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The quiet lodgings of Doctor Manette were in a quiet street-corner not far from Soho-square.

Soho Square is just south of Oxford Street, which was, in the late 18th century, near the northwestern extremity of the city of London. Doctor Manette’s house is typically identified with the real-life Carlisle House. “[C]los[ing] the vista at the end of Carlisle Street” (Sanders 74), which branches off the western side of the square, Carlisle House was, like the Manette residence, in “a quiet street-corner.” Harrison’s New and Universal History, Description and Survey … of London (1776) gives a description of Soho Square as it would have appeared during the Manettes’ residence:

SOHO SQUARE, or KING’S SQUARE. This square contains an area of considerable extent, surrounded by neat iron rails. Within the area is a garden, in the center of which is a statue of king Charles II standing on a pedestal…. At his majesty’s feet lie the representations of the four principal [English] rivers, viz. the Thames, Trent, Humber and Severn, pouring out their waters. The buildings round the square, though not uniform, are in general very spacious and handsome. The most distinguished among them is CARLISLE HOUSE. (534)

The origin of the name “Soho” is disputed, and apparently not resolved. Tallis’s Illustrated London (1851) gives the following account of the square and its history up to the time Dickens was writing:

Soho Square, into which there are approaches from every point of the compass, is one of the earliest squares in the metropolis, and the West-end character which it once maintained is hardly yet departed from it, it being the resort, if not the residence, of a considerable proportion of the fashionable world. It was commenced in the reign of Charles II, and the unfortunate Duke of Monmouth [one of Charles II’s illegitimate sons] lived in the center house, opposite the statue. The square was originally called, in honour of that nobleman, Mon-mouth square, and subsequently it acquired the name of King-square. Pennant says, that upon the death of the Duke of Monmouth, his admirers changed the name to Soho, being the word of the day at the field of Sedgmoor, but this account is refuted by a work printed in 1683, four years anterior to the battle of Sedgmoor, in which the London house of the Duke of Monmouth is stated to be in “Soho”-square. Thus the origin of its present name is unexplained. (vol. 1, 103)

When Dickens was composing A Tale of Two Cities, Carlisle House in Soho Square was a hotel; it was destroyed by bombs in the Second World War (Sanders 74). Soho Square is visible on the portion of Harrison’s map of London (1777) that accompanies the entry below.

Mr. Jarvis Lorry walked along the sunny streets from Clerkenwell where he lived, on his way to dine with the Doctor.

Clerkenwell, east of Soho Square, was also near the northern extremities of London in the late 18th century. According to Baedeker’s London and Its Environs (1908), Clerkenwell “derives its name from the ‘Clerks’ Well’ once situated here, to which the parish clerks of London annually resorted for the celebration of miracle plays, etc.” (104); it was originally a village of its own, later incorporated as a parish of London (Sanders 75). In the 18th century, Clerkenwell was a pleasant and somewhat fashionable area; by the time Dickens was writing A Tale of Two Cities, however, it had become a notoriously bad part of town. A modern Blue Guide gives the following account of Clerkenwell’s vicissitudes:

The waters of the Fleet [River] once made it delightful, and its springs and wells served several monastic establishments (the area’s name derives from “Clerk’s Well,” clerks being monks). After the Reformation, many of the new property-owning aristocrats built mansions here and in the 18th century the wells and spas, among them Sadler’s Wells and Spa Fields, became popular venues for weekend entertainments…. Overcrowding gradually polluted the waters and created slums, made worse by the Victorians driving new roads through the dense housing. Clerkenwell gradually became infamous as a center of [19th-century] radicalism and a breeding-ground for the Chartist movement of the 1840s and related riots and demonstrations. (292-3)

In 1780, when Mr. Lorry takes his walk, Clerkenwell would still be a pleasant part of town, known for its somewhat rural attractions (the springs and wells); and, if he lived near the Green, he would have seen the Middlesex Sessions House (erected 1779-82) under construction. Both Clerkenwell and Soho Square are visible on this portion of Harrison’s 1777 map of London.

Click on map for larger view

Taking Clerkenwell Green (visible at the far right, in about the middle of the map) as a general starting-point for Mr. Lorry’s progress toward Soho Square, we can see that, to reach the Manette residence, he would have walked southwest to Oxford Street, and then have turned into Soho Square (Soho Square is visible under Oxford Street, just left of the center of the map, at the bottom). As the crow flies, Clerkenwell Green is about a mile and a quarter from Soho Square. Depending upon the exact location of his lodgings and the circuitousness of his route, Mr. Lorry’s walk may have been slightly longer or slightly shorter.

There were few buildings then, north of the Oxford-road, and forest-trees flourished, and wild flowers grew, and the hawthorn blossomed, in the now vanished fields. As a consequence, the country airs circulated in Soho with vigorous freedom…

Dickens’ account of the rural quality of Soho Square in 1780 is somewhat exaggerated. As we can see from the map above, the area north of Oxford Street was already reasonably demarcated with streets and squares in 1777. In comparison to its 19th-century condition, however, the area was quite pastoral in the 18th century. Moreover, according to the scale of Harrison’s map, Soho Square is only a little over a quarter of a mile from the fields north of Oxford Road (Darlington and Howgego 127). Thus, though the area around the Square was more developed in 1780 than Dickens suggests, the “country airs” could indeed have circulated in Soho with a reasonably “vigorous freedom,” and the hawthorn may well have blossomed nearby.

Hawthorn is a “thorny shrub or small tree, Cratægus Oxyacantha” (OED), which grows well in England and is frequently used in hedges. Its blossoms are usually white, but sometimes red or pink. The Illustrated Dictionary of Gardening (c. 1888) describes it as “sharp-spined,” “sweet-scented,” and tending to reach a height of 10 to 20 feet (vol. 1, 392). The illustration below, of a flowering branch of hawthorn, is taken from the Illustrated Dictionary.

…instead of languishing into the parish like stray paupers without a settlement…

Dickens’ comparison of London breezes to “stray paupers without a settlement” invokes the system of relief for paupers (the poor) that existed in England from the 16th century until the beginning of the 19th. Parishes – ecclesiastical divisions of land – were responsible for supporting the poor, aged, mentally ill and otherwise incapacitated members of their communities; thus a pauper residing in a given parish would be “settled” there, and would receive assistance through that parish. In 1834, however, the passage of the Poor Law Amendment Act changed the system. The object of the Poor Law Amendment Act was to improve the system of poor relief, reducing the costs of providing it (which were defrayed through taxation), standardizing administration, etc. Instead of making poor relief the responsibility of individual parishes, the Poor Law Amendment Act grouped parishes into districts overseen by elected Poor-Law guardians, and established workhouses for the poor in each district. Though intended as charitable and benign institutions in which the able-bodied poor could find lodging and subsistence in return for labor, workhouses became notorious for their abuses (Dickens himself exposed the injustices of the workhouse in Oliver Twist [1837-8]) (Arnstein 55-7). By the time Dickens was writing A Tale of Two Cities, the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act had been in effect for over twenty years, and it is possible that his reference to stray paupers, instead of invoking a bygone social nuisance, is introduced out of nostalgia for a gentler period in England’s social history.

…and there was many a good south wall, not far off, on which the peaches ripened in their season.

Because of England’s climate, special care had to be taken of peach trees; they were often planted against walls to protect and help ripen the fruit. The Illustrated Dictionary of Gardening (c.1888) gives an account of peaches and the proper means of growing them:

PEACH (Persica vulgaris). The Peach has been cultivated in this country [England] since the middle of the sixteenth century, about which time it is said to have been introduced. Although generally stated to be a native of Persia, De Candolle considers the Peach to be of Chinese origin…. It was known to Theophrastus in 322 B.C. Its cultivation is now more or less extensively practiced over a large portion of Europe and America. In this country, the trees require protection of some sort, particularly during the spring. This is provided by planting them under glass, or against walls outside, with a southern exposure, temporary coverings being used in the latter case, throughout the flowering period, and until the fruits are set. Trees planted in the open ground never become sufficiently ripened to bear fruit: consequently, their culture is seldom attempted, except in a young state, without proper protection being provided…. (vol. 3, 42)

... a tranquil bark ...

A bark is simply a boat. The word, however, was already somewhat archaic in the 19th century; it was and is usually used poetically (OED).

In a building at the back, attainable by a court-yard where a plane-tree rustled its green leaves…

There are various kinds of plane trees, but Platanus orientalis, originally “a native of Persia and the Levant” (OED), is “commonly planted as an ornamental tree in European and British parks, town avenues, and squares, etc.” (OED). The Illustrated Dictionary of Gardening (c. 1888) notes that the typical platanus orientalis can grow to be 60 to 80 feet tall and describes it as

A beautiful tree, presenting a great variety of handsome forms, which differ chiefly in the shape and lobing of the leaves. The variety of acerifolia (Maple-leaved) is the commonest in cultivation…. It [the acerifolia variety] is the form known as the London Plane, on account of its being generally planted in the parks; and is an erect-growing tree, with usually three-lobed leaves, or, if five-lobed, less deeply so than in the typical form…. The typical orientalis is a more spreading tree, with very large, deeply five-lobed leaves, cordate or truncate at the base. The variety cuneata has the leaves distinctly wedge-shaped at the base; laciniata, very deeply, much-divided leaves; and variegata, variegated foliage. (vol. 3, 156)

…and silver to be chased ...

To “chase” silver is to ornament it, usually either by adding embossing or engraved work in relief, or by engraving its surface (OED).

The first was the best room, and in it were Lucie’s birds, and flowers, and books, and desk, and work-table, and box of water-colours…

Lucie’s books, desk, work-table, and box of water-colors identify her as an accomplished young woman of the 18th century. Women, of course, were not sent to school, so “accomplishment” meant, instead of specific intellectual talents or achievements, a conversant knowledge of literature and domestic arts like sketching and sewing. The presence of Lucie’s water-colors suggests that she can and does draw; and her work-table refers to her box of sewing or needlepoint materials. The Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859) gives the following illustration and description of a

BOX FOR THE WORK-TABLE. – This convenient and elegant receptacle is almost indispensable for females who are much employed in needlework; as it contains, in a compact form, all the implements and materials called into requisition; and possesses the double advantage of costing but little, and of being portable. The moveable tray holds the scissors, knife, stiletto, bodkin, &c.; the part beneath is capable of containing the more bulky materials generally used and the part immediately beneath the lid is adapted to retain any article that is required to be kept with great care. (179)

…taking off her darling’s bonnet when she came up-stairs, and touching it up with the ends of her handkerchief, and blowing the dust off it, and folding her mantle ready for laying by…

A bonnet is a woman’s hat, described by the Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859) as “one of the most important [articles of female attire], for, according as it offends against, or conforms with, certain principles of taste, so it is rendered what is called ‘becoming’ or ‘unbecoming,’ and materially influences, not only the appearance of the face of the wearer, but the whole person” (166). In the 18th century, bonnets, to accommodate the large wigs of the period, sometimes reached considerable proportions. Lucie’s bonnet, however, would have been a relatively modest affair, partly because she wears her own hair, and partly because she does not participate in the vogues of the very wealthy. According to the Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859), Miss Pross’ scrupulous care of Lucie’s bonnet is appropriate:

A bonnet and its trimmings will last much longer if dusted immediately after a walk, and then placed in a bonnet-box; for this purpose there is nothing better than a handful of large feathers of fowls tied together. Straw bonnets may be greatly improved in appearance by washing them with soap and water, applied with a sponge or flannel; after washing, rinse them well in cold water, and dry them quickly in the air; when dry, beat the white of an egg well and wash the bonnet with it. The wire should be removed previous to the operation, and fastened on afterwards. Old straw bonnets may be easily reduced into bonnets or hats for children. (166)

A mantle is a “protective garment or blanket,” usually a “loose sleeveless cloak” (OED).

Miss Pross’s friendship being of the thoroughly practical kind, she had ravaged Soho and the adjacent provinces, in search of impoverished French, who, tempted by shillings and half-crowns, would impart culinary mysteries to her. From these decayed sons and daughters of Gaul…

A large French Protestant population settled in the neighborhood of Soho Square in the 17th century, partly as a result of the 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes. (The Edict of Nantes had granted Protestants equal rights with Catholics in 1598, but was subsequently revoked by Louis XIV.) It is apparently the progeny of these emigrants that constitute Dickens’ “decayed sons and daughters of Gaul.”




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