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The Annotated A Tale of Two Cities

First Chapter

Notes embedded within the text in boldface for online and Kindle versions; hyperlinked for other

eBook versions; the paperback edition has standard endnotes following each chapter.

A Tale of Two Cities

Author’s Preface

When I was acting, with my children and friends, in Mr. Wilkie Collins’s drama of The Frozen Deep, [1] I first conceived the main idea for this story. A strong desire was upon me then, to embody it in my own person; and I traced out in my fancy, the state of mind of which it would necessitate the presentation to an observant spectator, with particular care and interest.

[1] The Frozen Deep, a play by Dickens’s friend Wilkie Collins (better known today as a novelist, author of The Woman in White and The Moonstone), provided Dickens with the basic plot of A Tale of Two Cities—that of two men, one respectable and one a wastrel, in love with the same woman. The title, though, refers to Arctic exploration and the play has nothing to do with the French Revolution. Dickens apparently drew his setting (and a few aspects of the plot, including the Bastille prisoner of 18 years, substitution, and even references to a “lion,” “jackal,” and “the third tumbril”) from The Dead Heart, a historical melodrama by playwright Watts Phillips, which opened in London in 1859, soon after the first chapters of A Tale of Two Cities appeared in serial form. Phillips (whose inspiration was probably The Count of Monte Cristo, published in 1844) was first accused of plagiarizing from Dickens, but it was eventually revealed that Dickens had become aware of Phillips’s as-yet-unproduced play two years before, thanks to a mutual friend, and the two finally resolved any ill feeling between them.

The complete script of The Dead Heart is included at the end of the eBook edition, for those interested in comparing the two works.

As the idea became familiar to me, it gradually shaped itself into its present form. Throughout its execution, it has had complete possession of me; I have so far verified what is done and suffered in these pages, as that I have certainly done and suffered it all myself.

Whenever any reference (however slight) is made here to the condition of the French people before or during the Revolution, it is truly made, on the faith of the most trustworthy witnesses. It has been one of my hopes to add something to the popular and picturesque means of understanding that terrible time, though no one can hope to add anything to the philosophy of Mr. Carlyle's wonderful book. [2]

Tavistock House

November, 1859

[2] Mr Carlyle’s wonderful book: Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution, published in 1837. Dickens and Carlyle were friends and Carlyle gave Dickens many suggestions for period source material, most of which he had used for his own nonfiction history; the “trustworthy witnesses” Dickens mentions included accounts of the ancien régime and the Revolution by Arthur Young, John Moore, Louis-Sébastien Mercier, and Honoré Riouffe (see the bibliography).

Book the First

Recalled to Life

Chapter 1. The Period

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, [3] 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—in short, the period was so far like the present period,[4] that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

[3] it was the age of wisdom . . . it was the epoch of incredulity: The 18th century in Europe was the height of the Age of Enlightenment, when science and reason began to take over from unquestioning religious faith as the basis for understanding the world and the universe. It was also, however, an age of great hoaxes, great charlatans, and semi-scientific or occult fads and superstitions. While the basics of modern chemistry and physics were being established by scientists of the period, famous frauds, quacks, and con artists took advantage of a gullible public by claiming to be thousand-year-old mystics and spouting pseudo-scientific jargon. By the late 18th century, Freemasonry had become enormously popular in England and also France, but the Freemasons, who believed in both rationality and the existence of God, often were succeeded by cranks or con men who took the mysteries of Freemasonry and added occult mumbo-jumbo to the mix to produce all sorts of bizarre cults. Some of the odd cults popular in France in the 1770s are described in 2–7.

[4] the present period: 1859, the year A Tale of Two Cities was first published.

There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England;[5] there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France.[6] In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes,[7] that things in general were settled for ever.

[5] George III (reigned 1760–1820) and Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg. Queen Charlotte was 31 in 1775 and, among princesses of the day, was not considered a great beauty.

[6] Louis XVI (reigned 1774–1792) and Marie-Antoinette, who had come to the French throne the previous year. Marie-Antoinette turned 20 in November 1775 and was described by all witnesses as both charming and very pretty.

[7] the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes: “Preserve” usually meant a game preserve, in which hunting was restricted to the owner of the land; “loaves and fishes” refers to Jesus’ multiplying of five small loaves of bread and two fish to feed an enormous crowd. Dickens is speaking satirically of those in control of supplies and prosperity in general; in other words, the established ruling classes of Great Britain and of France.

It was the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five. Spiritual revelations were conceded to England at that favoured period, as at this. Mrs. Southcott[8] had recently attained her five-and-twentieth blessed birthday, of whom a prophetic private in the Life Guards had heralded the sublime appearance[9] by announcing that arrangements were made for the swallowing up of London and Westminster.[10] Even the Cock-lane ghost[11] had been laid only a round dozen of years, after rapping out its messages, as the spirits of this very year last past[12] (supernaturally deficient in originality) rapped out theirs. Mere messages in the earthly order of events had lately come to the English Crown and People, from a congress of British subjects in America: [13] which, strange to relate, have proved more important to the human race than any communications yet received through any of the chickens of the Cock-lane brood.

[8] Joanna Southcott (1750–1814), English mystic and religious fanatic; a modern doctor would probably diagnose her with some sort of mental illness, but many people in the late 18th century believed in her eccentric prophecies. (One claimed that the world would end in 2004.) She was unknown in 1775, though, and began to write her prophecies down only in 1792. Believers in Southcott persisted throughout the 1800s and into the 20th century.

[9] Meaning, the private in the Life Guards had prophesied in 1750—the year of Joanna Southcott’s birth—that London would be destroyed. The man was quickly confined to Bedlam, the London insane asylum, but his ravings still instigated some panic.

[10] London and Westminster, though they are now both boroughs of modern Greater London, began as two medieval towns some miles apart and did not spread out and merge, swallowing up nearby villages in the process of making one large city, until the 1600s. The West End, the central part of the city best known to tourists, is actually in the “City of Westminster,” the governmental center, not the “City of London,” the financial center, which is well to the east and whose main tourist attractions are the Tower, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Bank of England. Westminster officially became part of Greater London in 1965.

[11] The Cock-lane ghost: A famous alleged haunting that took place in London in 1762. The “ghost” and its scratchings and rappings were eventually exposed as a fraud a year later, hence it was “laid” to rest a dozen years before A Tale of Two Cities begins in 1775.

[12] as the spirits of this very year last past . . . rapped out theirs: The “year last past” would be 1858. The 1850s saw a fad of “spiritualism” in both England and the United States which lasted into the 1920s, as believers tried to communicate with the spirits of the dead through mediums, most of them frauds. The “spirits” usually rocked tables at séances and rapped out messages as the Cock Lane ghost had done.

[13] a congress of British subjects in America: The convening of the Second Continental Congress, which would eventually draw up the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

France, less favoured on the whole as to matters spiritual than her sister of the shield and trident,[14] rolled with exceeding smoothness down hill, making paper money[15] and spending it. Under the guidance of her Christian pastors, she entertained herself, besides, with such humane achievements as sentencing a youth to have his hands cut off, his tongue torn out with pincers, and his body burned alive, because he had not kneeled down in the rain to do honour to a dirty procession of monks which passed within his view, at a distance of some fifty or sixty yards.[16] It is likely enough that, rooted in the woods of France and Norway,[17] there were growing trees, when that sufferer was put to death, already marked by the Woodman, Fate, to come down and be sawn into boards, to make a certain movable framework with a sack and a knife in it,[18] terrible in history. It is likely enough that in the rough outhouses[19] of some tillers of the heavy lands adjacent to Paris, there were sheltered from the weather that very day, rude carts, bespattered with rustic mire, snuffed about by pigs, and roosted in by poultry, which the Farmer, Death, had already set apart to be his tumbrils[20] of the Revolution. But that Woodman and that Farmer, though they work unceasingly, work silently, and no one heard them as they went about with muffled tread: the rather, forasmuch as to entertain any suspicion that they were awake, was to be atheistical and traitorous.

[14] her sister of the shield and trident: Great Britain, represented by “Britannia,” a female figure who bears a shield and a trident, the three-pointed spear that was the weapon of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. Britannia’s trident indicates Great Britain’s mastery of the oceans.

[15] By “paper money” Dickens does not mean actual legal tender—paper currency was unknown in France until the Revolution—but a sort of “imaginary money” that came into being as the national treasury slipped into bankruptcy and the French government began to rely entirely on credit to pay its bills, essentially borrowing from one creditor in order to pay off another.

[16] sentencing a youth . . . : François Jean Lefebvre de La Barre (1745–66) was the last person to be sentenced to death in France for blasphemy. Though a penniless orphan, he was a member of the minor nobility, and held the title of Chevalier. Such extreme sentences for blasphemy were not typical of mid-18th-century France; La Barre’s was the result of a local feud that had spiraled out of control among the gentry of the town of Abbeville, made worse by a political situation in which the king wished to appease the Church. Dickens probably found this account of La Barre’s execution in the Annual Register (see Note 21 below) for 1766:

"A young man [La Barre], who with several others were committed for blasphemy, was lately executed at Abbeville in France, pursuant to his sentence. The crimes alledged against him were, that he had wickedly and impiously pas[sed] before the holy sacrament, without taking off his hat, and kneeling; that he had sung two songs full of blasphemy against the holy virgin, the saints, and the sacraments; that he had profaned the sign of the cross, the mystery of the consecration of the wine, the benedictions of the church, &c. [F]or these crimes he had his tongue cut out, his hands and his head cut off, and the whole consumed in a burning pile of wood, with his body, and his ashes scattered in the air."

Dickens, incorrectly claiming that La Barre was burned alive, seems to have combined the elements of La Barre’s sentence with that of one of his friends, Étallonde, who had been condemned by the same tribunal, but who had fled France before he could be arrested. Though Étallonde had been sentenced in absentia to burning, La Barre’s actual sentence, as it was carried out on July 1, 1766, was to have his tongue torn out (which the executioners, out of compassion, may have faked) and then to be beheaded by sword—the “honorable” form of execution for members of the nobility—after which his dead body was burned to ashes on a bonfire. Cutting off the hands, however, had never been a part of La Barre’s sentence.

La Barre’s failure to kneel to the procession on the Feast of the Holy Sacrament was one of several trivial offenses, including making crude jokes about religion and owning banned books that criticized the absolute monarchy and the Catholic Church, for which he was condemned to death by a local court that was controlled by a prosecutor who bore a grudge against his family. His sentence was officially overturned on November 16, 1793.

[17] The best timber was said to come from Norway.

[18] a certain movable framework . . . : The guillotine.

[19] Outside North America, an “outhouse” is any outbuilding or shed, not an “outdoor earth toilet” as in American slang.

[20] The word “tumbril” has been given a sinister sound and has become inextricably linked to execution processions of the French Revolution in the 150 years since A Tale of Two Cities was published. A tumbril (French tombereau) is, however, merely a small farm cart, specifically a two-wheeled, open-backed cart that could be tipped backward when unhitched from the horse drawing it, in order to empty out its cargo.

In England, there was scarcely an amount of order and protection to justify much national boasting. Daring burglaries by armed men, and highway robberies, took place in the capital itself every night;[21] families were publicly cautioned not to go out of town without removing their furniture to upholsterers’[22] warehouses for security; the highwayman in the dark was a City[23] tradesman in the light, and, being recognised and challenged by his fellow-tradesman whom he stopped in his character of “the Captain,”[24] gallantly shot him through the head and rode away; the mail[25] was waylaid by seven robbers, and the guard shot three dead, and then got shot dead himself by the other four, “in consequence of the failure of his ammunition:” after which the mail was robbed in peace; that magnificent potentate, the Lord Mayor of London, was made to stand and deliver on Turnham Green, by one highwayman, who despoiled the illustrious creature in sight of all his retinue; prisoners in London gaols[26] fought battles with their turnkeys, and the majesty of the law fired blunderbusses[27] in among them, loaded with rounds of shot and ball; thieves snipped off diamond crosses from the necks of noble lords at Court drawing-rooms; musketeers went into St. Giles’s, to search for contraband goods, and the mob fired on the musketeers, and the musketeers fired on the mob, and nobody thought any of these occurrences much out of the common way. In the midst of them, the hangman, ever busy and ever worse than useless, was in constant requisition;[28] now, stringing up long rows of miscellaneous criminals; now, hanging a housebreaker on Saturday who had been taken on Tuesday; now, burning people in the hand at Newgate by the dozen, and now burning pamphlets at the door of Westminster Hall; to-day, taking the life of an atrocious murderer, and to-morrow of a wretched pilferer who had robbed a farmer’s boy of sixpence.

[21] Dickens’s source for the crime and disorder in the ill-policed London of 1775 was the Annual Register, or a View of the History, Politics and Literature for the Year ——, a yearly account of momentous and interesting current events, including notorious crimes and punishments. It has been produced continually since it was first published in 1758, under the editorship of author and future politician Edmund Burke (its entire 250-year archive is now available online to subscribers). Dickens possessed a century’s worth of issues of the publication, to 1860 (Andrew Sanders, The Companion to A Tale of Two Cities, p. 24). The specific incidents that he mentions did take place and are described in various issues of the Annual Register, although some are related inaccurately and some took place slightly before or after 1775. Dickens ignores, or was not aware of, the fact, but late-18th-century Paris, with its large, wide-ranging police force that had already been established for a century, was far safer than London was at the same period.

[22] upholsterer: A furniture maker.

[23] “The City” invariably means the City of London, originally a separate town (see Note 10) and now the eastern half of modern central London, which begins at Fleet Street where it meets the Strand. As the City is the financial center of Britain, and the Bank of England is located there, the phrase “the City” has become the British equivalent of “Wall Street,” an expression for the financial district and for high finance in general. A “City gent” is a stockbroker or other investment or banking professional. The “City tradesman” of 1775 whom Dickens mentions may not have been a financier, but his shop or warehouse was located within the boundaries of the City of London.

[24] “The Captain” was a frequent nickname, often self-bestowed, for a local highwayman in the 18th century.

[25] the mail: The mail coach, a state-run, regularly scheduled service that transported mailbags and passengers to fixed destinations.

[26] gaol: Traditional British spelling of the word that Americans spell “jail,” and pronounced exactly the same way. The American spelling first appeared in Britain in the 1850s. Both spellings are now used in Britain, though the more phonetic “jail” seems to be taking over.

[27] blunderbuss: A muzzle-loading firearm with a short, large-caliber barrel, which is flared at the muzzle and used with shot or other small projectiles rather than with musket balls. They were used as military weapons throughout the 18th century.

[28] the hangman, ever busy . . . was in constant requisition: Interestingly, although Dickens remarks here on the horrifying frequency of capital punishment in 1770s England (compared to that of his own time), he never compares the very large number of petty criminals condemned to death by British courts in the 1770s–80s with the actual number of executions in Paris at the same period: Only 32 people were executed in Paris in 1774–77, against 139 in London for the same four-year period, and the London numbers grew rather than diminished throughout the 1780s, while French statistics remained constant. “Towards 1770 about 300 people a year were condemned [to death] in the whole of France; over twice that number were condemned annually between 1781 and 1785 in London alone.” (V.A.C. Gatrell, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770–1868) To put matters into proportion, that over-600 figure per year outstrips by 100 the total number of political executions in Paris during the first 12 months of the 16-month Terror (see table of statistics in Note 631, 3–6).

All these things, and a thousand like them, came to pass in and close upon the dear old year one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five. Environed by them, while the Woodman and the Farmer worked unheeded, those two of the large jaws, and those other two of the plain and the fair faces, trod with stir enough, and carried their divine rights[29] with a high hand. Thus did the year one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five conduct their Greatnesses, and myriads of small creatures—the creatures of this chronicle among the rest—along the roads that lay before them.

[29] The “divine right of kings” is the doctrine of absolute monarchy—which was beginning to be widely questioned during the Enlightenment—that “kings derive their power from God alone, unlimited by any rights on the part of their subjects.” (Oxford English Dictionary)

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