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“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).


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