a city, or save the universe (sorry, Iron Man). It’s to save a family — and it’s not even his family. But it’s the family of the woman he loves.
And I can’t think of a character who has a better concluding line / thought than Sydney Carton’s. So I begin this new year, grateful to have explored and rediscovered a love I have held for most of my life. Here’s to far, far better things for all of us.
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