NOTES ON ISSUE 5: GLOSSARY
PART 4 OF 4
“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
“…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
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 www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/fnart/arch/fontainebleau.html 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 www.loire-france.com,
and especially at www.loire-france.com/itineraires/vallee-loire/index.html.
Several of the Loire valley châteaus have pointed towers
or turrets resembling, as Dickens suggests, 19th-century candle
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
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)
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 , 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
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
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
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).