Introduction: A Tale of Two Cities in Context

Part of the Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture book series (PNWC)


On 15 October 1859 Charles Dickens wrote to his friend, the French actor François Régnier, giving advance warning of a parcel that he was sending him. It would contain ‘the Proof sheets of a story of mine that has been for some time in progress in my weekly journal, and that will be published in a complete Volume about the middle of November’. The ‘story’ was A Tale of Two Cities. ‘I want you to read it for two reasons’, wrote Dickens:

First because I hope it is the best story I have written. Secondly, because it treats of a very memorable time in France; and I should very much like to know what you think of its being dramatized for a French theatre. If you should think it likely to be done, I should be glad to take some steps towards having it well done. The Story is an extraordinary success here, and I think the end of it is certain to make a still greater sensation.

(Letters, IX, 132)

By this time, Dickens was already the best known and most successful writer in Britain, the author of a dozen novels and an established literary celebrity, whose work had begun to achieve international renown. He had recently launched a series of public readings of his works — for the first time, for his own profit. These were beginning to consolidate his celebrity across Britain and Ireland and in America.1


French Revolution Film Version Crowd Scene Public Reading Criminal Jurisprudence 
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  1. 1.
    For details of the readings, see Charles Dickens: The Public Readings, ed. Philip Collins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).Google Scholar
  2. For an extended analysis, see Malcolm Andrews, Charles Dickens and his Performing Selves: Dickens and the Public Readings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    See, for instance, Peter Ackroyd, Dickens (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990), pp. 807–30;Google Scholar
  4. and Michael Slater, Dickens and Women (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1983), pp. 135–62.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    On Ternan, see Dickens and Women, pp. 202–17, and Claire Tomalin, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (London: Penguin Books, 1991).Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    Slater, Dickens and Women, pp. 432, 608n and 700ff. See Wilkie Collins, The Frozen Deep and other Tales (London: Hesperus, 2004) and Under the Management of Charles Dickens: His Production of ‘The Frozen Deep’, ed. R. L. Brannan (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966).Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    See, for example, F. S. Schwartzbach, Dickens and the City (London: Athlone, 1979), p. 175. ‘A Tale…often appears to be more of a crude personal psychodrama re-enacting the events of 1857–8 than a polished work of art.’Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    See Andrew Sanders, Charles Dickens (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 34.Google Scholar
  9. 14.
    See also Jeremy Tambling, Dickens, Violence and the Modern State: Dreams of the Scaffold (London: Macmillan, 1995), pp. 133–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 15.
    The standard account of their relationship remains William Oddie, Dickens and Carlyle: The Question of Influence (London: Centenary Press, 1972).Google Scholar
  11. The role of popular radical thinking in differentiating Dickens’s thought from Carlyle’s is a recurrent theme in Sally Ledger, Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).Google Scholar
  12. 16.
    Letters, III, pp. 399, 502n; VII, pp. 726–7. The Pickwick Papers was in translation from as early as 1838. For the impact of Dickens’s writings about his ‘night walks’ in the Revue britannique on the poet Gérard Nerval, see Karlheinz Stierle, La Capitale des signes: Paris et son discours, trans. Marianne Rocher-Jacquin (Paris: Éditions de la Maison des Sciences de l’homme, 2001), pp. 390ff.Google Scholar
  13. 18.
    ‘This was one of my most ardent wishes in writing it.’ For a sympathetic view of the quality of Dickens’s French, with specific regard to Little Dorrit, see Trey Philpotts, The Companion to Little Dorrit (Mountfield: Helm Information, 2003), pp. 506–15.Google Scholar
  14. 24.
    For the translation history of the work, we are drawing heavily on the witty, amusing and erudite article (now inevitably outdated) by Anny Sadrin, ‘Traductions et adaptations françaises de A Tale of Two Cities’, in Charles Dickens et la France. Col-loque international de Boulogne-sur-Mer, 3 juin 1978, ed. Sylvère Monod (Lille: Presses Universitaires de Lille, 1979).Google Scholar
  15. 27.
    Translation work was not well paid in the nineteenth century, and, moreover, Loreau was still relatively a debutante in her career. On Dickens’s translations, see Floris Delattre, Dickens et la France. Étude d’une interaction littéraire anglo-française (Paris, 1927), esp. 38ff;Google Scholar
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  18. 34.
    Philip Collins, ‘A Tale of Two Novels: A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations in Dickens’s Career’, DSA, 2 (1972), 336–52, 344: ‘Nothing comparable (to Chartist demonstrations of the 1840s) was happening in the middle of the late fifties, to give topicality to (or to inspire) the crowd scenes in the Tale’.Google Scholar
  19. See also Hilary Schor, ‘Novels of the 1850s: Hard Times, Little Dorrit and A Tale of Two Cities’, in The Cambridge Companion to Dickens, ed. John O. Jordan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 64–77, 73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Both are cited in Deborah Wynne, ‘Scenes of “Incredible Outrage”: Dickens, Ireland, and A Tale of Two Cities’, DSA, 37 (2006), 51–64. Wynne argues that the crowd in A Tale is modelled on Protestant revivalists whom Dickens may have encountered in Belfast.Google Scholar
  21. 35.
    Patrick Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830–1914 (Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 1988), pp. 199–227;Google Scholar
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  25. 37.
    Dick Kooiman, ‘The Short Career of Walter Dickens in India’, Dickensian, 98 (2002), 14–28.Google Scholar
  26. 48.
    Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (London: Penguin Books, 1996), ed. Charlotte Mitchell, intro. David Trotter, p. 202.Google Scholar
  27. 53.
    For an overview of Haussmannization, see Colin Jones, Paris: Biography of a City (London: Penguin Books, 2004), esp. ch. 9;Google Scholar
  28. and the classic text of Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999).Google Scholar
  29. 54.
    [W. H. Wills], ‘Paris Improved’, Household Words, 12 (November 1855), pp. 295, 304; Letters, VII, pp. 163, 695, and X, p. 151.Google Scholar
  30. 55.
    Roy Porter, London: A Social History (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1994), chs. 10 and 11.Google Scholar
  31. 56.
    Lynda Nead, Victorian Babylon: People, Streets, and Images in Nineteenth-Century London (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 203.Google Scholar
  32. 58.
    The by now classic account of Dickens as an agent of disciplinary culture is D. A. Miller’s The Novel and the Police (Berkeley, CA, and London: University of California Press, 1988).Google Scholar
  33. 59.
    Patrick Brantlinger, ‘Did Dickens Have a Philosophy of History? The Case of Barnaby Rudge’, DSA, 30 (2001), 59–74. Brantlinger underscores this aspect of Dickens’s politics by referring to it as ‘grotesque populism’ (p. 62), deliberately distancing himself from Bagehot’s description of Dickens as a ‘sentimental radical’.Google Scholar
  34. 61.
    The fullest discussion of this issue is to be found in Grahame Smith’s Dickens and the Dream of Cinema (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2003). See also Dickens on Screen, ed. John Glavin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).Google Scholar
  35. 62.
    Sergei Eisenstein, ‘Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today’, in Film Form, ed. and trans. Jay Leyda (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949, repr. 1977).Google Scholar

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© Colin Jones, Josephine McDonagh and Jon Mee 2009

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