Today, we are really thrilled to bring a guest post from author Cassandra Clare! We know she’s super-busy, so we really appreciate the extra time she took putting today’s post together to talk about the connection between her upcoming book, Clockwork Angel and Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Thanks, Cassie!
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …”
– A Tale of Two Cities, opening line
I remember having to read through almost the complete works of Dickens for a Victorian literature year-long seminar I had in college. Pretty much everyone else had no time for A Tale of Two Cities, beyond remembering the famous opening sentence — “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” — but it was my favorite of the books. I did recognize it had perhaps less social merit than, say, Little Dorrit, but it had war and heroics and rebellion and unrequited love. And I like all that stuff. Apparently I’m not the only one, because according to Wikipedia, ATOTC is “With well over 200 million copies sold, it is the most printed original English book, and among the most famous works of fiction.”
Also according to Wiki, “The novel depicts the plight of the French peasantry demoralized by the French aristocracy in the years leading up to the revolution, the corresponding brutality demonstrated by the revolutionaries toward the former aristocrats in the early years of the revolution, and many unflattering social parallels with life in London during the same time period. It follows the lives of several protagonists through these events, most notably Charles Darnay, a French once-aristocrat who falls victim to the indiscriminate wrath of the revolution despite his virtuous nature, and Sydney Carton, a dissipated British barrister who endeavours to redeem his ill-spent life out of his unrequited love for Darnay’s wife, Lucie Manette.”
Now, when I say I very loosely based the structure of Clockwork Angel on ATOTC, I mean very loosely. You are not going to be able to figure out what happens in the Clockwork trilogy by reading ATOTC (although you should read it anyway, for kicks.) What I wanted to keep were certain themes: the theme of war, the theme of unrequited love, the idea that love (ideally) should raise us up to be our better selves, and the idea of twinned characters. For instance, in ATOTC, Sydney Carton — corrupt, drunken layabout — and Charles Darnay — virtuous to the point of being boring — are fictional ‘twins’ — they look so much alike that they are able to fool people into thinking one man is the other; they represent opposites poles on the Victorian scale of virtuousness.
Will and Jem in Clockwork Angel are fictionally twinned in a similar manner. They are opposite in looks — Jem is pale and silvery-blond, Will dark-haired; Will is passionate and sulky, Jem is measured and even-tempered, Will is cruel and Jem is always kind — but they’re also parabatai, warriors who have sworn to be bonded to each other and watch over each other. (This is quite the opposite of Carton and Darnay; Carton finds himself saving Darnay pretty much by accident over and over, even though he’s too jealous to actually like him.) What binds each of them to the other is part of the story. They need each other, but when Tessa comes on the scene she threatens to disrupt their friendship — because they are fictionally twinned, the light and dark side of the same person, they can’t help but both have the same feelings for her.
How this plays out in ATOTC is very different from how it plays out in Clockwork: I was drawn to the idea of the love triangle between the girl and the two men who are really the light and dark sides of the same figure (Tessa calls them White Knight and Black Knight); one corrupt and profligate and one saintly and good. Except that the Victorians were very fond of characters who were only one thing — Sydney Carton is his drunken badness, and as he says himself, he will never be any better:
“I fear you are not well, Mr. Carton!”
“No. But the life I lead, Miss Manette, is not conducive to health. What is to be expected of, or by, such profligates?”
“Is it not- forgive me; I have begun the question on my lips- a pity to live no better life?”
“God knows it is a shame!”
“Then why not change it?”
Looking gently at him again, she was surprised and saddened to see that there were tears in his eyes. There were tears in his voice too, as he answered:
“It is too late for that. I shall never be better than I am. I shall sink lower, and be worse.”
And Darnay is simply good all the time; so good that he’s rather boring for a modern reader. So while the idea of that triangle is what keeps me coming back to ATOTC, I wanted to tweak it a little — what if Sydney Carton had reasons for the things he did? What if he was hiding a secret that explained his conduct? What if Darnay was more than just good; what if he had a weakness, one that could be exploited? I’d like to think that Clockwork Angel shares thematically with TMI the idea that love makes you stronger (as Will quotes to Tessa from ATOTC: “I wish you to know with what a sudden mastery you kindled me, heap of ashes that I am, into fire”) while also making clear that I’ve no fondness for the trope of bad-boy-redeemed-by-love-of-a-good-woman — love can help you along the way, but you have to do the work of redeeming yourself.
I will also say, lastly, that in ATOTC the two cities are, of course, London and Paris: in Clockwork, the two cities are London, and the secret, shadow side of Downworld London. There’s an afterword in the book in which I talk about how all cities have a shadow self. London, being so very ancient a place, has a long history, and many famous places and buildings which have now long since vanished. Creating Downworld London was a chance to bring back some of them — Traitor’s Gate, the Devil Tavern, the Cross Bones Graveyard — and play around with them. I suppose one could say that the theme in the books that we all have a shadow self extends even to the city itself.
*(And now here’s hoping Will finds a better fate than Sydney Carton’s “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.”)