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 per force 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 of course a nun’s veil.

…(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)

…half of the half-dozen had become members of a fantastic sect of Convulsionists, and were even then considering within themselves whether they should foam, rage, roar, and turn cataleptic on the spot….

The Convulsionists were a group of religious enthusiasts in France (“les convulsionaires”), so-called for the “convulsions” they performed under divine inspiration. During the reign of Louis XV, they occupied a prominent place in fashionable and aristocratic circles (Sanders 85). Dickens’ source for the “Convulsionists” is Mercier’s Tableau de Paris (1781-8), where they are described in a chapter called “Amour du Merveilleux” (“Love of the Marvelous”). Catalepsy – one of the symptoms attributed to Dickens’ Convulsionists – is a disease characterized by seizure and prolonged unconsciousness, described in the Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859) as follows:

CATALEPSY – A disease purely of a nervous character, in which certain parts of the nervous system are in a state of profound coma, or sleep, and others preternaturally excited. The patient remains exactly in the position and attitude, in which he was taken in the fit, for from two or three minutes[;] sometimes the period extends to several hours. The chief characteristic of this disease is the rigidity of the muscles and entire body; and though the limbs may be moved into any position, the patient himself has no control over them, or knowledge of what is done. The remote cause of this disease depends upon some of those half revealed phenomena that give rise to other maladies affecting the brain and spinal marrow; while the more immediate cause is often any sudden paroxysm of joy or anger, strong emotions of the mind, or inordinate grief. The attack generally comes on without any previous warning. The treatment is first to discover and remove all exciting causes and sources of irritation, and then by a course of alteratives and tonics, purify and brace the system. At the same time change of scene, exercise, and sea-bathing act as powerful auxiliary means. Should the attack be attended with headache, suffusion of the eyes, or ringing in the ears, blood-letting must be resorted to, and a blister applied on the nape of the neck, before adopting the course of systematic tonics already mentioned. (250)

Catalepsy agrees with the general behavior of Dickens’ Convulsionists in its unexpected onset, and its relationship to “exciting” causes of undiscoverable origin. Mercier describes the behavior of the Convulsionists as follows:

The convulsionaries have accomplished tours de force which surpass, it must be admitted, the most shocking things one could see at a fair. Few have the secret of it; in addition, their contortions rightfully astonish us and even scare the most intrepid glances and the spirits most on guard against the marvelous. One can be assured that these tricks have something truly extraordinary about them, although it is well known how much ardour, fanaticism and the desire to make conversions can accomplish. If it all seems a bit supernatural at times, this is highly understandable. (qtd. in and translated by Maxwell 414)

Beside these Dervishes, were other three who had rushed into another sect, which mended matters with a jargon about ‘the Centre of Truth’…

A dervish is “[a] Muslim friar, who has taken vows of poverty and austere life. Of these there are various orders, some of whom are known from their fantastic practices as dancing or whirling, and as howling dervishes” (OED). Like the French Convulsionists of Louis XV’s time, dervishes – especially the “whirling” or dancing dervishes – were religious enthusiasts who danced under the influence of divine inspiration. The “jargon about ‘the Centre of Truth’” refers to a pseudo-spiritual position described in Mercier’s Tableau de Paris (1781-8), in a chapter on the “Love of the Marvelous”:

A new sect [writes Mercier], composed above all of young people, appears to have adopted the widespread visions in a book titled Errors and Truth, work of a hothead mystic who has had, nonetheless, several flashes of genius.

This sect is driven by vaporous affections; a singular sickness common to all France for half a century [previous to the 1780s, when this account was written]; a sickness which favours every divergence of the imagination and gives it a tendency towards the prodigious and the supernatural. According to this sect, man is a degraded being, moral evil is his own work; he has departed from the centre of truth; God, by his clemency, keeps him within the circumference, when He might have allowed him to wander out towards infinity; the circle is nothing but the explosion of the centre: it is up to man to get back to the centre, by way of a tangent.

In order to follow this tangent, the sectarians of these hollow ideas live in the most rigorous continence, fasting up to the point of wasting away altogether, thus procuring themselves ecstatic dreams, and keeping at a distance all earthly things, in order to leave the soul its complete liberty and to keep open a path to the centre of truth. (qtd. in and translated by Maxwell 414-5)

Such frizzling and powdering and sticking up of hair, such delicate complexions artificially preserved and mended, such gallant swords to look at, and such delicate honour to the sense of smell, would surely keep anything going, for ever and ever.

Aristocratic fashions of the second half of the 18th century included – in both France and England – wigs and headdresses of unprecedented proportions and elaborateness. 19th-century English histories of costume like Fairholt’s Costume in England (published in 1860, and thus roughly contemporary with A Tale of Two Cities) commemorate the 18th-century penchant for elaborately-dressed false hair.

These engravings from Fairholt, which accompany the text given below, demonstrate the extent to which “frizzling and powdering and sticking up of hair” increased in France and England from the 1760s through the time of the French Revolution:

By contrasting the head-dress of the lady in the cut already given
upon page 310 [above left] with the following group [above right, figures
1-4], the reader will at once detect the great change effected by fashion
in this particular portion of female costume. Fig[ure]s 1 and 2 are copied from engravings by G. Bickham to The Ladies Toilet, or the Art of Head-dressing in its Utmost Beauty and Extent, translated from the French of “Sieur Le Groos, the inventor and most eminent professor of that science in Paris,” published in 1768. The figures in this very curious book (of which there are thirty) were so much admired in Paris, that we are told, “not only all the hair-dressers of any note have them, both plain and coloured, in their shops, but every lady’s toilet is furnished with one of them, very elegantly bound, and coloured to a very high degree of perfection.” To describe fig[ure] 1, in the author’s own words: – “This head is dressed in two rows of buckles (or close curls), in the form of shellwork, barred and thrown backwards; two shells, with one knot in the form of a spindle, composed of a large lock or parcel of hair, flatted, or laid smooth, taken from behind the head, in order to supply the place of a plume or tuft of feathers.” Fig[ure] 2 is “dressed with a row of buckles, the roots whereof are straight, two shells (on the crown of the head), and a dragon or serpent (at the side of the head, reaching to the shoulders), composed of two locks of hair taken from behind the head, with a buckle inverted (running upwards from the nape of the neck to the crown, where it is fastened by a comb). These serpents or dragons are seldom worn but at court-balls, or by actresses on the stage.”

Figures 3 and 4 in the illustration above are taken from A Treatise on Hair by “David Ritchie, hairdresser, perfumer, etc.” Ritchie’s title suggests that the individuals responsible for fashion in hairdressing were also professionally concerned in what Dickens calls “delicate honour to the sense of smell.” Indeed, Fairholt notes that hairdressers enjoyed an especially elevated status during this period, and pretended to diverse areas of expertise:

[I]n these days, hairdressers were great men, and wrote books upon their profession, laying no small claim to the superior merit of “so important an art”; and not content with merely describing the mode of dressing the hair, “favoured the world” with much learning on the origin of hair, affirming it to be “a vapour or excrement of the brain, arising from the digestion performed by it at the instant of its nourishment”; with many other curious and learned conclusions, into which we cannot think of following them. The figures selected from this book [3&4 above] will show with what care and dexterity ladies’ heads were then dressed, “with many a good pound of wool” as a substratum, over which the hair was dexterously arranged, as the reader here sees, then bound down with reticulations, and rendered gay with flowers and bows. (312-3)

Dickens’ apparent disapprobation for the processes described here, though obviously a matter of personal preference, evidently has significant basis in fact. Fairholt describes how

[h]eads thus carefully and expensively dressed were, of course, not dressed frequently. The whole process is given in the London Magazine of 1768: “False locks to supply deficiency of native hair, pomatum in profusion, greasy wool to bolster up the adopted locks, and grey powder to conceal dust.” A hairdresser is described as asking a lady “how long it was since her head had been opened and repaired; she answered, not above nine weeks; to which he replied, that that was as long as a head could well go in summer; and that therefore it was proper to deliver it now, as it began to be a little hasardé.” The description of the opening of the hair, and the disturbance thereby occasioned to its numerous inhabitants, is too revolting for modern readers; but the various advertisements of poisonous compounds for their destruction, and the constant notice of these facts, prove that it is no exaggeration. (313)

Despite such drawbacks, however, huge wigs and headdresses remained in style up to the time of the French Revolution. Dickens is describing French hair of the early 1780s, and it was not until 1782 that headdresses topped out. As Fairholt describes the trend,

The head-dress of the ladies still continued as monstrous as ever, until in 1782 it reached the extraordinary size depicted in our engraving [see below]. It consisted of a heap of tow and pads, over which false hair was arranged, and hung with ropes of pearls, gauze-trimming, ribbons, feathers, and artificial flowers; until it added two or three feet to the stature of the fair wearers. (320)

The exquisite gentlemen of the finest breeding wore little pendent trinkets that chinked as they languidly moved; these golden fetters rang like precious little bells: and what with that ringing, and with the rustle of silk and brocade and fine linen, there was a flutter in the air that fanned Saint Antoine and his devouring hunger away.

In the 18th century, men’s fashions – in both wigs and clothing – were as elaborate as women’s. Aristocratic men wore a considerable amount of jewelry – multiple watches, fobs, chains, seals, and so forth (Fairholt 605) – and their clothing was made of materials as fine as that of their female counterparts. Brocade is a rich, stiff fabric – “A textile fabric woven with a pattern of raised figures, originally in gold or silver; in later use, any kind of stuff richly wrought or ‘flowered’ with a raised pattern” (OED). And “fine linen” refers not only to the material known as “linen,” but to the articles most frequently made of it – underclothing, shirts, and so forth (OED).

From the Palace of the Tuileries…

The Palace of the Tuileries (or, in French, Palais des Tuileries), which no longer exists, was erected by Catherine de Medici in 1564 as a royal residence (Tronchet 95); until the period of the French Revolution, however, it was only sporadically occupied by French monarchs. Standing opposite and to the west of the Louvre, the original building was named “les tuileries” after the field of tile-kilns it displaced. It was later extended to the north and south under Henri IV and Louis XIV, reaching further toward and away from the Seine.  By the pre-revolutionary period described in this part of A Tale of Two Cities (1780), the Palais des Tuileries had been connected to the Louvre by the erection of a wing along the bank of the Seine. The space between the two buildings – joined now on the river side – was, “with the exception of the court-yard in front of the [Palais des Tuileries], … occupied at the time of the [French] Revolution, and down to nearly the middle of the [19th] century, by a labyrinth of narrow streets” (Baedeker 151). The Palais des Tuileries, the Louvre, and the warren of little streets between them are all visible on this portion of the Plan de la Ville de Paris en 1789, which maps pre-revolutionary Paris.

Click on map for larger view

The palace, as a historical site, is extremely important in the context of the French Revolution: Louis XVI was forced to lodge in the Palais des Tuileries from October 6, 1789 onward, in response to the call of the people for “Le Roi à Paris” – “the King to Paris” (Carlyle 239-43). Moreover, when he and his family attempted to escape from Paris in June, 1791, they were returned (after the failure of that escape attempt) to the Tuileries. Dickens’ passing references to the Tuileries in A Tale of Two Cities are thus evocative of some of the most significant events of the revolutionary period in France.

This illustration, taken from Tronchet’s Picture of Paris (c. 1818), gives us some idea of what the Palais des Tuileries would have looked like in the period described by Dickens. With the Seine in the foreground, the illustration gives us a view of the western side of the palace, with the wing connecting to the Louvre stretching off into the distance. In 1780, the palace would have looked much like this from this perspective.

Expanded under Napoleon, the Palais des Tuileries was all but destroyed in the fall of the Paris Commune of 1871, when it was torched by the Communists on May 22-23. Today, the site of the original palace of Catherine de Medici is marked only by the underpass Avenue du Gal-Lemonnier (Baillie and Salmon 90), and the mess of streets that existed between the palace and the Louvre in the 18th and early 19th centuries is now supplanted by the gardens of the Jardin du Carrousel.

… the Fancy Ball descended to the Common Executioner who, in pursuance of the charm, was required to officiate ‘frizzled, powdered, in a gold-laced coat, pumps and white silk stockings.’

Dickens’ source for the uniform of the Common Executioner is Mercier’s Tableau de Paris (1781-8), in which it is noted that this functionary was “curled, powdered, braided, in white silk stockings, [and] in flats” (qtd. in Sanders in the French 86).

At the gallows and the wheel – the axe was a rarity – Monsieur Paris, as it was the episcopal mode among his brother Professors of the provinces, Monsieur Orleans, and the rest, to call him, presided in this dainty dress.

In pre-revolutionary France, execution by the axe (decapitation) was reserved for aristocratic transgressors; the poor were hanged, or, for offenses considered particularly heinous (like parricide), were broken on the wheel (Sanders 86). Given the aristocratic associations of the axe (to which Dickens alludes when he remarks that it was “a rarity”), the guillotine – which became the mode of execution for all victims of the French Revolution – was originally considered an egalitarian development, making the blade available to all. This 18th-century caricature, from the Book of Days (1864), shows a man being “broken on the wheel” in the foreground.

Dickens’ reference to the “episcopal mode” rephrases his source (Mercier’s Le Nouveau Paris [1799]), which notes that “Entr’eux ils s’appellent (à l’instan des èvêques) Monsieur de Paris, Monsieur de Chartres, Monsieur d’Orléans” (qtd. in Sanders 86). A bishop is an ecclesiastical authority responsible for overseeing church government in a particular diocese – a spiritual guide and administrator, ranking above priests and deacons, and often referred to according to his office and the area within his jurisdiction (for example, “Bishop of Paris” or, in French, “Èvêque de Paris”).

The fashion of calling executioners after their home districts in the “episcopal mode” suggests not only that a grisly secular authority contended, in this period, with religious authority, but (given Dickens’ emphasis on the “dainty dress” of “Monsieur Paris” and his provincial brethren) that the executors of human fate (spiritual and secular) were given over to a frivolity inconsistent with their offices. The powers and abuses of the clergy were disputed before the Revolution, and the Revolution itself saw, not only the temporary secularization of Roman Catholic France, but the confiscation of church lands and severe modifications of church authority.

…and his snuff-box in his hand, slowly passed among the mirrors on his way out.

The practice of taking snuff – a kind of powdered tobacco which was inhaled through the nostrils (OED) – became fashionable in the 17th century (in about 1680, according to the OED), and continued to be popular through the 18th century. A snuff-box is a receptacle for snuff, usually portable, and often ornamental (like Monsieur’s, which contributes to his general ostentation). By the 19th century, though snuff was still taken, it began to be perceived as a pernicious habit. The Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859) gives the following admonitions concerning

SNUFF-TAKING, INJURIOUS EFFECTS OF. – This habit is extremely injurious, and a common cause of dyspepsia. It is a pretty well-ascertained fact, that where snuff is taken in large quantities, a great portion enters the stomach, and as a matter of course seriously impedes the functions of that organ. Some snuffs produce more injurious effects than others, and this is the case with the highly perfumed, and damp heavy kinds. The least injurious kind is probably what is called the high-dried Irish or the Welsh snuff, for in the roasting of these, some of the narcotic principle is destroyed; therefore, a few pinches occasionally will not do much harm. But, however desirable it may be for a person to wean himself from this habit, still the confirmed snuff-taker should be cautious not to abandon the indulgence all at once, but to lessen the quantity gradually until it is finally abandoned. The reason for this is, that the system, after being so long accustomed to its stimulant, might flag under the withdrawal of it, and occasion serious illness. There are other reasons why snuff-taking should not be indulged in; it is an offence against cleanliness; it is disagreeable to other persons with whom the snuff-taker may be brought in contact; and it occasions a great waste of time. (921)

At last, swooping at a street corner by a fountain, one of its wheels came to a sickening little jolt…

The hazardous driving of Monsieur the Marquis’ carriage is, according to a chapter in Mercier’s Tableau de Paris (1781-8), historically accurate. In an anecdote called “Gare! Gare!” (“Watch out! Watch out!”), Mercier describes the perils of the Parisian roads in this period and the indifference of the wealthy to the consequences of their haste:

Watch out! Watch out for carriages! [writes Mercier]…. I have been knocked over three times on to the street at different periods, and in each case I was almost broken on the wheel. I therefore can claim a little bit of moral authority when I condemn the barbarous luxury of carriages.

No one’s put the brake on, despite the daily complaints. The menacing wheels which proudly hold up the rich fly no less rapidly over a pavement stained with the blood of unfortunate victims who expire in frightful tortures, awaiting the reform which will not come, because all those who participate in the administration maintain state-coaches, and consequently disdain the complaints of the infantry.

The lack of sidewalks makes almost all the streets perilous: when a man who has a little credit gets sick, they spread dung in front of his door, to muffle the sound of state-coaches; and it is then above all that one must be on guard…. When a coach has ground you up alive, they ask at the police superintendent’s office if it is the big wheel or the little wheel that did it; the coachman says the little; and if you expire beneath the big wheel, there are scarcely any pecuniary damages paid to your heirs. There is a fine for the arms, the legs, the thighs; and it is a price set ahead of time. (qtd. in and translated by Maxwell, 410-11)

He threw out a gold coin for the valet to pick up…

The gold coin tossed here, in 1780, is probably a louis d’or. (A reference to its identity as “that Louis” exists in the manuscript version of A Tale of Two Cities, though the phrase “Who threw back that Louis?” was revised by Dickens to “Who threw that?” before publication.) The louis d’or, first minted in 1640 under Louis XIII, was current through the reign of Louis XVI. The reforms of the Revolution introduced decimal coinage beginning in 1795, and though the name louis d’or has since been applied to other French coins (such as the 20 franc piece, or Napoleon), the original golden louis expired with the Revolution. In the pre-revolutionary period, the louis d’or was worth slightly less than an English pound (OED), and the chief monetary units were the louis d’or (a gold coin worth about 4 écus in this period), the écu (a silver, or sometimes a gold coin, worth about 6 livres), the livre (worth 20 sous), the sou (worth 4 liard), the liard (worth 3 deniers) and the denier (a copper coin of very small value). After the introduction of decimal coinage, the “sou” was retained as the name of a 5-centime piece (100 centimes equaled 1 franc), just as the louis d’or was retained as a name for the 20 franc piece.

…the one woman who had stood conspicuous, knitting, still knitted on with the steadfastness of Fate.

In mythology, Fate is the goddess (or one of the goddesses) of destiny. In Greek mythology, the Fates were a trio of goddesses – Clotho (“spinner”), Lachesis (“measurer”), and Atropos (“inexorable”). Clotho was said to spin the thread of life, Lachesis to draw it out to a certain length, and Atropos to cut it off. In light of this tradition of “spinning,” the knitting of Fate-like Madame Defarge echoes the vocation of her classical predecessors.

…on inanimate nature [the fields], as on the men and women who cultivated it, a prevalent tendency toward an appearance of vegetating unwillingly – a dejected disposition to give up, and wither away.

In the years just before the French Revolution, crop failures (as a result of bad weather and droughts) contributed to the poverty and hunger of the poor, especially among the peasant laborers of the French countryside. Dickens’ account of the withering of vegetation and people is probably based upon Arthur Young’s accounts of agricultural depression in his Travels in France During the Years 1787, 1788, and 1789 (1792), and upon passages in Carlyle’s French Revolution. Dickens is, in this portion of A Tale of Two Cities, representing the agricultural conditions of 1780; however, continued failures – especially those of 1788 – figured among the causes of the Revolution:

On the 13th of July, … 1788, there fell, on the very edge of harvest, the most frightful hailstorm; scattering into wild waste the Fruits of the Year; which had otherwise suffered grievously by drought. For sixty leagues round Paris especially, the ruin was almost total. To so many other evils, then, there is to be added, that of dearth, perhaps of famine. (Carlyle 91)

A year and a day later – July 14, 1789 – the Bastille was besieged.

…poor tannery, poor tavern, poor stable-yard for relays of post-horses, poor fountain, all the usual poor appointments.

A tannery is a place in which skins or hides are converted into leather by “steeping [them] in an infusion of an astringent bark, as that of the oak, or by a similarly effective process” (OED). Post-horses are those “kept at a post-house or inn for the use of post-riders, or for hire for the conveyance of travelers” (a post-house being an “inn or other house where horses are kept for the use of travelers” [OED]). The name comes from the original “postal” function of these way stations and relay horses (by means of which the mails were conveyed from stage to stage across the country before the advent of swifter conveyances like the railway). A “poor fountain” would be the “usual poor appointment” of a French village or city because water – being the chief beverage of the poor – would make a fountain a gathering place (Maxwell 455).

…the tax for the state, the tax for the church, the tax for the lord, the tax local and tax general, were to be paid here and to be paid there, according to solemn inscription in the little village, until the wonder was, that there was any village left unswallowed.

One of the chief grievances of the poor in pre-revolutionary France was the exorbitant and unequally levied set of taxes to which the common people were subject. Ironically, the greatest number of taxes fell upon the poorest of the French, while the aristocracy and clergy resisted taxation. For example, in 1776, the Controller-General of Finance suggested that the nobility and clergy should be taxed in order to help remedy the growing French national deficit; his advice met with so much indignation that the taxes were not imposed, and he himself was dismissed (French Revolution xxxii). As Carlyle describes this state of affairs,

Such are the shepherds of the people: and now how fares it with the flock? With the flock, as is inevitable, it fares ill, and even worse. They are not tended, they are only regularly shorn. They are sent for, to do statute-labour, to pay statute-taxes; to fatten battlefields (named “bed of honour”) with their bodies, in quarrels which are not theirs; their hand and toil is in every possession of man; but for themselves they have little or no possession. Untaught, uncomforted, unfed; to pine stagnantly in thick obscuration, in squalid destitution and obstruction: this is the lot of the million…. (13)

In addition to Carlyle, Dickens probably referred to Arthur Young’s Travels in France During the Years 1787, 1788 and 1789 (1792) to flesh out his account of pre-revolutionary conditions in the French countryside. Young, like Carlyle, attributes some of the revolutionary fervor of the poor to excess taxation:

The abuses attending the levy of taxes were heavy and universal. Instances and even gross ones, have been reported to me in many parts of the kingdom, that make me shudder at the oppression to which numbers must have been condemned…. [W]hat must have been the state of the poor paying heavy taxes, from which the nobility and clergy were exempted? A cruel aggravation of their misery, to see those who could best afford to pay, exempted because able. (qtd. in Sanders 91)

“Pardon, Monseigneur; he swung by the chain of the shoe – the drag.”

The “drag” is the braking mechanism used by carriages, especially to impede the motion of the vehicle as it travels downhill (to prevent undue acceleration); a “shoe” in this sense is an early kind of brake shoe.

“…he was whiter than the miller…”

A miller is a “person whose trade is the grinding of corn [in the general sense of grain] in a mill, the proprietor or tenant of a corn-mill” or “a person in a mill who has charge of the actual grinding” (OED). Millers were proverbially dusty with flour – “white” from the process of milling. According to the OED, a “dusty-poll” was a nickname for a miller from the 16th century onward; and it is interesting to note that creatures named “miller” all seem to derive the moniker from their white or dusty appearance (for example, a miller moth is “Any of various white or white-powdered insects, esp[ecially] moths” [OED]).

…Monsieur Gabelle was the Postmaster, and some other taxing functionary, united…

Monsieur Gabelle is named for his occupation – tax-collecting. The word “gabelle” originally referred to a general form of taxation, but, in the years before the French Revolution, it became specifically associated with a notoriously exploitative tax on salt (OED). Though the salt tax was originally meant to be levied equally upon the various provinces of France, in practice it was grossly disproportionate. In the more heavily taxed regions – generally those far from salt-producing areas – salt cost the consumer somewhere between twice and thirty-one times what it cost in other provinces. About 15% of the country, by treaty or purchased exemption, was not subject to the tax; in the most heavily taxed regions, the cost of salt could be as much as 20 times its actual value (Bloch, The Salt Monopoly).

Enforcement of the gabelle was extremely severe: In the period just before the Revolution, 1,800 men were imprisoned for smuggling salt, 300 were sent to the galleys, and 3,700 were detained for possession of contraband salt. In 1788, about eight years after the period in which this chapter of A Tale of Two Cities is set, the king was petitioned for the repeal or equalization of the salt tax, but the gabelle was not revoked until the overthrow of the monarchy in the French Revolution. During the Revolution, thirty-two of the gabelle farmers (the tax-collectors) were guillotined. However, Napoleon reinstated the tax to fund his invasion of Italy, and it was not finally repealed in France until after the Second World War (Bloch, The Salt Monopoly). By 1780, revenues from the gabelle had exceeded those collected in accordance with the poll tax and the “Vingtième tax” (a tax imposed 1749-1786, intended to ameliorate the national debt); indeed, the gabelle cost the people of France nearly as much as the “Taille” – the tax imposed on all commoners under the ancien régime (Chassé, The Gabelle). Thus, though Dickens’ Monsieur Gabelle is not specifically a collector of salt-taxes, his name is meant to invoke the most notoriously ruinous and unfair of the pre-revolutionary French taxes.

…the league or two…

A league is, according to the OED, an “itinerary measure of distance, varying in different countries, but usually estimated roughly at about 3 miles”; the French lieue (league) was about 4 kilometers, or slightly less than three miles (Sanders 93).

…between him and his château.

A château, the French name for a castle or a large mansion, was usually – like the Marquis’ – a country residence (OED).

…and the shadow was exchanged for the light of a flambeau, as his carriage stopped, and the great door of his château was opened to him.

“Flambeau” is the French word for torch, and though the word also exists in English, Dickens presumably uses it here to emphasize the French setting. The Marquis’ château would, in 1780, be lit by candles, torches, and oil lamps.

As if the Gorgon’s head had surveyed it, when it was finished, two centuries ago.

The Gorgon, in Greek mythology, is “[o]ne of three mythical female personages, with snakes for hair, whose look turned the beholder into stone. The one of most note, and the only mortal [one], Medusa, was slain by Perseus, and her head fixed on Athene’s shield” (OED). The Gorgon’s head is appropriate here in light of the “stony” features of the Marquis and his château. If the château was finished “two centuries ago,” it probably dates – since the events of this chapter occur in 1780 – from the 16th century; however, the house may date from two hundred years before the time of the novel, instead of two hundred years before the time of the Marquis, in which case it would have been built around 1659. Sanders argues that the style of the architecture supports the earlier date; the style of the Marquis’ furniture, however (which is in the fashion of Louis Quatorze [r. 1643-1715]), agrees with the later dating. (Of course, the interior could have been redecorated at this particularly sumptuous period.) In any case, the age of the Marquis’ country residence not only implies the gentility of his family, but emphasizes its antiquity. The likeness to Medusa also suggests the menace of the “ancien régime” (the “old regime” or “old rule” of the nobility in feudal France).

…crossed the hall, grim with certain old boar spears, swords, and knives of the chase ... grimmer with certain heavy riding-rods and riding-whips, of which many a peasant, gone to his benefactor Death, had felt the weight when his lord was angry.

A chase is a “hunting-ground, a tract of unenclosed land reserved for breeding and hunting wild animals; unenclosed park-land” (OED). Thus, “knives of the chase” are hunting weapons. The impression conveyed by the Marquis’ collection of old weapons is that of a family tradition of feudal mastery and brutality – toward beasts and men alike.

The fashion of the last Louis but one, of the line that was never to break – the fourteenth Louis – was conspicuous in their rich furniture; but, it was diversified by many objects that were illustrations of old pages in the history of France.

Louis XIV, or Louis Quatorze, reigned from 1643 to 1715. The furniture known as “Louis Quatorze” is baroque, characterized by a highly decorative style “which arose in Italy in the late Renaissance and became prevalent in Europe during the 18th century” (OED). French baroque furniture is distinguished by a kind of exuberant elegance, often ornamented with carved beasts or mythological figures. The Marquis’ furniture, being of the period of Louis XIV, would take after the baroque furniture of the Palace of Versailles (which was built for Louis XIV). The combination of elaborate Louis XIV furniture and objects illustrative of “old pages in the history of France” tends to emphasize the feudal largess of the Marquis, and the extent to which his disregard of or contempt for the common people is heredity, entrenched and – out of date.

…in one of the château’s four extinguisher-topped towers…

Dickens apparently did not have any one model in mind for the Marquis’ château, though Sanders suggests, in his Companion to A Tale of Two Cities, that the Marquis’ double staircase and terrace may be modeled on the Palace of Fontainebleau, while the towers may take after various châteaus of the Loire valley. (The Palace of Fontainebleau dates from the 16th century; several images of it can be found at in Howe’s “Digital Archive of Architecture.” Châteaus of the Loire valley – most of which, dating from the late Middle Ages, are older than the Palace of Fontainebleau – can be seen at, and especially at  Several of the Loire valley châteaus have pointed towers or turrets resembling, as Dickens suggests, 19th-century candle extinguishers.)

Candle extinguishers of Dickens’ time consisted of a “hollow conical cap for extinguishing the light of a candle or lamp” (OED). The resemblance of candle extinguishers to the tops of medieval French towers may have been suggested to Dickens by Carlyle’s description, in The French Revolution, of the Temple Prison in Paris. Carlyle’s use of the extinguisher comparison, in reference to the incarceration of the royal family in 1792, suggests that they are themselves being extinguished: “French Royalty vanishes within the gates of the Temple; these old peaked Towers, like peaked Extinguisher or Bonsoir [“good night”], do cover it up” (502).

…and the wooden jalousie-blinds closed, so that the dark night only showed in slight horizontal lines of black, alternating with their broad lines of stone colour.

A jalousie-blind is a “blind or shutter made with slats which slope upwards from without, so as to exclude sun and rain, and admit air and some light” (OED).

…and was raising his glass of Bordeaux…

Bordeaux is a kind of French wine – a claret – named for the city in the south of France in which it is made (OED).

"I believe that if you were not in disgrace with the court, and had not been overshadowed by that cloud for years past, a letter de cachet would have sent me to some fortress indefinitely."

The lettre de cachet was a notorious instrument of arbitrary power in pre-revolutionary France. “De cachet” means “of the seal” (referring to the personal seal of the French monarch), and a “lettre de cachet” or “letter of the seal” referred to “a warrant issued in the France of the ancien régime for the imprisonment of a person without trial at the pleasure of the monarch” (OED). One 19th-century guidebook to Paris describes how

The acts of high-handed injustice two hundred years ago are now repulsive to us when we read that lettres de cachet, signed by the King and countersigned by his Secretary of State, sometimes written beforehand as a common form, and filled up at the pleasure of a favourite with what name he might choose to insert, should have been brought into frequent use; and also that men should have been secretly locked up in jail until someone high in office should be willing and powerful enough to interfere on their behalf. (Dickens’s Dictionary of Paris 20)

Such lettres de cachet play a significant part in A Tale of Two Cities, for such a lettre sent Doctor Manette to the Bastille, and Darnay could have anticipated as much at the hands of his uncle (had that uncle been in favor with “Monseigneur” and those above him at court).

From this room, many such dogs have been taken out to be hanged; in the next room (my bedroom), one fellow, to our knowledge, was poniarded on the spot for professing some insolent delicacy respecting his daughter – his daughter!

The Marquis’ reference, here, to the absurdity of a man’s “delicacy respecting his daughter,” suggests his antiquated adherence to the idea of the droit de seigneur – a right allegedly claimed by feudal lords in the Middle Ages of sleeping with a bride before the husband was allowed to do so (OED). As Richard Maxwell points out in his edition of A Tale of Two Cities, the practice of droit de seigneur would have been long out of date by 1780; yet the idea of it was in circulation in the pre-revolutionary period (partly owing to the prominent part the droit plays in Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro [1784], which was nearly banned for its indelicacies by Louis XVI [Sanders 96]). It was also a popular feature of historical novels in the mid-19th century, when Dickens was writing (Maxwell xvii).

A poniard is a kind of dagger or “short stabbing weapon” (OED). It is perhaps worth noting that this kind of weapon is specifically associated, in Carlyle’s French Revolution, with the royalists and counter-revolutionaries of the ancien régime: In a chapter called “The Day of Poniards,” Carlyle describes the circulation of rumors to the effect that a set of royalists, bearing special poniards “made to order,” meant to enter the Tuileries to convey King Louis XVI secretly out of France. The soldiers set to guard the king, becoming aware of the rumor, began to search all those seeking entrance to the Tuileries, and discovered poniards:

But to the King’s Constitutional Guard … this affluence of men with Tickets of Entry [to the Tuileries] is becoming more and more unintelligible. Is his Majesty verily for Metz, then; to be carried off by these men, on the spur of the instant?… Keep a sharp outlook, ye Centre Grenadiers on duty here: good never came from the “men in black.” Nay they have cloaks, redingotes; some of them leather-breeches, boots, – as if for instant riding! Or what is this that sticks visible from the lapel of Chevalier de Court? Too like the handle of some cutting or stabbing instrument!… “Hold, Monsieur!” – a Centre Grenadier clutches him; clutches the protrusive [instrument], whisks it out in the face of the world: by Heaven, a very dagger; hunting-knife or whatsoever you will call it; fit to drink the life of Patriotism!” (356)

If a picture of the château as it was to be a very few years hence, and of fifty like it as they too were to be a very few years hence, could have been shown to him that night, he might have been at a loss to claim his own from the ghastly, fire-charred, plunder-wrecked ruins.

In the period just after the fall of the Bastille, a number of châteaus were destroyed. Carlyle describes this period in a chapter in The French Revolution called “The General Overturn”:

Fair prophecies are spoken [of the improvement of conditions after the fall of the Bastille], but they are not fulfilled. There have been Notables, Assemblages, turnings out and comings in. Intriguing and maneuvering; Parlementary eloquence and arguing …; yet still bread comes not. The harvest is reaped and garnered; yet still we have no bread. Urged by despair and by hope, what can Drudgery do, but rise, as predicted, and produce the General Overturn?

Fancy, then, some Five full-grown Millions of such gaunt figures, with their haggard faces … in woolen jupes, with copper-studded leather girths, and high sabots, – starting up to ask, as in forest-roarings, their washed Upper-Classes, after long unreviewed centuries, virtually this question: How have ye treated us; how have ye taught us, fed us, and led us, while we toiled for you? The answer can be read in flames, over the nightly summer-sky…. Seventy-two Châteaus have flamed aloft in the Mâconnais and Beaujolais alone: this seems the center of the conflagration; but it has spread over Dauphiné, Alsace, the Lyonnais; the whole South-East is in a blaze. All over the North, from Rouen to Metz, disorder is abroad…. (191-2)

Arthur Young, in his Travels in France (1792), made similar observations in July, 1789: “Many châteaux have been burnt, others plundered, the seigneurs hunted down like wild beasts … their papers and titles burnt, and all their property destroyed” (qtd. in Sanders 96).

…and the owl made a noise with very little resemblance in it to the noise conventionally assigned to the owl by men-poets. But, it is the obstinate custom of such creatures hardly ever to say what is set down for them.

The sounds attributed to animals vary in different languages. In English, the sound traditionally made by owls is “hoot” or “hoo” (in America), or “tu-whit, tu-whoo” (in England); in French, owls say “hou-hou” (Ball, Sounds of the World’s Animals). Sanders suggests that the call of the owl at this point in the narrative makes an ominous allusion to Shakespeare’s Macbeth (II.ii.14-15), in which Macbeth says, “I have done the deed. Didst thou not hear a noise?” and Lady Macbeth replies, “I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry” (Sanders 94).

…crazy doors were unbarred…

Crazy, in the sense used here, means “full of cracks or flaws; damaged, impaired, unsound; liable to break or fall to pieces; frail, ‘shaky’” (OED).