A large cask of wine had been dropped and broken, in the street…, the hoops had burst, and it lay on the stones just outside the door of the wine-shop, shattered like a walnut-shell.

A cask is a barrel “formed of curved staves bound together by hoops, with flat ends or ‘heads’” (Oxford English Dictionary), and like a walnut because it is round and wooden. The Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859) describes a cask as follows, and gives us this illustration of a cask in a cask-stand:

CASK. – A vessel of capacity for containing beer, wine, and other liquids. The care and management of casks is an important affair in a large establishment. It is found that they last longest when stored either in a dry situation, or in one uniformly very moist. Continual variations from one atmosphere to another speedily rot casks. As soon as casks are emptied they should be bunged down quite air-tight, with as much care as if they were full, by which means they will be preserved both sweet and sound. Should any of the hoops become loose, they should be immediately driven up tight, which will at once prevent the liability of their being lost or misplaced, as well as the casks becoming foul or musty from the admission of air. For this purpose those out of use should be occasionally examined. To sweeten casks when musty, it is best to unhead them and wash them with quick-lime, or they may be washed with oil of vitriol diluted with an equal weight of water. When casks are very foul and resist these remedies they should be charred; a simple and effectual method of performing this, is to wash the dry casks out with the strongest oil of vitriol. In all cases the greatest care must be taken to scald or soak, and well rinse out the casks after subjecting them to this purifying process. (248)

The rough, irregular stones of the street, pointing every way, and designed, one might have thought, expressly to lame all living creatures that approached them, had dammed it into little pools.

The streets were first paved in Paris beginning in 1450 (Baillie and Salmon 119), but even-surfaced modern paving like macadam was not invented until the 1820s (OED). In 1775 (the year in which this portion of A Tale of Two Cities is set), as in Dickens’ time, roads were paved with stones. A description in the Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859) offers some idea of the difficulty of laying smooth roads:

PAVING. – In preparing for laying down pavements, the first thing to be attended to is the foundation. This must be made of strong and uniform materials, well rammed together, and accurately formed, to correspond with the figure of the superincumbent pavement. The kinds of stone used in paving are chiefly granite, whinstone or trap, Guernsey or other pebbles, or water-worn granite or trapstones. The size of the stones used in road paving is commonly from five to seven inches long, from four to six inches broad, and from six to eight inches deep. In laying down stones, each stone should lean broadly and fairly on its base; and the whole should be rammed repeatedly to make the joints close; the upper and lower sides of the stones should be as near each other as possible, but they should not touch each other laterally except near the top and bottom, leaving a hollow in the middle of their depth to receive gravel, which will serve to hold them together. This method of paving may be easily executed by common workmen, who may throw in gravel between the stones as they are laid down. It will be useful to cover newly-laid pavement and gravel, which will preserve the fresh pavement for some time from the irregular pressure of wheels till the whole is consolidated. The stones should be of equal hardness, or the soft ones will be worn down into hollows. In every species of paving, no stones should be left higher or lower than the rest; for a wheel descending from a higher stone will, by repeated blows, sink or break the lower stone upon which it falls. (761)

Without proper maintenance, the paved roads of districts like the one described by Dickens would quickly become irregular and would be likely enough, as he says, to “lame all living creatures.”

…the sodden and lee-dyed pieces of the cask…

The “lee” is “[t]he sediment deposited in the containing vessel from wine and some other liquids” (OED). The word is often used figuratively (in phrases like “to the lees”) to mean “to the very end,” because the sediment of wine, being heavier, tends to remain at the bottom of the cask or bottle. Casks would become “lee-dyed” from this residue.

There was no drainage to carry off the wine…

Paris sanitation was more or less non-existent until the 14th century, when King Phillipe Augustus began to take steps to sanitize the city. One of his major contributions was to have the roads paved, in order to reduce the smell of waste thrown into the street (which became malodorous as it was assimilated with the mud). In response to plagues in the 16th century, cesspools for the collection of wastes were mandated under each city dwelling – but water-tightness was not required until the 19th.

In the 18th century, cesspools and kennels – drains in the middle of street – were the primary means of dealing with wastes in Paris. However, the most usual method for disposing of garbage was “tout-a-la-rue” – “all in the street.” The practice of chucking household garbage out the window had existed since the period of the earliest attempts at sanitation in Paris, but persisted into the 19th century, and was certainly the mode at the period in which A Tale of Two Cities is set: In 1780, an ordinance “once again forbade people from throwing water, urine, feces or household garbage out the window” (Krupa, Paris: Urban Sanitation), and Dickens himself describes how “…the room or rooms within every door that opened on the general staircase [in the Saint-Antoine dwelling] left its own heap of refuse on its own landing, besides flinging other refuse from its own windows.” Thus, not only would there be “no drainage to carry off the wine” spilled in the Paris street Dickens describes, but drinking wine that had fallen on the paving stones could seriously compromise one’s health.

The wine was red wine, and had stained the ground of the narrow street in the suburb of Saint Antoine, in Paris, where it was spilled.

The Parisian suburb of Saint Antoine, located east of the (then-standing) Bastille, and oriented around the Faubourg Saint Antoine, became part of Paris in 1702 (Maxwell 446). Now part of the Eleventh Arrondissement [there are twenty arrondissements – postal districts – in Paris (Baillie and Salmon 54)], it was, in the 18th century and Dickens’ own time, a poor manufacturing district; it is still, as contemporary guidebooks point out, “working class … and a little scruffy” (Baillie and Salmon 55).

Ever since the French Revolution, Saint Antoine has been known for its revolutionary fervor, having played a prominent part in the uprisings of 1789, 1841, and 1851 (Sanders 43-4). The district was named after the Abbaye de Saint-Antoine-des-Champs, an abbey built at the end of the 12th century on the site of a chapel dedicated to Saint Anthony (Saint Antoine is the French version St. Anthony) (Berman 121-50). The Abbey is still visible on maps of Paris up to 1789, but – with the confiscation of ecclesiastical property during the Revolution – it became a Hospice.

The Abbaye St. Antoine, afterwards the Hospice de l’Est, is visible on the Plan de la Ville de Paris en 1789 and the Plan de la Ville de Paris, Période Révolutionnaire, 1790-1794. The portions of these maps given below – mapping the area between the Place de la Bastille and the Abbaye/Hospice, in eastern Paris – show the abbey/hospice at the far right.

Click on map for larger view

Click on map for larger view

…many naked feet, and many wooden shoes…

The wooden shoes of the French workers were called “sabots.” Carlyle frequently refers to the “sabots” of the French peasants in The French Revolution, and the OED describes them as “wooden shoe[s] made of a single piece of wood shaped and hollowed out to fit the foot” or “[a] kind of shoe having a thick wooden sole and ‘uppers’ of coarse leather.” It is interesting to note that the word “sabotage” – which seems to have come into English usage in the 20th century – derives from the rebellious use to which the laboring classes put their sabots. The OED gives the following derivation from the French word “saboter” – “to make a noise with sabots, to perform or execute badly, e.g. to ‘murder’ (a piece of music), to destroy willfully (tools, machinery, etc.).” Sabots, in short, have become symbolic of working-class rebellion and revolution.

...stave of the cask...

Staves are “narrow, shaped pieces of wood which, when placed together side by side and hooped, collectively form the side of a cask, tub or similar vessel” (OED).

…scrawled upon the wall with his finger dipped in muddy wine lees – BLOOD.

Since this portion of the novel occurs in France, the word scrawled upon the wall – though by novelistic convention given by Dickens in English (“BLOOD”) – would be the word SANG (French for “blood”). The illustration of this scene in the American edition of 1859 (Peterson’s Uniform Edition of A Tale of Two Cities) extends the convention to the visual register as well, and has the Frenchman writing in English upon the wall of Saint Antoine.

And now that the cloud settled on Saint Antoine, which a momentary gleam had driven from his sacred countenance, the darkness of it was heavy – cold, dirt, ignorance, want…

Dickens’ personification of Saint Antoine – his tendency to refer to the district as though it were a single person – is continued throughout the novel. The “sacred countenance” of the Saint Antoine described here is of course the metaphorical “countenance” or “face” of the neighborhood – its streets, its denizens, and so forth. However, the original “sacred countenance” of Saint Antoine belonged to Saint Anthony, for whom the district was – indirectly – named.

The Saint Antoine district was named after the Abbaye de Saint-Antoine-des-Champs (the “Abbey of St. Anthony of the Fields”), which was founded in the last decade of the 12th century on the site of a chapel already dedicated to Saint Anthony (Berman 121-56). Though there have been a number of saints named Anthony, the saint to whom the abbey and its predecessor were dedicated is probably the Saint Anthony known as the “patriarch of monks,” or “Saint Anthony of the Desert,” born in Egypt in 251 A.D. According to the notation on his Saint’s Day in the Book of Days (1864), he is “one of the most notable saints in the Romish [i.e. Catholic] calendar” (124, vol. 1) and

The Temptations of St. Anthony have, through St. Athanasius’s memoir, become of the most familiar of European ideas. Scores of artists from Salvator Rosa [a famous picturesque painter of the 17th century] downwards, have exerted their talents in depicting these mystic occurrences. Satan, we are informed, first tried, by bemudding his [St. Anthony’s] thoughts, to divert him from the design of becoming a monk. Then he appeared to him in the form successively of a handsome woman and a black boy, but without in the least disturbing him. Angry at the defeat, Satan and a multitude of attendant fiends fell upon him during the night, and he was found in his cell in the morning lying to all appearance dead. On another occasion, they [Satan and his fiends] expressed their rage by making such a dreadful noise that the walls of his cell shook. “They transformed themselves into shapes of all sorts of beasts, lions, bears, leopards [etc.] …; so that Anthony was tortured and mangled by them so grievously that his bodily pain was greater than before.” But … he taunted them, and the devils gnashed their teeth. This continued till the roof of his cell opened, a beam of light shot down, the devils became speechless. Anthony’s pain ceased, and the roof closed again…. (124)

Hunger was the inscription on the baker’s shelves, written in every small loaf of his scanty stock of bad bread; at the sausage-shop, in every dead-dog preparation that was offered for sale. Hunger rattled its dry bones among the roasting chestnuts in the turning cylinder; Hunger was shred into atomies in every farthing porringer of husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil.

Throughout A Tale of Two Cities, hunger and taxation are represented as primary causes of revolutionary feeling among the poor, just as Dickens’ chief historical source – Carlyle’s French Revolution – gives similar attention to the impact of bad harvests, famine, and disproportionate taxation. The emphasis on bread as the foodstuff demanded is partly a figure of speech for food of all kinds, yet is also partly literal: Bread provided about half the calories of an adult diet in the 18th century (Maxwell 447).

Potato “chips” (the precursor of the modern French fry – which the English still call chips) were, at this period, still a uniquely French food. As Sanders notes in his Companion to A Tale of Two Cities, “fish and chips” was apparently not yet part of the English diet when Dickens was writing A Tale of Two Cities. Though fried fish was sold in the streets of London, fish and chips was not yet advertised (44).

Chestnuts, planted as ornamental trees in the public gardens of Paris, were as common in the Paris of Dickens’ time as they are in our own; and though most of the Parisian chestnuts were planted when the gardens were refurbished after the French Revolution (Baillie and Salmon 91), the plants have always been congenial to the city. The Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859) gives the following instructions for roasting chestnuts:

CHESTNUTS ROASTED. – The best way of preparing these is to roast them in a coffee-roaster, after having first boiled them from seven to ten minutes, and wiped them dry. They should not be allowed to cool, and will require but ten or twelve minutes roasting. They may, when more convenient, be finished over the fire as usual, or in a Dutch or common oven; but in all cases, the previous boiling will be found an improvement. Never omit to cut the rind of each nut slightly before it is cooked. Serve the chestnuts in a napkin, very hot, and send salt to the table with them. (276)

The Dictionary’s illustration of a coffee-roaster (which it recommends for the roasting of both coffee and chestnuts), gives us some idea of what Dickens’ “turning cylinder” would have looked like. This kind of machine contained a charcoal-burning fire for roasting the chestnuts or coffee beans.

A farthing (as in “a farthing porringer of husky chips of potato”) was an English coin worth a quarter of a penny (OED); and a porringer is a rough bowl usually used to contain liquid foods – soup, porridge, etc. (OED). A farthing porringer suggests a scanty, simple meal.

The kennel, to make amends, ran down the middle of the street – when it ran at all: which was only after heavy rains, and then it ran, by many eccentric fits, into the houses.

Though cesspools under buildings constituted the chief Parisian “sewers” from the 16th century onward, reducing the amount of refuse in the streets, the continued waste-disposal practice of “tout-a-la-rue” (“all in the street,” against which legislation was still being passed in the 1780s), more or less necessitated a primitive system of kennels – surface drains or gutters (OED) – running down the middle of the street. The very poorest of Paris occasionally made a living by transporting pedestrians across the kennels on boards laid down for the purpose (Krupa, Paris: Urban Sanitation).

Across the streets, at wide intervals, one clumsy lamp was slung by a rope and pulley; at night, when the lamplighter had let these down, and lighted, and hoisted them up again, a feeble grove of dim wicks swung in a sickly manner overhead…

In the 18th century, Paris was lit – when lit at all – with oil lamps (gas lighting was not introduced until 1819 [Hobsbawm 298]). Until the reign of Louis XVI (the king during the period in which this part of A Tale of Two Cities is set), Paris was lighted for only nine months of the year, and not lighted even during these months when there was a moon. The city lamps were as Dickens describes – “lamps suspended from ropes hung across the street, which, though aided by reflectors, and kept well cleaned, … served for little else than to make darkness visible” (Galignani’s New Paris Guide [1842], qtd. in Sanders 45).

…hauling up men by those ropes and pulleys, to flare upon the darkness of their condition.

The practice of hanging offenders from the Parisian street-lanterns becomes, in A Tale of Two Cities, as in Dickens’ chief historical source (Carlyle’s French Revolution), emblematic of patriotic retribution. In The French Revolution, the practice is inaugurated in a chapter titled “The Lanterne,” in which the people, after taking the Bastille, hang certain officials from the lanterns near the Hôtel de Ville. “To the lantern!” or simply “Lanterne!” always implies, in Carlyle, imminent execution.

The Paris lanterns, and especially their projecting lamp-irons, were apparently of convenient shape and stature for use as makeshift gallows. Mercier (whose Tableau de Paris [1771-88] was one of Dickens’ French sources) notes, in an account of “Street Lighting” (“Réverbères”), that the oil-lamps of Paris were “badly hung; they made, in Milton’s words, darkness itself visible. They should be fixed close to the wall, not swung out above the street on great brackets” (43). It is perhaps this distance of the lantern from the wall, and the length of the bracket from which the oil-lamp was suspended, which suggested the more grisly use to which the fixtures could be put.

“What now? Are you a subject for the mad-hospital?”

“Mad-hospitals” in France dated from the mid-17th century, but were not like modern asylums for the mentally ill. Instead, they were more like prisons, outfitted with cells and dungeons, and they contained not only the “mad,” but also the poor, the indigent, the unemployed, and the criminal. Michel Foucault notes that, after the establishment of these hospitals, “one out of every hundred inhabitants of the city of Paris found themselves confined there” (124); in fact, he associates confinement in mad-hospitals with the confinement resulting from a lettre de cachet, and suggests that madness was in fact generated by confinement to hospitals – not cured by it. Thus, when Defarge asks the man who writes “BLOOD” on the wall in the Saint Antoine district whether he is a subject for the mad-hospital, this may be a critique of the man’s sanity; on the other hand, it may – in light of the nature of such institutions at the time – be merely a critique of his idleness.

The Hôpital Général, established by royal edict in 1656, initiated what Foucault calls the “Great Confinement,” intended to heal the sick, but also to prevent “mendicancy and idleness as the source of all disorders” (Foucault 124-9). Dickens, sensitive to social injustices and particularly to the institution of social confinement (a visit to Newgate Prison is recorded in Sketches by Boz, and a visit to prisoners in solitary confinement in a Philadelphia prison is described in American Notes) would probably have been well aware of the nature of French madhouses (and similar English ones, like Bedlam) in the 18th century. Further, he may have read Mercier’s report of Bicêtre in the Tableau de Paris (1781-88), a collection of sketches on which he drew for details of pre-revolutionary and revolutionary Paris:

Debtors are incarcerated here [in Bicêtre], beggars, and madmen, together with all the viler criminals, huddled pell-mell. There are others, too; epileptics, imbeciles, old men, paupers and cripples, who, not being criminals, are known by the generic title of “good poor”; to my mind they should find refuge elsewhere, apart from the rogues their neighbors. (160)

Mercier’s description of the appalling conditions in Bicêtre – as many as six sick men to a bed, a general lack of ventilation and drainage (to the extent that one prisoner feigned death three times just to be carried upstairs to purer air, and wasn’t believed when he finally did die) – tends to confirm Foucault’s argument that asylums frequently created the illness and insanity they were meant to cure.

Her knitting was before her, but she had laid it down to pick her teeth with a toothpick.

As Richard Maxwell points out in his edition of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens revised his original portrait of Madame Defarge to agree with the image of the citoyennes tricoteuses – the “knitting citizens” (female) of the Revolution, “notorious for their regular attendance at public executions” (448). In Dickens’ original conception (found in the manuscript version of A Tale), Madame Defarge was addicted to needlework instead of knitting.

“What the devil do you do in that galley there?” said Monsieur Defarge to himself.

This apostrophe of Monsieur Defarge’s is usually used as an example of Dickens’ attempt to represent French linguistic constructions in English. Sanders, in his Companion to A Tale of Two Cities, glosses “What the devil do you do in that galley there?” as the idiomatic “equivalent of the French ‘Que faites-vous dans cette galère?’ – ‘What are you doing in this mess?’” (47). Monsieur Defarge’s “what … do you do” is meant to reflect the French use of a present tense verb. In English, we would choose between the present and the present progressive. (“Que faites-vous?” is an interrogative conjugation which may be translated either “What are you doing?” or “What do you do?” according to the context of the phrase.)

…and fell into discourse with the triumvirate of customers who were drinking at the counter.

Here, “triumvirate” is used mainly in the generic sense of a threesome; yet the word – adapted from the Latin and originally referring, in Roman history, to “[t]he position, office, or function of the triumviri …, an association of three magistrates for joint administration” or “[b]y extension: any association of three joint rulers or powers” (OED) – suggests political collusion. It may also faintly foreshadow the neo-classical allegiances of revolutionary Paris, when “the republican spirit of the Parisians revived the classical coiffure of Rome, and a ‘tête à la Brutus’” (Planché 403-4) demonstrated an aesthetic and political nostalgia for antiquity.

“How goes it, Jacques?”

The fact that the members of the “triumvirate” with whom Monsieur Defarge confers address one another as “Jacques” not only supports the impression of their collusion, but invokes the revolutionary overtones of the “Jacquerie” – a name originally used as a general term for the French peasantry (from the moniker “Jacques Bonhomme” – roughly “Goodman James” in English), but particularly applied to the individuals involved in a 14th-century peasant rebellion (1357-8) in Northern France (Sanders 47). This rebellion might be said, as a revolt of the French poor against the aristocracy, to prefigure the Revolution of 1789. Indeed, it not only contributes to Dickens’ revolutionary vocabulary (his use of the term “Jacques”), but to the geography of his revolutionary novel: The 14th-century revolt of the Jacquerie was initiated in the area around the town of Beauvais – the birthplace of Lucie’s father, Doctor Manette, in A Tale of Two Cities (Sanders 47).

…and nothing within range, nearer or lower than the summits of the two great towers of Notre-Dame had any promise on it of healthy life or wholesome aspirations.

The cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, like St. Paul’s cathedral in London, stands on ground which has had religious significance since the period of Roman settlement. One 19th-century guidebook gives the following account of its construction and the religious buildings that preceded it on the spot:

Notre Dame … was begun in the year 1163 by Maurice de Sully, the sixty-second bishop of Paris. Pope Alexander III laid the foundation-stone. Two churches had stood previously upon the same ground …, one dedicated to St. Etienne and the other to La Vierge Marie [the Virgin Mary]. During … excavations [later] made … under the choir of Notre Dame, stones were discovered showing that the Parisian sailors had upon this spot erected an altar to Jupiter, in the reign of Tiberius Caesar. In the 6th century was dedicated the church to St. Etienne, and in the following century, that to the Virgin…. (Dickens’s Dictionary of Paris 165-7)

The religious significance of the location of Notre Dame – from antiquity onward – contributes to its status as a spiritual center for the city of Paris. Indeed, Tronchet’s Picture of Paris (c. 1818) calls Notre Dame “the mother church of France,” and Dickens frequently uses it (though partly no doubt because of its fame even among English readers), as a point of geographical reference in A Tale of Two Cities. Notre Dame stands on the east side of the Ile de la Cité – one of the Parisian islands in the Seine – and is less than a mile from the Saint Antoine district (measured form the Place de la Bastille as the crow flies). Nevertheless, the “summits of the two great towers” of Notre Dame are probably more of a symbolic than a literally visible landmark in A Tale of Two Cities. At the beginning of the 19th century, Notre Dame was described as follows:

[It is] so surrounded with houses that there is no spot from which it may be seen with advantage. It is a Gothic edifice, built in the form of a cross, and remarkable for the lightness of its structure. But its two large square towers, in giving a stateliness, give also a heaviness to the building. (Tronchet 227)

The two great towers, which were apparently originally intended to have spires, never received them. One 19th-century guidebook warns English tourists that “Until our eye has got accustomed to the spireless towers they may appear stumpy” (Dickens’s Dictionary of Paris 167); and Baedeker’s Paris and Its Environs (1878) remarks that “The general effect, though not unimposing, is hardly commensurate with the renown of the edifice. This is owing partly to structural defects, partly to the lowness of its situation, and partly to the absence of spires” (212).

This engraving of Notre Dame, included in Tronchet’s Picture of Paris (c. 1818), shows the cathedral with the river in the foreground, from the east. The perspective from Saint Antoine would be from the northeast – and probably impeded.

Click on map for larger view

This portion of the Plan de la Ville de Paris en 1789 shows Notre Dame relative to Saint Antoine (the Bastille is visible at the far right).

“Why! Because he has lived so long, locked up, that he would be frightened – rave – tear himself to pieces – die – come to I know not what harm – if his door was left open.”

In his account of the liberated behavior of Doctor Manette, Dickens seems to follow French accounts of the experience of actual prisoners of the Bastille. One of Dickens’ sources for many of the Parisian elements of A Tale of Two Cities was Mercier’s Tableau de Paris (1781-7); and the character of Doctor Manette is probably partly based on a figure in an “Anecdote” in Mercier’s Tableau. In both the “Anecdote” and A Tale of Two Cities, the prisoner is released from the Bastille during the reign of Louis XVI; in both, he finds his release unendurable; and in both, he goes to live with an old servant. The “Anecdote” is excerpted below:

When Louis XVI came to the throne, new and humanitarian ministers performed an act of justice and clemency, in inspecting the registers of the Bastille and freeing many prisoners.

Among them was an old man who, for forty-seven years, groaned, detained between four thick and cold walls…. [Then one day the] lower door of his tomb turns on its frightening hinges, opens, not just halfway, as is its custom, and an unknown voice says to him that he can come out.

He thinks he is dreaming. He hesitates, he rises, he makes his way with a trembling step, frightened of the huge space through which he moves. The stairs of the prison, the hall, the court, all appear enormous to him, almost without end. He stops as though confused and lost; his eyes have difficulty tolerating the full light of day; he looks at the sky as at an object utterly new; he stares, he cannot cry. He is astounded by his freedom to move from place to place; his legs, despite his efforts, remain frozen as his tongue. He finally passes through the formidable gate.

When he feels himself carried away in the vehicle which will return him to his ancient habitation, he gives articulate cries; he cannot tolerate the extraordinary movement; he must get out.

Conducted by a charitable arm, he asks for the street where he once lodged. He arrives; his house is no longer there; a public building has replaced it. He recognizes neither the quarter nor the city nor the objects which he once knew. The dwellings of his neighbors, imprinted on his memory, have taken new forms. In vain his looks interrogate those around him; he does not see a single face of which he has the faintest memory.

Terrified, he stops and gives a deep sigh. This city, so beautifully peopled with living beings, it is for him a necropolis; no one knows him; he knows no one; he weeps and longs for his cachot [dungeon cell].

At the name of the Bastille, which he invokes and claims for himself as an asylum, at the view of his clothing, which speaks of another era, a crowd surrounds him. Curiosity and pity press in upon him; the oldest question him and have no idea of the deeds which he recalls. By chance they bring him an old servant, porter for a long time, trembling in the knees, who, confined in his lodge for fifteen years, has scarcely enough strength to pull the rope for the door.

He does not recognize the master he once served; but informs him that his wife died thirty years ago, of sorrow and misery; that his children have departed for unknown lands; that all his friends are no more. The indifference with which this tale is told shows that it speaks of events long ago, almost effaced…. Crushed by grief, he [the released prisoner] goes to find the Minister whose generous compassion has made him a present of that liberty which so much weighs upon him. He bows and says: Let me be taken back to the prison from which you have drawn me…. The minister’s heart grows tender. The unfortunate one is given as a companion the old porter who can speak to him still of his wife and children…. (qtd. in and translated by Maxwell 416-7)

Doctor Manette’s response to liberation is similar to the old man’s in Mercier’s “Anecdote.” Though he was (as we find out later) imprisoned in the Bastille for about 18 years instead of 47, and though his servant (Defarge) is much younger, hailer and heartier than the old man’s, the stories are obviously similar.

…unglazed, and closing up the middle in two pieces, like any other door of French construction.

An “unglazed” window is simply one without glass (OED); doors of “French construction” are even now called “French doors” or “French windows” (OED) and are readily recognizable – instead of sliding up and down within a frame, or opening from one side, a French window is “a long window opening like a folding-door, and serving for exit and entrance” (OED).

…a white-haired man sat on a low bench, stooping forward and very busy, making shoes.

Commentators identify various sources for Dickens’ representation of the effects of Doctor Manette’s long imprisonment, and for his occupation of making shoes. Perhaps the most significant are Dickens’ own observations – recorded in American Notes – of prisoners in Philadelphia. His account, which seems to have contributed to the fictional character and occupation of Doctor Manette, runs as follows:

The system here, is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong…. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay…. Standing at the central point, and looking down these dreary passages, the full repose and quiet that prevails, is awful. Occasionally, there is a drowsy sound from some lone weaver’s shuttle, or shoemaker’s last, but it is stifled by the thick walls and heavy dungeon door, and only serves to make the general stillness more profound. Over the head and face of every prisoner who comes into this melancholy house, a black hood is drawn; and in this dark shroud, an emblem of the curtain dropped between him and the living world, he is led to the cell from which he never again comes forth, until his whole term of imprisonment has expired. He never hears of wife or children; home or friends; the life or death of any single creature. He sees the prison officers, but with that exception he never looks upon a human countenance, or hears a human voice. He is a man buried alive; to be dug out in the slow round of years; and in the meantime dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair…. (qtd. in Sanders 50-1)

Doctor Manette, being “recalled to life” – disinterred, as Dickens imagines the American prisoners to be after years of solitary confinement – resembles the inmates of the Philadelphia Penitentiary in experience, demeanor, and occupation (the making of shoes).

There may also be additional reasons for Manette’s shoemaking. Sanders notes that the Dickens family had been acquainted with a shoemaker in the French town of Boulogne-sur-Mer when they stayed there in 1854 (a few years prior to the composition of A Tale of Two Cities) and had adopted the shoemaker’s dog (whom they renamed “Cobbler”) when the man was unable to pay the tax on the animal (48). Maxwell, on the other hand, includes material in his edition of the novel suggesting a connection between shoemaking and revolutionaries: “[A] popular newspaper of Revolutionary France, Révolutions de Paris, invented as its quintessential figure of the people ‘Jacques Cordonnier’ (James Shoemaker), a salt-of-the-earth artisan who frequently offered up his own opinions on matters of the day” (429). In addition, Maxwell proposes a relationship between the figure of a violent revolutionary (and shoemaker) called Simon in Alexandre Dumas’ 1845 Le Chevalier de la Maison-Rouge and Doctor Manette, suggesting that Doctor Manette’s occupation may represent “not just the obsessive hobby of a man who has temporarily lost his mind,” but also “a masked but powerfully cumulative expression of anger” (430). In this view, shoemaking is symbolic of revolutionary feeling, and represents Doctor Manette’s repressed rage against the injustices of the ancien régime.

“It is a lady’s shoe. It is a young lady’s walking-shoe. It is in the present mode. I never saw the mode. I have had a pattern in my hand.”

Though it seems unlikely that the shoe constructed by the Doctor is still in the “present mode” (since – as we subsequently discover – he has been imprisoned for nearly twenty years) we know that the “young lady’s walking-shoe” that he makes is fashioned – since he is recovered by his daughter in 1775 – after a pattern stylish sometime between the late 1750s and 1775. Women’s shoes in the mid-18th century tended to have high heels and pointed toes. Fairholt’s Costume in England, A History of Dress (1860), reproduces a young lady’s walking shoe which may serve as a fair illustration of the kind of shoe the Doctor is making.

This figure illustrates a typical walking shoe of the early- to mid-18th century, “in the first fashion, with high tops and formidable heels, made to walk, but not to run in” (394). Though the Doctor would be making a shoe in the mode of a somewhat later date (the above figure is copied from an engraving by Hogarth of 1732), it would probably differ mainly in ornamentation; the high heels and pointed toes remained popular until the end of the century (Fairholt 394-5). Also, though Fairholt’s engraving shows English shoes, French ladies’ walking shoes would be of very similar construction. The English tended to follow French fashions in the 18th century, even to the extent of adopting styles that came into vogue as a result of the French Revolution (Fairholt 312-28).

“One Hundred and Five, North Tower.”

The fact that Doctor Manette gives “One Hundred and Five, North Tower” as his name demonstrates the extent to which he has identified himself with his imprisonment, and helps explain the persistence of his belief that he is still in the Bastille. The Bastille had eight towers, two of which were on the north side – the Tour du Puits and the Tour du Coin. Editors of A Tale of Two Cities generally identify “One Hundred and Five, North Tower” as a somewhat inaccurate and wholly invented representation of part of the Bastille (Sanders 51), yet this invention – especially the fact that Dickens did not distinguish between the two northern towers – seems partly authorized by the fact that the Bastille had not existed since 1789. Carlyle himself – Dickens’ chief historical source – declares that

To describe [the] 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…. (161-2)

Built in the 14th century by Charles V and VI of France, the Bastille originally had four towers, and four more were added by 1553; the whole period of its construction was thus roughly 1370-1553. Originally, the Bastille stood on the eastern outskirts of Paris, and was used as a fortress. In 1670, when the walls of the city were leveled, the Bastille remained standing (Handbook to Paris 128-9); and the castle was used, from the reign of Louis XI onward, not as a fortress, but as a jail for state prisoners (Dickens’s Dictionary of Paris 20) – “chiefly for the confinement of persons of rank who had fallen victims to the intrigues of the court or the caprice of the government” (Baedeker 68). Accounts of the construction of the Bastille vary – the walls are sometimes said to have been six feet thick (Dickens’s Dictionary of Paris 20), sometimes nine (Carlyle 161), sometimes ten (Baedeker 68-9); but most agree that the building was oblong, surrounded by a mote, with towers in the corners. One early-20th-century guidebook describes it as “a rectangle with a tower at each corner and two in each of the long sides, and very much resembling a billiard table with eight pockets” (Handbook 128-9), and a model of it can still be seen at the Musée Carnavalet in Paris. Today, the Place de la Bastille still marks the site of the fallen fortress, but nothing of the building itself remains. However, the Pont de la Concorde, which crosses the Seine from the present Place de la Concorde (which was called the “Place de Louis XV” in 1775, and the “Place de la Révolution” during the Revolution), was under construction from 1787-1790, and was partly built with stones from the fallen Bastille. One of its first names, for this reason, was “Pont de la Révolution” (Dickens’s Dictionary of Paris 41).

This illustration of the Bastille, as it appeared before 1789 – with eight towers, mote, drawbridge, etc. – is taken from the Histoire de Paris (1869).

La Bastille

In its present condition, the Place de la Bastille features a column – the Colonne de Juillet – erected in commemoration of the July Revolution of 1830. Since 1989 it has been the location of the Opera de la Bastille, which was opened on the bicentennial of the French Revolution (Baillie and Salmon 129).

They heard him mutter, “One hundred and Five, North Tower”; and when he looked about him, it evidently was for the strong fortress-walls which had long encompassed him. On their reaching the court-yard, he instinctively altered his tread, as being in expectation of a drawbridge….

The Bastille was protected by a mote, and was entered by means of a drawbridge. In fact, from accounts of the fall of the Bastille (Baedeker 68-9, Carlyle 161), it seems that not only the first interior court of the Bastille was protected by a drawbridge, but that the second was likewise. Doctor Manette, still believing himself to be incarcerated in the Bastille, would alter his steps in anticipation of crossing at least one drawbridge.

Defarge got upon the box, and gave the word “To the Barrier!”

The Barriers of Paris, at which taxes were collected on goods passing into the city, were erected under Louis XVI’s Controller-General of Finance, M. de Calonne. However, the wall in which the Barriers were set was not completed until 1786, and would still have been under construction at the historical moment represented in this part of the novel (1775). The tax-wall Barriers were besieged in 1789, and their customs-duties abolished in 1791; most of the actual gates survived into the period in which Dickens was composing the novel, but today, only the Barrières d’Enfer, de Vincennes, de la Villette and de Monceau are still extant (Sanders 108). Sanders identifies the Barrier to which Defarge demands they proceed as either the Barrière St.-Denis or the Barrière de la Villette, as these northern gates “commanded the roads to the northern coastal ports” (52) where the Manettes and Mr. Lorry could take passage for England.

Beneath that arch of unmoved and eternal lights: some, so remote from this little earth that the learned tell us it is doubtful whether their rays have ever yet discovered it, as a point in space where anything is suffered or done…

This – “what the learned tell us” about the “unmoved and eternal lights” (the stars) – was a commonplace of 19th-century astronomy. The Young Ladies’ Astronomy, for instance – which is a general account of astronomy for the instruction of girls published in 1825 – makes the following remarks upon the distance of the stars: “Some stars are supposed to be so remote, that their first ray of light, shot forth at the moment of creation, and moving at the astonishing rate of about 200,000 miles a second, has not yet reached our globe” (80). Light, according to modern calculations, moves at 299,792,458 meters per second – a little over 186,000 miles per second – in a vacuum.