Discovering Dickens - A Community Reading Project

 Discovering Dickens

 A Tale of Two Cities

 Maps and Illustrations



 Biographical Context

 Historical Context

 Archived Novels






Printable View

Two score and twelve were told off. From the farmer-general of seventy, whose riches could not buy his life, to the seamstress of twenty, whose poverty and obscurity could not save her.

Carlyle notes, toward the end of The French Revolution, that “‘all the Farmers-General [the tax-collectors under the ancien régime] are arrested’; all, and shall give an account of their moneys and incomings; and die for ‘putting water in the tobacco’ they sold” (725). The contrast that Dickens draws here (between the elderly Farmer-General, probably prosperous for much of his life, and the humble, comparatively impoverished twenty-year-old seamstress) represents the ultimate diversity of victimization during the Terror. Though members of the nobility and officials belonging to the overturned aristocratic government (like the Farmers-General) were obvious targets of the Terror, suspected by dint of their station of being traitors to the Republic, common people went to the guillotine too. Anyone could be denounced, and, if denounced, executed. As Carlyle notes,

Indictments cease by degrees to have so much as plausibility…. If no speakable charge exist against a man, or Batch of men, Fouquier [the Prosecutor of the Revolutionary Tribunal] has always this: a Plot in the Prison. (724)

The seamstress with whom Carton ultimately travels to his death is accused of such Plots.

He wrote a long letter to Lucie, showing her that he had known nothing of her father’s imprisonment until he had heard of it from herself…

The composition of letters like Darnay’s was allowed in the prisons.  Dickens’ source for this privilege is probably Honoré Riouffe’s Mémoires sur les prisons (an account, published in 1823, of the Parisian prisons during the Terror) (Sanders 160).

“Would it be much out of the way, to take me in, near the great cathedral door between the two towers?”

The “cathedral door” at which Miss Pross plans to meet Mr. Cruncher is the west front entrance of Notre Dame. By this period, Notre Dame had been converted into a “Temple of Reason” by the Republic, and had been significantly damaged by revolutionary zeal. For instance, the “Galerie des Rois”– the row of statues above the three doors, visible in the engraving below from the Histoire de Paris (1869) – had been destroyed. The 28 statues, representing the “kings of Judah, considered as the ministers of the Virgin to whom the church was dedicated,” were mistaken for “the early kings of France down to Philippe Auguste” (Dickens’s Dictionary of Paris 166) and “decapitated.” Many of the interior ornaments were also plundered or destroyed in this period, but – like the façade – restored or replaced in the 19th century. Notre Dame’s present gargoyles and steeple were 19th-century additions, and did not exist during the Revolution (Baillie and Salmon 74-5).

“If those eyes of yours were bed-winches,” returned Miss Pross, “and I was an English four-poster, they shouldn’t loose a splinter of me.”

A bed-winch is “an instrument for tightening up or loosening the screws of bedsteads” (Oxford English Dictionary), and a four-poster refers to a bedstead with four posts. According to the Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859), which describes a number of bedsteads, the “four-post bedstead is considered the most elegant and commodious, but it is adapted only for large rooms; in small rooms, by monopolizing too great a space, and obstructing the air and light, they are both inconvenient and unhealthy” (116). However, 18th- and 19th-century bedsteads seem to have been generally “inconvenient and unhealthy,” as the Dictionary concludes its entry on “bedsteads” with the following admonition:

Bedsteads should be kept scrupulously clean, and periodically examined. They should be dusted daily, especially the top part [in bedsteads with testers, or canopies] which is frequently neglected…. [If] dust [is] suffered to collect, … vermin are … bred. Every month during the summer season, and every two months during the winter, the bedstead should be taken to pieces, removed into the garden or yard, and there thoroughly washed with hot water and soft soap. If the bedstead is infested with vermin, from age and long use, the eradication of the evil is almost hopeless; and the best and wisest plan is to get rid of the bedstead altogether. (117)



Copyright © 2002 Stanford University. All rights reserved. Stanford, CA 94305, (650)723-2300. Terms of Use