Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix
“It was the worst of time. It was the best of times.”
Spectacular is one word that comes to mind when thinking about Charles Dickens’ revered historical novel. Heartbreaking is another.
The French Revolution has been called the most important event in history. Like all history students, I learnt from textbooks. I committed to memory horrifying events yet still struggled to grasp the raw reality of the horror and the terror of the Revolution.
As an aspiring historian, I can tell you: It is one thing to memorize dates. Its is another altogether to have the fury of the French Revolution brought to life through Dickens’ pen. Whatever you will say about the ideals and intentions of the revolutionists, there is one thing that simply cannot be denied: the rage, the blood and the madness was inexplicably gruesome. Behind each death and behind each number is a story, a person and a face.
It is easy to forget how dreadful and dire history truly is. Just as our descendants will be horrified with the wars and genocides our century bore, so Dickens was horrified by the French Revolution* . His novel is a warning, a severe warning to Aristocratic Britain. I like to think that his warning trancedes time and applies to our century as well.
To learn history is not to justify or make excuses for the horrors that our ancestors have perpetuated. To learn history is to take the first of many steps in understanding our present and applying lessons history yearns to teach us. Greater men and women have failed abundantly and left records of these errors so that we do not have to repeat them. The torch has been passed on, it is our task now to learn from it and bequeath it to what is hopefully a more deserving generation.
In spite of all this, there are things you simply cannot learn in school. When learning about the Revolution, there are sentiments that one simply cannot express in textbooks. That is when I turn to classics. More often than not, its authors express more about human triumph and human agony than a scheduled hour of class time ever will… When it comes to teaching about the human heart, one often learns best from one’s own readings and sentiments.
For these reasons (and many more I cannot reveal without stealing from the plot), I wholeheartedly recommend A Tale Of Two Cities to all. It is a chilling admonition… Lest we forget…
“Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious licence and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind”.
*even though he sympathized with the persecuted poor, having been “forced to work in a factory as a child” (wiki).
If you are interested in learning more about the Revolution, I suggest the History Channel’s documentary, available on YouTube.