And as mere human knowledge can split a ray of light and analyze the manner of its composition…

By the mid-19th century, when Dickens was writing, Sir Isaac Newton’s work on light and optics was already nearly two hundred years old. (Having discovered that white light is made up of a whole spectrum of colored lights, Newton published “New Theory About Lights and Colors” in 1672). Anyone with rudimentary knowledge of optics – or of prisms – could split light into the colors of the rainbow.

“There is another spy commissioned for our quarter…”

Historians estimate that there were between 300 and 3,000 spies, commissioned by the police, working at any given time in pre-revolutionary Paris (Maxwell 461). Mercier’s Tableau de Paris (1781-8), one of Dickens’ French sources, describes the extent of organized spying as follows:

The Parisian, they say, neither tells the truth himself nor cares what the truth may be; but the fact is, that if he were not a liar born, he must become one in self-defence. Spies are all about him. Two citizens cannot whisper, without a third craning his neck to hear what the conference is about. The Lieutenant of Police commands a regiment of ears, differing from a regiment of soldiers only in that each private changes his uniform daily and completely; in the twinkling of an eye he can and does metamorphose himself. One will strut abroad all day, sword on hip, and be subdued at night to a gown and bands, from a limb of the devil to a limb of the law; tomorrow, swinging a gold-headed cane, he will seem a banker with only ciphers in his head; all this at the taxpayer’s expense. His day’s range of impersonations may include a military officer, a hairdresser’s assistant, a tonsured abbot and a scullery boy. The best houses know him, and the worst hells…. For this is the rod whereby the secrets of Paris are divined; and it is on these men’s reports rather than the exigencies of a situation or the demands of policy that ministerial decisions are founded. (Mercier 36-7)

Another vignette about the police force continues the subject:

There are spies of all sorts, Court spies, town spies, bed, street, and brothel spies, spies upon talkers and wits; but the whole genus has one name, mouchard, which was that of the first official spy of the Court of France.… Hidden, like forbidden, fruit is tempting; certain men will always want to know more than their fellows, and take pride and interest in the machine in proportion as they know just by what power, and in what order, the wheels go round. The difficulty of attaining this knowledge is what gives it its chief value. (Mercier 40)

Given the prevalence of spies commissioned by the police, it is neither surprising that another would be assigned to the Saint Antoine quarter of Paris nor that a “Jacques of the police” would be able to inform Monsieur Defarge of the addition.

…nose aquiline, but not straight, having a peculiar inclination towards the left cheek; expression, therefore, sinister.”

Sinister means “[s]ituated on the left side of the body” or “[l]ying on or towards the left hand” as well as “suggestive of evil or mischief” (Oxford English Dictionary). The fact that Barsad’s nose inclines toward his left cheek therefore makes him look “sinister” in two ways. The pun – made by Monsieur Defarge – exists in French as well (senestre/sinistre).

…the stock of rum and brandy and aniseed.

Rum is an alcoholic beverage made from sugar-cane, originally made in the West Indies and Guyana (where sugar-cane was grown); brandy is a kind of distilled wine, originally known as “brandy-wine” (OED); and aniseed is a seed (anise) used as a flavoring, as in the popular French liqueur called “anisette” (Sanders 108). The Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859) gives the following accounts of rum and brandy:

RUM. – An ardent spirit, obtained by distillation from the fermented skimmings of the sugar-boilers, the drainings of the sugar-pots and hogsheads, the washing of boilers and other vessels, together with sufficient cane juice or wort prepared by washing the crude cane, to impart the necessary flavour. (871)

BRANDY. – The spirituous liquor produced by the distillation of wine only, and not from any other fermented body. But brandy consists not merely of the spirit drawn from wine, it contains also some water, and is flavoured by the essential oil of the grape, which has been dissolved by the alcohol produced during fermentation. The average proportion of alcohol in brandy varies from 48 to 54 per cent. When pure, it is perfectly colourless, and only acquires a pale brown or yellow tint from the cask. When brandy is first imported, it is generally 1 or 2 over proof, but its strength decreases with age; and by the time that it is usually taken from the bond-store for sale, it is seldom stronger than 3 or 4 under proof. The very finest brandies average from 5 to 10 under proof, and never exceed 2 under proof; they then contain more than half their weight of water, and from their boiling point being higher, they come over to this country more fully charged with essential oil, and the other volatile and fragrant principles of the grape; thus possessing, in a great degree, that peculiar aroma and flavour for which they are so much esteemed. The compound known as British brandy, is made chiefly from malt spirit, with the addition of mineral acids, and various flavouring ingredients. (182)

Distilled beverages like rum and brandy have a higher alcohol content than beverages that are not distilled (“proof,” as above, refers to the standard strength of distilled liquors [OED]).

…like a docile and attentive pupil before his catechist…

A catechism is “an elementary treatise for instruction in the principles of the Christian religion, in the form of question and answer” (OED), which children memorize as a means to moral instruction. A catechist is someone who examines a student on the catechism.


Cognac, named after the French town where it was originally made, is a “French brandy of superior quality distilled from Cognac wine,” though the name “is sometimes extended (for trade purposes) to any French brandy” (OED).

“…he is Mr. Charles Darnay. D’Aulnais is the name of his mother’s family.”

Phonetically, “Darnay” is a close equivalent in English to the French “D’Aulnais”: In French pronunciation, the “D” and the “A” of D’Aulnais are run together and the “s” on the end of the name is not pronounced.

Madame Defarge with her work in her hand was accustomed to pass from place to place and from group to group: a Missionary – there were many like her – such as the world will do well never to breed again. All the women knitted. They knitted worthless things; but, the mechanical work was a mechanical substitute for eating and drinking…

The knitting women of A Tale of Two Cities are the famous citoyennes tricoteuses of revolutionary Paris, who would, during the Reign of Terror, take their knitting with them to watch the executions at the guillotine. (Dickens alludes to this eventuality at the end of this chapter, remarking that “[s]o much was closing in about the women who sat knitting, knitting, that they their very selves were closing in around a structure yet unbuilt, where they were to sit knitting, knitting, counting dropping heads.”) Dickens connects the knitting of Madame Defarge and her compatriots with a chief motive of the French Revolution – hunger. And his imagery suggests that this knitting registers the gradual creation – the knitting-together, as it were – of a means to revenge that wrong. The irony of the chapter’s final image – of knitting combined with the severing of heads – is perhaps already implied in the “worthless things” that the women knit: Their creations are altogether negative. Born of frustration and rage, their productivity is essentially destructive, and it is this destructive impulse only that unites them.

Darkness closed around, and then came the ringing of the church bells and the distant beating of the drums of the Royal Guard…

The “Royal Guards” are soldiers of the Gardes Françaises (French Guards) – renamed the “Centre Grenadiers of the National Guard” after the fall of the Bastille in 1789 (Carlyle 167). The change in name reflects a change from the service of the monarchy to the service of the people.

“I doubt you must have been a solitary prisoner to understand these perplexed distinctions.”

To doubt, in this sense, means to “anticipate with apprehension” or “to apprehend … something feared or undesired” (OED).

“…during the next fortnight, while you are in Warwickshire and thereabouts, even Tellson’s shall go to the wall (comparatively speaking) before him.”

“Fortnight,” an abbreviated version of an Old English phrase for “fourteen nights,” means two weeks, and comes from the Germanic method of reckoning time by the number of nights (OED). Warwickshire, in which the Darnays’ marital fortnight is to be passed, is a county northwest of London, in the English Midlands. And the expression “to go to the wall” is an old phrase – the first use recorded in the OED dates from the 16th century – originally meaning “to give way, succumb in a conflict or struggle,” and later, in 19th-century usage, “to fail in business” (OED). The later meaning, though not yet current in the 1780s, would have a special aptness for Dickens’ 19th-century readers (since Mr. Lorry is speaking hypothetically of a failure in Tellson’s prosperity, and calls himself and Miss Pross two “formal folks of business”).

…on your other fortnight’s trip in Wales…”

Wales, which accepted political union with England in the 16th century (becoming part of what is now the United Kingdom), is a rugged region on the western side of England.

They returned home to breakfast…

Wedding breakfasts, given at the bride’s house after morning marriage ceremonies, preceded the married couple’s departure on their honeymoon (OED). As a kind of reception, wedding breakfasts could be quite elaborate – though in the case of the newly-married Darnays, the breakfast is probably a modest affair. The Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859) makes the following recommendations concerning the conduct of wedding breakfasts:

WEDDING CEREMONY, ETIQUETTE OF – When the ceremony is concluded, the bride, taking the bridegroom’s arm, goes into the vestry, the others following; signatures are then affixed, and a registration made, after which the married pair enter their carriage and proceed to the breakfast, every one else following…. The wedding breakfast having been already prepared, the wedding party returns thereto. If a large party, the bride and bridegroom occupy seats in the center of the long table, and the two extremities should be presided over by elderly relatives, if possible, one from each family. Everybody should endeavor to make the occasion as happy as possible. One of the senior members, of either the bride or bridegroom’s family, should, some time before the breakfast terminates, rise, and in a brief but felicitous manner, propose “Health and happiness to the wedded pair.” It is much better to drink their healths together than separately; and, after a brief interval, the bridegroom should return thanks, which he may do without hesitation, since no one criticizes a speech on such an occasion. (1089)

The Dictionary recommends a wedding-breakfast menu supplied by a pastrycook, as more convenient and only slightly more expensive than a home-cooked meal (the pastrycook supplying all the utensils and other necessaries, as well as the food). The suggested menu includes bride cake, tea, lemon cakes, decorated potted salmon, butter in ice, ham in jelly, partridges perigord, baskets of bon-bons, potted char (a fish something like a salmon in appearance), preserved ginger, ginger cream, preserved pineapple, melon or cucumber, strawberry jelly, pastry, sandwiches with marmalade, jams, &c. Suggested beverages include chocolate, milk, coffee, and water in urns. This menu, proposed in a publication of 1859, is of course a Victorian one (composed in the year Dickens was writing A Tale of Two Cities). The breakfast in the novel itself is an 18th-century breakfast, and is probably less elaborate due to the smallness of the wedding party and the thriftiness of the household. (Also, given Miss Pross’ character as a “Sorceress” with foodstuffs, she may well have cooked the breakfast herself.) However, the table would probably have consisted of festive dishes like those suggested. The Dictionary goes on to recommend that

[c]ream and sugar, in silver or cut glass jugs and dishes [be] presented in proper places. Game and lobster salads may make part of the dishes, and venison is an appropriate luxury. Ice-pails may, in hot weather, be placed on the table. Plovers’ eggs, hot, in a napkin, or cold, laid in moss, are tasty. At such entertainments, the lighter dessert wines are used, and also liqueurs. Toast, rolls, muffins, eggs, may find a place on the side table. Fruit may form a part of the repast, according to the season. (192-3)

And her agitated hand waved to them from a chaise window, and she was gone.

“Chaise” is the name for various kinds of light carriages, some open, some enclosed, usually with two or four wheels and drawn by two or four horses (OED). The word comes from the French for “chair,” and is often associated with light “pleasure” carriages. The Darnays’ chaise seems to be of the enclosed variety (since Lucie waves from a window), and is probably a post-chaise – a “carriage for traveling, having a closed body and seated for one to three persons, the driver sitting on one of the horses” (OED). Post-chaises were intended for traveling over long distances (and would thus be appropriate for the Darnays’ trip to Warwickshire and Wales). To “post” is to travel in relays or stages, periodically stopping to change horses as the animals become fatigued.

Miss Pross and he divided the night into two watches…

A “watch,” in this sense, is a period of wakeful vigil. The phrase “watches of the night,” now used to refer generally to night-time, originally referred to “periods into which the night was anciently divided... . The Hebrews divided the night into three watches, the Greeks usually into four (sometimes five), the Romans (followed by the Jews in New Testament times) into four” (OED).