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…packet to Calais…

A “packet,” according to the OED, is short for “packet-boat,” or a “boat or vessel plying at regular intervals between two ports for the conveyance of mails, also of goods and passengers; a mail-boat.” The derivation of the word seems to relate to the progress of the mails, and especially state papers and dispatches, between England and the Continent: A “packet” was originally “the boat maintained for carrying ‘the packet’ of State letters and dispatches…. An early official name for this was POST-BARK (in State Papers as late as 1651), also POST-BOAT…. [T]his ‘Boate to Transport the Packetts’ was prob[ably] already familiarly known as the ‘packet-boat,’ since this term was so well-known as to be borrowed in French before 1634.” Mr. Lorry’s conveyance from England to France was thus the usual one in 1775, and the crossing – from Dover to Calais – was also the usual one. The distance between Dover and Calais (the towns closest to one another across the Channel) was about 22 nautical miles (Baedeker 15) or 8 leagues (Tronchet xxv).

This map, from Tronchet’s Picture of Paris (c. 1818), shows the route of packets from Dover to Calais. It also, incidentally, maps the Dover Road (though not in great detail – only a few points between London and Dover are labeled).

Click on map for larger view

“…but I want a bedroom, and a barber.”

A barber could be employed for a haircut, a shave, or both. Mr. Lorry, who wears a wig, probably wants a barber for a shave; however, since men who wore wigs often kept their actual hair very short or shaved, he may want a haircut as well.

“Show Concord! Gentleman’s valise and hot water to Concord. Pull off gentleman’s boots in Concord. (You will find a fine sea-coal fire, sir.)...”

“Concord,” here, is the name of a specific room or set of rooms in the Royal George Hotel. A “Concord” was a kind of traveling coach named after Concord, New Hampshire (Sanders 40); and a “sea-coal fire” is a fire made up with coal in the ordinary sense. The word “sea-coal” is used, according to the OED, to distinguish coal (used for heating) from charcoal. Though it is sometimes thought that the name “sea-coal” derived from the process of shipping coal by sea from locations in the north of England (such as Newcastle), the OED considers this derivation doubtful because early usages of the word occur even in coal-producing regions (to which coal would not have been shipped by sea). The OED suggests instead that “in early times the chief source of coal supply may have been the beds exposed by marine denudation on the coasts of Northumberland and South Wales.” In any case, sea-coal is the same as regular coal, and is used by the employees of the Royal George to distinguish their coal fires from charcoal fires – and thus to indicate the quality of the fire Mr. Lorry is about to enjoy. Charcoal was a cheaper fuel, but less pleasant and apparently somewhat hazardous. According to the Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859):

Although charcoal is an economical fuel, it is by no means conducive to health, and is sometimes attended with dangerous consequences. Wherever charcoal is burnt a vessel of boiling water should be set over the burning fuel, the steam from which will counteract the dangerous fumes of the carbon. If a little vinegar be added persons will be much less liable to headaches than they otherwise are. When a person has inhaled the fumes of charcoal to such a degree as to become insensible, he should be immediately removed into the open air, cold water dashed on the head and body, the nostrils and lungs stimulated by hartshorn, at the same time rubbing the chest briskly. (263-4)

Coal, therefore, though more expensive, was preferred to charcoal for heating domestic spaces. The Dictionary of Daily Wants gives the following directions concerning its use:

The economy of coal is a great consideration, especially where a number of fires are kept burning at one time. The chief principles are, to make a good fire at once, not to poke it too frequently, and to burn the cinders that fall beneath, by throwing them on to the fire from time to time, instead of suffering them to accumulate, and ultimately perhaps to be thrown away. The properties of coal when burning, are generally speaking not injurious to the health, especially when employed in open fire-places, or in stoves where there is a free egress for the sulphur and ammonia evolved; but if the chimney or stove smokes, the head and lungs may be seriously affected by the quantity of sulphur and ammonia confined in the room; and instances have been known where fatal consequences have attended imperfect draughts. (296)

…a gentleman of sixty, formally dressed in a brown suit of clothes, pretty well worn, but very well kept, with large square cuffs and large flaps to the pockets, passed along on his way to breakfast…. Very orderly and methodical he looked, with a hand on each knee, and a loud watch ticking a sonorous sermon under his flapped waistcoat…. He had a good leg, and was a little vain of it, for his brown stockings fitted sleek and close, and were of a fine texture; his shoes and buckles, too, though plain, were trim. He wore an odd little flaxen wig, setting very close to his head: which wig, it is to be presumed, was made of hair, but which looked far more as though it were spun from filaments of silk or glass….

Mr. Lorry’s brown suit of clothes identifies him as a well-groomed, modestly dressed gentleman of the 18th century. In 1775, however, his square coat-cuffs and the flaps on his coat and waistcoat were not in the latest fashion, belonging to the style of a somewhat earlier period: According to Planché's History of British Costume (1847), this style of clothing belonged to the “reign of Queen Anne [1702-14] and the first two Georges [1714-60]” (403-4), and began to change during the reign of George III. Beginning in 1772, “fashionable” gentlemen (primarily the wealthy) began to wear waistcoats “much shortened, reaching very little below the waist, and being without the flap-covered pockets” (Fairholt 318). Coats were also shortened, and “[a] watch was carried in each pocket, from which hung bunches of chains and seals” (Fairholt 318). Mr. Lorry, then, is well dressed in 1775, but not “fashionably” so, and adheres to a style of the earlier 18th century (indeed, the “pretty well worn” state of his suit suggests that, though neatly dressed, he has adhered to the same mode for some time). Even his watch, as obtrusive as it seems to be – “a loud watch ticking a sonorous sermon” – is apparently a symbol of sartorial restraint: Not only does it tick sonorously beneath the outmoded flaps of his waistcoat, but the fact that there is only one watch (instead of one for each pocket), and no “bunches of chains and seals,” suggests that he is very modestly accoutered.

Moreover, with shorter waistcoats, multiple watches, and a lack of flaps, 1772 introduced wigs of considerable size – “enormous hair-do[s],” as one 19th-century writer puts it (Fairholt 318) – for fashionable gentleman. Mr. Lorry’s wig, however, remains “little”; and though Dickens’ description of it as an “odd little wig” refers to the fact that it would have been odd for his 19th-century readers to see one, it would – like the rest of Mr. Lorry’s outfit – have been proper in 1775 (though not especially fashionable).

Finally, having a “good leg” means that Mr. Lorry’s leg – in tight-fitting breeches to the knee – is shapely. From “the close of G[eorge] II’s reign [onward, breeches were] worn over the stocking … and fastened first by buckles and afterwards by strings” (Planché 403-4). Shoes likewise, for both men and women, were buckled – just as Mr. Lorry’s are – and had heels. Buckles did not become unfashionable until the period of the French Revolution, when shoe-laces began to replace them and shoes began to grow flatter in the heel. When this began to happen, “[t]he Prince of Wales was petitioned by the alarmed buckle-makers to discard his new-fashioned strings, and take again to buckles, by way of bolstering up their trade; but the fate of these articles was sealed, and the Prince’s compliance with their wishes did little to prevent their downfall” (Fairholt 326).

The little narrow, crooked town of Dover hid itself away from the beach, and ran its head into the chalk-cliffs, like a marine ostrich.

Dover is famous for its “white cliffs” – white because they are composed of chalk – and is described by Lyon’s History of the Town and Port of Dover (1813) as

…a healthy situation, as it is built chiefly upon chalk, or pebbles, and there is a rapid descent, to carry off all impurities to the sea. The town in sheltered by the high hills, from the easterly and northerly winds, and it is much warmer in the winter than some other towns on the coast. (36)

In 1775, the date of Mr. Lorry’s visit to Dover, the town was apparently in need of some municipal repair; an act of parliament was passed in 1778 “for new paving, watching, and lighting of the town” (Lyons 37).

Dickens’ description of the town as a “kind of marine ostrich” refers to the notion that ostriches hide their heads in the sand. According to Sanders’ Companion to A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens possessed a copy of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature, which describes ostrich behavior as follows:

Upon observing himself … pursued at a distance he begins to run at first gently; either insensible of danger or sure of escaping…. At last, spent with fatigue and famine, and finding all power of escape impossible, he endeavours to hide himself from those enemies he cannot avoid, and covers his head in the sand, or the first thicket he meets. (qtd. in Sanders 41)

The belief that ostriches hide their heads in the sand is of long standing. The OED notes that the

…habits and peculiarities of the bird, real and fabulous, have afforded much scope for proverb and allusion; such are its indiscriminate voracity and its liking for hard substances, which it swallows to assist the gizzard in its functions; its supposed want of regard for its young, its eggs being partly hatched by the heat of the sun, which has led to the belief that it deserts its nest; and the practice attributed to it of thrusting its head into the sand or a bush when being overtaken by pursuers, through incapacity to distinguish between seeing and being seen.

Among these many “habits and peculiarities” attributed to the ostrich, however, the alleged habit of sticking its head in the sand is perhaps the most popular. Carlyle, for instance, invokes the figure of the ostrich near the beginning of The French Revolution as a way of describing Louis XV’s avoidance of the mention of death: “It is the resource of the Ostrich; who, hard hunted, sticks his foolish head in the ground, and would fain forget that his foolish unseeing body is not unseen too” (18).

…a strong piscatory flavour…

According to the OED, a “piscatory flavour” would be a fishy one. “Piscatory” means “[o]f or pertaining to fishers or to fishing.”

A little fishing was done in the port, and a quantity of strolling about by night, and looking seaward: particularly at those times when the tide made, and was near flood. Small tradesmen, who did no business whatever, sometimes unaccountably realized large fortunes, and it was remarkable that nobody in the neighborhood could endure a lamplighter.

According to Sanders, the “quantity of strolling about by night” is an allusion to the number of smugglers who operated in Dover, smuggling goods – especially brandy – into England from France. Dickens’ reference to “small tradesmen, who did no business whatsoever” may allude to the smugglers’ euphemism for their business – “free trade” (Sanders 41). The smugglers’ aversion to lamp-lighting is understandable (light compromising discretion), and Sanders notes that the smugglers went out to sea with their own lamps to guide boats with contraband materials on board to shore.

A lamplighter, of course, was one who lit the lamps in a town. Before electric light (which did not appear in cities until the end of the 19th century), lamplighters were employed to light the street-lamps at night, and usually carried ladders (which they ascended to light the lamps). To say that someone was “like a lamplighter” was, according to the OED, a tribute to his or her swiftness.

…the air, which had been at intervals clear enough to allow the French coast to be seen…

Dover and Calais, in England and France respectively, are the cities closest to one another across the English Channel – a distance of 22 nautical miles or 8 leagues (Baedeker, Tronchet). On a clear day, the coasts would be visible to one another.


According to the Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859), claret is “[o]ne of the most wholesome of the light wines. It contains 15.10 percent of alcohol ... [and] is useful in many cases of convalescence from febrile complaints, where heavier and stronger wines would be inadmissible” (290). Modern clarets tend to have an alcohol content of 14% or less, which suggests either that wine was more potent in the 18th and 19th centuries than it is at the present time, or that measurements were less exact. Describing claret as one of the “light” wines, the Dictionary of Daily Wants compares it to “stronger” or comparatively “generous” wines like sherry, port, or Madeira. The latter, it says, may “be advantageously diluted with water” (1112).

It was a large, dark room, furnished in a funereal manner with black horsehair…

Horsehair furnishings were typically couches and chairs “covered with a fabric woven of horsehair” (OED). Horsehair was useful as an upholstering material because it was strong and faintly lustrous when woven into a cloth. Black horsehair would be “funereal” because of its color (the traditional color of funerals and mourning), and, though lustrous, would not reflect much light in a “large, dark room” like the one described.

…picking his way over the well-worn Turkey carpet…

A “Turkey carpet” is, according to the OED, “A carpet manufactured in or imported from Turkey, or of a style in imitation of this; made in one piece of richly-coloured wools, without any imitative pattern, on a foundation of flax, hemp, or other material, and having a deep pile, cut so as to resemble velvet.”

…like a breath along the surface of the gaunt pier-glass behind her, on the frame of which, a hospital procession of negro cupids, several headless and all cripples, were offering black baskets of Dead-Sea fruit to black divinities of the feminine gender…

A pier glass is “[a] large tall mirror; orig[inally] one fitted to fill up the pier or space between two windows, or over a chimney-piece” (OED). Sanders (in his Companion to A Tale of Two Cities) glosses the “hospital procession” of figures on the frame of this glass as reminiscent, for Dickens, of a group of charity children walking out of a hospital – a “charitable educational establishment” (42). The figures are “negro” because the material in which they are carved is black; and thus the “baskets of Dead-Sea fruit” and “divinities of the feminine gender” are also black. The biblical Dead-Sea fruit, or the “apples of Sodom,” are “described by Josephus as of fair appearance externally, but dissolving, when grasped, into smoke and ashes” (OED). This smoke-and-ashes composition probably accounts – as a further riff on the black or blackened appearance of everything on the frame – for Dickens’ description of the fruits on the pier-glass as Dead-Sea fruits.

“I kiss your hand, miss,” said Mr. Lorry, with the manners of an earlier date, as he made his formal bow again, and took his seat.

In the mid-19th century, when Dickens was writing A Tale of Two Cities, bowing was the polite gesture of choice. The Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859) describes the bow as

A mode by which well-bred persons in England recognize and salute each other. A bow ought to be made by bending the upper part of the body and the head forward in a gentle curve; the action should be neither too laboured nor too curt, but the body should be inclined forward, and suffered to regain its erect position with an elastic sort of motion. The occasions upon which this gesture of respect is to be performed are innumerable, such as on entering or leaving a room, meeting with or addressing a lady, appealing to a public assembly, taking wine at dinner, tacitly admitting an error, or permitting an adverse opinion to override your own, acknowledging a compliment, signifying attention when individually addressed, bidding adieu to persons when the acquaintance is slight, &c. (177)

In Dickens’ own time, then, a bow would have been sufficient to acknowledge Miss Manette; but Mr. Lorry’s gesture of kissing her hand consists with the gallantry of the 18th century. 18th-century conduct books, however, acknowledge the extent to which this mark of respect for a lady could lapse into licentiousness. For instance, the author of The Gentleman’s Library, Containing Rules for Conduct in All Parts of Life (1734), sums up a section on the avoidance of social vices as follows:

We should labour to assume no Gallantry, but that of Spirit, which is stiled Magnanimity and Greatness of Soul; an Air of doing great and good Offices; a Pleasure in exercising our Virtues, and drawing them out to Light for the Service of Mankind. This is Gallantry, this is Elegance in Action; and the other, only called so by Fashion and Folly, is but a poor and mean Imitation of Vice in Disguise. (129)

She curtseyed to him (young ladies made curtseys in those days)…

The word “curtsey” is a variant of the word “courtesy,” and refers to a courteous gesture made by women – “An obeisance; … a feminine movement of respect or salutation, made by bending the knees and lowering the body. Commonly to make [or] drop a curtsey” (OED).

In your reception of it, don’t heed me any more than if I was a speaking machine – truly, I am not much else.

The idea of “machinery” was common in the late 18th century (especially in application to vessels like boats, carriages, and objects or appliances operating mechanically). However, the kinds of speaking machines we might be tempted to associate with Mr. Lorry’s speaking machine – the telegraph, the phonograph, or perhaps the telephone – would all be anachronistic in application to 1775. The electric telegraph was not invented until 1836-7, and the telephone (invented in 1876) and phonograph (invented in 1877) did not appear until long after Dickens was writing (1859).


Beauvais, north of Paris, is described by the Handbook to Paris and Its Environs (c. 1924) as

A cathedral town, 50 miles north of Paris, and one of the oldest towns in France. [It was taken] by Julius Caesar, several times by the Normans in the ninth century, and by the English in 1417; besieged by Charles the Bold in 1472, but saved by the bravery of Jeanne Hachette. The cathedral is a fine specimen of Gothic architecture, and would have been the largest cathedral in the world if it had been finished (the part [still] existing [by the early 20th century was] only the transept). There are many fine old buildings in the town. Beauvais is renowned for its tapestry, which is made at the National Manufactory in the center of town. (204)

Dickens considered calling A Tale of Two Cities “The Doctor of Beauvais” (Sanders 42).

“…Feelings! I have no time for them, no chance of them. I pass my whole life, miss, in turning an immense pecuniary Mangle.”

Mr. Lorry’s description of himself as employed “in turning an immense pecuniary Mangle” is in the key of his previous assertion that he is a mere “speaking machine” – a man who operates without feeling, and only according to his specified function. The Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859) gives the following description of mangling:

MANGLING. – A process in connection with the laundry, which is usually adopted for articles of domestic use, or wearing apparel of a course or plain kind. The articles to be mangled are wrapped round rollers, and are forced backward and forward under a heavily loaded case. The art consists chiefly in laying the clothes smoothly upon the cloth, and in arranging them in such a way that those of equal substance shall come together, so that the surface may not be rendered irregular. Most articles are folded two or three times, and come out better when so arranged than they do when put in the mangle in single folds. Beyond this, it is only necessary to roll them evenly on the rollers, and lay them in the mangle. Articles which have buttons attached to them, are not adapted for the mangle; when the buttons are made of slender material they are liable to be crushed, and if made of metal they are apt to cut the fabrics brought into contact with them, and also to cause iron-moulds. The ordinary mangle is a machine of large dimensions, which the premises of a private establishment are sometimes not large enough to contain. A smaller kind of mangle has been therefore invented, acting by means of a spring or some other substitute for mere force of weight. Of these, the mangle shown in the engraving is the best. It is portable; and the bed on which the linen is mangled is not a fixture as in the ordinary mangle, but traverses backward and forward, whilst the roller on which the linen is placed, remains stationary. The pressure is obtained by means of springs adjusted by a screw, and the roller is either of metal or wood. The figure shows the machine placed upon an ordinary table; but when taken to pieces it consists of the bed, and also of the roller and works, which may be contained within a box two feet eight inches long and one foot square. (658)

The Dictionary gives this illustration of a small mangle for household use. Mr. Lorry’s “pecuniary” mangle would presumably be employed in straightening out fiscal problems.

…the privilege of filling up blank forms for the consignment of any one to the oblivion of a prison for any length of time…”

The “privilege of filling up blank forms” alluded to by Mr. Lorry is the famous use of lettres de cachet – literally “letters of seal” (they bore the private seal of the French king) authorizing imprisonment, without trial or redress, “at the pleasure of the monarch” (OED). Sanders, in A Companion to A Tale of Two Cities, notes that lettres de cachet were sometimes sold, “with blanks to be filled up with names at the pleasure of the purchaser” (42), and Dickens adopts this view. Lettres de cachet are represented, in A Tale of Two Cities, as a privilege available to French noblemen in favor with the court (a privilege exercised against Doctor Manette); and Dickens’ historical source, Carlyle’s French Revolution, makes much of the pre-revolutionary use of lettres de cachet as a political tool. Describing the tactics of Loménie-Brienne (Louis XVI’s Controller of Finance) against a Parliament that would not register Tax-edicts, Carlyle writes,

On the night of the 14th of August, Loménie launches his thunderbolt, or handful of them. Letters named of the Seal (de Cachet), as many as needful, some six score and odd, are delivered overnight. And so, next day betimes, the whole Parlement, once more set on wheels, is rolling incessantly towards Troyes in Champagne; “escorted,” says History, “with the blessings of all people”; the very innkeepers and postilions looking gratuitously reverent. This is the 15th of July, 1787. (72-3)

Though the Parliament was soon allowed to return from collective exile, the audacity of this political maneuver illustrates the kind of outrage made possible by lettres de cachet. Lettres de cachet were abolished at the beginning of the French Revolution (Sanders 42).

“If you could kindly mention now, for instance, what nine times ninepence are, or how many shillings in twenty guineas, it would be so encouraging.”

When Mr. Lorry asks Lucie to “mention … what nine times ninepence are,” and how many shillings there are in 20 guineas, he is asking her to make a monetary calculation in a currency no longer in use. In this system – current from 1503 to 1971 – 12 pence (12d) made one shilling, and a shilling was worth 1/20 of an English pound. After the introduction of decimal coinage in 1971, the word “shilling” was still used to indicate 5 pence, but was no longer an actual coin. An English pound, indicated by the symbol £ (before a number) or the symbol l. (after a number), originally referred to the measure of one pound weight of silver, and was equal to 20 shillings (20s) or 240 pence (240d). This was the monetary system in place during the 18th century; since the (comparatively recent) advent of decimal coinage in 1971, an English pound has been equal to 100 new pence (OED, “shilling”).

The answers to Mr. Lorry’s questions – apparently asked with the object of assuring himself of Lucie’s emotional or mental stability (it seems appropriate that a banker should be reassured by her ability to perform mechanical functions like financial mathematics) – are as follows: 9 times 9 pence is 81 pence, or 6 shillings and 9 pence; 20 guineas – a guinea was originally of the same value as a pound (20 shillings), but after 1717 was worth slightly more than a pound (21 shillings) (OED) – would amount to 420 shillings in 1775.

…dressed in some extraordinarily tight-fitting fashion, and to have on her head a most wonderful bonnet like a Grenadier wooden measure, and good measure too, or a great Stilton cheese….

As Sanders points out in his Companion to A Tale of Two Cities, the “extraordinary tight-fitting fashion” in which Miss Pross is dressed reflects, not an aberration in 18th-century style, but rather Dickens’ dislike of the clothing of the period (which was often both voluminous and tight-fitting). As F.W. Fairholt notes in his 1860 History of Dress, “the humbler classes seem to have gradually adopted from [the fashions of the well-to-do] only that portion of dress that was stiff and quaker-like” (314). As an example, he describes a woman’s outfit of 1772, consisting of an “uncomfortable bodice and stomacher … tight sleeves, long mittens, open gown carefully held up from the ground (and frequently worn drawn through the pocket-holes), … long white apron, [and] high-heeled shoes and buckles” (Fairholt 314). Miss Pross’ tight-fitting gown, which would resemble the one Fairholt describes, may help to identify her station; yet the exaggerated discomfort to which she seems to be subjected may also suggest that she is a woman of considerable endurance, not easily daunted.

Miss Pross’ bonnet, compared to “a Grenadier wooden measure,” combines two images – that of a large wooden scoop for measuring out dry goods, and that of a Grenadier’s hat. An idea of the latter may be derived from Planché’s History of British Costume (1847), in which he notes that “[i]n the reign of George III the [previously-worn] sugar-loaf cap of the grenadiers was exchanged for the present mountain or muff of bear-skin” (419). This “mountain” of bear-skin, which remained part of the Grenadier’s uniform from the late 18th century through the period in which Dickens was composing A Tale of Two Cities, is surely the hat invoked with reference to Miss Pross’ unfortunate bonnet.

The illustration above, from the Histoire de Paris (1869), gives us an image of  a French grenadier’s hat (the figure in the foreground is a grenadier), which is apparently much like the English version. In any case, the prevailing impression of Miss Pross’ headdress – when we combine a wooden scoop with the military “mountain” of bear-skin – is of a bonnet inflexible, unwieldy, and not especially becoming. The alternate comparison – of the bonnet to a “great Stilton cheese” – is similarly unflattering. Stilton is a kind of blue English cheese which comes – as a whole cheese – in a large round. It was originally named for a coaching inn at Stilton where it was sold to travelers; afterwards, the name applied to similar cheeses made elsewhere. Since 1969, however, the name has been “restricted to [cheeses] made in the counties of Leicester, Derby, and Nottingham by members of the Stilton Cheese Makers Association” (OED).

“…smelling-salts, cold water, and vinegar, quick…!”

Smelling-salts are “a preparation of carbonate of ammonia and scent for smelling, used as a restorative in cases of faintness or headache” (OED). Cold water and vinegar are, likewise, restoratives used in cases of fainting. The Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859) gives the following instructions for

Treatment. – When fainting is the result of excessive nervous sensibility, or when it occurs in hysterical women, there is seldom any danger; all that is generally necessary, is to lay the patient on his back in the horizontal position; loosen any string that may compress the chest or neck, open the window, dash water in the face, and apply volatile salts to the nostrils, and give a draught with half a teaspoonful of spirits of lavender, or thirty drops of sal volatile, and twenty of ether, added to the lavender and water, where the fainting threatens to merge in hysteria. Should the case be obstinate, heated bricks or mustard plasters must be applied to the feet or thighs. Where the fainting proceeds from organic disease, the treatment must be guided by the nature of the primary affection. (414)


Bibliographical information

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