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A man with a bloated face opened the strong wicket…

A wicket is a small gate or door, often “made in, or placed beside, a large one, for ingress and egress when the large one is closed” (OED).

He stuck the paper on a file, in an ill-humour, and Charles Darnay awaited his further pleasure for half an hour…

“File” is used here in its original sense – that of “a string or wire, on which papers and documents are strung for preservation and reference” (OED). This meaning was later extended to include “various other appliances for holding papers so that they can be easily referred to” (OED).

Tellson’s Bank, established in the Saint Germain Quarter of Paris, was in a wing of a large house, approached by a court-yard and shut off from the street by a high wall and a strong gate…

The Saint Germain Quarter, named for the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, was a prosperous and fashionable quarter in the 18th century, as it was in Dickens’ time and still is in our own. One 19th-century guidebook notes that “the Quartier St. Germain [is] one of the aristocratic quarters of Paris, and the seat of the old noblesse” (Dickens's Dictionary of Paris 252-3); and this was certainly the case in 1792. As it turns out, we have seen Tellson’s house before: it is the house of “Monseigneur” – the Monseigneur who required three men to make his chocolate in an earlier chapter.

A mere beast of the chase flying from hunters, he was still in his metempsychosis no other than the same Monseigneur…

Metempsychosis refers to the “transmigration of the soul[;] passage of the soul from one body to another; esp[ecially] (chiefly in Pythagoreanism and certain Eastern religions) the transmigration of the soul of a human being or animal at or after death into a new body of the same or a different species” (OED). Monseigneur’s transformation seems, metaphorically, to comprehend the migration of his soul into a body of a separate species as well as a different class, for he is figured here as a “beast of the chase.” Dickens may be invoking, in this figure, the story of Acteon (Acteon surprised the goddess Diana while she was bathing, and she turned him into a stag; he was then set upon by his own dogs and torn to pieces). He may also be invoking Carlyle’s account of the first waves of aristocratic emigration in The French Revolution:

On the [English] Cliffs of Dover, over all the Marches of France, there appear, this autumn [1789], two signs on the Earth: emigrant flights of French Seigneurs; emigrant winged flights of French Game! Finished, one may say, or as good as finished, is the Preservation of Game on this Earth; completed for endless Time. (195)

Carlyle, having made much of aristocratic preserves of game (as Dickens himself does early in A Tale of Two Cities, referring to the “State preserves of loaves and fishes”), uses the same vocabulary to show how the tables have turned – how the hunters have become the hunted.

A place of business in London like Tellson’s place of business in Paris, would soon have driven the House out of its mind and into the Gazette.

The Gazette is the London Gazette, in which bankruptcies were required to be advertised. The OED describes this periodical as an official journal “issued by authority twice a week, and containing lists of government appointments and promotions, names of bankrupts, and other public notices. Hence sometimes used gen[erally] for the official journal of any government.” The OED likewise notes that the expression “to be in the gazette” means “to be published a bankrupt” and gives the following history of the paper that became the London Gazette:

The first official journal published in England was The Oxford Gazette, the first number of which appeared in Nov. 1665, when the Court was at Oxford on account of the plague. Nos. 22 and 23 were printed in London, and with No. 24 the title was changed to The London Gazette.

Appropriately, the word “gazette” is thought to derive from a coin of that name, “which may have been the sum paid either for the paper itself or for the privilege of reading it” (OED).

For, what would staid British responsibility and respectability have said to orange-trees in boxes in a Bank court-yard, and even to a Cupid over the counter?

Orange trees grown in pots or boxes were a prominent feature of French ornamental gardens in the 18th century; in fact, the “Orangerie” located behind the palace of Versailles was still maintained in Dickens’ time, as it is in our own: Baedeker’s Paris and Its Environs, published in the late 19th century, describes the Versailles Orangerie as filled with about 1,200 potted orange trees; these were “dispersed through the gardens in summer,” and one of them was “said to be upwards of 450 years old” (294). Baedeker also mentions an “Allée des Orangers” – an “avenue of orange-trees in tubs, on the side next the Rue de Rivoli … [which] now [in the late 19th century] diffuses its fragrance on the spot where a potato-field was planted during the reign of terror in 1793” (153).

Though orange trees in pots or boxes were common in French gardening, they were rare in England. This was partly due to the English climate (in which citrus trees are more difficult to grow), but apparently also partly due to an English prejudice against European frivolities. Indeed, the English Illustrated Dictionary of Gardening (c.1888) remarks that

…although, in Britain, oranges for fruit production cannot be grown in sufficient quantity to compete with countries where the trees grow freely outside, yet it is strange, considering the excellent quality of the fruit when properly cultivated [in hot-houses], to what an extent the trees are neglected in this respect in the great majority of English gardens, even in those where almost every other important kind of fruit is represented.

Given that oranges were not impossible to grow in England, the general absence of English orangeries may imply an objection on aesthetic grounds. Indeed, since potted or boxed oranges were cultivated in hot-houses as ornamental trees (not as fruit trees) and moved outside only during the warmer parts of the year, they could be grown almost regardless of local climate. In any case, the English seemed to view the French as an authority in orange-production, and this suggests the extent to which the trees were cultivated in one country and not in the other. The Illustrated Dictionary of Gardening refers its readers to French textbooks as follows:

Some idea of the number of … cultivated varieties [of oranges], and their range of differences in size, form, colour, and taste of the fruits, may be obtained when it is stated that, in the “Histoire Naturelle des Orangers,” a folio work, by Risso and Poiteau (1818), there are no less than 109 plates. The literature on the subject is very considerable; but the most important work, besides the one just mentioned, is Gallesios’s “Traité du Citrus” (8 vo[lumes]), published at Paris, in 1811. (505)

Ironically, the orange is not a European fruit at all, but probably originated in Asia.

Bankruptcy must inevitably have come of this young Pagan, in Lombard-street, London, and also of a curtained alcove in the rear of the immortal boy, and also of a looking-glass let into the wall, and also of clerks not at all old who danced in public on the slightest provocation.

The “young Pagan” is Cupid, whom Tellson’s has whitewashed in an attempt to give him an appearance of greater respectability. According to classical mythology, Cupid is the son of Venus and Mercury, and is the god of love; he totes a bow and arrow for dealing out darts of love and passion (OED). Were Cupid to visit Lombard Street, London, he would find (according to a 19th-century guidebook) the following:

Lombard Street has been for ages the most noted street in London for banking and finance, and has inherited its name from the “Lombard” money-dealers from Genoe and Florence, who, in the 14th and 15th centuries, took the place of the discredited and persecuted Jews of “Old Jewry” as money-lenders. (Baedeker 120)

Lombard Street is visible on this portion of Thornton’s map of London (1784), just to the right of center, sloping toward the lower right; it is located under Cornhill, and the crease in the map runs through it. 

Click on map for larger view

On the opposite side of the court-yard, under a colonnade, was extensive standing for carriages – where, indeed, some carriages of Monseigneur yet stood. Against two of the pillars were fastened two great flaring flambeaux, and, in the light of these, standing out in the open air, was a large grindstone…

Tellson’s, lodged in the Quartier Saint Germain, is located near the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (for which the Quarter is named); the Abbey, in turn, is adjacent to the Prison of the Abbaye, where the September massacres broke out on September 2, 1792. It is thus appropriate that the grindstone (to which the mob comes to sharpen its weapons) should be located so close to Mr. Lorry’s apartments.

The relationship of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés to the Prison of the Abbaye is visible on this portion of the Plan de la Ville de Paris, Période Révolutionnaire, 1790-94 (below).  Though some of the lettering is difficult to make out, the complex which included the Abbey and the Prison is visible under the red “Tribunal du 6e Arrondissement” (at the left side of the map, under the Rue du Colombier). (The red lettering indicates a name imposed during the revolutionary period.) The Abbey is the large dark building visible under the “Tribunal” label; the Prison of the Abbaye is represented by the dark square at the bottom right corner of the complex (if you look carefully, you can make out the name – “Prison de l’Abbaye”).

Click on map for larger view

He opened, not only the glass window, but the lattice blind outside it…

A lattice blind is a window-screen “made of laths, or of wood or metal crossed and fastened together, with open spaces left between” (OED).

False eyebrows and false mustaches were stuck upon them…

Dickens’ source for the false mustaches of the mob is apparently Carlyle’s French Revolution, for references to such false hair do not appear in other sources. However, as Sanders puts it in his Companion to A Tale of Two Cities, “This would appear to be an extraordinary misreading of a passage in Carlyle” which runs as follows:

[The] Princess de Lamballe … too is led to the hell-gate; a manifest Queen’s-Friend. She shivers back, at the sight of bloody sabres; but there is no return: Onwards! That fair hind head is cleft with the axe; the neck is severed. That fair body is cut in fragments; with indignities, and obscene horrors of moustachio grands-lèvres, which human nature would fain find incredible, – which shall be read in the original language only…. Her head is fixed on a pike; paraded under the windows of the Temple; that a still more hated, a Marie Antoinette, may see. (530-1)

Since Carlyle does not give us the source-passage, the extent of the “indignities” and “obscene horrors of moustachio” is obfuscated somewhat. However, the mustaches fashioned by the Princess’ attackers were made, not from the hair of her head, but from her pubic hair. Dickens seems to have missed this point, perhaps taking the vagueness of Carlyle’s language for generality. Indeed, since Carlyle describes revolutionaries as “moustachioed” in other contexts – e.g. “six thousand strong, ‘in red night-cap, in tricolor waistcoat, in black-shag trousers, black-shag spencer, with enormous moustachios, enormous sabre, – in carmagnole complète” (685) – it is quite possible that Dickens took prominent mustaches for part of the usual patriotic outfit.



Bibliographical information

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