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…Defarge himself, already begrimed with gunpowder and sweat, issued orders, issued arms, … laboured and strove in the thickest of the uproar.

Monsieur Defarge, Dickens’ wine-merchant, is based on a historical figure in the storming of the Bastille – a wine merchant named Cholat, who is mentioned briefly by Carlyle in The French Revolution: “Cholat the wine-merchant has become an impromptu cannoneer” (162).

Madame’s resolute right hand was occupied with an axe, in place of the usual softer instruments, and in her girdle were a pistol and a cruel knife.

Madame’s “usual softer instruments” are presumably her knitting needles –  probably “softer” because associated with the more delicate operations of the domestic sphere. (Madame Defarge’s knitting, however, is always ominous in A Tale of Two Cities.) Her “girdle” refers to “a ceinture for the waist or hips” (Fairholt 458) – a kind of belt. And the pistol she wears in her girdle, together with a knife, is a kind of “light fire-arm, first used in the early part of the sixteenth century” (Fairholt 558).

“Come then!” cried Defarge, in a resounding voice. “Patriots and friends, we are ready! The Bastille!”

The historic event described in this chapter is the famous fall of the Bastille – the moment (July 14, 1789, commemorated annually as Bastille Day) which marked the beginning of the French Revolution and the symbolic fall of feudalism in Europe. Dickens’ account draws heavily upon the account in his chief historical source, Carlyle’s French Revolution. Carlyle’s version runs partly as follows:

All morning, since nine, there has been a cry everywhere: To the Bastille! Repeated “deputations of citizens” have been here, passionate for arms; whom De Launay [Marquis de Launay, governor of the Bastille] has got dismissed by soft speeches through port-holes. Towards noon, Elector Thuriot de la Rosière gains admittance; finds De Launay indisposed for surrender; nay disposed for blowing up the place rather.  Thuriot mounts with him to the battlements; heaps of paving-stones, old iron and missiles lie piled; cannon all duly leveled; in every embrasure a cannon, – only drawn back a little! But outwards, behold, O Thuriot, how the multitude flows on, welling through every street; tocsin furiously pealing, all drums beating the générale: the Suburb Saint-Antoine rolling hitherward wholly as one man!…

Woe to thee, De Launay, in such an hour, if thou canst not, taking some one firm decision, rule circumstances! Soft speeches will not serve; hard grapeshot is questionable; but hovering between the two is unquestionable. Ever wilder swells the tide of men; their infinite hum waxing ever louder, into imprecations, perhaps into crackle of stray musketry, – which latter, on walls nine feet thick, cannot do execution. The Outer Drawbridge has been lowered for Thuriot; new deputation of citizens (it is the third, and noisiest of all) penetrates that way into the Outer Court: soft speeches producing no clearance of these, De Launay gives fire; pulls up his Drawbridge. A slight sputter; – which has kindled the too combustible chaos; made it a roaring fire-chaos! Bursts forth Insurrection, at sign of its own blood (for there were deaths by that sputter of fire), into endless rolling explosion of musketry distraction, execration; – and over head, from the Fortress, let one great gun, with its grapeshot, go booming, to show what we could do. The Bastille is besieged! (160-1)

Deep ditches, double drawbridge, massive stone walls, eight great towers, cannon, muskets, fire and smoke. Through the fire and through the smoke – in the fire and in the smoke, for the sea cast him up against a cannon, and on the instant he became a connonier – Defarge of the wine-shop worked like a manful soldier, Two fierce hours.

Dickens’ description of the Bastille under siege – especially the obscurity of fire and smoke – is itself a rendering of Carlyle’s description in The French Revolution:

To describe this Siege of the Bastille (thought to be one of the most important in History) perhaps transcends the talent of mortals. Could one but, after infinite reading, get to understand so much as the plan of the building! But there is open Esplanade, at the end of the Rue Saint-Antoine; there are such Forecourts, Cour Avancé, Cour de l'Orme, arched Gateway…; then new drawbridges, dormant-bridges, rampart-bastions, and the grim Eight Towers: a labyrinthic Mass, high-frowning there, of all ages from twenty years to four hundred and twenty; – beleaguered, in this its last hour, as we said, by mere Chaos come again! Ordnance of all calibers; throats of all capacities; men of all plans, every man his own engineer: seldom since the war of Pygmies and Cranes was there so anomalous a thing. (161-2)

These illustrations, from – respectively – the Artist’s Edition (1893) of Carlyle’s French Revolution and the Book of Days (1864), show the Bastille under siege.

A white flag from within the fortress, and a parley – this dimly perceptible through the raging storm, nothing audible in it – suddenly the sea rose … and swept Defarge … over the lowered drawbridge, past the massive stone outer walls, in among the eight great towers surrendered!

Again, elements in this passage draw on Carlyle’s descriptions in The French Revolution. The first of the Bastille’s drawbridges having been struck down, the second is besieged, and the defenders of the Bastille “parley” – discuss terms – with the attackers. In The French Revolution, the events between the appearance of the white flag and the surrender of the eight great towers are described as follows:

For four hours now the World-Bedlam roared: call it the World-Chimera, blowing fire! The poor Invalides [who defended the Bastille] have sunk under their battlements, or rise only with reversed muskets: they have made a white flag of napkins: go beating the chamade, or seeming to beat, for one can hear nothing. The very Swiss [Swiss mercenary guards, hired by the French government] at the portcullis look weary of firing; disheartened in the fire-deluge: a porthole at the drawbridge is opened, as by one that would speak. See Huissier Maillard [a National Guardsman who took a leading role in the attack on the Bastille and other Revolutionary events, previously introduced by Carlyle as “a Stanislas Maillard, riding-tipstaff (huissier à cheval) of the Chatelet; one of the shiftiest of men?” (115)], the shifty man! On his plank, swinging over the abyss of that stone Ditch; plank resting on parapet, balanced by weight of Patriots, – he hovers perilous: such a Dove towards such an Ark! Deftly, thou shifty Usher: one man already fell; and lies smashed, far down there, against the masonry! Usher Maillard falls not: deftly, unerring he walks, with outspread palm. The Swiss holds a paper through his porthole; the shifty Usher snatches it, and returns. Terms of surrender: Pardon, immunity to all! Are they accepted? – “Foi d’officier, On the word of an officer,” answers half-pay Hulin, – or half-pay Elie, for men do not agree on it, “they are!” Sinks the drawbridge, – Usher Maillard bolting it when down; rushes-in the living deluge: the Bastille is fallen! Victoire! La Bastille est prise! (165)

…as if he had been struggling in the surf of the South Sea, until he was landed in the outer court-yard of the Bastille.

The OED identifies the South Sea variously as the Mediterranean, the English Channel, or the “Seas of the Southern Hemisphere,” but especially the South Pacific Ocean. Dickens’ South Sea is probably the latter, notorious for the ferocity of its surf, and other kinds of ruinous instability – such as the famous 18th-century boondoggle of the “South Sea Bubble.” (The South Sea Company, incorporated in 1711, took on the English national debt “at a rate of 6% interest for a certain period of time, in return for having ‘the duties upon certain articles … rendered permanent’ and a monopoly on trade in the South Seas” [Book of Days 146]. So many people invested that the market skyrocketed, and numerous “bubble companies” arose. However, the market soon became unstable and collapsed, causing – because of the extent to which private citizens had invested – a national calamity.)

“Show me the North Tower!” said Defarge. “Quick!”

The North Tower – the site of Doctor Manette’s incarceration – is Dickens’ fictional contribution to the architecture of the Bastille. The Bastille had eight towers, two of which were on the north side – the Tour du Puits and the Tour du Coin (Sanders 51); but neither of these was called the North Tower. By generalizing the location (the North Tower could be either of the northern towers of the Bastille), Dickens opens up a space of fictional possibility within a historical site.

Through gloomy vaults where the light of day had never shown, past hideous doors of dark dens and cages, down cavernous flights of steps, and again up steep rugged ascents of stone and brick, more like dry waterfalls than staircases…

Monsieur Defarge and his companions, after the taking of the Bastille, help to liberate it from the inside – a process which eventually led to the total destruction of the prison (the physical fall that followed the symbolic one). Carlyle describes this process partly as follows:

And so it [the crowd] goes plunging through court and corridor; billowing uncontrollable, firing from windows – on itself; in hot frenzy of triumph, of grief and vengeance for its slain…. [A]shlar stones of the Bastille continue thundering through the dusk; its paper archives shall fly white. Old secrets come to view; the long-buried Despair finds voice. Read this portion of an old Letter: “If for my consolation Monseigneur would grant me, for the sake of God and the Most Blessed Trinity, that I could have news of my dear wife; were it only her name on a card, to show that she is alive! It were the greatest consolation I could receive; and I should for ever bless the greatness of Monseigneur.” Poor Prisoner, who named thyself Quéret-Démery, and has no other history, – she is dead, that dear wife of thine, and thou art dead! ‘Tis fifty years since thy breaking heart put this question; to be heard now first, and long heard, in the hearts of men. (166-8)

He had still the linstock of his gun in his own hand.

A linstock is a “staff about three feet long, having a pointed foot to stick in the deck or ground, and a forked head to hold a lighted match” (OED). Fairholt’s History of Dress (1860) describes a linstock as follows:

LINSTOCK. An ingenious invention of Italian origin, introduced in the fifteenth century, and consisting of a pike, with branches on each side, sometimes formed into the shape of a bird’s head, to hold a lighted match for the cannoneer who used them, and who was thus capable of defending himself with the same implement used for firing ordnance.

This image, from Fairholt’s History, gives us an illustration of a linstock.

Otherwise, the governor [of the Bastille] would not be marched to the Hôtel de Ville for judgment.

The governor of the Bastille in 1789 was the Marquis de Launay, who – failing to blow up the prison, as he threatened to, when the siege began – was taken with the surrender of the Bastille. In Dickens’ version, Defarge is among those who physically seize de Launay and take him to the Hôtel de Ville – the Paris town hall. 

The Hôtel de Ville standing in Paris today is not the same Hôtel de Ville that stood during the French Revolution, for the latter was burned down by the revolutionaries of the Commune of 1871. However, even the Hôtel de Ville of Dickens’ time bore little resemblance to the Hôtel de Ville to which de Launay was escorted after the fall of the Bastille, for the edifice was damaged during the French Revolution and restored and expanded at the beginning of the 19th century. The original Hôtel de Ville was begun in 1533 to replace the Maison aux Piliers (a building named for the row of pillars that supported it). However, as one 19th-century guidebook notes,

The building did not progress rapidly; in 1550 only one story was completed. Then came the religious civil war, and the work was suspended. In 1605 Henri IV was king, and François Miron provost among the merchants [who had initiated work on the new building]. Work was again commenced, and Miron from the emoluments of his office paid for the façade of the building. The whole was completed in 1628. This façade, very much smaller than that of the building destroyed in 1871, stood in front of the open space … called La Place de Grève. At each side there was a pavilion, or a large wing, and in the center there was a campanile, or bell-tower. Over the main gateway there was a fine equestrian statue in bas-relief of Henri IV. This was the work of Pierre Biard, and was cut in black marble. During the [French Revolution] the statue was destroyed; under the Restoration [of the monarchy in the early 19th century] the king was again put up, but in plaster; and the Government of July, in 1829, moulded a statue in bronze…. (Dickens’s Dictionary of Paris 116)

This illustration of the Hôtel de Ville, with the Place de Grève in the foreground, shows the building approximately as it would have appeared in 1789. Though the image, taken from Tronchet’s Picture of Paris (c.1818), was engraved after the Revolution, it shows the Hôtel in its restored state, and prior to its early-19th-century expansion.

The Place de Grève (“grève” means “bank of the river”) is located on the north bank of the Seine. It was later renamed La Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, and is famous as a site of public executions in Paris up to and through the time of the French Revolution. During the Terror, the guillotine was first erected in the Place de Grève, but was afterwards moved to the Place de la Révolution (now called the Place de la Concorde) (Baedeker 174). After the Revolution, the Place de Grève again became the usual place of execution, but was later put to more pleasant uses:  In 1801 and 1836, the Hôtel de Ville was enlarged, “increased by three-fourths its former size” (Dickens’s Dictionary of Paris 116-7), and this enlarged Hôtel de Ville was the site of fêtes given by the city of Paris in the 19th century, the first of which occurred before Dickens began to compose A Tale of Two Cities: “The two great fêtes given at the Hôtel de Ville under the Second Empire were upon the occasion of the visit of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to Paris in 1854, and in 1867, the year of the second great Exhibition” (Dickens’s Dictionary of Paris 116-7). After its destruction in 1871, the Hôtel de Ville was rebuilt to look much as it had before the fire (Handbook to Paris 139), and has survived in more or less the same state since. (According to Rough Guide, it is an “oppressively gleaming and gargantuan mansion” [117].)  It is currently the seat of local government, with “one whole floor the private apartment of the mayor”; and an illustrated history of the Hôtel de Ville – “always a prime target in riots and revolutions” – is displayed “along the platform of M° Châtelet on the Neuilly-Vincennes [Metro] line” (Baillie and Salmon 117).

The relative positions of the Hôtel de Ville and the Bastille are visible on this portion of the Plan de la Ville de Paris en 1789.  The Bastille is at the lower right; the Hôtel de Ville is marked next to the Place de Grève, which lies on the north bank of the Seine above the eastern end of the Ile de la Cité.

Click on map for larger view

…this grim old officer [the governor of the Bastille] in his grey coat and red decoration…

Dickens’ description of the Marquis de Launay echoes Carlyle’s, especially in the detail of the prisoner’s dress:

De Launay, “discovered in grey frock with poppy-coloured riband,” is for killing himself with the sword of his cane. He shall to the Hôtel de Ville; Hulin, Maillard and others escorting him; Elie marching foremost “with the capitulation-paper on his sword’s point.” Through roarings and cursings; through hustlings, clutchings, and at last through strokes! Your escort is hustled aside, felled down; Hulin sinks exhausted on a heap of stones. Miserable De Launay! He shall never enter the Hôtel de Ville: only his “bloody hair-queue, held up in a bloody hand”; that shall enter, for a sign. The bleeding trunk lies on the steps there; the head is off through the streets; ghastly, aloft on a pike. (166)

In Dickens’ version, it is Madame Defarge who cuts off de Launay’s head.

Seven faces of prisoners, suddenly released by the storm that had burst their tomb, were carried high over head: all scared, all lost, all wondering and amazed, as if the Last Day had come.

When the Bastille was taken on July 14, 1789, there were only seven prisoners in it to be liberated (Carlyle notes that “Along the streets of Paris circulate Seven Bastille Prisoners, borne shoulder-high” [167], but does not emphasize that these seven were the only seven). However, as a prison long devoted to the incarceration of political prisoners, many of whom were confined there without trial as a result of the infamous lettres de cachet, it had become symbolic of the political caprices and injustices of the ancien régime.

The “Last Day” is of course the Day of Judgment (Revelations 20:12-13), when the dead are to rise again (the implication being that the prisoners of the Bastille were buried alive, and expected to be liberated only with the final liberation of the Apocalypse). The seven prisoners liberated from the Bastille consisted of “four forgers, two lunatics, and a ‘jeune noble débauché’ – a disciple of the Marquis de Sade” (Sanders 119).



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