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And as mere human knowledge can split a ray of light and analyze the manner of its composition…

By the mid-19th century, when Dickens was writing, Sir Isaac Newton’s work on light and optics was already nearly two hundred years old. (Having discovered that white light is made up of a whole spectrum of colored lights, Newton published “New Theory About Lights and Colors” in 1672). Anyone with rudimentary knowledge of optics – or of prisms – could split light into the colors of the rainbow.

“There is another spy commissioned for our quarter…”

Historians estimate that there were between 300 and 3,000 spies, commissioned by the police, working at any given time in pre-revolutionary Paris (Maxwell 461). Mercier’s Tableau de Paris (1781-8), one of Dickens’ French sources, describes the extent of organized spying as follows:

The Parisian, they say, neither tells the truth himself nor cares what the truth may be; but the fact is, that if he were not a liar born, he must become one in self-defence. Spies are all about him. Two citizens cannot whisper, without a third craning his neck to hear what the conference is about. The Lieutenant of Police commands a regiment of ears, differing from a regiment of soldiers only in that each private changes his uniform daily and completely; in the twinkling of an eye he can and does metamorphose himself. One will strut abroad all day, sword on hip, and be subdued at night to a gown and bands, from a limb of the devil to a limb of the law; tomorrow, swinging a gold-headed cane, he will seem a banker with only ciphers in his head; all this at the taxpayer’s expense. His day’s range of impersonations may include a military officer, a hairdresser’s assistant, a tonsured abbot and a scullery boy. The best houses know him, and the worst hells…. For this is the rod whereby the secrets of Paris are divined; and it is on these men’s reports rather than the exigencies of a situation or the demands of policy that ministerial decisions are founded. (Mercier 36-7)

Another vignette about the police force continues the subject:

There are spies of all sorts, Court spies, town spies, bed, street, and brothel spies, spies upon talkers and wits; but the whole genus has one name, mouchard, which was that of the first official spy of the Court of France.… Hidden, like forbidden, fruit is tempting; certain men will always want to know more than their fellows, and take pride and interest in the machine in proportion as they know just by what power, and in what order, the wheels go round. The difficulty of attaining this knowledge is what gives it its chief value. (Mercier 40)

Given the prevalence of spies commissioned by the police, it is neither surprising that another would be assigned to the Saint Antoine quarter of Paris nor that a “Jacques of the police” would be able to inform Monsieur Defarge of the addition.

…nose aquiline, but not straight, having a peculiar inclination towards the left cheek; expression, therefore, sinister.”

Sinister means “[s]ituated on the left side of the body” or “[l]ying on or towards the left hand” as well as “suggestive of evil or mischief” (Oxford English Dictionary). The fact that Barsad’s nose inclines toward his left cheek therefore makes him look “sinister” in two ways. The pun – made by Monsieur Defarge – exists in French as well (senestre/sinistre).

…the stock of rum and brandy and aniseed.

Rum is an alcoholic beverage made from sugar-cane, originally made in the West Indies and Guyana (where sugar-cane was grown); brandy is a kind of distilled wine, originally known as “brandy-wine” (OED); and aniseed is a seed (anise) used as a flavoring, as in the popular French liqueur called “anisette” (Sanders 108). The Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859) gives the following accounts of rum and brandy:

RUM. – An ardent spirit, obtained by distillation from the fermented skimmings of the sugar-boilers, the drainings of the sugar-pots and hogsheads, the washing of boilers and other vessels, together with sufficient cane juice or wort prepared by washing the crude cane, to impart the necessary flavour. (871)

BRANDY. – The spirituous liquor produced by the distillation of wine only, and not from any other fermented body. But brandy consists not merely of the spirit drawn from wine, it contains also some water, and is flavoured by the essential oil of the grape, which has been dissolved by the alcohol produced during fermentation. The average proportion of alcohol in brandy varies from 48 to 54 per cent. When pure, it is perfectly colourless, and only acquires a pale brown or yellow tint from the cask. When brandy is first imported, it is generally 1 or 2 over proof, but its strength decreases with age; and by the time that it is usually taken from the bond-store for sale, it is seldom stronger than 3 or 4 under proof. The very finest brandies average from 5 to 10 under proof, and never exceed 2 under proof; they then contain more than half their weight of water, and from their boiling point being higher, they come over to this country more fully charged with essential oil, and the other volatile and fragrant principles of the grape; thus possessing, in a great degree, that peculiar aroma and flavour for which they are so much esteemed. The compound known as British brandy, is made chiefly from malt spirit, with the addition of mineral acids, and various flavouring ingredients. (182)

Distilled beverages like rum and brandy have a higher alcohol content than beverages that are not distilled (“proof,” as above, refers to the standard strength of distilled liquors [OED]).



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