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France, less favored … than her sister of the shield and trident, rolled with exceeding smoothness down hill, making paper money and spending it.

France’s “sister of the shield and trident” is England, as the nation is represented by “Britannia” – a female figure in armor with a trident in one hand and a round shield (bearing the union jack) in the other:

BRITANNIA was the original name given by the Romans to their newly-conquered province that comprised what is now England and Wales (neighboring Ireland was known as Hibernia, Scotland was Caledonia, Germany was Germania, Brittany was Armorica and France was just plain Gaul). After the Romans left, the name gradually fell into disuse, but later, in the days of the Empire, it came to represent the spirit of Britain herself…. Roman coinage of the day featured the image of a woman in armor. This image was not used on coins again until the reign of King Charles II [in the 17th century]. Since 1672, Britannia has been anthropomorphised into a woman wearing a helmet, and carrying a shield and trident. It is a symbol that blends the concepts of empire, militarism and economics…. Britannia became a popular figure in 1707 when Scotland, Wales and England were finally united to form Great Britain [and] has continued to feature on British coins since her reintroduction, mostly on copper coins (penny and halfpenny) but occasionally on silver, and at present is to be seen on the 50p coin. (“Symbols of Britishness”)

Since the figure of Britannia was often found on the backs of pennies in the 1850s, and was the basic design for the flip side of all pennies from 1860 to 1970 (Clayton, “The Penny”), Dickens’ reference to England as France’s “sister of the shield and trident” makes use of a symbol of Englishness specifically associated with currency at the time A Tale of Two Cities appeared. Moreover, Britannia appeared on English coins, which retain a closer association to precious metals (and thus a gold or silver standard) than paper money, which France began to print in great quantities (and without sufficient reserves of gold to assure its value) in the years before the French Revolution. As Carlyle describes the period, peaceful but in serious financial decline –

Is it the healthy peace, or the ominous unhealthy, that rests on France, for these next Ten Years? Over which the Historian can pass lightly, without call to linger: for as yet events are not, much less performances. Time of sunniest stillness; – shall we call it, what all men thought it, the new Age of Gold? Call it at least, of Paper; which in many ways is the succedaneum of Gold. Bank-paper, wherewith you can still buy when there is no gold left; Book-paper, splendent with Theories, Philosophies, Sensibilities – beautiful art, not only revealing Thought, but also so beautifully hiding from us the want of Thought! Paper is made from the rags of things that did once exist; there are endless excellences in Paper. (25-6)

Carlyle, as Sanders points out in his Companion to A Tale of Two Cities, “sees France’s problem as one of both moral and financial bankruptcy” in this period. In the strictly financial sense, however, France’s efforts since the early 17th century to retain a position of European prominence and power had built up a national debt that a series of ministers under Louis XVI (who was crowned in 1774) tried unsuccessfully to ameliorate (Roberts 349). French assistance to America during the Revolutionary War only exacerbated this condition, and, by the early 1780s, France was threatened – as Carlyle puts it – with “the black horrors of NATIONAL BANKRUPTCY” (56).

…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 honor to a dirty procession of monks which passed within his view, at a distance of some fifty or sixty yards.

This passage refers to the sentencing and execution of the Chevalier de la Barre in 1766. Accused of acting disrespectfully to a religious procession – de la Barre had not removed his hat when he passed within 30 yards of a procession bearing a crucifix, and had allegedly spoken “irreverently of the Virgin Mary” and “sung bawdy songs” (Sanders 31) – de la Barre was condemned at Amiens to undergo the punishments described (to have his tongue cut out, his right hand cut off, and afterwards to be burned alive – a punishment subsequently “softened” to decapitation prior to burning).

Dickens, who owned a copy of Voltaire’s Oeuvres Complètes (complete works), was probably familiar with the story from the Relation de la mort du chevalier de la Barre, in which Voltaire describes the circumstances of the accusation, the “evidence” gathered against de la Barre, and his ultimate sentencing and execution: The Chevalier de la Barre, a young soldier, was staying with his aunt, an abbess, when she became the object of romantic attentions from a man named Belleval. Belleval, rejected, attempted to ruin the abbess financially, and, when her nephew came to her aid, attempted to ruin him by spreading the rumor of his disregard of a passing religious procession. The disturbance created by these allegations coincided with the destruction of a crucifix hanging on a bridge, and Belleval alleged that de la Barre was responsible. Ultimately, the maneuvers of Belleval and the public indignation they occasioned led to de la Barre’s denunciation on the following allegations:

On 13 August 1765, six witnesses testified that they saw three young men pass within thirty paces of a religious procession, that la Barre and d’Etallonde did not take off their hats, and that Moisnel held his hat under his arm.

In an additional piece of information, Elisabeth Lacrivel testified that she had heard from one of her cousins that this cousin had heard the chevalier de la Barre say that he had not taken off his hat.

On 26 September a commoner called Ursule Gondalier testified that she had hear it said that la Barre, when he saw a plaster figure of Saint Nicholas at the house of the convent’s portress, Sister Marie, had asked her if she had bought the figure to have a man in her home.

A man called Bauvalet testified that the chevalier de la Barre had uttered an impious word when speaking of the Virgin Mary.

Claude, known as Sélincourt, gave uncorroborated evidence that the accused told him God’s commandments were the work of priests; but, confronted with this, the accused maintained that Sélincourt was a liar and that they were only speaking about the commandments of the Church.

A man called Héquet, also an uncorroborated witness, testified that the accused told him he could not understand how one could worship an image of God. The accused, when questioned about this, said he had been speaking about Egyptians.

Nicholas Lavallée testified that he had heard the chevalier de la Barre sing two blasphemous guardroom songs. The accused admitted that one day when he was drunk he had sung them with d’Etallonde, without knowing what he was saying: in truth Mary Magdalene is referred to as a whore in one song, but she had led a loose life before her conversion. He agreed that he had recited Piron’s Ode to Priapus.

The said Héquet also testified that he had seen the chevalier genuflect in front of books entitled Thérèse Philosophe, the Tourière des Carmelites and the Portier des Chartreux [well-known works of pornography]. He did not mention any other book, but, when questioned about this and asked to verify it, he said he was not sure if it was la Barre who had genuflected. [etc.] (Voltaire 142)

As Voltaire points out, the precedent for de la Barre’s punishment was a sentence of 1682 whereby two women and two priests, who had “committed imaginary acts of sorcery and real acts of poisoning their victims” (145), had been put to death as “profaners and poisoners.” De la Barre, on the scaffold, said that he “never thought that a gentleman could be put to death for so little” (147). Voltaire told his story in the hopes of reforming the social and legal circumstances that allowed it.

…rooted in the woods of France and Norway, there were growing trees … marked by the Woodman, Fate…

Dickens’ figure of “the Woodman, Fate,” may have been partly suggested by a passage in his chief historical source, Carlyle’s French Revolution. Describing the imperceptibility of the growth and termination of great things, Carlyle writes,

The oak grows silently, in the forest, a thousand years; only in the thousandth year, when the woodman arrives with his axe, is there heard an echoing through the solitudes; and the oak announces itself when, with far-sounding crash, it falls. (24)

According to Sanders, the “best lengths of pine” used for building were imported from Norway (31).

…to make a certain moveable framework with a sack and a knife in it, terrible in history.

The “moveable framework with a sack and knife in it” is the guillotine, named for its inventor, Joseph Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814), who was active in French politics before and during the French Revolution. A member of the Constitutional Assembly prior to the Revolution, Guillotin proposed the use of his machine in 1785; it was frequently though erroneously thought, in Dickens’ time, that Guillotin had been executed by his own instrument. (Though Guillotin was imprisoned during the Reign of Terror, he was not guillotined [Sanders 32].)

Ironically, the device Guillotin invented for executions was intended to be more humane than the standard means of execution, instantly and painlessly severing the head from the neck. The first models of the machine were created by Dr. Antoine Louis of the French College of Surgeons, and were thus named “louison” and “louisette” after him; the later and more famous models were named after their original inventor (Guillotin). The mechanized executions made possible by the guillotine have occasionally been viewed as “symbolic of the birth of the modern state” (Murphy 224); indeed, use of the guillotine was not discontinued in France until 1981, and the last person to be executed by means of the guillotine died in 1977 (Murphy 223-4). The appearance of the guillotine is famous – a tall wooden framework with a blade pulled to the top (which drops down and severs a head placed in the bottom of the frame), and a sack to catch the heads.

This illustration of Doctor Guillotin, with a model drawing of his machine, is taken from the Artist’s Edition (1893) of Carlyle’s French Revolution.

…set apart to be his tumbrils of the Revolution.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a tumbril is a little cart. In the French Revolution, these carts – originally farm-carts – were used to transport victims of the Revolution from their trials at the Conciergerie to the guillotine (Sanders 32). Though people were guillotined in various parts of Paris during the Revolution, the most famous site of the guillotine was in the Place de la Révolution – called the Place de Louis XV previous to the Revolution, and now called the Place de la Concorde.

In England… [d]aring burglaries by armed men, and highway robberies, took place in the capital itself every night, families were publicly cautioned not to go out of town without removing their furniture to upholsterers’ warehouses for security…

Dickens’ gloss of criminal activity in 1775 is based on events recorded in the Annual Register, or a View of the History, Politics and Literature for the Year 1775. (Dickens possessed Annual Registers for the period ranging from 1748-1860 [Sanders 24].)

Many passages from the Annual Register seem to suggest that England was overrun with burglars and highwaymen in 1775. The simplest and most expressive are perhaps the accounts of convictions and executions:

The sessions ended at the Old Bailey [Old Bailey is the London street in which the Sessions House – where prisoner were tried – was located], when three criminals for house-breaking, one for highway robbery, and two for returning from transportation [i.e. a sentence of deportation to the colonies], received sentence of death; and, on the 21st of April, one of those condemned for house-breaking, and one of those condemned for returning from transportation, were executed at Tyburn. At the same sessions 31 were sentenced to be transported for 7 years, 6 to be branded in the hand, 2 of whom are to be imprisoned 6 months, 13 to be whipt, and 30 delivered on proclamation. (Feb. 21, 1775; 92)

Ended the sessions at the Old Bailey, when the court passed sentence of death on two criminals, for highway robbery; nine, for house-breaking; one, for stealing cattle; one, for horse-stealing; and one, for stealing from a person, to whom he was clerk, two warrants, one for £213, the other for £1561 4s. for which he had received the money; and, on the 7th of June, five of the house-breakers, and the clerk for stealing the warrants, were executed at Tyburn. (May 2, 1775; 115)

The sessions ended at the Old Bailey, when fourteen convicts received sentence for death, viz. the two unfortunate brothers, Robert and Daniel Perreau, for forgery; four, for street, field, and highway robberies; three for house-breaking, and house robberies; one, for theft; one, for firing a pistol at Walter Butler, one of the patrol, near the Foundling Hospital, and wounding him in the neck; two, for coining; and one, for horse-stealing; one received sentence for transportation for fourteen years; sixteen, sentence of transportation for seven years; and nine convicted of coining halfpence, were branded in the hand, and sentenced to suffer an imprisonment in Newgate for twelve months…. And on the 19th of July following, seven of the above capital convicts were executed at Tyburn; among whom were the two coiners. (June 7, 1775; 130)

From these and further accounts of convictions and executions in the Annual Register, one gets the impression, just as Dickens apparently did, that England in 1775 was not only overrun with highwaymen and house-breakers, but specialized in a particularly barbarous system of punishment (hangings, brandings, etc.). Indeed, the Annual Register is full of stories of “daring burglaries” and other fantastic crimes. For example, an entry from 1775 describes how

A well-dressed man knocked at a milliner’s in Pallmall, under pretence of wanting some ruffles; and being let in by the mistress, immediately locked the door on the inside, pulled out a pistol, and with horrid imprecations threatened to destroy her if she spoke a word; he then tied a bandage over her eyes, bound her, and stripped the shop of nearly £80 worth of lace and linen. (83)

Another entry describes the perils of apprehending thieves:

Two serjeants in the Surry militia, and two other men, in coming from Kingston toward London, meeting a fish-man of about 70, with part of a field-gate on his back, asked him if he came honestly by it; and, on his seeming confused, one of them attempted to secure him; but, before he could effect it, the fellow pulled out a large knife, and stabbed him in the breast, who immediately cried out he had received his death’s wound; then, the others endeavoring to secure him, he stabbed a second in the belly, a third in the arm, and the fourth in the groin. At length, several people coming up, he was overpowered, and conducted to the New Gaol. One of them died the next morning, and two of the others soon after. Of such fatal efficacy is any weapon in desperate hands against naked, though far superior strength and numbers!



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