Dickens /Major /A Tale of Two Cities

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A Tale of Two Cities – 1859 – a weekly serialised novel

Historical novel, the first chapters of A Tale of Two Cities appeared in print in Apr 1859, the last chapter was printed in Nov 1859.

A play, The Frozen Deep, was the inspiration for A Tale of Two Cities. It is set in London and Paris, against the backdrop of the French Revolution and of ‘The Reign of Terror’. It relates the story of Doctor Manette, imprisoned at the Bastille for eighteen years, then he arrives in London to meet up with his daughter Lucie.

This is one of the best-selling novels of all time. Not only did the play inspire Dickens it brought about lasting changes to Dickens’s life in the form of the actress Ellen ‘Nelly’ Ternan, with whom he is believed to have had an affair. She was 18, he 45 when they met, she travelled with him and lived in houses he acquired under false names.

It was his wife’s discovery of a gift to Nelly that ended his marriage. They may have had a short-lived baby.
The novel opens ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’, today this is a popular quiz question.

In 1775 a man, Jerry Cruncher, flags down the regular London to Dover coach. He is an employee of Tellson’s Bank of London, and carries a message to one of the bank’s managers, Jarvis Lorry. He sends back a cryptic message, ‘Recalled to Life’. He is referencing the release of Dr Manette, a French physician, who had been innocent of the crimes for which he was imprisoned. He was released after eighteen years in the Bastille prison.

Lorry meets up with Manette’s daughter, Lucie, who had believed him dead, so she faints on the news of his release. 

The two travel to France and find Manette in a garret where he is making shoes, which he had learned to do in prison. He is living with his former servant Ernest Defarge and his wife, Therese, they have a wine shop. Lorry and Louise take him back to London.

In 1780 Charles Darnay, a French émigré, is being tried for treason against the British Crown, he has passed English secrets to the French and Americans during the American Revolution. The evidence against him is being provided by two British spies. John Barsad and Roger Cly. Barsad says he could recognise him anywhere. Stryver, Darnay’s barrister, points out how similar he looks to the barrister Sydney Carton, and discredits the eyewitness account, Darnay is released.

Darnay is actually nephew to the Marquis St. Evrémonde, he has shed his real name and Anglicised his mother’s maiden name D’Aulnais.

Back in Paris the Marquis is recklessly driving his coach through the streets and hits and kills a child. He tosses a coin to the child’s father, Gaspard, to compensate him for his loss and drives off. The coin is thrown after him. Gaspard breaks into the château and stabs the Marquis to death. It takes almost a year for Gaspard to be found and hanged.

In London, Carton confesses his love for Lucie, but recognises she does not reciprocate that love. He vows to ‘embrace any sacrifice’ for her and hers.

Stryver falls for Lucie but is talked out of taking it further by Lorry. Darnay asks Dr Manette for the hand of Lucie and it is agreed. On the morning of the marriage he confesses his true identity, his nobility, but Manette pledges him to secrecy on the matter. Manette is driven by the revelation to relapse into his shoemaking, but shakes this off as they return from their honeymoon.

Time passes and they build their family, a son, who dies in infancy, and a daughter, little Lucie. Lorry moves in with them and Carton remains a good friend, a favourite of little Lucie.

In July 1789 Defarges, Manette’s former servant, is one of the leaders at the storming of the Bastille. He goes to Manette’s cell, number 105 in the North Tower, and searches it thoroughly.

The Revolution leads to the assassination of the aristocracy, the St Evrémonde château is burned to the ground.

In 1792 Lorry travels to the Paris branch of his bank to recover important documents, to secure them from the Revolution.

Darnay, now the Marquis, receives a letter from Gabelle, a servant at the château who has been arrested, asking for help, Darnay feels compelled to go to Paris.

Darnay is recognised by the mob, denounced and placed in La Force prison awaiting trial. Dr Manette, Lucie and her daughter, Jerry, and Miss Pross her governess move to lodgings in France to get him released.

Fifteen months later he is tried and Manette’s support, as he is something of a local hero for his time served in the Bastille, gets Darnay released. But he is rapidly re-arrested the same day on charges advanced by the Defarges.

Miss Pross encounters her long-lost brother Solomon, who, posing as a Frenchman, is one of Darnay’s gaolers. But Carton recognises him as Barsad who had tried to imprison Darnay back in 1780. His fears of being exposed as an English spy engages his support for a plan.

In Darnay’s new trial Defarges reveals what he found in Manette’s cell, Apparently he was imprisoned courtesy of the Evrémonde brothers, Darnay’s father and uncle, when he had accused them of crimes. The uncle had raped and killed a girl, and killed her brother. Dr Manette had denounced them and ‘their descendants, to the last of their race’. Darnay is sentenced to be guillotined the next day.

At the Defarges’ wine shop Carton hears that the wife is the surviving member of the abused family and that she plans to denounce Lucie and her family, He warns Lorry of this fact and suggests they be ready to flee. He arranges the family to be waiting in a coach when he returns.

Carton visits Darnay and has Barsad’s assistance, They drug Darnay and change clothes. Barsad carries Darnay to the coach. Mme Defarges tries to secure Lucie at her lodgings but finds only Miss Pross and Jerry preparing to escape too. A fight ensues and a gun is discharged, it kills Mme Defarge and permanently deafens Miss Pross.

Carton is on the tumbril and comforts a fellow prisoner, a seamstress. He contemplates the better future and finishes with famous closing lines, ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.’

Background is the French Revolution

Sydney Carton with Lucie Manette


Carton, Sydney – a barrister, he loves Lucie, friend to Darnay
Darnay, Charles – of the noble Evrémonde family
Defarge, Ernest – aris wine shop owner, stormed the Bastille
Defarge, Thérése – from a family, victim of St Evrémondes
Lorry, Jarvis – manager at Tellson’s Bank, friend to Manette
Manette, Dr Alexandre – imprisoned at the Bastille for 30 yrs
Manette, Lucie – daughter of Manette, marries Darnay

Barsad, John/ Pross, Soloman – Miss Pross’s brother, a spy
Cly, Roger – Barsad‘s fellow English spy
Pross, Miss – governess to Lucie
St Evrémonde, Marquis de – an unpleasant aristocrat

Carton and the Seamstress in the Tumbril

Cruncher, Jerry (Jeremiah) – porter and messenger at Tellson’s
Cruncher, Young Jerry- son of the Crunchers
Cruncher, Mrs -wife to Jerry
Darnay, Little Lucie – daughter to the Darnays
Gabelle, Théophile – imprisoned servant of the Evrémondes
Gaspard – a peasant whose child is killed by the Marquis
Jacques One, Two and Three – revolutionaries with Defarges
Mender of Roads – or Jacques Five, conspires with Defarges
Seamstress, The – is comforted by Carton in the tumbril
Stryver, Mr – a barrister, senior to Sydney Carton
Vengeance, The – a companion of Mme Defrages

Sydney Carton goes to the guillotine

Forward to Great Expectations His LifeHis WorksHis Characters – Go to Bob Denton.com

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