Discovering Dickens - A Community Reading Project

 Discovering Dickens

 A Tale of Two Cities

 Biographical Context

 Historical Context

 Archived Novel





A Tale of Two Cities was published serially in 1859. As a historical novel about the French Revolution, however, it takes us back to 18th century London and Paris.

1757-1794: The Period Represented in the Novel

Though A Tale of Two Cities begins in 1770 with Doctor Manette’s release from the Bastille and ends in late 1793 or early 1794, the story as a whole covers a much broader period. In the larger view, the novel begins in 1757 (the year of Doctor Manette’s incarceration under the ancien régime) and its final scene anticipates a post-revolutionary Paris. However, as a historical novel organized around the events of the French Revolution (1789-1794), the major historical features of A Tale of Two Cities are drawn from the major events of the revolutionary period in France – the fall of the Bastille (July 14, 1789), the September Massacres (September 2-6, 1792), and the Reign of Terror (1793-1794).

From a historical point of view, A Tale of Two Cities gives a rather compressed account of the French Revolution; yet this is appropriate in a novel concerned as much with the lives of private individuals as with public events. Dickens researched the revolutionary period carefully in preparation for writing A Tale of Two Cities, and the novel maintains a high level of historical accuracy. Complete historical explanations will be found in the notes that accompany each issue of this re-serialization.

1859: The Period of the Novel’s Publication

In 1859, when A Tale of Two Cities was first serialized, England was experiencing a period of social and political stability. It had long enjoyed a stable monarchy, and it had become – partly through its leading role in the Industrial Revolution and through colonial expansion – a prosperous nation and a major European power. France was comparatively tumultuous. After the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte had become emperor (in 1804) and started on his campaign to take over Europe. In 1814, the French monarchy was restored by the forces allied against Napoleon (including England) and the Emperor was sent into exile; he returned, however, and regained power for a brief period before his final defeat in 1815. France then had a king again, but monarchical rule was challenged by the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, the latter establishing the Second Republic. Louis Napoleon, a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, became president of the Second Republic in 1848; in 1852, however, he declared himself emperor. The Second Republic then became the Second Empire.

Though relations were essentially peaceful between England and the Second Empire, the British tended to perceive a second Emperor Napoleon as a possible threat, and the French were not endeared to the English by events of 1858: An assassination attempt on Louis Napoleon and his Empress disclosed a plot organized by a group of French people living in England. This plot, perpetrated with grenades of Birmingham manufacture, increased French-English tensions in the year before A Tale of Two Cities was published; however, it did not have serious consequences for international relations.

Our own country was on the verge of a major historical event in 1859. Having gained its independence in the period represented in A Tale of Two Cities, America was about to embark, just after the novel’s publication, upon the Civil War (1860-65).

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