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Monsieur the Marquis in Town

The French “Monsieur,” essentially equivalent to “Mr.” in English, was originally a title reserved for men of elevated station (Oxford English Dictionary). “Marquis” is an aristocratic title originally accorded to those who ruled the “marches” of a country (marches are border or boundary territories), and subsequently to any noblemen “ranking below a duke and above a count” (OED). In Dickens’ own time and country, a marquis ranked below a duke and above an earl (an earl being the English equivalent of a count); the equivalent female rank, in English, was marchioness (Philp 6).

Monseigneur was in his inner room...

“Monseigneur,” which means literally “My Lord” (Sanders 79), is an honorific title for a person of eminence – originally (in the medieval period) an honorific title for a saint, but afterwards attaching generally to a person of elevated condition. Here, the use of the title “Monseigneur” (to the exclusion of any further identification) indicates that the gentleman discussed is not only aristocratic, but superior to the Marquis (who is a mere “monsieur”) (OED). It is interesting to note that the OED uses a quotation from this portion of A Tale of Two Cities to illustrate the 19th-century usage of the word “monseigneur”: “1859 DICKENS Tale of Two Cities … Monseigneur, one of the great lords in power at the Court, held his fortnightly reception.”

Monseigneur was about to take his chocolate.

The chocolate that Monseigneur takes is a beverage somewhat like the modern hot chocolate (or, in French, chocolat chaud). Chocolate as a beverage was introduced into France in 1615 when Anne (the daughter of Phillip II of Spain) married Louis XIII (and brought the recipe with her). Throughout the 17th century, it was an exclusively aristocratic drink: Because of scarcity and expense, it was not available to the humbler classes (at one point in the 17th century, the royal chocolatier is said to have hoarded 8 pounds of chocolate, only 22 pounds existing in France as a whole [Goldrein, A Chocolate Crawl Through Paris]), and it was eventually limited to aristocratic consumption by royal decree (All About Chocolate). In the 18th century, colonial plantations and the innovations of the Industrial Revolution (such as the hydraulic chocolate mill, invented in 1776 by a Frenchman named Doret, which was shortly followed by the steam-driven chocolate mill of Dubuisson, also French) made it possible to mass-produce chocolate (cocoa had previously had to be ground by hand) (Wildridge, History of Chocolate). Chocolate thus became more widely available, and was no longer an exclusively aristocratic drink. However, the association with aristocracy persisted: Louis XV’s mistress consumed chocolate on the principle that it was an aphrodisiac; and Marie-Antoinette had a “personal chocolatier” and consumed chocolate for medicinal purposes (to ease her nerves and digestion) (Goldrein, A Chocolate Crawl Through Paris). The chocolate that Monseigneur consumes is thus a drink with an explicitly aristocratic history. It would not, however, be as refined as the “hot chocolate” we drink today, nor even as refined as the kind available in Dickens’ own time: Though Europeans had been adding milk to chocolate (as well as sugar – cocoa in its unadulterated form is very bitter) since 1727, the technology for removing the excess fats (cocoa butter) from chocolate was not developed until 1828 (Wildridge, History of Chocolate). Thus, in the preparation of Monseigneur’s chocolate, a layer of fatty material (cocoa butter) would appear and have to be skimmed off before the beverage was potable.

…for England (by way of example), in the regretted days of the merry Stuart who sold it.

King Charles II (r. 1660-85), of the House of Stuart, received a secret pension from his cousin, Louis XIV of France (Sanders 81). He used the money, in part, to help fund his administration, since Parliament – which had gained in power during the English Civil War and the Commonwealth period – limited the powers and purse of the newly-restored monarch. Known as the “merry Monarch,” the levity and flamboyance of the “Restoration” period owed much to the tastes of Charles II, among which were mistresses and French theater (he had spent much of his exile in France). However, the Restoration period as a whole registers a reaction to the Puritan strictures of the Commonwealth, and Charles II cannot be held solely responsible for the social atmosphere of the time. The son of Charles I (executed in the Civil War) and a French mother, Charles II was closely connected with France. His receipt of a pension from his cousin is thus the less surprising. From a Victorian perspective, however, the days of Charles II might be “regretted” for what would appear to be a certain amount of licentiousness.

…allied himself perforce with the Farmer-General.

The “Farmers-General” were French tax collectors, who, “under the old French monarchy, ‘farmed’ the taxes of a particular district” (OED). Responsible for furnishing the government with a predetermined amount of money, the Farmers-General collected taxes from the people at their own discretion. Widely distrusted, they were often suspected of fleecing their countrymen – collecting more taxes than they sent to the government coffers (Maxwell 454).

Hence, Monseigneur had taken his sister from a convent, while there was yet time to ward off the impending veil, the cheapest garment she could wear, and had bestowed her…

In France, a predominantly Catholic country, the church was the chief educator for women from the ninth century forward. In the 18th century, however, the practice of sending girls to convents began to draw criticism from progressive thinkers. Cloistering young women was thought to keep them too innocent of the world and human nature. Especially for the daughters of aristocrats, who were often married (by the arrangement of their relations) directly from the convent, a cloistered education in no way prepared them for the position they were immediately to undertake (Fein 737-8). Monseigneur’s sister, about to be married by the arrangement of her brother, is in exactly this position. The “impending veil” – the cheapness of which strikes her brother as the second most attractive option for her future (the first being marriage to a wealthy Farmer-General) – is the nun's cloister.

…(and not so far off, either, but that the watching towers of Notre-Dame, almost equidistant from the two extremes, could see them both)…

Like London, with a prosperous West End and a poorer, working-class East End, Paris was (and still is) predominantly wealthy in the west, and poor in the east (the Saint Antoine district, for instance, lies in the east). Notre Dame, located on the Ile de la Cité, was – lying in the middle of the Seine – roughly in the middle of the 18th-century city. It is thus “almost equidistant from the two extremes.”

…these were told off by the score and the score.

A score is twenty; the term is apparently derived from the practice of counting sheep off in groups of twenty and making a notch, or score, on a stick to keep track of the number (OED).

Projectors who had discovered every kind of remedy for the little evils with which the State was touched, except the remedy of setting to work in earnest to root out a single sin, poured their distracting babble into any ears they could lay hold of, at the reception of Monseigneur. Unbelieving Philosophers who were remodeling the world with words, and making card-towers of Babel to scale the skies with, talked with Unbelieving Chemists who had an eye on the transmutation of metals…

In the sense used here, “projectors” are theorists – mainly economists and philosophers, or, in French, philosophes. Among the most famous of the French 18th-century philosophes were Voltaire and Diderot (Gay 14). Dickens, like Carlyle (his chief historical source), disapproved of the growing atheism of pre-revolutionary and revolutionary France (in which the “unbelieving philosophers” are implicated). The pious and biblical references in this passage – the idea that the “projectors” should neglect to “root out a single sin,” and the comparison of their discourse to the unintelligible chatter associated with the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) – emphasize Dickens’ disapprobation. Similar references to “unbelieving philosophers” appear in Carlyle’s French Revolution in passages like the following:

French Philosophism has arisen in which little word how much do we include! Here, indeed, lies properly the cardinal symptom of the whole wide-spread malady. Faith is gone out; Skepticism is come in. Evil abounds and accumulates; no man has Faith to withstand it, to amend it, to begin by amending himself; it must even go on accumulating. (14)


Above them they see no God; or they even do not look above, except with astronomical glasses. The Church indeed still is; but in the most submissive state; quite tamed by Philosophism. (32)


Then how “sweet” are the manners; vice “losing all its deformity”: becoming decent (as established things, making regulations for themselves, do); becoming almost a kind of “sweet” virtue! Intelligence so abounds; irradiated by wit and the art of conversation. Philosophism sits joyful in her glittering saloons, the dinner-guest of Opulence grown ingenious, the very nobles proud to sit by her; and preaches, lifted up over all Bastilles, a coming millennium. From far Fernay, Patriarch Voltaire gives sign: veterans Diderot, D’Alembert have lived to see this day; with their younger Marmontels, Morellets, Chamforts, Raynals, make glad the spicy board of rich ministering Dowager, of philosophic Farmer-General. (26-7)

Dickens’ “Unbelieving Chemists” are the pseudo-scientific alchemists, seeking to turn base metal into gold by dint of the undiscovered “philosopher’s stone.” Alchemists and atheism figure in Mercier’s Tableau de Paris – one of Dickens’ French sources for A Tale of Two Cities – in chapters entitled, respectively, “Athéisme” and “Chercheur de la Pierre Philosophale” (Sanders 83-4).

Peasant women kept the unfashionable babies close, and brought them up; and charming grandmammas of sixty dressed and supped as at twenty.

Dickens’ source for the vanity of aristocratic mothers is Mercier’s Tableau de Paris (1781-8) and Le Nouveau Paris (1793-8). Mercier describes women of “sixty adorning themselves as at twenty” (qtd. in Sanders 84) and suggests that the practice of sending babies out to nurse with peasant wet-nurses was considered beneficial to the child’s health. In actuality, sending a child to a wet-nurse compromised its chances of survival. Even in the 19th century, according to Mulhall’s Dictionary of Statistics, for every hundred children who died if breast-fed by their own mothers, 220 died if sent out to a wet-nurse (178).

The leprosy of unreality disfigured every human creature in attendance…

Used here metaphorically, leprosy is “[a]n infectious bacterial disease (Elephantiasis Græcorum), which slowly eats away the body, and forms shining white scales on the skin” (OED); it was common in medieval Europe and appears frequently in the bible, though it is there used – according to the OED – as a comprehensive term for a variety of debilitating, contagious, and incurable skin diseases. Dickens uses the term here to invoke a deteriorative and disfiguring condition. The Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859), from Dickens’ own time, gives this account of

LEPROSY. – A disease that in its ancient and Biblical signification, may be said no longer to exist; for what is modernly known by this name, although a foul and pertinacious disease, has none of those virulent and deep-tainting characters which are represented in Holy Writ as appertaining to this dreaded and life corrupting malady. Leprosy is a disease of the skin so inveterate as to convert the cuticle into white dry plates, or thin scurfy scabs, that laying one over the other give the skin the appearance of scales of a fish. Leprosy appears to be a severe form of scrofula, and arises from a vitiated state of the blood, and an imperfect nutrition; the remedies most serviceable are such as will correct the impure state of the fluids, promote a healthy digestion, and restore tone to the skin, such as the warm bath, mercury, iodine, sarsaparilla, tonics, mineral acids, quinine, exercise, and the flesh brush. (627)



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