Perhaps I am overly sentimental, but I still count Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities as one of the finest novels ever written. I cannot help but be touched by the unexpected magnanimity of Sydney Carton, a selfish barrister from England whose life has been misspent, surrendering his very life in place of a man sentenced to death in revolutionary France. A man he has no cause to love, yet who bears a physical resemblance to him. And who is the object of love of a woman to whom Carton has secretly given his heart. What little of it he has left. Who wouldn’t be at least a little moved by such a noble act?
It has been some years since I last read this wonderful novel from Dickens. And yet I can’t help but feel I have revisited it as I have read Joseph Conrad’s The Rover. The setting is nearly the same—revolutionary France, although distant from the madness of Paris. Still, one character, Scevola, has brought that madness with him to a small village beyond Toulon. And to this village comes Peyrol, an old seaman, gunner of the French navy, and a pirate with a shady past. Conrad’s Carton, in other words. Not a man to be admired or trusted, and keen on keeping a low profile, on not getting involved, and on steering clear of French authorities.
Yet the authorities come to him nonetheless in the form of the young, solitary Lieutenant Real, whose own intentions are not quite clear, but who seems intent on remaining near Peyrol. As the novel progresses, the thoughts of these characters carry the reader back and forth through time, yet most of what transpires does so in the space of two days time. During which all three of these men are found to be attached, more or less intimately, with the same young woman, whose own past is awash with the violence and blood of the revolution that claimed her parents. It is his love for this woman that will eventually force Peyrol to come to his own decision about just how uninvolved he can remain.
This was Conrad’s last novel, and there is a sentimentality to all of this, of course, quite distinct from Conrad’s earlier works. There is in this last work an effort to peer into the darkness of the human soul, which is so masterfully depicted in The Heart of Darkness. But there is also a touch of romance that I was not expecting to find in a novel by Joseph Conrad. In any case, it is well worth reading.