harles Dickens' s A Tale of Two Cities (1859), one of his most popular and best-known novels, is considered by one critic of Victorian fiction as the "most successful historical novel ever written" (Newlin xi) in English. Through careful research into the period in A Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens accurately describes one of bloodiest events in European history; that is the French Revolution of 1789 and its immediate aftermath, the Reign of Terror (1793-94).
Although A Tale of Two Cities even today may be regarded as a highly successful example of the genre of historical fiction, and was widely popular with contemporary readers, it was not particularly well received by the critics upon its publication. A notable instance of a negative critical response is Sir James F. Stephen's review of A Tale of Two Cities, which appeared in 1859:
It would perhaps be hard to imagine a clumsier or more disjointed framework for the display of the tawdry wares which form Mr. Dickens's stock-in-trade. The broken-back way in which the story maunders along from 1775 to 1792 and back again to 1760 or thereabouts, is an excellent instance of the complete disregard of the rules of literary composition which have marked the whole of Mr. Dickens's career as an author. No portion of his popularity is due to intellectual excellence. . . . The two main sources of his popularity are his power of working upon the feelings by the coarsest stimulants, and his power of setting common occurrences in a grotesque and unexpected light. 
It is quite apparent from the quotation above that Stephen does not consider Dickens as qualified to deal with historical subjects in a rational, unbiased fashion. Instead, Stephen accuses Dickens of not being sufficiently intellectual as writer. to examine historical subjects. This critic asserts that "with a little practice and a good deal of determination, it would really be as easy to harrow up people's feelings as to poke the fire. The whole art is to take a melancholy subject, and rub the reader's nose in it" (41). Hence, Stephen does not accept A Tale of Two Cities as a work of intellectual merit, but instead ridicules it because it engages the readers' emotions rather than appeals to their sense of reason. For Stephen, even an ordinary writer with little literary talent could have written A Tale of Two Cities. According to Stephen, who ascribes to the notion that there are a strict set o f conventions involved in the composition of historical fiction, what differentiates an historical novelist from a mere hack is conforming to "rules" laid down implicitly by such writers as Sir Walter Scott:
Stephen was not alone in his criticism of Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. For instance, in his article "The Limitations of Dickens" (1865), novelist and critic Henry James criticised Dickens for lacking the philosophical breadth of vision necessary to treat historical subjects: "Mr. Dickens is an honest, an admirable artist . . . . Mr. Dickens is a great observer and a great humourist, but he is nothing of a philosopher" (53). Even though James appreciates Dickens's talent for careful observation (presumably of background detail and human nature) and praises him for presenting effectively the context in which the events of the novel take place, he cannot find any general grasp of the historical forces at play in the French Revolution in Dickens's novel. A second noteworthy critic and novelist who has pointed out Dickens's deficiencies in technique (although he does not address these deficiencies as manifest in A Tale of Two Cities) is Aldous Huxley. In his article attacking Dickens's rampant sentimentality in The Old Curiosity Shop, "The Vulgarity in Little Nell" (1930), Huxley articulates the twentieth-century perspective that, as Stephen remarked in his 1859 review of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens tends to play uypon the emotions of the reader and thereby violates the principle of "sincerity."
It is vulgar, in literature, to make a display of emotions which you do not naturally have, but think you ought to have, because all the best people do have them. It is so vulgar(and this is the more common case) to have emotions, but to express them so badly, with so many protestings, that you seem to have no natural feelings, but to be merely fabricating emotions by a process of literary forgery. Sincerity in art, as I have pointed out elsewhere, is mainly a matter of talent . . . . 
>Hence, Huxley goes one step further than Stephen in labeling Dickens's style both insincere and artificial. For him, Dickens as the controlling voice of the novel tends to be excessively emotional. Dickens's receiving severe criticism for his novels' lack of literary "quality" may be his lack of formal education, particularly his lacking a university background. In a letter written to his friend J. H. Kunzel, on July 1838, Dickens discusses his somewhat skimpy educational background, which he supplemented by reading widely as an adult:
I had begun an irregular rambling education under a clergyman at Chatham, and I finished it at a good school in London — tolerably early for my father was not a rich man, and I had to begin the world. So I began in a Lawyer's office--which is a very little world, and a very dull one--and leaving it at the expiration of two years, devoted myself for some time to the acquirement of such general literature as I could pick up in the Library of the British Museum . . . . [The Letters of Charles Dickens, ed. Madeline House (1965): Vol. 1, p. 423]
Though Dickens did not receive what modern readers would regard as a regular education, he widen his perspective through extensive, particularly in the British Library. In particular, he was a great reader of the popular novelists of his time such as Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), who in Dickens's time was "considered to be the the initiator of the British historical novel" (Crawford 12). Dickens not only read such Scott novels as "Kenilworth . . . with greater delight than ever" (Letters: 1: 576), but also Scott's diary, and recorded his impressions of Scott in his own diary in order to understand better the style of the great Romantic novelist. In his diary for Saturday, 14 January 1838, Dickens writes thqt "in Scott's Diary which I have been looking at this morning, there are thoughts which have been mine by day and by night" (Letters 1: 631). Hence, it is clear that Dickens was a devoted reader of Scott and was quite aware of his importance in the development of British fiction, and was highly influenced by him. Therefore, it would not be wrong to assert that Dickens' interest in history and knowledge of historical writing was insufficient for the task of writing historical novels (his attempts in this subgenre being Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities). Influenced by the works of Sir Walter Scott, Dickens employed some Scottian principles in his historical novel A Tale of Two Cities. Like Scott, before writing Dickens conducted an extensive and precise historical research on the historical subject in which he was interested. After acquiring adequate historical background about his subject, Dickens not only gave the precise date and place of the various historical events described, but also made the past vivid through accurate social and political commentaries in the manner of Scott.
Apart from Sir Walter Scott, Dickens's reading of the British novelists such "Goldsmith, Swift, Fielding, Smollett and the British essayists" (Letters 1: 576), and also the "Italian and German novelists" (Letters 1: 576), most probably in English translation as he did not know any foreign languages, must have enlarged his perspective as a novelist.
Although not all critics appreciated Dickens's work in his lifetime, many did. For instance, George Henry Lewes, an important late nineteenth-century critic, praises Dickens's power of imagination and vividness in his works. In his article "Dickens in Relation to Criticism" (1872), written three years after James's criticism, Lewes praised the intensity of the novelist's writing:
In the same degree of vividness are the images constructed by his [Dickens's] mind in explanation of the voices heard or objects seen: when [Dickens] imagines that the voice proceeds from a personal friend or from Satan tempting him, the friend or Satan stands before him with the distinctness of objective reality; when he imagines that he himself has been transformed into a bear, his hands are seen by him as paws. 
Lewes admired Dickens' vivid descriptions and images through which Dickens successfully captures the attention of the reader for which he became so popular. For Lewes, while Dickens was "constructing" his vivid descriptions, he managed to put himself in the shoes of the characters that he was depicting,--and Lewes regarded this as a major strength that a novelist should exhibit.
The Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope also acknowledges the basis for Dickens' popularity in his article "Charles Dickens" (1882), indicating that " there can be no doubt that the most popular novelist of my time--probably the most popular English novelist of any time-- has been Charles Dickens" (74). Trollope asserts that "the primary object of a novelist is to please; and this man's [Dickens's] novels have been found more pleasant than those of any other writer" (75). Trollope also acknowledges Dickens's broad appeal: he "has been, and is likely to remain our most widely read author . . . who is most acceptable to readers to all ages and of widely differing mental capacities" (79) Thus, it would not be wrong to deduce from Trollope's comments that Dickens' power arises from his ability to please his readers. On the other hand, in the same article, Trollope criticises Dickens's style, and notes the similarity between the styles of Dickens and Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), whose style and breadth of understanding Dickens had always admired.
Dickens wrote his second historical novel A Tale of Two Cities mainly under the influence of Thomas Carlyle, who gave much importance to the actual details and characters in the narration of historical events. The similarities between Carlyle's The French Revolution and Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities are undeniable. What is unique in these particular works is the emphasis each places on accurate details and realistic characters. Following Carlyle's principles, Dickens gave importance to the presentation of the historical events and characters inA Tale of Two Cities in order to create a credible sense of the French Revolution.
Thomas Carlyle, "being a keen student of Scott" (Rosenberg 34), had a great impact on the novelist. Dickens read Carlyle's The French Revolution: A History "500 times" (Letters 3: 335) and "[carried] it around with him when he was writing his A Tale of Two Cities" (Letters 3: 377). Before writing A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens had asked Carlyle to reccommend him some books for the purpose of background reading about the French Revolution (Letters 2: 337) and eventually received "two cartloads of books from the London library" (Letters 2: 567).
In his preface to A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens proiclaims his passion for truth in historical writing, as well as his admiration for the work Carlyle, who also in sought to convey historical truth:
Whenever any reference (however slight) is made here to the condition of the French people before or during the Revolution, it is truly made, on the faith of the trustworthy witness, it has been one of my hopes to add something to the popular and picturesque means of understanding that terrible time, though no one can hope to add anything to the philosophy of Mr Carlyle's wonderful book.
Actively following the political and social events of his time (House 18), Dickens admitted in a letter written to his friend in 1855, that "[he was] frustrated at the alienation of ordinary people from public affairs" (qtd. in Ford 40-41). Thus, for him, everyone who has common sense should have an idea about the events transpiring around him. The above quotation also proves that Dickens was fully aware of the value of finding the trustworthy witnesses of historical events. In fact, Carlyle and Dickens had followed the same route in their literary careers before their close friendship began. Both of them chose the same way to reach the books which were essential for them; hence, they "had become ticketed readers in the British Museum" almost during the same years (Dickins 105). In his article "The Friendship of Dickens and Carlyle" Louis Dickins underlines the importance of this intellectual friendship to both writers:
The Carlyle-Dickens friendship blossomed out early after Dickens's return from America in 1844. . . . The effect of Carlyle upon Dickens had been [so powerful], [Carlyle] had taught Dickens that story telling can be purposeful.
Another pronounced effect of Carlyle on Dickens suitable to mention at this point is ... the influence of The French Revolution upon Dickens's style. . . . To the seriousness that Carlyle impressed upon all who followed him--still visible a generation later at Oxford in T. H. Green and R. L. Nettleship--in Dickens's case were added considerable stylistic influences. 
It is evident from the statement above that Dickens was influenced by Carlyle stylistically. Ruth Clancy, who has written several critical books on Dickens and Carlyle, implies that Dickens not only took the stylistic aspects of Carlyle's The French Revolution: A History as an ideal but also adopted its historical perspective: "Dickens followed Carlyle closely, both in the chronology of the events of the Revolution and in his descriptions of the major historical events. He was selective, of course, in his portrayal of the Revolution, using only those scenes that bore upon his plot" (6). As both Dickins and Clancy indicate, there are some points of resemblance between The French Revolution: A History , and A Tale of Two Cities , both in terms of style and historical perspective. Both Carlyle and Dickens open their works depicting the pre-revolutionary period in France and England. Carlyle begins his history with the death of Louis XV in 1774. (1:3). Similarly, Dickens opens the novel by depicting the relatively calm and inactive period preceding the storm:
rooted in the woods of France, and Norway, . . . growing trees . . . already marked by the Woodman, Fate, to come down and be sawn into boards, to make a certain movable framework . . . terrible in history. [Ch. 2]
Thus, both Carlyle and Dickens foreshadow the coming of the Revolution at the beginning of their works. In order to indicate the inevitability of the Revolution, both writers "use the metaphor of fire and water" (Goldberg 120). Dickens depicts the coming of the Revolution as the devouring ocean — a common image at the time:
. . . the living sea rose, wave on wave, depth on depth, and overflowed the city . . . the raging sea, . . . and the furious sounding of the living sea; . . . So resistless was the force of the ocean . . . struggling in the surf at the South Sea,. . . the sea that rushed in, . . . the noise of the living ocean, . . . in the raging flood once more. They found it surging and tossing. [205-208]
Carlyle also suggests "how the multitude flows on . . . ever wider swells the tide of men ... there whirls simmering a minor whirlpool ... into that grand Fire-Mahlstrom . . . and still the fire deluge . . . the crowd seems shoreless . . . rushed-in the living deluge" (1: 190-195). In both works, the dominant sea and fire metaphors represent the common people's extreme anger and hatred, which constitute one of the major themes of the Revolution. These works exhibit many similarities, especially in the scenes of the storming of the Bastille: the resemblance between the deaths of the Governor of the Bastille in Carlyle and of Foulon in Dickens is undeniable. When one analyzes these scenes from an historical point of view, one should note that both Dickens and Carlyle successfully employ two of the most important principles--accurately dealing with facts and vividly placing their sources in an historical context.
The Bastille is of particular interest to both writers because the repressive monarchical regime used it as a special place to incarcerate and silence intellectuals who opposed it. The fortress-prison was guarded so strongly that escape was impossible. In an extract from The Times dated 22 July 1789 the Bastille is described as having such "walls which were more than a fathom thick: the windows barred in with 4 iron grates, as well as the chimnies [sic], and from the height of the walls to the bottom of the ditches measures, in many places, 500 feet" (qtd. in Ascherson 13-14). To successfully storm such a heavily guarded prison was considered one of the greatest and most glorious achievements of the Revolution. For this reason, the angry mob, furious at the aristocrats whose arbitrary power of seizure the building represented, initiated the Revolution by attacking this particular prison. In his work Carlyle describes in the present tense for greater immediacey the mob's massing around its walls:
All morning, since nine, there has been a cry everywhere; to the Bastille. . . how the multitude flows on, welling through every street: tocsin furiously pealing, all drums beating the generale: the Suburb Saint-Antoine rolling hitherward wholly, as one man! [Carlyle 1:189]
Utilizing the same tactic (although adopting the past tense), Dickens describes the storming of the Bastille as follows:
Saint Antoine had been, that morning, a vast dusky mass of scarecrows to and fro, with frequent gleams of light above the billowy heads, where steel blades and bayonets shone in the sun. A tremendous roar arose from the throat of Saint Antoine, and a forest of naked arms struggled in the air like shrivelled branches of trees in a winter wind: all the fingers convulsively clutching at every weapon or semblance of a weapon that was thrown up from the depths below, no matter how far off. 
In his description of the fall of the Bastille and the sequence of events leading to its destruction, Dickens relies heavily on Carlyle. Moreover, both reveal an important historical fact: only seven prisoners were liberated as a result of the storming of the Bastille in July 1789. This is a very important point. Many contemporary books that examined the Revolution stated that the storming of this prison released more than a hundred political prisoners. This error seems to have been committed by historians in order to mythologise the Revolution. (Blanning 93; Schwab 152). In fact, "The angry mob found only seven prisoners" (Blanning 95). Both Carlyle and Dickens give the real number of prisoners released. Carlyle says, "Along the streets of Paris circulate seven Bastille Prisoners borne shoulder high; seven heads on pikes; the keys of the Bastille; and much else" (1: 198). In A Tale of Two Cities Dickens also depicts the same fact quite similarly in these words: "seven prisoners released, seven gory heads on pike."
In The Dickens World, Humphry House explains Dickens's use of history in a similar manner through which it can easily be asserted that Dickens meticulously traced the actual events and characters and reflected them as real as possible in his works:
But though he had little historic sense, he had a very acute sense of time ; he liked to give his books a surface of tidiness and punctuality; he went out of his way to indicate precise dates and seasons of the year, and sometimes even used known historical facts to enforce the actuality of a moment. [1976: 22-23]
Another instance of both Carlyle and Dickens using actual events and real names can be seen in the names of the weapons that were used in the Revolution. According to Carlyle "The eight grim Towers, with their Invalide [sic] musketry, their paving stones and canon-mouths, still soar aloft intact ;--Ditch yawning impassable, stone-faced; the inner Drawbridge with its back towards us (1:191). In A Tale of Two Cities Dickens depicts the same event, stating that "in the fire and the smoke, for the sea cast him up against a canon, and on the instant he became a cannonier,-- Defarge of the wine-shop worked like a manful soldier" (205). Once again, Dickens's description matches Carlyle's account of the fall of the Bastille. Both of them use the same facts related to the weapons of that time. They write about the "cannons, muskets, and pistols" that were the real "simple weapons to fight with" (Vovelle 149). If the accuracy in their descriptions of the weapons used at that time should be questioned, it is possible to refer to Vovolle's historical account of the matter:
On July 14, 1789, when an angry mob of French marched into the Bastille, both the mob and the army of the Bastille used only a few, simple weapons to fight with. The three main weapons that they used were cannons, muskets, and pistols. Although there was not that much fighting that went on, these weapons still played a huge part in the Storming of the Bastille. 
Another instance of Dickens's accurate use of facts in his novel is the colours he mentions. The revolutionists used the colours red and blue to identify and distinguish themselves from the "others" (Cowie 156). Godineau clarifies this issue:
Women of the people, wearing skirts and short gowns striped in the three national colors [red, blue and white] and caps in the style of nation were often in the streets. . . . Tricolour cockades and ribbons were signs of revolutionary sympathy. 
Madam Defarge's red rose, her husband Defarge's red cap, the road menders' use of blue caps are all historical facts. These colours were later used in the French flag. Dickens uses this colour imagery in the novel and also represents it through Lucie Mannette's eyes: "She had seen the houses, as she came along, decorated with little pikes, and with little red caps struck upon them; with tricolored ribbons" (306).
Carlyle argues in On Heroes, Hero-worship and the Heroic in History (1840) that it is man who directs the events in every field of life, not the events which direct the action of man in life (48). Hence, Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities does not hesitate to elaborate on the function of the Defarges. Madame Defarge (and, to a lesser extent, her husband) plays a key role in the secret organization known as the Jacquerie both before and during the Revolution because of her brother's having being murdered by aristocrats. Dickens uses Madame Defarge as representative of the women who actively took part in the Revolution and led the march on Versailles. Galina Serebryakova emphasisizes this issue by writing about the short biographies of these courageous women. In these biographies, Serebryakova gives the names of "Claire Lacombe, Victoria Capitaine, Etta Palm d'Aelders, Lucie Desmoulins" as the initiators of the Revolution (qtd. in Tanilli 101-111). Though Madame Defarge is a fictitious person, Serebryakova underlines the importance of such women as Madame Defarge and The Vengeance in the bloody opening events. Here Dickens, practises an important technique of Sir Walter Scott by combining fiction (especially in terms of character) and historical fact. However, at the same time, Dickens seems to miss out an important Rankean principle, that is, representing historical events in exactly in the way they occurred without fictionalising them in any way. However, one should not underestimated Scott's and Ranke's approaches towards history. In the process of the creation of his novel, Dickens also uses an actual character--De Launay--who played an important role in the defence of the Bastille.
On the July 7th, thirty-two Swiss soldiers led by Lieutenant Deflue, came to aid De Launey, helping him to prepare for a small mob. Rumors were flying everywhere. De Launey was expecting a mob attack, but certainly not a siege! The entire workforce of the Bastille had stealthily and furiously been repairing the Bastille and reinforcing it, all to prepare for a minor attack from a hundred or so angry citizens. At three o'clock that afternoon, however, a huge group of French guards and angry citizens tried to break into the fortress. There were over three hundred people ready to give their lives to put an end to their overtaxing and overbearing government. However the Bastille was threatened by more than the numerous crowds: three hundred guards had left their posts earlier that day, out of fear and from the rumours. The besiegers easily broke into the Arsenal and into the first courtyard, cut the drawbridge down, and then quickly got through the wooden door behind it.
Thus, De Launay's defence of the Bastille was all in vain. The more he resisted, the more angry the mob got. Consequently, he could not resist the anger of the mob, which was fed up with the unequal taxation system of the government and which revealed their anger by storming the Bastille. Carlyle and Dickens both mention De Launay's decapitation by the mob, thus emphasizing the horror of this historical event. Carlyle mentions "miserable De Launay! He shall never enter the Hotel-de Ville: only his bloody hair-queue, held up in a bloody hand, that shall enter for a sign. The bleeding trunk lies on the steps there; the head is off through the streets ghastly, aloft on a pike" (1: 196). Dickens, without giving the name of the governor of the Bastille, depicts the same event in a manner slightly different from Carlyle's in that he indicates that Madame Defarge is the initiator of this violent action:
Saint Antoine's blood was up, and the blood of tyranny and domination by the iron hand was down- down on the steps of the Hotel de Ville where the governor's body lay-- down on the sole of the shoe of Madame Defarge where she had trodden on the body to steady it for mutilation. 
Being a devoted admirer of Carlyle, Dickens directly takes another Carlylian aspect of history, that is--as "in history, it was necessary to concentrate not on memorials and records but on real men" (Carlyle 1888: 84). In this respect, Dickens puts much emphasis on the characters in the description of historical events, especially in his depiction of the assassinations of De Launey and Foulon who were among the major historical figures of the French Revolution. Dickens uses an historical fact, that is, the murder of the governor De Launay, but at the same time places Madame Defarge, who is a fictional character, at the centre of this action in order to provide a coherent plot as well as to underline the anger of the mob.
Dickens's use of the same technique, that is, writing fiction based on historical facts, is also traceable in his description of the murder of Joseph-Francois Foulon who was "a counsellor of state to Louis XVI" (Vovelle 88). According to Owen Connelly, Foulon's "crime was that at one time in his life he had said that the people could eat hay. . . . More importantly, he was accused of withholding grain and food from the people, an action which was more of a crime" (128). Such a mob, which was furious at the aristocrats for leading decadent lives full of exotic luxury while the common people led a desperate and often destitute existence, could not forgive a person who advised them to eat grass when they were hungry. Ironically, as Foulon's dead body is "dragged through the streets; his head goes aloft on a pike, the mouth [gets] filled with grass" (Carlyle 1989 1: 207). Dickens borrows his description from Carlyle, and again portraying Madame Defarge as the initiator of this murder who directed the oppressed people's anger towards the aristocrats:
Instantly Madame Defarge's knife was in her girdle, the drum was beating in the streets, as if it and a drummer had flown together by magic; and the Vengeance, uttering terrific shrieks, and flinging her arms about her head like all the forty Furies at once, was tearing from house to house, rousing the women.
From household occupations as their bare poverty yielded, from their children, from their aged and sick crouching on the bare ground famished and naked, they ran out with streaming hair, urging one another, and themselves, to madness with the wildest cries and actions. Villain Foulon taken, my sister. Old Foulon taken, my mother, Miscreant Foulon taken, my daughter. ... Foulon alive! Foulon who told my old father that he might eat grass, when I had no bread to give him. Foulon who told my baby it might suck grass, when these breasts were dry with want... Hear me my dead baby and my withered father: I swear on my knees, on these stones, to avenge you on Foulon! Husbands, and brothers, and young men, give us the blood of Foulon, rend Foulon to pieces, and dig him into the ground, that grass may grow from him. 
Here Dickens not only depicts a fact of history, — that is, the mob's assassination of Foulon — but also deals with the psychology of the people and the suffering of society. Thus, Dickens, whom some may have considered at the time lacking sufficient education and intellect to write a novel on an historical theme, could still manage to represent historical events accurately. Thus, through practising some of the important Carlylian principles in depicting the French Revolution, Dickens brought a fresh perspective to his A Tale of Two Cities. Hayden White describes this kind of abibility in Tropics of Discourse:
It is the power of the constructive imagination of such classical writers that we pay tribute when we honour their works as models of the history. . . long after we have ceased to credit their learning or the specific explanation that they offered for the facts they had sod to account for. 
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Last modified 8 June 2007