Classics Challenge 2012 – July Prompt

This year I am taking part in A Classics Challenge hosted by Katherine of November’s Autumn. The goal is to read at least seven classics in 2012 and every month Katherine is posting a prompt to help us discuss the books we are reading. July’s prompt is about

Lasting Impressions

Choose one of the Classics you’ve read this year or are currently reading.

What is a moment, quote, or character that you feel will stay with you? Years from now, when some of the details have faded, that lasting impression the book has left you with? What is it? –or why did it fail to leave an impression?

I wondered which classic to choose for this post, but I knew the answer as soon as I read the the words ‘lasting impressions’ had to be either Pride and Prejudice or A Tale of Two Cities. Both of these are books I first read when I was a teenager, so I know the lasting impressions they have made on me, both the characters and lots of quotations. How could I ever forget Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, or Charles Darnay and the wonderful Sydney Carton? And the opening sentences of both are so memorable.

From Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

and from A Tale of Two Cities:

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.

Whereas I’ve read  Pride and Prejudice several times I’d only ever read A Tale of Two Cities once before and my memory of it was that it was about the French Revolution and the sacrifice that Sydney Carton made to save Charles Darnay from the Guillotine, with these words, which close the book:

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.

Reading the book this time round the character of Sydney Carton is much clearer in my mind, with several vivid images of his slovenly appearance and drunken behaviour. He is in fact a brilliant barrister, but also an alcoholic, lacking self confidence. He is called a ‘jackal‘, who worked for his fellow barrister, Stryver, who then got the credit.

Sydney Carton, idlest and most unpromising of men, was Stryver’s great ally. What the two drank together, between Hilary Term and Michaelmas, might have floated a king’s ship. Stryver never had a case in hand, anywhere, but Carton was there, with his hands in his pockets, staring at the ceiling of the court; they went to the same Circuit, and even there they prolonged their usual orgies late into the night, and Carton was rumoured to be seen at broad day, going home stealthily and unsteadily to his lodgings, like a dissipated cat. At last, it began to get about, among such as were interested in the matter, that although Sydney Carton would never be a lion, he was an amazingly good jackal, and that he rendered suit and service to Stryver in that humble capacity.

To help him overcome his drunkenness he soaked towels in a bowl of cold water and after wringing them out folded them on his head, and whilst working continued drinking wine, brandy and rum with sugar and lemons.

Two or three times, the matter in hand became so knotty, that the jackal found it imperative on him to get up, and steep his towels anew. From these pilgrimages to the jug and basin he returned with such eccentricities of damp headgear as no words can describe; which were made the more ludicrous by his anxious gravity.

He is moody and morose, and when he falls in love with Lucie Manette, he realises he is a wastrel, a ‘drunken, poor creature‘, that she can never return his love and that he can only ever bring her to misery, sorrow and repentance, blight and disgrace her, pulling him down with himself. 

It is Carton’s resemblance to Charles Darnay that enables him to martyr himself in Darnay’s place because of his love for Lucie. It is these two images that will remain with me – that of the dissolute man, who despite his drunkenness, worked though the night with his head wrapped in damp towels, and the man as he approached his death on the Guillotine with:

… the peacefullest man’s face ever beheld there. Many added that he looked sublime and prophetic.