Two score and twelve were told off. From the farmer-general of seventy, whose riches could not buy his life, to the seamstress of twenty, whose poverty and obscurity could not save her.

Carlyle notes, toward the end of The French Revolution, that “‘all the Farmers-General [the tax-collectors under the ancien régime] are arrested’; all, and shall give an account of their moneys and incomings; and die for ‘putting water in the tobacco’ they sold” (725). The contrast that Dickens draws here (between the elderly Farmer-General, probably prosperous for much of his life, and the humble, comparatively impoverished twenty-year-old seamstress) represents the ultimate diversity of victimization during the Terror. Though members of the nobility and officials belonging to the overturned aristocratic government (like the Farmers-General) were obvious targets of the Terror, suspected by dint of their station of being traitors to the Republic, common people went to the guillotine too. Anyone could be denounced, and, if denounced, executed. As Carlyle notes,

Indictments cease by degrees to have so much as plausibility…. If no speakable charge exist against a man, or Batch of men, Fouquier [the Prosecutor of the Revolutionary Tribunal] has always this: a Plot in the Prison. (724)

The seamstress with whom Carton ultimately travels to his death is accused of such Plots.

He wrote a long letter to Lucie, showing her that he had known nothing of her father’s imprisonment until he had heard of it from herself…

The composition of letters like Darnay’s was allowed in the prisons.  Dickens’ source for this privilege is probably Honoré Riouffe’s Mémoires sur les prisons (an account, published in 1823, of the Parisian prisons during the Terror) (Sanders 160).

“Would it be much out of the way, to take me in, near the great cathedral door between the two towers?”

The “cathedral door” at which Miss Pross plans to meet Mr. Cruncher is the west front entrance of Notre Dame. By this period, Notre Dame had been converted into a “Temple of Reason” by the Republic, and had been significantly damaged by revolutionary zeal. For instance, the “Galerie des Rois”– the row of statues above the three doors, visible in the engraving below from the Histoire de Paris (1869) – had been destroyed. The 28 statues, representing the “kings of Judah, considered as the ministers of the Virgin to whom the church was dedicated,” were mistaken for “the early kings of France down to Philippe Auguste” (Dickens’s Dictionary of Paris 166) and “decapitated.” Many of the interior ornaments were also plundered or destroyed in this period, but – like the façade – restored or replaced in the 19th century. Notre Dame’s present gargoyles and steeple were 19th-century additions, and did not exist during the Revolution (Baillie and Salmon 74-5).

“If those eyes of yours were bed-winches,” returned Miss Pross, “and I was an English four-poster, they shouldn’t loose a splinter of me.”

A bed-winch is “an instrument for tightening up or loosening the screws of bedsteads” (Oxford English Dictionary), and a four-poster refers to a bedstead with four posts. According to the Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859), which describes a number of bedsteads, the “four-post bedstead is considered the most elegant and commodious, but it is adapted only for large rooms; in small rooms, by monopolizing too great a space, and obstructing the air and light, they are both inconvenient and unhealthy” (116). However, 18th- and 19th-century bedsteads seem to have been generally “inconvenient and unhealthy,” as the Dictionary concludes its entry on “bedsteads” with the following admonition:

Bedsteads should be kept scrupulously clean, and periodically examined. They should be dusted daily, especially the top part [in bedsteads with testers, or canopies] which is frequently neglected…. [If] dust [is] suffered to collect, … vermin are … bred. Every month during the summer season, and every two months during the winter, the bedstead should be taken to pieces, removed into the garden or yard, and there thoroughly washed with hot water and soft soap. If the bedstead is infested with vermin, from age and long use, the eradication of the evil is almost hopeless; and the best and wisest plan is to get rid of the bedstead altogether. (117)

“I don’t care an English Twopence for myself.”

An English twopence is a silver coin of very small denomination – worth two pennies, a sixth of a shilling, and a mere fraction of a pound (12 pence make a shilling, and 20 shillings make a pound). Miss Pross’ insistence upon the Englishness of the coin is appropriate to her general refusal of things French; it also suggests that, ready to sacrifice herself for Lucie, she will do so only on her own terms.

“…and I pray for bodily strength to keep you here while every minute you are here is worth a hundred thousand guineas to my darling,” said Miss Pross.

A guinea, especially compared to a twopence, is a large amount – slightly more than a pound, at 21 shillings. A hundred thousand guineas would be 2,100,000 shillings, or 12,600,000 twopence. In Miss Pross’ estimation, then, Lucie is worth 12,600,000 times more to her than her own life.

In crossing the bridge, she dropped the door key in the river. Arriving at the cathedral some few minutes before her escort…

Traveling from the Quartier Saint Germain, on the south side of the Seine, Miss Pross is probably crossing onto the Ile de la Cité – on which Notre Dame is located – by the Pont Neuf (the westernmost bridge connecting the island to the banks of the river). As we can see on the portion of the Plan de la Ville de Paris, Période Révolutionnaire, 1790-94 below, the distance is not great:  The Saint Germain quarter, named for the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, is at the left side of the map, and can be roughly located according to the position of the Abbey.  (The Abbey is the large dark building above the Rue Marguerite and under the dotted square labeled “Jardin de l’Abbaye.”)  The Pont Neuf is the westernmost bridge leading onto the Ile de la Cité.  Miss Pross, from the Quartier Saint Germain, would merely have to walk northeast to the Pont Neuf and cross onto the Ile de la Cité, bearing eastward along the quays to the cathedral.

Click on map for larger view

Along the Paris streets, the death-carts rumble, hollow and harsh. Six tumbrils carry the day’s wine to La Guillotine.

The tumbrils, setting out from the Conciergerie on the Ile de la Cité with their “batches” of condemned prisoners, typically left the island for the north bank of the Seine by the Pont Neuf or Pont au Change, and crossed to the Rue Saint Honoré (on the far side of the Louvre and the Jardin National).  Following the Rue Saint Honoré westward to the Rue de la Révolution, the tumbrils then turned left and continued straight into the Place de la Révolution (where the guillotine stood) (Maxwell 481). One can trace this route on the portion of the Plan de la Ville de Paris, Période Révolutionnaire, 1790-1794 below.  (The Ile de la Cité is at the lower right; the Place de la Révolution is at the upper left.)

Click on map for larger view

In front of it, seated in chairs as in a garden of public diversion, are a number of women, busily knitting.

The knitting women described here – of whom Madame Defarge is one – are the famous citoyennes tricoteuses of revolutionary Paris. Dickens introduces them, early in A Tale of Two Cities, as the female compatriots of Madame Defarge; Carlyle, in The French Revolution, introduces them in a scene of party rivalry in 1792 – a scene in which the Jacobins object to the clemency of the Girondins:

To which the Jacobin Society answers with angry roar; – with angry shriek, for there are Citoyennes too, thick crowded in the galleries here. Citoyennes who bring their seam with them, or their knitting-needles; and shriek or knit as the case needs, famed Tricoteuses, Patriot Knitters. (580)

These knitting women appear again, in The French Revolution, when the National Convention debates whether or not to execute King Louis XVI:

The Patriots, in Mountain and Galleries, or taking counsel nightly in Section-house, in Mother Society, amid their shrill Tricoteuses, have to watch lynx-eyed; to give voice when needful; occasionally very loud. (586)

Finally, having attended numerous executions in the Place de la Révolution, these women, after the fall of Robespierre in 1794, are vanquished in the last gasp of Jacobin resistance: “The female Jacobins, famed Tricoteuses with knitting-needles, take flight; … are hooted, flouted, hustled; fustigated, in a scandalous manner …; – and vanish in mere hysterics” (756).

One of the most remarkable sufferers by the same axe – a woman – had asked at the foot of the same scaffold, not long before, to be allowed to write down the thoughts that were inspiring her.

This “remarkable sufferer” is Madame Roland, a prominent member of the revolutionary Girondin party (defeated by the Jacobins), and the wife of Girondin Minister of the Interior Jean Roland:

Arriv[ing] at the foot of the scaffold, she asked for pen and paper, “to write the strange thoughts that were rising in her”: a remarkable request; which was refused. Looking at the Statue of Liberty which stands there [the large terra-cotta statue set up in the Place de la Révolution where the statue of Louis XV had been torn down], she says bitterly: “O Liberty, what things are done in thy name!” For Lamarche’s sake [a man sent to the guillotine at the same time], she will die first; show him how easy it is to die: “Contrary to the order,” said Samson [the executioner]. – “Pshaw, you cannot refuse the last request of a Lady”; and Samson yielded. (Carlyle 682)

If he [Carton] had given any utterance to his, and they were prophetic, they would have been these: “I see Barsad, and Cly, and Defarge, The Vengeance, the Juryman, the Judge, long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use.

From the phrasing of this passage, it is not clear whether this moment of prophetic foresight belongs to Carton as he approaches his death, or whether it is the prophesy of the novel’s narrator. In either case, the prophecy came true: The guillotine did, as Carlyle puts it, “verily dev[our] its own children” (718). After the first waves of the aristocracy (royalty, nobles, and other alleged traitors to the Republic) had been killed, those who condemned them were themselves condemned: The Girondin faction fell to the Jacobins after the execution of the King; Danton, the Jacobin leader, fell to the accusations of his own party; and Robespierre himself was finally toppled in the “reaction” of 9th Thermidor (July 27, 1794), and guillotined on July 28, 1794. His death put an end to the Reign of Terror. As Carlyle remarks, “All Anarchy, all Evil, Injustice, is, by the nature of it, … suicidal, and cannot endure” (733).

I see him, foremost of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place – then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement – and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.

After the Revolution, in 1795, the name of the Place de la Révolution was changed to “Place de la Concorde”; in 1814, it reverted to its original name, “Place de Louis XV”; and in 1826, it became the “Place de Louis XVI,” and was meant to receive “an expiatory monument … to the memory of that monarch” (Baedeker 155). The monument, however, was never erected; in 1830 the Place was again named “Place de la Concorde,” and the city sought a monument which would bear

…no reference to political events. An opportunity of doing this was soon afforded by the presentation to Louis Philippe by Mohammed Ali, Pasha of Egypt, of the Obelisk of Luxor…. A vessel was dispatched to Egypt in 1831 for the purpose of bringing home the pasha’s gift. The task, however, proved so difficult that the vessel did not return with its costly freight till August, 1833, and the erection of the obelisk in its present position was not accomplished till 1836, under the direction of Lebas. The expense of the whole undertaking amounted to two million francs. (Baedeker 153-5)

The Obelisk of Luxor still stands in the Place de la Concorde today, “constantly circumnavigated by traffic” (Baillie and Salmon 92). The illustration below, from Dumas’ Paris (1889), shows the Place de la Concorde “fair to look upon, with not a trace” of the disfiguring Revolution.