Thursday, April 10, 2014

Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities - "bestselling novel of all time". Allegedly.

The internet generally, and Wikipedia in particular, is obsessed with records. Consequently, you are quite likely to run across the widely repeated claim that  A Tale of Two Cities is (as the Wikipedia article on Charles Dickens puts it) "the best selling novel of all time".

It isn't the most unlikely statement I've ever heard, but when I tried to trace it back to an authoritative source, I at first got no further than a chatty review by the novelist David Mitchell  in the Daily Telegraph from May 8th 2010.

"Charles Dickens’ second stab at a historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities, has sold more than 200 million copies to date, making it the bestselling novel – in any genre – of all time."

 Did Mitchell know what he was talking about? Maybe, but it seems that no-one else does.

Digging a bit more, I found a 2009 GMAT Practice Exam, where the following sentence is used for grammatical comprehension purposes:

"By the year 2000, A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens' gripping book portraying the suffering of the proletariat under the brutal subjugation of the French aristocracy had around 200 million copies in print, making it more than that of almost any other English book ever written."

(The kids are supposed to correct the clumsy grammar towards the end)

And the earliest reference I've seen so far, is an anonymous ("staff") preview article on for the musical Tale of Two Cities (24 March, 2008):

"Since its inaugural publication on August 30, 1859, A Tale of Two Cities has sold over 200 million copies in several languages, making it one of the most famous books in the history of fictional literature."

That's it, so far as I can find. (And yes, I searched Google Books, too.)

To be fair, there are Wikipedists who are aware of the vacuum behind this claim. (See the talk page for "List of best-selling books"). Arriving at aggregated worldwide figures for a massive seller over a long period of time is never going to be an easy matter. Once a book is out of copyright, whose job is it to keep track of sales? No-one's. You'd struggle to obtain a list of all the separate publications of  A Tale of Two Cities, even in English. Anyone can publish it, and they don't have to ask anyone's permission. Academic bibliographers normally aren't very interested in those later reprints, because they have no textual significance. And as for obtaining the sales figures! How would you go about contacting those fugitive publishers of the "World's Library of Great Books", which flourished in the 1930s? Then there's the issue of what counts as a sale. Classic books of this sort are often given away free (e.g. by Sunday newspapers). But the newspaper pays a publisher to produce the books. The reader buys the newspaper, maybe in part because of the free book. And these free books do account for a lot of present-day readers. So does that count as a sale or not? Now multiply all these little difficulties by the fifty or so languages into which Dickens has been translated. Rinse and repeat.

All I'm saying is that arriving at such figures is not straightforward. You'd need to be a specialist, not just in literary history but in the very specific department of literary history that understands the commercial side of publishing at a global level. While ideally I'd want to know exactly how this estimate was arrived at, the very least I'd want is the endorsement of a recognized authority.

A Tale of Two Cities might conceivably be a very high selling book worldwide. Though many diehard Dickens fans would agree with me in considering it almost his worst novel, it seems there are quite a lot of  not-so-diehard-Dickensian people out there who absolutely adore it. It has had a flourishing career in film and drama, above all in Selznick's film of 1935 starring Ronald Colman as Sidney Carton. On celluloid the rather lifeless lovers of the book became transformed into blockbuster romantic heroes/ines.

Whether you think it's Dickens' worst novel or not, there's at any rate no dispute about it being his shortest. It's widely studied as a school text.* As western culture has spread across the globe, Dickens has been promulgated as one of the west's representative authors. And if you're only going to dish out a single Dickens book to your class, then leaving aside the economic and logistical claims of brevity you could maybe argue that Cities is the most "global" Dickens novel. The greater novels, especially in their comedy, require and reward a detailed awareness of 19th-century English popular culture - an awareness that is now fast disappearing. Cities doesn't have much comedy. But it does have a good handful of the kind of discussion-topics that work well in the classroom - e.g. about injustice, violence, fanaticism, self-sacrifice. Topics with plenty of of juicy relevance in India, Brazil, Nigeria and everywhere else.

(But, reassuringly, one of the novel's clearest messages is that revolutions are very bad news indeed. All governments like that sort of message.)

Anyone know anything more about this?


* [Don't take my word for it, here's what Shmoop has to say:

Because it’s a bit more straight-forward plot-wise than many other Dickens novels, A Tale of Two Cities is also one of the most frequently-taught of Dickens’s novels today. Chances are you’re encountering it for the first time (or the second time, or the twenty-third time) in a classroom. That’s part of why we here at Shmoop are so taken with this novel: it’s an enduring testimony to the best and a searing critique of the worst of human nature. Dickens set out to make the French Revolution live in the hearts and minds of his readers. Take it from us, he’s done a pretty good job.


I may as well add here what I wrote about the book before:

Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Everyone should agree that the first few chapters of the book are good (up to Part II, Ch 5). And so, it seems to me, are the last few. But I keep getting the feeling that Dickens is using the French Revolution for his own ends. This is not a historical novel; it’s in a way more illuminating. His own preoccupations with prisons and resurrections are now more barely personal and psychological than they were in Little Dorrit. Yet his presentation of The Terror, something rather unlike what he had known yet extremely like some more recent societies, is deeply felt in its essence, though (or because?) it was imagined.

Psychologically, Madame Defarge and Sidney Carton are true images. The latter may need some defence, since we feel that Charles Darnay must, in logic, go to the wall and he speaks the plain truth when he says “Good could never come of such evil”. Charles and Lucie happy ever after is as impossible as Romeo and Juliet happy ever after. But still, Carton quickens the pulse; his expertise in this crisis and his flush of pride. Though he represents, perhaps, Dickens’ fantasy of a great, redeeming self-sacrifice; the fantasy of one who lives guiltily. I am certain that some have really gone to their deaths comforted by Carton at their elbow.

Of course this may seem a preposterous defence, and it needs no great effort to recall “the case against” - the tedium of those echoey footsteps in Soho, the perfunctory interest of Jerry Cruncher, and so on. Yet to flick through the pages again is to realize with what economy the book supplies scenes of great power. Since I’ve already mentioned the beginning and end, let’s review some of the inbetween: the child run over by the carriage (Part II, Ch VII); Monsieur the Marquis saying “You are fatigued” (Ch IX); Stryver’s courtship, and conversation with Lorry (Ch XII); Barsad’s visit to the wineshop (Ch XVI); Lorry’s conversation with Dr Manette about the latter’s collapse (Ch XIX); the death of Foulon (Ch XXII); Stryver’s remarks on Evrémonde (Ch XXIV).  

Still, these scenes are primarily dramatic scenes. It’s in the construction and the dialogue that the book is strong. (The construction, as we all know now, is based on an elaborate allegory of which the motif is “Recalled to Life”.) Another Dickens, the vigorous, comic, fanciful imaginer, is kept out of the book. The decriptive prose is thin, and the reason, oddly, is anger.  In the description of the grindstone (Part III, Ch 2) an account of hideous preparations for murder ends like this:

And as the frantic wielders of these weapons snatched them from the stream of sparks and tore away into the streets, the same red hue was red in their frenzied eyes; - eyes which any unbrutalised beholder would have given twenty years of life, to petrify with a well-directed gun.

The decription of the Carmagnole (Part III, Ch 5) is another example - the author hates it, and his fancy fails him. So, in the next chapter, Darnay’s acquittal - how unlike Pickwick’s trial, and even the English trial of Darnay himself. Nothing here like the Attorney-General who “turned the whole suit of clothes Mr Stryver had fitted on the jury, inside out; showing how Barsad and Cly were even a hundred times better than he had thought them, and the prisoner a hundred times worse”.

A Tale of Two Cities lends itself to dramatization, and to changes of title, because its own is an unhelpful one. The Only Way, by Freeman Wills. Let me make my own old-fashioned suggestion: The Death Penalty. This is a feature of the punitive apparatus that plays no part in Little Dorrit, but here it is made present. Culture, and history, and fantasy, all retire. But this anger, like the “well-directed gun”, claims to be tit for tat. When the wood-sawyer says, “But it’s not my business”, we expect a twinkle in his eye. It turns out that his “jocose” gestures do not mean sympathy. His little fancy (“Tickle, tickle; Pickle, pickle”) is a joke that denies human engagement. Jacques Three and Madame Defarge underline the point - they don’t soften. And so Dickens won’t soften either. His art becomes stalled and reactionary.

Yet in the moment of execution this doesn’t matter.

And now, while he was composed, and hoped to meet the end with quiet heroism, a new action began in his waking thoughts, which was very difficult to master. He had never seen the instrument that was to terminate his life. How high it was from the ground, how many steps it had, where he would be stood, how he would be touched, whether the touching hands would be dyed red, which way his face would be turned, whether he would be the first, or might be the last... (Pt III, Ch 13).

Dickens’s anger is displaced, I think; but his guillotine is very sharp.


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At 7:59 pm, Blogger Vincent said...

A Tale of Two Cities was the only Dickens book I studied at school. I could answer any context question on it before the exam, when I placed it in my great-uncle's hands and asked him to test me.

"there's at any rate no dispute about it being his shortest [novel]".

I like to dispute, especially in circumstances like this. If you are right, then either A Christmas Carol was written by someone else, perhaps of the same name; or A Christmas Carol belongs to another genre (a short story? a memoir? a screenplay?)

I don't want to spoil the suspense by looking it up in some equally unreliable Wikipedia article.

At 10:55 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

Ah yes, fair point. I was relegating the five Christmas books to some sort of sub-novel genre (tales, maybe) and was only thinking of the 14 "full-length" novels, which begs the question I suppose. Come to think of it, Edwin Drood is shorter too, but that's because Dickens died when it was less than half written.


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