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The short, rather plump wife of a starved grocer, and the mother of two children withal, this lieutenant had already earned the complimentary name of The Vengeance.

During the French Revolution, patriotic abstractions such as “The Vengeance” did indeed replace personal names. This renaming, demonstrating support for the revolutionary cause and affirming the end of traditions associated with the ancien régime, extended to public buildings, streets, plazas, etc. For example, the Place de Louis XV in Paris became the Place de la Révolution; the Jardin des Tuileries became the Jardin National; the Palais des Tuileries became the Palais National; and so forth. We can compare the pre-revolutionary names visible on the Plan de la Ville de Paris en 1789 with the succeeding names of the revolutionary period on the Plan de la Ville de Paris, Période Révolutionnaire, 1790-1794.

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Defarge came in breathless, pulled off the red cap he wore, and looked around him.

The red cap worn by Defarge is the so-called “Phrygian cap” worn by French patriots during the Revolution. The Phrygians were an ancient Asian people, living in what is now Turkey; their conical caps became “caps of liberty” when the style was adopted by freed Roman slaves (as headgear symbolic of their liberation) (Tricolor and Phrygian Cap). In Carlyle’s French Revolution (Dickens’ chief historical source), the red “Phrygian cap” is emblematic of patriotic fervor – especially the Jacobin patriotism which, in its desperation and vengefulness, led to the Reign of Terror:

Note too how the Jacobin Brethren are mounting new Symbolical headgear: the Woolen Cap or Night-cap, bonnet de laine, better known as bonnet rouge, the colour being red. A thing one wears not only by way of Phrygian Cap-of-Liberty, but also for convenience'-sake, and then also in compliment to the Lower-class Patriots and Bastille-Heroes; for the Red Night-cap combines all the three properties. (455)

The red Phrygian cap, or bonnet rouge, was a soft one, made of wool, with the peak bent over at the top. Fairholt’s Costume (1860) shows us the shape of this patriotic headgear, and the stiffer classical hat it was based on.

“Does everybody here recall old Foulon, who told the famished people that they might eat grass, and who died, and went to Hell?”

Old Foulon is Joseph-François Foulon (1715-89), a government minister under Louis XVI (Sanders 121). His remarks concerning the starvation of the people are recorded in Carlyle’s French Revolution:

Already old Foulon, with an eye to be war-minister himself, is making underground movements. This is the same Foulon named âme damnée du Parlement [roughly, “henchman of the Parliament” – the Parliaments were courts of justice under the ancien régime which registered (or refused to register) the edicts, declarations, and ordinances of the monarch (OED); the Parliaments, of which the Parliament of Paris was the most powerful, were abolished in 1790 (Carlyle 254)]; a man grown grey in treachery, in griping, projecting, intriguing and iniquity: who once when it was objected, to some finance-scheme of his, “What will the people do?” – made answer, in the fire of discussion, “The people may eat grass”: hasty words, which fly abroad irrevocable, – and will send back tidings! (95)

The “tidings” sent back by Foulon’s words were the tidings of his death outside the Hôtel de Ville. He was, however, supposed dead shortly before the fall of the Bastille. Carlyle describes this supposed death:

As for old Foulon, one learns that he is dead; at least “a sumptuous funeral” is going on; the undertakers honouring him, if no other will. Intendant Berthier, his son-in-law, is still living; lurking …; and is now fled no man knows whither. (171)

The implication of this false death seems to be, according to both Carlyle and Dickens, that it was conducted in lieu of emigration – that, instead of flying the country with the first wave of frightened gentry in the “First Emigration,” Foulon staged his burial. As it is expressed by the patriots of A Tale of Two Cities, “He feared us so much – and with reason – that he caused himself to be represented as dead, and had a grand mock-funeral.”

Wretched old sinner of more than threescore years and ten…

Threescore and ten is (since a score is twenty) seventy years. In 1789, Foulon (born in 1715) would have been about seventy-four years old.

…and winnowing of many bushels of words…

A bushel is a unit of measure (roughly equal to four pecks or eight gallons) used to designate amounts of grain or produce (Oxford English Dictionary). It is thus appropriate that the metaphoric “bushels” of words are metaphorically “winnowed,” for winnowing is “a process performed by the aid of wind, by which the chaff of corn is separated from the grain” (Philp 1114). There is an echo in this statement of the expression “separating the wheat from the chaff.”

…and acted as a telegraph between her and the crowd outside the building.

The telegraph, in the modern sense of the electric telegraph, was not invented until the early 19th century; however, the word “telegraph” is not necessarily anachronistic here. The OED describes a telegraph as

An apparatus for transmitting messages to a distance, usually by signs of some kind. Devices for this purpose have been in use from ancient times, but the name was first applied to that invented by Chappe in France in 1792, consisting of an upright post with movable arms, the signals being made by various positions of the arms according to a pre-arranged code. Hence applied to various other devices subsequently used, operating by movable disks, shutters, etc., flashes of light, movements in a column of liquid, sounds of bells, horns, etc., or other means.

Thus, when the men outside act as a “telegraph” for Madame Defarge’s sentiments, the word is used in the generic sense of signal-transmission. It is interesting to note, however, that the earliest telegraph was developed in revolutionary France (Carlyle describes Chappe’s invention – detailed in the passage from the OED above – in The French Revolution [709]). Though the word “telegraph” does not seem to have appeared in English usage until about 1794 (a few years after Chappe’s invention), and certainly not until well after the moment described in this chapter of A Tale of Two Cities (which occurs in 1789), Dickens’ usage may of course be attributed to the Victorian narrator of the novel rather than to the historical moment narrated.



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