A Tale of Two Cities is an 1859 historical novel by Charles Dickens, set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution.
The novel tells the story of the French Doctor Manette, his 18-year-long imprisonment in the Bastille in Paris, and his release to live in London with his daughter Lucie whom he had never met. The story is set against the conditions that led up to the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. In the Introduction to the Encyclopaedia of Adventure Fiction, critic Don D’Ammassa argues that it is an adventure novel because the protagonists are in constant danger of being imprisoned or killed.
The novel has been adapted for film, television, radio, and the stage, and has continued to influence popular culture.
Vividly interweaving epic historical drama with personal tragedy, Dickens’s gripping novel depicts the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, as they become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette, the daughter of a political prisoner. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.
First Book: Recalled to Life
In 1775, a man flags down the nightly mail-coach en route from London to Dover. The man is Jerry Cruncher, an employee of Tellson’s Bank in London; he carries a message for Jarvis Lorry, one of the bank’s managers. Lorry sends Jerry back with the cryptic response “Recalled to Life”, referring to Alexandre Manette, a French physician who has been released from the Bastille after an 18-year imprisonment. On arrival in Dover, Lorry meets Dr Manette’s daughter Lucie and her governess, Miss Pross. Believing her father to be dead, Lucie faints at the news that he is alive. Lorry takes her to France for a reunion.
In the Paris neighbourhood of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, Dr Manette has been given lodgings by his former servant Ernest Defarge and his wife Therese, the owners of a wine shop. Lorry and Lucie find him in a small garret where he spends much of his time distractedly and obsessively making shoes – a skill he learned in prison. Lorry and Lucie take him back to England.
Second Book: The Golden Thread
In 1780, French émigré Charles Darnay is on trial in London for treason against the British Crown. The key witnesses against him are two British spies, John Barsad and Roger Cly. Barsad claims that he would recognise Darnay anywhere, but Darnay’s lawyer points out that his colleague in court, Sydney Carton, bears a strong resemblance to the prisoner. With Barsad’s testimony thus undermined, Darnay is acquitted.
In Paris, the hated and abusive Marquis St. Evrémonde orders his carriage driven recklessly fast through the crowded streets, hitting and killing a child. The Marquis throws a coin to the child’s father, Gaspard, to compensate him for his loss; as the Marquis drives on, a coin is flung back into the carriage.
Arriving at his country château, the Marquis meets his nephew and heir, Darnay. Out of disgust with his aristocratic family, the nephew has shed his real surname (St. Evrémonde) and anglicised his mother’s maiden name, D’Aulnais, to Darnay. He despises the Marquis’ views that “Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery … will keep the dogs obedient to the whip, as long as this roof [looking up to it] shuts out the sky.” That night, Gaspard creeps into the château and stabs and kills the Marquis in his sleep. He avoids capture for nearly a year, but is eventually hanged in the nearby village.
In London, Carton confesses his love to Lucie, but quickly recognises that she cannot love him in return. Carton nevertheless promises to “embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you”. Darnay asks for Dr Manette’s permission to wed Lucie, and he agrees. On the morning of the marriage, Darnay reveals his real name and lineage to Dr Manette, facts that Manette had asked him to withhold until that day. The unexpected revelation causes Dr Manette to revert to his obsessive shoemaking. He returns to sanity before their return from honeymoon, and the whole incident is kept secret from Lucie.
As the years pass, Lucie and Charles raise a family in England: a son (who dies in childhood) and a daughter, little Lucie. Lorry finds a second home with them. Carton, though he seldom visits, is accepted as a close friend and becomes a special favourite of little Lucie.
In Paris in July 1789, the Defarges help to lead the storming of the Bastille, a symbol of royal tyranny. Defarge enters Dr Manette’s former cell, One Hundred and Five, North Tower, and searches it thoroughly. Throughout the countryside, local officials and other representatives of the aristocracy are slaughtered, and the St. Evrémonde château is burned to the ground.
In 1792, Lorry travels to France to save important documents stored at Tellson’s Paris branch from the chaos of the French Revolution. Darnay receives a letter from Gabelle, one of his uncle’s former servants who has been imprisoned by the revolutionaries, pleading for the Marquis to help secure his release. Without telling his family or revealing his position as the new Marquis, Darnay also sets out for Paris.
Third Book: The Track of a Storm
Shortly after Darnay’s arrival in Paris, he is denounced as an illegal emigrated aristocrat and jailed in La Force Prison. Hoping to be able to save him, Dr Manette, Lucie and her daughter, Jerry, and Miss Pross all move to Paris and take up lodgings near those of Lorry.
Fifteen months later Darnay is finally tried, and Dr Manette – viewed as a popular hero after his long imprisonment in the Bastille – testifies on his behalf. Darnay is acquitted and released, but is re-arrested later that day.
While running errands with Jerry, Miss Pross is amazed to run into her long-lost brother Solomon. Now posing as a Frenchman, he is an employee of the revolutionary authorities and one of Darnay’s gaolers. Carton also recognises him – as Barsad, one of the spies who tried to frame Darnay at his trial in 1780. Solomon is desperate to keep his true identity hidden, and by threatening to denounce him as an English spy Carton blackmails Solomon into helping with a plan.
Darnay’s retrial the following day is based on new denunciations by the Defarges, and on a manuscript that Defarge had found when searching Dr Manette’s prison cell. Defarge reads the manuscript to the tribunal. In it, Dr Manette had recorded that his imprisonment was at the hands of the Evrémonde brothers (Darnay’s father and uncle) after he had tried to report their crimes. Darnay’s uncle had kidnapped and raped a peasant girl. Her brother, first hiding his remaining younger sister, had gone to confront the uncle, who ran him through with his sword. In spite of the best efforts of Dr Manette, both the elder sister and the brother died. Dr Manette’s manuscript concludes by denouncing the Evrémondes, “them and their descendants, to the last of their race.” The jury takes that as irrefutable proof of Darnay’s guilt, and he is condemned to die by the guillotine the next afternoon.
In the Defarges’ wine shop, Carton discovers that Madame Defarge was the surviving sister of the peasant family, and he overhears her planning to denounce both Lucie and her daughter. He visits Lorry and warns him that Lucie and her family must be ready to flee the next day. He extracts a promise that Lorry and the family will be waiting for him in the carriage at 2:00 pm, ready to leave the very instant he returns.
Shortly before the executions are due to begin, Carton puts his plan into effect and, with Barsad’s reluctant assistance, obtains access to Darnay’s prison cell. Carton intends to be executed in Darnay’s place. He drugs Darnay and trades clothes with him, then has Barsad carry Darnay out to the carriage where Lorry and the family are expecting Carton. They flee to England with Darnay, who gradually regains consciousness during the journey.
Meanwhile, Madame Defarge goes to Lucie’s lodgings, hoping to apprehend her and her daughter. There she finds Miss Pross, who is waiting for Jerry so they can follow the family out of Paris. The two women struggle and Madame Defarge’s pistol discharges, killing her outright and permanently deafening Miss Pross.
As Carton waits to board the tumbril that will take him to his execution, he is approached by another prisoner, a seamstress. Carton comforts her, telling her that their ends will be quick and that the worries of their lives will not follow them into “the better land where … [they] will be mercifully sheltered.” A final prophetic thought runs through his mind in which he visualises a better future for the family and their descendants.
The 45-chapter novel was published in 31 weekly instalments in Dickens’s new literary periodical titled All the Year Round. From April 1859 to November 1859, Dickens also republished the chapters as eight monthly sections in green covers. All but three of Dickens’s previous novels had appeared as monthly instalments prior to publication as books. The first weekly instalment of A Tale of Two Cities ran in the first issue of All the Year Round on 30 April 1859. The last ran 30 weeks later, on 26 November.
The Telegraph and The Guardian claim that it is one of the best-selling novels of all time. WorldCat listed 1,529 editions of the work, including 1,305 print editions.
- As Dickens’s best-known work of historical fiction, A Tale of Two Cities is claimed to be one of the best-selling novels of all time.
- In 2003, the novel was ranked 63rd on the BBC’s The Big Read poll.
A Tale of Two Cities Series
- A Tale of Two Cities, a 1911 silent film.
- A Tale of Two Cities, a 1917 silent film.
- A Tale of Two Cities, a 1922 silent film.
- The Only Way, a 1927 silent British film directed by Herbert Wilcox.
- A Tale of Two Cities, a 1935 black-and-white film starring Ronald Colman, Elizabeth Allan, Reginald Owen, Basil Rathbone, and Edna May Oliver, nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
- A Tale of Two Cities, a 1958 version, starring Dirk Bogarde, Dorothy Tutin, Christopher Lee, Leo McKern, and Donald Pleasence.
- A Tale of Two Cities, a 1980 version, starring Chris Sarandon, Alice Krige and Kenneth More.
- ABC produced a two-part mini-series in 1953.
- The BBC produced an eight-part mini-series in 1957 starring Peter Wyngarde as Sydney Carton, Edward de Souza as Charles Darnay and Wendy Hutchinson as Lucie Manette.
- The BBC produced a ten-part mini-series in 1965 starring John Wood as Carton, Nicholas Pennell as Charles Darnay, Kika Markham as Lucie Manette and Patrick Troughton as Dr Manette.
- The BBC produced another eight-part mini-series in 1980 starring Paul Shelley as Carton/Darnay, Sally Osborne as Lucie Manette and Nigel Stock as Jarvis Lorry.
- A Tale of Two Cities, a 1984 TV animated version by Burbank Animation Studios.
- ITV Granada produced a two-part mini-series in 1989 starting James Wilby as Sydney Carton, Xavier Deluc as Charles Darnay and Serena Gordon as Lucie Manette. The production also aired on Masterpiece Theatre on PBS in the United States.
- On 25 July 1938, The Mercury Theatre on the Air produced a radio adaptation starring Orson Welles. Welles also starred in a version broadcast on Lux Radio Theatre on 26 March 1945.
- Ronald Colman recreated his 1935 film role three times on radio: twice on the Lux Radio Theatre, first on 12 January 1942 with Edna Best and again on 18 March 1946 with Heather Angel, and once on the 9 March 1948 broadcast of Favourite Story (director Cecil B. DeMille’s “favourite story”).
- On 7 October 1943, a portion of the novel was adapted to the syndicated programme The Weird Circle as “Dr Manette’s Manuscript.”
- In 1950, the BBC broadcast a radio adaptation by Terence Rattigan and John Gielgud of their unproduced 1935 stage play.
- A half-hour version titled “Sydney Carton” was broadcast on 27 March 1954 on Theatre Royal hosted by and starring Laurence Olivier.
- In June 1989, BBC Radio 4 produced a seven-hour drama adapted for radio by Nick McCarty and directed by Ian Cotterell. This adaptation has been occasionally repeated by BBC Radio 7 and later BBC Radio 4 Extra (most recently in 2009). The cast included Charles Dance as Sydney Carton, Maurice Denham as Dr Manette, Richard Pasco as Mr Lorry, John Moffatt as Marquis St. Evrémonde, Charlotte Attenborough as Lucie Manette, John Duttine as Darnay, Aubrey Woods as Mr Stryver and Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Miss Pross.
- In December 2011, as part of its special season on Charles Dickens’s Bicentenerary, BBC Radio 4 produced a new five-part adaptation for radio by Mike Walker with original music by Lennert Busch and directed by Jessica Dromgoole and Jeremy Mortimer which won the 2012 Bronze Sony Radio Academy Award for Best Drama. The cast included Robert Lindsay as the voice of Charles Dickens, Paul Ready as Sydney Carton, Karl Johnson as Dr Manette, Lydia Wilson as Lucie Manette, Jonathan Coy as Mr Lorry, Andrew Scott as Darnay, Alison Steadman as Miss Pross and Clive Merrison as Marquis St. Evrémonde.
- In 2018, A Tale of Two Cities: Aleppo and London, a three-part adaptation of the Dickens novel written by Ayeesha Menon and directed by Polly Thomas was broadcast on BBC Radio 4, updating the story and characters to set it in modern-day London and war-torn Syria. The cast included Shaun Parker as Sid (Sydney Carton), Lara Sawalha as Lina (Lucie Manette), Fatima Adoum as Taghreed (Madame Defarge), Phil Davis as Jarvis (Mr Lorry), Khalid Abdalla as Shwan Dahkurdi (Charles Darnay) and Nadim Sawalha as Dr Mahmoud (Dr Manette).
- Stage Productions:
- Royal & Derngate Theatre produced an adaptation by Mike Poulton with original music by Rachel Portman, directed by James Dacre.
- The Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre staged an adaptation by Matthew Dunster in 2017, directed by artistic director Timothy Sheader.
- Stage Musicals:
- Two Cities, the Spectacular New Musical (1968), with music by Jeff Wayne, lyrics by Jerry Wayne and starring Edward Woodward.
- A Tale of Two Cities (1998), with music by David Pomeranz and book by Steven David Horwich and David Soames. The musical was commissioned by Paul Nicholas and co-produced by Bill Kenwright ran at the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham during their 1998 Christmas season with Paul Nicholas as Sydney Carton.
- Two Cities (2006), a musical by Howard Goodall, which was set during the Russian Revolution, with the two cities being London and St. Petersburg.
- A Tale of Two Cities, a musical by Jill Santoriello, which opened on Broadway at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on 18 September 2008. The production starred James Barbour as Sydney Carton, Natalie Toro as Madame Defarge and Brandi Burkhardt as Lucie Manette. The show was directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle. Since Broadway, the show has been performed in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, Japan and Korea.
- Arthur Benjamin’s operatic version of the novel, subtitled Romantic Melodrama in Six Scenes, premiered on 17 April 1953, conducted by the composer. It received its stage premiere at Sadler’s Wells on 22 July 1957, under the baton of Leon Lovett.
- Dav Pilkey wrote a comic titled Dog Man: A Tale of Two Kitties, loosely based on the novel.
At the 1984 Democratic National Convention in the US, the keynote speaker, Mario Cuomo of New York, delivered a scathing criticism of then-President Ronald Reagan’s comparison of the United States to a “shining city on a hill” with an allusion to Dickens’s novel, saying: “Mr President, you ought to know that this nation is more a Tale of Two Cities than it is just a ‘Shining City on a Hill’.”
A Tale of Two Cities served as an inspiration to the 2012 Batman film The Dark Knight Rises by Christopher Nolan. The character of Bane is in part inspired by Dickens’s Madame Defarge: He organises kangaroo court trials against the ruling elite of the city of Gotham and is seen knitting in one of the trial scenes like Madame Defarge. There are other hints to Dickens’s novel, such as Talia al Ghul being obsessed with revenge and having a close relationship to the hero, and Bane’s catchphrase “the fire rises” as an ode to one of the book’s chapters. Bane’s associate Barsard is named after a supporting character in the novel. In the film’s final scene, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) reads aloud the closing lines of Sydney Carton’s inner monologue -“It’s a far far better thing I do than I have ever done, it’s a far far better rest I go to than I have ever known” – directly from the novel.
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