THE BASICS A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is a novel set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. It has sold more than 200 million copies, most fobbed off on schoolchildren, who doubtless would appreciate the work more if they came to it on their own. The author cites as his primary source The French Revolution: A History by Thomas Carlyle.
THE PLOT Most of the protagonists are peasants under the thumb of the French aristocracy, or, conversely, aristos brutalised by the rebels who toppled them. Dickens adroitly makes many unfavourable social comparisons to life in London in the same era.
THE CHARACTERS No fewer than 28 characters play roles of significance in the novel - and that is less than in a typical work by Dickens, who, it must be said, did love to overpopulate his pages. The principal two are Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton. Darnay is a former French aristo victimised by the revolution despite his principled nature. Carton is a British barrister out to redeem his life of dissipation over his unrequited love for Darnay's wife, Lucie Manette.
THE THEME Carlyle's view that history cycles through destruction and resurrection was a major influence on Tale, as illustrated by Carton's life and death. And as the astute reader will infer, Dickens also foresees a resurrected social order in France, rising from the phoenix of the old one.
THE BEGINNING Who doesn't know the first sentence (or at least the first 12 words)? "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." As The Instant Expert noted in M's Literary Issue on March 12: "Such euphonious parallel construction!"
SERIALLY SPEAKING, PART ONE The 45-chapter novel ran in 32 weekly instalments in Dickens's periodical, All the Year Round, starting with the first issue, on April 30, 1859.
SERIALLY SPEAKING, PART TWO So successful was the phenomenon of serialisation - which the savvy businessman Dickens realised - that passengers arriving in New York from Europe in 1841 would be greeted on the docks with the question: "Is Little Nell dead?", referring to The Old CuriosityShop heroine. In the introduction to his own serialisation of The Green Mile 155 years later, Stephen King tells the story of Dickens fans who were swept off the dock and drowned in Baltimore when the crowd surged towards the ship carrying the magazine with the final instalment of Curiosity Shop.
THE ADAPTATIONS Whew. The book has spawned five feature films, three full radio adaptations, three television miniseries, four stage musicals and one opera. Noteworthy are the 1935 black-and-white MGM film starring Ronald Colman, the 1938 Mercury Theatre radio version with Orson Welles and the 1958 film version with Dirk Bogarde.
THE ENDING As famous as the opening. Carton goes to the guillotine knowing, the narrator opines, that "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".
Other noted serial writers
WILKIE COLLINS Mentored by Dickens, he invented the English detective novel and serialised most of his works.
SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE He created the Sherlock Holmes stories originally for serialisation in The Strand magazine.
BOLESLAW PRUS Among the many works of the acclaimed Polish author are the serialised novels The Outpost (1885-86), The Doll (1887-89), The New Woman (1890-93) and his sole historical novel, Pharaoh (the exception to the rule; written entirely over a year's time in 1894-95 and serialised only after completion, in 1895-96).
STEPHEN KING He issued The Green Mile as a six-book serial in 1996. He began The Plant as an online serial in 2000 but suspended the project after six instalments.
ORSON SCOTT CARD The science-fiction writer re-released his out-of-print 1979 novel, Hot Sleep, as a serial in his InterGalactic Medicine Show magazine beginning in October 2005.
TRACY AND LAURA HICKMAN The husband-and-wife team are on book two in their direct-to-internet serialized fantasy trilogy, Dragons Bard.