Discovering Dickens - A Community Reading Project

 Discovering Dickens

 A Tale of Two Cities

 Maps and Illustrations



 Biographical Context

 Historical Context

 Archived Novel







…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.


Bibliographical information

Copyright © 2002 Stanford University. All rights reserved. Stanford, CA 94305, (650)723-2300. Terms of Use