A Tale of Two Cities, All the Year Round, Anthony Andrews, Baroness Orczy, Bastille, British Navy, Charles Dickens, Citizen Chauvelin, Citizen King, Committee of Public Safety, Corvee, Culotte, Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, French Revolution, Garde Francaise, guillotine, Ian McKellen, Impots, Leslie Howard, liberty cap, Louis XV, Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Maximilien Robespierre, Sir Percy Blakeney, Taille, The Reign of Terror, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Three Estates, Thomas Carlyle, Vernet
As always, dear readers, welcome—and please forgive the rather forbidding title!
It’s just that, recently, we’ve been rereading Charles Dickens’ (1812-1870)
novel of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities (1859), which first appeared in serial form in Dickens’ magazine All the Year Round
before being published in book form the same year.
Dickens was inspired in part by Thomas Carlyle’s (1795-1881)
three-volume History of the French Revolution (1837, second edition 1857).
What Carlyle wrote about and Dickens novelized was a very complex event. France, before the beginning of the Revolution in 1789, was in desperate straits, beginning with its social system. All of French society was divided into three “estates”. Here’s a “nice” picture of them.
Here’s a chart to show you what these divisions meant in terms of the economic structure.
And it’s easy to see, from this, why such caricatures as these typified, at the time, the truth of how the estates system worked for the benefit of the top two and very much against that of the third.
(The labeling of the rock in this last image points to some of the elements of the heavy financial burden on the Third Estate. Taille is a land tax levied upon all land-holding non-nobles. Impots might be translated as “income tax”, but more complicated (if possible!). Corvee went back to feudal times and was a system of unpaid labor for a certain number of days per year, to the state and to lords who rented land to tenants.)
This meant that a great deal of the Third Estate, both in towns and in the country, was desperately poor and often on the edge of starvation.
A major problem was that such a tax base, though broad, was always being squeezed beyond its limits, meaning that the royal government (in 1789, this meant Louis XVI–1754-1793) was always struggling to find the money both to pay off back debts and to keep itself in funds in the present. Then, when there were added expenses—such as the American War for Independence (1775-1783), in which the French played a major role from 1778 to the end—
new loans and new debts were created.
And the expenses didn’t stop there as the French, anxious about the power of the British Navy
and the closeness of many of its ports to Britain,
embarked upon a building campaign to further strengthen its harbor defenses.
(We’ve cheated a little with this last image—it and the previous one are actually from a series of paintings of the major ports of France by Claude-Joseph Vernet—1714-1789–commissioned by Louis XV, the grandfather of Louis XVI, and done between 1753 and 1765, but it gives you the idea of busy French ports in the 18th century.)
(And an interesting little sidelight—if you read us regularly, you know we can never resist these—this Vernet may be a direct ancestor of Sherlock Holmes, who tells Watson in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”–1893 —“My ancestors were country squires, who appear to have led much the same life as is natural to their class. But, none the less, my turn that way is in my veins, and may have come with my grandmother, who was the sister of Vernet, the French artist. Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.”)
Finally, in the 1780s, the whole system began to collapse. Louis’ government (meaning the King and its ministers—there was no elected element in the royal government) tried to call a meeting of representatives of the Three Estates, the Estates General, in the late spring/summer, 1789,
but it was a flop. Louis had the Third Estate locked out and, instead of going home, they, with a few members of the First and Second, went down the street to an indoor tennis court and founded their own government, the National Assembly.
They soon produced a document, entitled “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen”,
their second step towards changing the whole government and social structure of France.
Meanwhile, the people of Paris carried out their own form of changing things, assaulting the King’s fortress on the eastern side of Paris’ defenses, the Bastille.
You can tell that things are really crumbling when you realize that the men in blue coats and fuzzy hats in the center are actually members of the one of the units of the King’s bodyguard, the Garde Francaise.
Events quickly begin to speed up: the King gradually lost his royal powers and became “Citizen King”,
wearing the “liberty cap” patriots wore
and drinking toasts straight out of the bottle—like any good “Sans-culotte”. Culottes were the knee britches worn by people on the rise—
whereas “honest men” wore workman’s clothes with long trousers and, if they could obtain one, that red cap.
As time roared by, it became clearer and clearer that the previous administration was gone for good and that the Third Estate was now in charge.
Louis, terrified, tried to run away with his family, but was caught,
brought back to Paris basically under arrest and, before he knew it, on trial for his life.
The trial lasted most of December, 1792, and the King was executed in January, 1793,
followed by his wife, Marie Antoinette
But this was only the beginning of a wave of government bloodshed, now called “The Reign of Terror”, (“La Terreur” in French), in which a part of the state—the “Committee of Public Safety”, under Maximilien Robespierre,
sent thousands of people to their deaths, mainly but not entirely by guillotine, a medieval invention revived and used across France.
People who had done nothing or, at most, had made a passing remark critical of the Revolution could be swept up into a court
in which there was little or no defense and the usual sentence, if arrested, was “Death within twenty-four hours”.
One can see that, in England, with its Parliament and increasing wealth and stability, what went on in France, which many in England originally saw in its first—non-violent—stages as a positive thing, soon became nothing but a hideous cannibal feast.
And it’s into this world that Dickens, in the latter part of his novel, moves his main characters, in a story of family revenge entangled in the bloody days of the Terror.
Dickens is not alone in seeing this as a great opportunity for a novelist. A long time ago, we wrote a post which included the Baroness Orczy (1865-1947)—say that OR-tsee–
who, beginning with a short story, and then a play (1903)
and then the first of a whole series of novels, beginning in 1905,
created the first wimp-who’s-really-a-superhero in Sir Percy Blakeney, AKA, “The Scarlet Pimpernel”. In London, Sir Percy is an overdressed, drawling clown, but, in France, he is a daring rescuer of endangered noblefolk. As early film gradually became more sophisticated, the first Pimpernel version appeared in 1917,
followed by what many believe was the classic version in 1934, starring Leslie Howard.
Although we enjoy that one, our particular favorite may be the 1982 version, with Anthony Andrews as the Pimpernel.
The casting for this film actually takes us back to Tolkien in a funny way. The villain is an agent of the Terror, named “Citizen Chauvelin”.
Put a long white beard on him and age him many years and who is he?
Thanks, as always, for reading!
If you would like to know more about the French Revolution, we can’t recommend highly enough Simon Schama’s Citizens (1990).
It’s a fat book full of all kinds of histories—cultural, political, social—and, with this volume in hand, you can quickly get a good basic grasp of a very large and complicated—and endlessly fascinating—subject. (And, if you enjoy history, it’s a page-turner.)
And, if you’d like to know more about the Pimpernel, here’s a LINK to the website.