Discovering Dickens - A Community Reading Project

 Discovering Dickens

 A Tale of Two Cities

 Biographical Context

 Historical Context

 Archived Novels




Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1812, and spent his early years at Chatham, in Kent. In 1823, the family moved to London, where his father, in straightened circumstances, was eventually committed to Marshalsea Prison for debt. While his parents and siblings lived in the debtor’s prison, Charles was sent to work at Warren’s Blacking (a manufacturer of shoe-polish). He managed to support himself, alone, on the meager wages of a child laborer, but was plunged into a period of misery that threatened to destroy his hopes of growing up to be a man of merit and distinction. Though the latter catastrophe was averted, his youthful experiences haunted him for the rest of his life.

After leaving school at fifteen, Dickens started work as an office boy, but soon taught himself shorthand and entered journalism as a parliamentary reporter. In addition to his reports on the House of Commons, he began to contribute articles and sketches, and quickly gained a reputation as the popular journalist “Boz.” Boz’ first long work of fiction – The Pickwick Papers – was serialized in 1836-7.

After the success of Pickwick, Dickens continued to produce serialized novels, and advanced to the editorship of various periodicals. A Tale of Two Cities was first serialized in All the Year Round – a journal conducted by Dickens himself – in 31 weekly installments from April 30 to November 26, 1859. It appeared simultaneously in eight monthly issues, as monthly publication was Dickens’ accustomed format (he reasoned that it would “give [him his] old standing with [his] old public” to publish in monthly as well as weekly numbers). A Tale of Two Cities opened the very first issue of All of the Year Round, and the immediate success of the periodical was probably in large part due to the success of the novel. During the run of A Tale of Two Cities, All the Year Round sold in excess of 100,000 copies per issue.

A Tale of Two Cities is one of Dickens’ later works, and is sometimes perceived as one of the least “Dickensian.” It is, along with Barnaby Rudge, one of his few historical novels, and is set, not in the Victorian England of his own day, but in 18th century London and Paris. Despite its historical setting, however, it had considerable personal significance for Dickens at the time of its composition. In the “Dedication and Preface to the First Volume Edition” of A Tale of Two Cities (which was issued after the serial run concluded), Dickens described how a personal experience – that of performing in an amateur production of Wilkie Collins’ play The Frozen Deep – contributed to the genesis of the novel:

When I was acting, with my children and friends, in MR. WILKIE COLLINS’S drama of The Frozen Deep, I first conceived the main idea for this story [A Tale of Two Cities]. 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.

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.

It has frequently been noted that elements of The Frozen Deep – in which Dickens played the lead role in 1857 – informed the composition of A Tale of Two Cities. Carton, in A Tale, generally resembles the character of Richard Wardour in The Frozen Deep (whom Dickens played), and critics like to speculate that Dickens’ draft name for Carton – originally “Dick” instead of “Sydney” – suggests that Dickens not only identified Carton with Wardour, but identified both with himself. Perhaps more significant, however, is the relationship between Lucie Manette’s character and a figure in The Frozen Deep. Dickens’ family filled several parts in the play when it was originally performed, in January, 1857, in Dickens’ London home; however, when Dickens revived the play for two charity performances in Manchester, members of the Ternan family – Mrs. Ternan and her two daughters, Maria and Ellen – filled in gaps in the cast. Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities is thought to have been drawn after Ellen Ternan – Lucie takes her first name from Ellen Ternan’s character (Lucy Crayford) in The Frozen Deep, and her physical characteristics are taken from Ellen Ternan herself. In 1858 – the year before A Tale of Two Cities appeared, and the year after the performances of The Frozen Deep – Dickens separated from his wife, with whom his relations had long been strained. His relationship with Ellen Ternan, however – initiated after their joint participation in the play – lasted for the rest of his life.

After A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens published Great Expectations (re-serialized by Discovering Dickens last year) and Our Mutual Friend. The Mystery of Edwin Drood, his final novel, was left uncompleted at his death in 1870.

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