Fergus Finlay: It may feel like the worst of times but we've much to be thankful for

Fergus Finlay: It may feel like the worst of times but we've much to be thankful for

Throughout Dickens' life and his writing, Dickens’ central theme was the conditions in which people lived then. You can’t read about Tiny Tim or Smike in Nicholas Nickleby, or the workhouse experiences of Oliver Twist, without realising that the phrase “the worst of times” was never far from Dickens’ mind. Picture: PA Wire

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 spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us … I’m not talking about Covid-19, although maybe I could be. That’s part of the opening sentence of one of the greatest historical novels ever written, A Tale of Two Cities. It was written, of course, by Charles Dickens, who probably deserves a new place in history as the father and the founder of bingeing.

Are we all bingeing? I know we are in my house. There is no greater pleasure than finding a new series on one of the streaming channels, or on the RTÉ Player, that we can lock on to. You watch the first episode, and if you don’t abandon it there and then, you’re hooked. You just can’t wait for the next one.

I guess it was Netflix that invented that kind of binge-watching on the telly, and now there are others. In our house we have the Player, Netflix, and All4. There are others, I know, but I’m not yet what you might call a binger of bingeing.

It’s a Covid-19 thing, of course. If it wasn’t for Covid-19 we’d all have to get up earlier in the morning, and we’d all be going out a lot more at night.

Unforgettable characters

But there was a time, a darker time than this, when people used to get up early in the morning and queue for the next chapter of one of Dickens’ novels. Like many of his books , A Tale of Two Cities was published in weekly installments  — about thirty of them altogether — and wasn’t published as a complete work until the installments ran out.

He introduced cliff-hangers at the end of episodes, to keep his audience hooked till the next one, and he introduced characters little by little as the story unfolded. And what characters — A Tale of Two Cities features some of the most unforgettable people in literary history.

There is Charles Darnay, a young man who rejects the cruelty and injustice of his aristocratic French family. Lucy Manette, the woman he loves, and her father, driven mad by years of incarceration in the Bastille. Sidney Carton, a talented but good for nothing lawyer who finds redemption in a noble and courageous death. And there is Madame Defarge.

Madame Defarge hates — and with good reason, as we discover. She will do anything to revel in the massacre of aristocrats and is part of a group of women called the tricoteuses. They sit at the foot of the guillotine, knitting the names of aristocrats into hats and socks as the noble heads are severed by the blade.

It’s a book I love, with its darkness and colour, its themes of redemption, despair and hope

 I’d recommend it to anyone — with the slight suggestion that you take it slow. Until you’re hooked, read it in the episodes in which it was written.

But, of course, it’s that opening sentence, one of the best-known ever written, that sort of affects me. Are we, in our time, living in the worst of times?

There are days I think so. I know people who are mourning the loss of a loved one due to Covid-19  — and mourning on the double, if you know what I mean, because they weren’t able to mourn properly. I know people who live in terror of the virus because of their underlying health, and have had to live in virtual isolation. I know kids and young people who are desperately lonely for their friends, and are clinging to relationships that matter to them by a thread.

And, of course, we have a lot of tricoteuses these days too. Not the bloodthirsty kind, of course, but massed ranks of keyboard warriors in all sorts of places who revel in failure, who seem to want nothing more than to blame everyone else for a pandemic that nobody did anything to bring about.

But we’re also surrounded by some of the best people we’ve ever seen. There are thousands of health care workers, who never wanted to be involved in this, but who still go to work every day to protect the rest of us

They routinely save lives, while all the time in the back of their minds is the fear that they will bring the disease home to their own families.

There’s medicine now, and equipment and technologies. In the times when Dickens was writing, words like rickets and scurvy struck terror into the hearts of families. Diphtheria, smallpox, cholera and consumption were sentences of death — often a slow lingering death. There were few treatments and fewer cures.

We don’t know yet how many families have been affected by the economic consequences of today’s pandemic, but I’d be willing to bet that in the fullness of time we will come to know that some children at least have gone to bed hungry as a consequence. We will find out how many have been hurt or threatened by mental health stresses, sometimes with terrible consequences. They are among the so far largely hidden costs of the pandemic.

But tens of thousands of children died in Victorian Britain —  and many thousands more in Ireland when you include the Famine — from malnutrition, from bitter cold in the winter and from diseases we have largely eradicated now. In those days, adults were better protected than children were.

Throughout Dickens' life and his writing, Dickens’ central theme was the conditions in which people lived then. You can’t read about Tiny Tim or Smike in Nicholas Nickleby, or the workhouse experiences of Oliver Twist, without realising that the phrase “the worst of times” was never far from Dickens’ mind.

Where are we now?

So, are we in the worst of times? It’s grim, that’s for sure. But there are things that work. We’re lucky so many brave people go to work to keep shops open. We’re lucky (although it may not feel like it) that the new variants didn’t arrive until we knew about masks and self-protection.

We’re lucky that new forms of communication — especially the internet — have helped us all to stay in touch. We’re lucky to be part of a community where neighbours look out for each other.

We’re lucky to have a health system that has risen to the challenge of the pandemic

And we’re lucky to live in an age where an effective vaccine can be developed and delivered far more quickly than would ever have happened in the past. The wait we have to endure now will feel like a blip for most of us before too long

One of the more minor characters in A Tale of Two Cities is Mr Lorry, a bank manager. He is a good looking man, despite apparently carrying many concerns on behalf of his clients. Dickens says of him “perhaps second-hand cares, like second-hand clothes, come easily off and on”.

If we’re lucky, and if these really aren’t the worst of times, our second-hand cares will pass soon enough. With patience maybe, and a bit of luck!

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