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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…. [I]n short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

The period invoked by the opening chapter of A Tale of Two Cities is the late 18th century – specifically (as we learn a little later on) 1775; and Dickens’ “best of times” and “worst of times” initiates a theme that helps prepare us for one of the major causes of the French Revolution – the coexistence of opposed extremes (such as the coexistence of immense wealth and immense poverty in France) in the pre-revolutionary period.

The “season of Light,” coexisting with the “season of Darkness,” invokes another irony of the period.  Though the “Enlightenment” (usually associated with the move from the superstitious world view of the Middle Ages to the rationalism of 18th-century philosophy and science) may be applied to aspects of various historical periods, the word itself became part of European lexicons in the 18th century (in French, the word is “Lumières”) (Roberts 268). If, however, the “Enlightenment” was a period of reason, rationality, science, etc., it was likewise a period of pseudo-science and new kinds of superstition. As one history of the period puts it, “The eighteenth century was the century of mesmerism as well as of inoculation; the cautious rationalism and theism of the early freemasons ramified in a few decades into the luxuriant dottiness of mystical and occult masonry” (Roberts 270). Thus the period in which the novel opens is a period both of Light and Darkness – a period of contrasts.

The “present period” of the novel is of course 1859, when A Tale of Two Cities first began serial publication. This period is introduced as “so far like” 1775 perhaps because of the persistence of contrasting extremes: In the 19th century, England led the Industrial Revolution (for which the ground was laid by 18th-century developments like the steam engine); yet unprecedented scientific, technological, and industrial progress coexisted with the vogue of “spirit rappers,” mediums, phrenologists, and so forth. Dickens makes reference to such phenomena in the opening chapter when he notes that “Spiritual revelations were conceded to England at that favoured period, as at this” (Ch.1).

There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France.

In 1775 (the year in which the story of A Tale of Two Cities begins), the King and Queen of France were Louis XVI (r. 1774-93) and his consort, Marie-Antoinette. In England, George III (r. 1760-1820) and his queen, Charlotte Sophia, were the ruling couple.


These illustrations of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, taken from the Artist’s Edition of Carlyle’s French Revolution (1893), show us the “king with a large jaw” and the “queen with fair face” of France.

Since Dickens would probably have known George III’s profile from coins (Sanders 23), we are here including an illustration of the English “king with a large jaw” from an engraving – “A New Collection of ENGLISH COINS from Henry IV to George III, Accurately taken from the Originals” – from Thornton’s New, Complete, and Universal History, Description, and Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster [&c.] (1784). Dickens was born in 1812, and though George III was nominally king until 1820, his increasing mental instability necessitated the transfer of power to his son, who acted as Prince Regent from 1810 until George III’s death (at which point the Regent became George IV). It is therefore probable that, although Dickens was nearly eight years old before George III died, he would have known the monarch mainly from images on coins.


These illustrations of George III and his queen, Charlotte Sophia, are taken from Holt’s The Public and Domestic Life of His Late Most Gracious Majesty, George the Third (1820).  They offer more conventional portraits of the king “with a large jaw” and the “queen with a plain face.”

Mrs. Southcott had recently attained her five-and-twentieth blessed birthday, of whom a prophetic private in the Life Guards had heralded the sublime appearance by announcing that arrangements were made for the swallowing up of London and Westminster.

Joanna Southcott was indeed 25 years old in 1775, though not yet known for the alleged oracular powers that eventually made her famous. The Dictionary of National Biography gives this account of

SOUTHCOTT, JOANNA (1750-1814), fanatic, daughter of William Southcott … by his second wife Hannah, was born at Gittisham, Devonshire, in April, 1750, and baptized on 6 June 1750 at Ottery St. Mary, Devonshire. Her father was a small farmer, and as a girl she did dairy work. Her first love affair was with Noah Bishop, a farmer’s son at Sidmouth, where her brother Joseph lived. After her mother’s death, an event which confirmed her in strong religious impressions (her father thought her too religious), she went out to service, her first place being as shop-girl at Honiton, where she rejected several suitors. For a short time she was a domestic in the family of a country squire, but was dismissed because a footman, whose attentions she had spurned, affirmed that she was “growing mad”; she claims that her removal had been divinely intimated to her. She next got employment at Exeter, living for many years in various families, as domestic and assistant in the upholstery business. Her character was blameless and her service faithful. She attended church, usually the cathedral, twice every Sunday, and was a communicant; she also regularly frequented Wesleyan services before and after church hours. Though pressed to join the Methodist society, she did not do so till Christmas 1791, and then “by divine command.” (278)

In 1775, then, Joanna Southcott was not yet known as the prophetess that she became thereafter (though her story would have been well known to Dickens’ readers in 1859). She began to write prophecies in 1792, and – when they were disbelieved – “adopted the plan of sealing up her writings, to be opened when the predicted events had matured” (DNB 278). In 1801, she began to publish her works, gained followers, and underwent several “trials” of her predictions; in 1813, at the age of sixty-three, it was announced that she was pregnant with the second Christ, Shiloh:

Of nine medical men consulted on the case, six admitted that the symptoms would, in a younger woman, indicate approaching maternity. The excitement of Joanna’s followers knew no bounds. In September a crib costing £200 was made to order by Seddons of Aldergate Street; £100 was spent in pap-spoons [feeding-spoons for the baby]; a bible was superbly bound as a birthday present. The “Morning Chronicle,” which had inserted an advertisement for “a large furnished house” for a public accouchement, announced next day that “a great personage” had offered “the Temple of Peace in the Green Park.” (279)

Southcott herself apparently realized that she was dying, returned the parcels intended for Shiloh, and requested that an autopsy be performed four days after her death. She died on December 27, 1814, and the medical examination made in compliance with her request showed “no functional disorder or organic disease,” suggesting rather that “‘all the mischief lay’ in the brain, which was not examined, owing to the high state of putrefaction” (279).

The “prophetic private” in the Life Guards to whom Dickens refers predicted – in 1750, the year of Joanna Southcott’s birth – that London and Westminster would be destroyed. Dickens associates the date of the life-guardsman’s prediction with the date of Joanna Southcott’s nativity, facetiously suggesting that the guardsman’s prophesy was in fact prophetic, not of the swallowing of London and Westminster, but of the birth of another prophet. Though rapidly confined to Bedlam (the London insane asylum) for his remarks, the life-guardsman’s prophecy instigated panic in London – “The London churches were crowded, and the Bishop of London called his flock to repentance in a pastoral letter of which some 10,000 copies are said to have been sold” (Sanders 29). Dickens may be conflating the 1750 prophesy of the life-guardsman with a similar 1775 prophesy – not originated by a life-guardsman – to the effect that “on [February 1, 1775] the people about Deptford and Greenwich had been alarmed with the reveries of a crazy prophet, who had predicted that on this day these towns were to be swallowed up by an earthquake” (Annual Register for the Year 1775 88). (Deptford and Greenwich are villages about 4.5 and 5 miles east of the center of London [Harper, “The Road to Dover”], now absorbed into the general metropolitan area.)

Even the Cock-lane ghost had been laid only a round dozen years, after rapping out its messages, as the spirits of this very year last past (supernaturally deficient in originality) rapped out theirs.

The Cock-lane ghost ostensibly began to disturb the residents of a house in Cock Lane, West Smithfield (in London) in the first few months of 1762 (and had thus been laid to rest slightly more than a dozen years in 1775). Its knockings and scratchings were supposed to derive from the spirit of woman who had been murdered and was buried nearby. Though the phenomenon was ultimately exposed as a fraud, it attracted considerable popular interest; and when Mr. Parsons, the father of the 12-year-old girl first disturbed by the “Ghost,” was sent to prison for a year and forced to stand in the pillory for perpetrating the sham, Londoners collected a subscription for his well-being (Sanders 30).

Dickens’ reference to the “spirits of this very year last past” refers to the “spirit rappers” of the late 1850s (which announced themselves chiefly by shaking tables and rapping out messages). Dickens satirized spirit mediums – people who claimed to be in communication with the dead – in his magazine Household Words. “Spirits Over the Water,” by James Payn, appeared in the June 5, 1858 number of Household Words, reporting the vogue of spirit-rappers and mediums in America; and Dickens himself, in the February 20, 1858 number, penned an article entitled “Well-Authenticated Rappings.” In this piece, a spirit by the name of “Port!” inaugurates the day after Christmas by rapping on the writer’s (Dickens’) head, and a spirit named “Pork Pie” follows up the “previous remarkable visitation” by instigating orchestral maneuvers “resembling a melodious heart-burn” (218). These notices, appearing in 1858 – the year before A Tale of Two Cities commenced publication – report the popularity of the “spirits of this very year last past”; yet Dickens had been making fun of spirit rappers for most of the preceding decade. In an 1853 article called “The Spirit Business,” Dickens reviewed a series of publications on spirit-rapping and mediums in America, giving, among other things, excerpts of spirit communications such as the following:

FROM AN ANONYMOUS SPIRIT, PRESUMED TO BE OF THE QUAKER PERSUASION[:]  “Dear John, it is a pleasure to address thee now and then, after a lapse of many years. This new mode of conversing is no less interesting to thy mother than to thee. It greatly adds to the enjoyment and happiness of thy friends here to see thee happy, looking forward with composure to the change from one sphere to another.” (218)

He also transcribes

…a few individual cases of spiritual manifestation:There was a horrible medium down in Philadelphia, who recorded of herself, “Whenever I am passive, day or night, my hand writes.” This appalling author came out under the following circumstances: – “A pencil and paper were lying on the table. The pencil came into my hand; my fingers were clenched on it! An unseen iron grasp compressed the tendons in my arm – my hand was flung violently forward on the paper, and I wrote meaning sentences without any intention or knowing what they were to be.” The same prolific person presently inquires, “Is this insanity?” To which we take the liberty of replying, that we rather think it is. (219)

Further, another unwilling medium attended a gathering and

…put forth a strong effort of the will to induce a passiveness in my nervous system; and, in order that I might not be deceived as to my success, resigned myself to sleep…. I suppose I was unconscious for thirty minutes” [italics and ellipses are Dickens’]. After[wards] this seer had a vision of stalks and leaves, “a large species of fruit, somewhat resembling a pine-apple,” and “a nebulous column, somewhat resembling the milky way,” which nothing but spirits could account for, and from which nothing but soda-water, or time, is likely to have recovered him. We believe this kind of manifestation is usually followed by a severe headache next morning, attended by some degree of thirst. (219)

Mere messages in the earthly order of events had lately come to the English Crown and People, from a congress of British subjects in America.

Between September 5 and October 26, 1774, the first Continental Congress of England’s American colonies met in Philadelphia; it presented a list of grievances to the English government in January of the following year. This “message” from the “British subjects in America” preceded the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the ensuing Revolutionary War (Sanders 30; Maxwell 442; Roberts 345). The Annual Register of 1775 gives a long account of the Continental Congress’ meeting and the various “messages” sent to the crown, including a

…declaration of rights, to which, they say, the English colonies of North-America are entitled, by the immutable laws of nature, the principles of the English constitution, and their several charters or compacts. In the first of these are life, liberty, and property, a right to the disposal of any of which, without their consent, they had never ceded to any sovereign power whatever. That their ancestors, at the time of their migration, were entitled to all the rights, liberties, and immunities, of free and natural born subjects; and that by such emigration, they neither forfeited, surrendered, nor lost, any of those rights. They then state, that the foundation of English liberty, and of all free government, is a right in the people to participate in their legislative council; and proceed to shew, that as the colonists are not, and, from various causes, cannot be represented in the British parliament, they are entitled to a free and exclusive power of legislation in their several provincial legislatures, where their right of representation can alone be preserved, in all cases of taxation and internal policy, subject only to the negative of their sovereign, in such manner as had been heretofore used and accustomed [etc.]. (25-6)

In addition to this declaration, the Continental Congress “proceeded to frame a petition to his Majesty, a memorial to the people of Great Britain, an address to the colonies in general,” etc., the “petition to his majesty contain[ing] an enumeration of their grievances” (28). After giving a protracted account of the assembly and communications of the Continental Congress, stressing both its declarations of loyalty to the English and its objections to the conduct of English rule, the Annual Register concludes its entry with a general commendation: “[I]t must be acknowledged, that the petition and addresses from the congress have been executed with uncommon energy, address, and ability; and that considered abstractedly, with respect to vigour of mind, strength of sentiment, and the language, at least of patriotism, they would not have disgraced any assembly that ever existed” (36).



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