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No vivacious Bacchanalian flame leaped out of the pressed grape of Monsieur Defarge…

Bacchus is the god of wine, and a “Bacchanalian flame” would be one of raucous or festive intoxication. It is interesting to note that Carlyle, in The French Revolution, refers to the early activity of patriotic French women – the “Insurrection of Women” – as a “Maenadic” frenzy. (The Maenads were the Bacchantes, female followers of Bacchus; they were typically frenzied, orgiastic, and violent.) Thus, although Monsieur Defarge’s wine lacks the Bacchanalian flame, the reference to Bacchus may foreshadow Madame Defarge’s patriotic fervor.

They had the air of a rough tribunal; Jacques One and Two sitting on the old pallet-bed…

A tribunal is a judicial body, named for the original meaning of the word “tribunal” – a “raised semicircular or square platform in a Roman basilica, on which the seats of the magistrates were placed” (OED). The present tribunal, seated on a pallet-bed (which would be a bed of a poor and probably incommodious sort, perhaps a straw bed or a thin mattress [OED]), is indeed of a “rough” kind; yet the allusion to antiquity contained in the word is appropriate, and probably intentional: French patriots, during and after the French Revolution, adopted what they considered to be the political forms of classical antiquity, as well as some of the styles of dress associated with it. Dickens’ vocabulary here and elsewhere seems to foreshadow this development.

“the guard, horse and foot, surrounded the petitioner, and struck him blows. You hear?”

Both the cavalry (“horse”) and infantry (“foot”) are included in the military presence described here. Given that the phrase “horse and foot” is sometimes used figuratively, because it includes both divisions of an army, to mean “with all one’s might” (OED), the expression, as it is used here, may stress the excessiveness of the brutality directed against the petitioner.

“Monseigneur was the father of his tenants – serfs – what you will – he will be executed as a parricide. One old man says at the fountain, that his right hand, armed with a knife, will be burnt off before his face; that, into wounds which will be made in his arms, his breast, and his legs, there will be poured boiling oil, melted lead, hot resin, wax, and sulphur; finally, that he will be torn limb from limb by four strong horses. That old man says, all this was actually done to a prisoner who made an attempt on the life of the last King, Louis Fifteen. But how do I know if he lies? I am not a scholar.”

This punishment was in fact levied against a man who attempted to assassinate Louis XV in 1757 – Robert François Damiens. Damiens was apparently motivated by a conviction that killing the King would help stabilize the Catholic church, as Louis XV was then involved in a dispute with the Paris Parliament concerning church doctrine (the Catholic church was experiencing some upheaval at this time, partly as a result of the excommunication of groups like the Convulsionists, to whom Dickens alludes in a previous chapter). Only managing to wound Louis XV as he climbed into his carriage, Damiens made no attempt to escape or resist arrest, and was sentenced to quartering (quartering entails being cut into pieces or being torn apart by horses) in the Place de Grève (the traditional place of executions outside the Hôtel de Ville in Paris). He underwent the tortures described – the burning of his hand, the boiling oil, melted lead, hot resin, wax, and sulphur in his wounds – before being killed (Sanders 107).

Though Dickens seems to give this mode of execution a kind of representative status, it was in fact a rare punishment revived for Damiens. In 1610, Henri IV’s assassin had undergone the same set of penalties, and since this previous assassin had also been motivated by religious controversy, the revival of his sentence was in a sense symbolic – a way of suggesting that Damiens, like Ravaillac before him, had been part of “a Jesuitical and devout conspiracy” bent on regicide (Maxwell 459). Given the unusual and symbolic nature of Damiens’ sentence, it is unlikely that Gaspard would be subject to the same punishment, even though he is tried as a parricide (a parricide is one who kills a parent or other sacred or reverenced person [OED]). However, the impact of this fictional decision is significant, for it emphasizes the feudal aspect of French government before the Revolution. Just as Dickens draws, elsewhere, upon somewhat anachronistic concepts to illustrate the feudal character of the late Marquis (e.g. the droit de seigneur), his representation of Damiens’ punishment as a seemingly-standard one emphasizes a tradition of feudal brutality that the French Revolution sought to end. Where A Tale of Two Cities exaggerates, it often does so to place special stress on the ancien in ancien régime.

Workmen dig, workmen hammer, soldiers laugh and sing; in the morning, by the fountain, there is raised a gallows forty feet high, poisoning the water.

The “gallows forty feet high” – an innovation on the existing gallows introduced in about 1775 – is, for Dickens, a symbol of aristocratic and monarchical brutality. In this, he follows Carlyle: After introducing the 40-foot gallows early in The French Revolution, Carlyle makes continual allusions it, and it becomes an evocative motif for the work as a whole.

The forty-foot gallows is illustrated (above) in the Artist’s Edition (1893) of Carlyle’s French Revolution, in connection with its first appearance (when the hungry people of Paris present a “Petition of Grievances” to the King):

And so, on the 2nd day of May, 1775, these waste multitudes do here, at Versailles Château, in wide-spread wretchedness, in sallow faces, squalor, winged raggedness, present, as in legible hieroglyphic writing, their Petition of Grievances. The Château-gates must be shut; but the King will appear on the balcony, and speak to them. They have seen the King’s face; their Petition of Grievances has been, if not read, looked at. For answer, two of them are hanged, on a “new gallows forty feet high”; and the rest driven back to their dens – for a time. (30)

Therefore, when Sunday came, the mender of roads was not enchanted (though he said he was) to find that madame was to accompany monsieur and himself to Versailles.

Versailles, located southwest of Paris, is four leagues (or about 20 kilometers/12 miles) from the city (Tronchet 277, Baillie and Salmon 399). Louis XIII purchased the land and built an “uncouth hunting seat” there (Tronchet 277); and Louis XIV converted this rustic resort into the magnificent château that still stands, begun in 1673 and completed in 1680 (Tronchet 277). Louis XVI – whose court the mender of roads and the Defarges go to see – was the last to live in it.

At the commencement of the French Revolution, a number of significant events took place at Versailles, and Louis and his family were eventually forced to move out of it and into the Palais des Tuileries in Paris. Baedeker’s Paris and Its Environs (1878) gives the following account of some of the significant revolutionary and post-revolutionary events at Versailles:

It was at the meeting of the [three] Estates [the nobility, the clergy, and the commons] held here in 1789 that the “Tiers Etat” [the Third Estate, or common people] took the memorable step – the first on the way to the Revolution – of forming itself into a separate body, the Assemblée Nationale [the National Assembly]. A few months later the unfortunate Louis XVI saw the palace of Versailles sacked by a Parisian mob, which included many thousands of women (“les dames de la halle”), and since that period it has remained uninhabited….

The building [of the Palace of Versailles] dates from several different periods, and its style lacks uniformity. The central part is the original château of Louis XIII, built of brick and stone, and the wings were added by J.H.Mansart (d.1708) under Louis XIV. On the right rises the chapel with its pointed roof; adjoining it is a pavilion erected by Louis XV; and to the left of the court is a corresponding pavilion added by Louis XVIII. (278-80)

After Louis XVI was forced to decamp, the Versailles furniture was sold, and the pictures were sent to the Louvre (Baillie and Salmon 403). According to Baedeker, the château itself was nearly sold, and Napoleon wouldn’t live in it because of the restoration costs; but King Louis Phillippe saved Versailles in 1837, donating funds to convert it into a historical monument (278-9). The building was much restored in the 20th century between World War I and World War II, as the park and gardens – 4 square kilometers in extent – were likewise. In 1961, a law was passed mandating the return of any extant pieces of the furniture dispersed during the Revolution, and Versailles is today one of the three most visited monuments in France (Baillie and Salmon 399-403).

…for, soon the large-faced King and the fair-faced Queen came in their golden coach, attended by the shining Bull’s Eye of their Court, a glittering multitude of laughing ladies and fine lords; and in jewels and silks and powder and splendour…

The “shining Bull’s Eye” of the French Court refers to the Oeil de Boeuf (literally “bull’s eye” or “ox’s eye”) – a name used by Carlyle, in The French Revolution, to designate the group of courtiers surrounding the King and Queen at Versailles. The name comes from the “Salle de l’Oeil de Boeuf” – a small octagonal vestibule just outside the State Apartments at Versailles, so-called for its small round window (called an oeil de boeuf) (Sanders 107 and OED). An early use of the term “Oeil de Boeuf” in The French Revolution runs as follows: “The prophetic song of Paris and its Philosophes is audible enough in the Versailles Oeil-de-Boeuf; and the Oeil-de-Boeuf [meaning those who occupy the chamber of this name], intent chiefly on nearer blessedness, can answer, at worst, with a polite, ‘Why not?’” (27). Dickens’ conversion of the French phrase (“Oeil de Boeuf”) into its literal English equivalent (“Bull’s Eye”) not only adapts the facetiousness of his source text, but is also somewhat ominous. The English translation – Bull’s Eye – foreshadows the fate of the nobles constituting the Oeil de Boeuf: that of becoming a target.



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