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A Tale of Two Cities | Context


The first installment of A Tale of Two Cities appeared in 1859 in the inaugural issue of Dickens's weekly magazine, All the Year Round. Despite Dickens's popularity, the novel was not a hit with critics. Although they noted that Dickens had successfully used the French revolutionary era to mirror the characters' personal tribulations, they found the story flat and lacking his typically humorous voice. They also found many of the characters forgettable.

The French Revolution

In the late 18th century, France experienced a violent revolution that ended the Ancien Régime (Old Regime), a monarchy that was a remnant of the centuries-old feudal system. Before the revolution, people in France were not citizens. Each belonged to one of three estates:

  • the nobility
  • the clergy
  • everyone else

The third estate—everyone else—was no longer simply a mass of peasants who owed their continued existence to their relationships with noblemen or a monastery, it included members of the burgeoning middle-class, or bourgeoisie, who were well-educated people of independent means who wanted to play a part in their own governance. Even the aristocracy resented the monarch's assumption of his divine right to rule without challenge or limitation.

The revolution took place in two parts: an aristocratic revolt (which lasted from 1787 to 1789) and the popular revolt of 1789. The aristocratic revolt was the result of financial reforms intended to pay off the country's deficit by taxing the wealthy. Meanwhile, the populace was dissatisfied with its lot, and Louis XVI, the king, had to placate them by calling the assembly.

A disagreement about how votes would be weighed caused the third estate to announce that it would form an assembly without including the other two estates. The king responded by creating the National Constituent Assembly, but he simultaneously raised an army to dissolve it, leading to fears that the aristocracy and the king were ganging up on the populace to take down the third estate.

A harvest failure and dwindling food supplies further alarmed the peasants, sparking the Great Fear of 1789, the beginning of the peasants' revolt. They stormed the Bastille, a Parisian fortress prison, forcing the king to announce his support for the people's governance. Peasants outside the cities revolted against the nobles who controlled them, and the National Assembly dismantled the feudal system altogether. The king didn't support the new reforms or the constitution drawn up by the Assembly, but the people continued to argue for liberty and self-governance.

The Assembly tried to create a power-sharing regime. The king attempted to flee, but he didn't get far. The aristocracy, however, escaped to other countries. France went to war with Austria, and Austria's ally Prussia attacked Paris. The revolutionaries suspected—rightfully—that the monarchy had turned on them, and King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were tried for treason and executed in 1793. The Assembly declared the monarchy invalid and formed the new Republic. The resulting Reign of Terror saw thousands of people guillotined for plotting against the Republic.

London and Paris in the Late 18th Century

London, depending on one's class, was either a hub of industry and finance that provided endless opportunities for shopping, leisure, and entertainment; or an overcrowded tangle of waste and disease. The central area of the city, which contained mostly old wooden structures, had been largely destroyed in the Great Fire of September 1666. The rebuilt areas featured stone buildings and (in keeping with Enlightenment concepts) more green areas—both of which would help to avoid another such catastrophe. Whoever could afford it lived in the newer, safer areas, while the poor crowded into the surviving wooden structures. So when London's population exploded in the 18th century, the poorest people lived in dilapidated, terraced houses huddled over dark, narrow streets. Sewage ran along the streets and into the Thames, as did industrial waste. The river smelled foul and posed a health threat to anyone living or working near it. With the burgeoning population and high level of poverty, crime was rampant.

Pprerevolutionary Paris was characterized by an active intellectual and artistic life that fueled the Enlightenment. It was Europe's largest city, and its population, prosperity, and literacy rates were increasing. Nevertheless, the poorest lived much as they did in London, and the growth in population was accompanied by a rise in crime that worried the middle class. Growing secularism worried the Church. During the Reign of Terror, Paris was a place of violence and fear. The aristocracy fled for their lives, and those who remained were guillotined. Intellectual and artistic life declined. As the country underwent a series of new governments, crime remained rampant, and epidemics swept through the poorer areas of the city.

France and England in the Mid-19th Century

Seventy years after the French Revolution, when Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities, France was still in turmoil and had experienced two more revolutions: in 1830 and 1848. Paris, as the center of the country's government, was the hub of this instability. The Second Empire, under Napoleon III, experienced economic growth, but the emperor would not introduce liberal reforms until after 1859.

England, by comparison, was more politically stable than France. Relations between the two countries had been poor, with a long history of Anglo-French wars dating to the Norman invasion of England in 1066. But after France's defeat in the Napoleonic Wars (which ended in 1815), the two countries became allies and remained so, despite concern in Britain about the possible spread of French radicalism.

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