"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 are going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so like the present period, that some it its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."
So opens, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. It is a historical novel written in 1859 but set in the years prior and during the French revolution. The two cities of the title are London and Paris, and as the paragraph above indicates the contrast between the lives of citizens of these two cities are the driving force of the novel.
The opening scene tells of a dramatic coach journey to Dover, and the rescue of Dr Manette from his imprisonment in the famous Paris jail the Bastille, whereupon he is reunited with his exiled daughter Lucie. The pair return to London where the doctor completes his rehabilitation.
At the centre of the novel are two men linked both by their love of Lucie Manette and their similar looks which could provide the reasonable doubt needed in a court of law. They are Charles Darnay, an exiled Frenchman trying to escape from the madness of his homeland, and Sydney Carton a cynic with one eye on a bottle and a bellyful of self-loathing. The action moves from London to Paris and back as the oppressed Parisians simmer towards their boiling point, with Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette becoming first engaged and then married. Then revolution breaks out in France, with consequences for all our participants.
One by one they are all drawn towards Paris and the looming spectre of the Guillotine, symbolised by the knitting needles of Madame Defarge. The horrific, unsettling Madame has becoma a leading figure of the revolution for Liberty, Equality, Fraternity or Death. Charles Darnay is incarcerated and put up for trial, and his friends desperately search for a path to his release. Suspence gathers up to the climax which offers an act of self sacrifice motivated by unrequited love which will retain its impact for generations of readers. The ending lines of the novel are as famous as the opening -
"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far, better rest that I go to than I have ever known."
The 1935 film is also highly recommended if you ever have the opportunity. They don't make them like that anymore.