Discovering Dickens - A Community Reading Project

 Discovering Dickens

 A Tale of Two Cities

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…carrying their divine rights with a high hand.

According to the OED, the “divine right of kings” is the monarchical doctrine that “kings derive their power from God alone, unlimited by any rights on the part of their subjects.”

The Dover road that lay … beyond the Dover mail, as it lumbered up Shooter’s Hill.

The Dover road, 70.75 miles long, ran from London Bridge (on the Surrey side of the Thames River) to Dover (Harper, “The Road to Dover”). Shooter’s Hill, 8.25 miles along the Dover Road from London Bridge, is an eminence from which the city of London could be seen during the daytime; in the 18th century it was known for a mineral spring where Queen Anne herself (r. 1702-1714) was said to take the waters. At night, however, it was dangerous. According to Charles Harper, in his account of The Dover Road (1922),

Shooter’s Hill was not always a place whereon one could rest in safety. Indeed, it bore for long years a particularly bad name as being the lurking-place of ferocious footpads, cutpurses, highwaymen, cut-throats, and gentry of allied professions who rushed out from [the] leafy coverts and took liberal toll from wayfarers…. So long ago as 1767 [eight years before the date of the mail-coach’s passage over Shooter’s Hill in A Tale of Two Cities] a project was set afoot for building a town on the summit of Shooter’s Hill, but it came to nothing, which is not at all strange when one considers how constantly the dwellers there would have been obliged to run the gauntlet of the gentlemen whom Americans happily call “road-agents.” And here is a sample of what would happen now and again, taken … from the … columns of a London paper, under date of 1773. “On Sunday night,” we read, “about ten o’clock, Colonel Craig and his servant were attacked near Shooter’s Hill by two highwaymen, well mounted, who, on the colonel’s declaring he would not be robbed, immediately fired and shot the servant’s horse in the shoulder. On this the footman discharged a pistol, and the assailants rode off with great precipitation.” That they rode off with nothing else shows how effectually the colonel and his servant, by firmly grasping the nettle danger, plucked the flower safety. (36-7)

Harper goes on to excerpt the accounts of Shooter’s Hill found in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Byron’s Don Juan (1821). In the latter, Don Juan finds himself “greeted” by highwaymen, which he takes for an English custom of salutation. Of Dickens’ novel, Harper says he has but one criticism to make – “There was no Dover Mail coach in 1775, for the earliest of all mail coaches, that between Bristol and London, was not established before 1784. The mails until then were carried by post-boys on horse-back” (40). Thus, though guilty of a minor anachronism on this point, Dickens combines a common conveyance employed in his own time (passengers frequently booked places on mail-coaches, which traveled regularly between set points) with the dangers of the Dover Road in the late 18th century.

…with the mutinous intent of taking it [the coach] back to Blackheath.

Blackheath, five miles from the origin of the Dover Road, is the station on the road most immediately preceding Shooter’s Hill, about 3.25 miles back in the direction of London (Harper, “The Road to Dover”). Harper, in The Dover Road, describes Blackheath as still, in 1922,

one of the finest suburbs of London…. Strange to say, it has not been spoiled, and though thickly surrounded with houses, remains as breezy and healthful as ever; perhaps, indeed, since highwayman and footpad have disappeared, and now that duels are unknown, Blackheath may be regarded as even more healthy a spot than it was a hundred years ago.

The air which gave Black Heath its original name [the Blue Guide notes that Blackheath still seems “well named” on a “cold, cloudy day” (404)], and nipped the ears and made red the noses of the “outsides” [passengers who rode on the outside of traveling coaches] who journeyed across it on their way to Dover in the winter months, is healthful and bracing, and is not so bleak as balmy in the days of June, when the sun shines brilliantly, and makes a generous heat to radiate from the old mellow brick wall of Greenwich Park that skirts the heath on the northern side. (25)

Harper goes on to record that Blackheath was a popular meeting-place in English history, and the “mutinous intent” of Dickens’ horses to return the carriage to Blackheath might be taken as an allusion to Blackheath’s history as a site of collusion and revolt. Two famous revolts – one led by Wat Tyler in 1381 and another by Jack Cade in 1450 – began with the gathering of rebels on Blackheath; and the place gained a milder reputation as a rendezvous for various more peaceful assemblies. As Harper puts it:

As for Blackheath, it seems that when, in older days, people had assignations on the Dover Road, they generally selected this place for the purpose; whether they were kings and emperors that met; or ambassadors, archbishops, rebels, or rival pretenders to the crown, they each and all came here to shake hands and interchange courtesies, or to speak with their enemies in the gate. It is very impressive to find Blackheath thus and so frequently honoured by the great ones of the earth; but it is also not a little embarrassing to the historian who wants to be getting along down the road, and yet desires to tell of all the pageants that here befell, and how the high contending parties variously saluted or sliced one another, as the case might be. Indeed, to write the history of Blackheath would be to despair of ever seeing Dover…. (27)


Jack-boots, according to Fairholt’s Costume in England: A History of Dress (1860), are “large boot[s], reaching above the knee, introduced in the seventeenth century” (514).

This illustration, from Fairholt’s Costume, gives us an idea of the kind of boots the coach-passengers are wearing as they trudge up Shooter’s Hill beside the mail.

… every posting-house and ale-house …

A posting-house was named for the post – the conveyance of letters around the country. To travel or ride post was, in one sense, to ride with the mail, and a posting-house was a kind of way station where travelers could change horses and refresh themselves in the course of a journey (OED).

…the guard got down to skid the wheel for the descent…

A skid, according to the Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859), is

An implement used for attaching to the hind-wheel of a vehicle when about to proceed down hill, with a view of regulating its momentum. No carriage or other vehicle should be without this convenience, as it is rarely applied, is never in the way, and prevents accidents and damage. An implement acting on the same principle as the skid, and known as a stop-drag, consists of five or more pieces of wood, united on the outside by a strong joined iron hoop, the wood pressing on the nave of the wheel. The annexed figure [see illustration] shows a wheel on a declivity, the chain drawn tight by the pressure of the breeching on the horse; the brake closely surrounding the nave, and forming an effectual drag. (917)

In other words, a “skid” was a kind of brake for a carriage-wheel, which operated by friction against the motion of the vehicle and saved it from running away down hills.

‘I belong to Tellson’s Bank. You must know Tellson’s Bank in London.

Tellson’s Bank, in London, is based on the banking house of Child & Co., which was located in Fleet Street and “leased rooms over Temple Bar as a repository for their cash-books and ledgers” (Sanders 35). The association becomes clearer later in the novel, when we visit Tellson’s in Fleet Street next to Temple Bar.

Wait at Dover for Ma’amselle.

“Ma’amselle” is a phonetic and abbreviated rendering of the French word “Mademoiselle,” meaning “Miss” or young woman.

…a smaller chest beneath his seat, in which there were a few smith’s tools, a couple of torches, and a tinder-box. For he was furnished with that completeness, that if the coach-lamps had been blown or stormed out, which did occasionally happen, he had only to shut himself up inside, keep the flint and steel sparks well off the straw, and get a light with tolerable safety and ease (if he were lucky) in five minutes.

A smith’s tools are the tools of a blacksmith – presumably not the larger ones in this case (such as anvils), but perhaps hammers, files, and the like. An 18th-century torch would have consisted of “a stick of resinous wood, or of twisted hemp or similar material soaked with tallow, resin, or other inflammable substance” (OED); and a tinderbox is a box in which tinder is kept, sometimes along with the flint and steel with which a spark was struck (OED). The coach-man, to relight the coach-lamps, would have to “shut himself up” inside the coach to keep the sparks out of the wind, and would also have to keep them “well off the straw” that was used inside carriages to insulate against cold in the winter (Sanders 40).

By the time Dickens was writing A Tale of Two Cities, several kinds of matches had been developed:  The first friction matches (which were lit by running the tip of the match through sandpaper) appeared in 1826; Lucifer matches were sold in London beginning in 1829; phosphorus matches (instead of sulphur) were available beginning in 1839; and safety matches appeared in 1855 – a few years before A Tale of Two Cities was composed. The first half of the 19th century, then, saw remarkable innovations in “getting a light,” and Dickens’ frequent pejorative references to the old method of “flint and steal” (he makes fun of the process in Great Expectations also) may relate to the fact that he was 14 before the first friction matches appeared. The carriage lamps described in this passage would have been oil-lamps.

After that there gallop from Temple-bar …

The messenger, Jerry Cruncher, has galloped from Temple Bar (a large gate marking the entrance to the City of London between London and Westminster [Gaspey, vol.1, 51]).  Temple Bar is a little over a mile west of London Bridge (where the Dover Road begins), so the gallop to catch the mail-coach at Shooter’s Hill would be a gallop of a little over nine miles (Harper, “The Road to Dover”).

The relative locations of Temple Bar and London Bridge are visible on this portion of Thornton’s map of London (1784). Temple Bar is at the far left, next to Fleet Street and under Chancery Lane; London Bridge is the second bridge to the right, just visible at the bottom of the map to the right of the crease.

Click on map for larger view

…his own coach and six, or his own coach and sixty…

A coach and six is a coach drawn by six horses; a coach and sixty would be a coach drawn by sixty horses (OED, “chaise”).

…an old cocked-hat like a three-cornered spittoon…

Dickens is here describing the kind of three-cornered hat worn by men in the 18th century, familiar to us from historical paintings and costume dramas. Planché’s History of British Costume (1847) describes the state of the three-cornered hat during the reign of George III (during which A Tale of Two Cities is set) as follows:

[A]t the commencement of the reign of George III (1760), we are told, … hats are now worn upon an average six inches and three-fifths broad in the brim, and cocked between Quaker and Kevenhuller. Some have their hats open before like a church spout, or the scales they weigh flour in; some wear them rather sharper, like the nose of a greyhound, and we can distinguish, by the cock of the hat, the mode of the wearer’s mind. There is the military cock; and the mercantile cock; [etc.] (403)

The comparisons made here (of the three-cornered hat to a church spout, a flour-scale, a greyhound’s nose, etc.) suggest that Dickens’ comparison of the three-cornered hat to a spittoon participates in a tradition of pejorative similes. (A spittoon is a “receptacle for spittle, usually a round flat vessel of earthenware or metal” [OED] in which saliva and tobacco might be deposited; the shallow basin of the spittoon must have borne some resemblance to the hat’s shallow crown.)

The three-cornered hat was the typical head-dress for men until the late 18th century, and Planché attributes its demise to the French Revolution:

[T]he French Revolution, in 1789, completed the downfall of the three-cornered cocked hat on both sides of the Channel [i.e. in both England and France]. It was insulted in its decay by the nick-name of “an Egham, Staines, and Windsor,” from the triangular direction post to those places which it was said to resemble…. (403)

To modify the abuse heaped here upon the cocked hat, we may look at the remarks that defend it – at least to the extent of abusing its replacement. F.W. Fairholt’s Costume in England (published in 1860, and thus roughly contemporary with A Tale of Two Cities) remarks that:

[T]he French Revolution of 1789 very much influenced the English fashions, and greatly affected both male and female costume; and to that period we may date the introduction of the modern [1860] round hat in place of the cocked one; and it may reasonably be doubted whether anything more ugly to look at, or disagreeable to wear, was ever invented as a head-covering for gentlemen. Possessing not one quality to recommend it, and endowed with disadvantages palpable to all, it has continued to be our head-dress till the present day, in spite of the march of the intellect it may be supposed to cover. It [is not] seen in Parisian prints before 1787. (326)

This illustration, from Fairholt’s Costume, shows the change in men’s hats from the 1780s to the turn of the century.

From left to right, the figures in the illustration above show a "large
round hat" of 1786, the "last form" of the cocked-hat, and a round hat
which came into vogue in 1792 (during the period of the French Revolution)
and was still worn, "with little variation," when Dickens and Fairholt
were writing (Fairholt 508).

It [Jerry’s hair] was so like smith’s work, so much more like the top of a strongly spiked wall than a head of hair, that the best players at leap-frog might have declined him, as the most dangerous man in the world to go over.

A blacksmith works in metal, and could thus be responsible for forging the spikes to which Jerry’s hair is compared. The game of leapfrog, which the OED locates in English usage from the 16th century onward, is “A boys’ game in which one player places his hands upon the bent back or shoulders of another and leaps or vaults over him” – a dangerous game to play over metal spikes or, by comparison, Jerry Cruncher.

…the strong-rooms underground…

A strong-room is, according to the OED, “A room made specially secure for the custody of persons or things; esp[ecially] a fire- and burglar-proof room in which valuables are deposited for safety, e.g. at the Mint, a bank, etc.”

…he went in among them with … the feebly-burning candle…

In 1775, indoor lighting consisted either of candlelights or oil-lamps. The general state of lighting in the late 18th century was primitive. In buildings, gas lighting was an invention of the very late18th century (first used to light a factory in Manchester in 1798) and was not implemented in London until 1807, and in Paris until 1819 (Hobsbawm 298). Electrical lighting of the sort we enjoy now did not appear until long after A Tale of Two Cities was written; it was first implemented in London in 1882.

…the head-drawer at the Royal George Hotel opened the coach door, as his custom was.

The Royal George Hotel is usually identified as the Ship Hotel in Dover (Sanders 39), demolished in 1860 (the year after A Tale of Two Cities was published) to make way for a new portion of the railway. It is probably the hotel commemorated in Byron’s Don Juan (1821) in this facetious apostrophe:

Thy cliffs, dear Dover! Harbour and hotel;
Thy custom-house, with all its delicate duties;
Thy waiters running mucks at every bell;
Thy packets, all whose passengers are booties
To those who upon land or water dwell;
And last, not least, to strangers uninstructed,
Thy long, long bills, whence nothing is deducted. (qtd. in Harper 243)

A drawer is “[o]ne who draws liquor for customers; a tapster at a tavern” (OED).




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