A Tale of Two Cities – Part 1

Place de la Bastille

The Bastille is long gone, remembered only in the pavers that outline the building walls crossing the square. The city gate to the Faubourg would have been behind the bicycle at left. (Click photos to enlarge.)

I’m reading Charles Dickens’s novel, “A Tale of Two Cities,” in French. It is a story of London and Paris before and after the French Revolution. I’m only part way through, and not sure I understand everything that is happening. Here is what I know so far. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to pick up the book.

Our story starts with a banker (Jarvis Lorry) traveling by stagecoach from London to the English coast. It’s dark and cold and everyone is afraid of thieves who rob stagecoaches along this route all the time. Their coach fights up the hills through the mud. The horses are exhausted. A stranger appears along the road. Guns are cocked. He has only a message for the banker. He is to meet someone at Dover. The banker hopes the others in the coach were asleep.

At Dover the banker meets a young woman (Lucie Manette – about 18 years old). She is very afraid of her circumstances, and the banker keeps trying to convince her that it’s only business and she just needs to trust in the logic. They take a ship to Calais, in France, and then proceed somehow to Paris.

They show up at a bar in the neighborhood of today’s Faubourg Saint Antoine, just outside the city gate near the Bastille. The bartender, Mr. Defarge, leads them to a room upstairs where there is a man working diligently to make shoes. He doesn’t notice them as he keeps at his work. He has been imprisoned for a long time in France and seems to have lost his mind. The bartender and the banker try to approach him without any apparent success, while the young woman hangs back in fear. Then she comes to the front, comforts the man, her father, and after some time easing his pain, they all depart for England.

Back in London, there is a trial for a man accused of treason, Charles Darnay. He calmly awaits his fate. The punishment for conviction is death by the most horrible means – body separated into many parts. The King has a prosecutor and a couple of witnesses. They, upon questioning, appear to be witnesses for hire who say what the Crown wants them to say. There is a jury. Two other witnesses are the rescued prisoner, Dr Manette, and his daughter Lucie. It seems that they were on the ship and the stagecoach from Calais to London with the accused. They don’t seem to remember anything incriminating, but the crowd of onlookers is stuck by the image of rapport and consolation given the accused from these witnesses. There ensues a story of the two lawyers for the defense, the lion and the jackal so to speak. One is competent, the other is drunk and pitiful, but they compliment each other in their results. Ultimately Charles Darnay is acquitted and spared his life.

Years later, in London, Dr Manette lives in a peaceful house in Soho, shaded by a plaine tree. He has recovered (supported by the constant attention of his daughter) many of his previous faculties, but he is still haunted by the nightmares of prison. Occasionally he paces, but his daughter Lucie sees him through it. His shoe making bench sits in the corner of his bedroom. The banker, the lawyers, and even Charles Darnay are all visitors at their home.

Quartier Bastille narrow street

Typical street in Faubourg Saint Antoine as it might have been (sans street art) in 1780

The story shifts to Paris. There is a Monseigneur (a French nobleman of considerable wealth and power) whose day’s success or failure is determined by the quality of the service of his breakfast chocolate by his four servants. He has no idea or consideration for the lives of common people, who exist only to serve him. In the neighborhood Saint Antoine in Paris, there is another, similar minded aristocrat, the Marquis St. Evrémonde. The Marquis stands in line that morning for a long time hoping for an audience with the Monseigneur, and then departs Paris in a fury at being ignored.

The Marquis’s carriage runs down and kills the son of a man named Gaspard as the carriage races through the streets of Faubourg Saint Antoine. The hard-hearted Marquis offers Gaspard a coin for his trouble. Mr. Defarge, the bartender whose business is nearby, comforts Gaspard. The Marquis also gives him a coin for his trouble, The bartender hurls it back into the carriage as it speeds away.

The Marquis is absolutely convinced that his success depends upon his keeping the lowly people in their place. He takes his entourage to the countryside, where he has a château. Along the way he passes through a town where folks are gathered around a fountain. There are many stories and mentions of the Marquis. He recognizes in the town near the fountain a road mender whom he also saw earlier along his route through the countryside. The man asks him about the people in chains beneath his carriage. I don’t understand this part. Are these people being dragged along or are they hitching a ride (or neither)?

Upon his arrival at the Chateau, the Marquis is informed that a guest is expected that evening. Eventually they meet – it is his nephew, who uses the fictional name Charles Darnay. They dine together. The nephew says that his uncle needs to change his attitude towards the people, but the uncle says that it cannot be done. The nephew, who is also to be the heir of his uncle’s estate, renounces his claim to his inheritance. He sets out for London. That night, someone stabs the Marquis to death in his sleep.

Back in London, Charles Darnay realizes that he is in love with Lucie Manette. He approaches her father to reveal his love and to assure the doctor that above all else, he wishes that the close relations between the doctor and his daughter continue. He asks the doctor’s blessing, and offers to reveal the truth about his name. The doctor demurs. It will remain a mystery until the marriage. Meanwhile the lion lawyer decides that he must marry Lucie. He tells the jackal that he would be advised to get married too, should he ever be able to find someone compatible. Then he sets out to announce to Lucie his intentions, but along the way he stops by Tellson’s bank to see his friend Jarvis Lorry. After the lion announces his plan, the banker tells him he would be a fool to ask for the hand of Lucie. Though completely incensed, the lawyer accepts this analysis that his plans would certainly fail, and withdraws. After all, there must be better fish in the sea for someone with his impeccable qualities.

Meanwhile, his jackal failed partner visits Lucie and tells her what a failure his is. She responds with compassion and tries to inspire him. It’s an interesting exchange, and you wonder where it is going when it ends.

The scene shifts back to Paris. The bartender from Saint Antoine, Mr. Defarge, and his wife operate together a secret society aimed at overthrowing the King. She knits all the information that they discover into meaningless pieces of clothing. They don’t know if revolution will happen in their lifetimes, thus they play for the long term. Today, there is a man from the countryside who comes to the bar (the road mender). The bartender takes him upstairs to a private room to ask him to tell his story to himself and several friends, all named Jacques. The stranger tells of seeing a tall man named Gaspard, who was dragged through the village and taken to the prison. Horrible things had been done to him, and he was executed for killing the Marquis.

Gaspard à la Nuit

Restaurant Gaspard à la Nuit in the Marais near the Bastille.

I’m eating the other day at a restaurant in the Marais near rue Saint Antoine. On my way home, I pass a restaurant named Gaspard’s. I think I’m really on to something. I’m at ground zero for A Tale of Two Cities. After all, the Bastille was just a block away – that must have been the Doctor’s prison. The restaurant is La Gaspard de la Nuit. I think maybe we ate there one time – just to add to the intrigue.

I check out Gaspard de la Nuit on Google. The original reference is a poem by Aloysius Bertrand in the 1830’s. Gaspard is a man who lends another a book. When the borrower attempts to return the book, he finds that the lender is the devil. In 1908 Maurice Ravel turned this idea into one of the most difficult pieces ever for piano, La Gaspard de la Nuit. I haven’t determined why the restaurant chose that name, but I doubt is has anything to do with the tall man executed for killing the Marquis. Funny how we think we’re on to something, mais no.

Our adventure with the Tale of Two Cities will continue…

Comments

  1. May be worthwhile to seek out whatever remains of La Force, which was in the Marais quite near the Bastille. In the novel Charles Darnay was imprisoned there. During the the actual revolution, La Force house Mayor Bailly, as well as Vergniaud and bunch of other Girondists who got whacked during the Teign of Terror.

    • Hugh Nelson says

      Merci Jim! I know where it was, almost right across from Saint Paul’s. In today’s world it’s a block north of rue Saint Antoine. Back then the streets hadn’t been straightened out yet. I can see the prison on a map from 1780. I think there’s one wall left along with a historical marker. Haven’t reached the part where Charles Darnay is imprisoned there. Musée Carnavalet, museum of the city of Paris, is closed now for renovation. They would have all the details.

  2. Chuck O’Dell says

    Hugh, outstanding and intriguing. I am sure I have “A Tale of Two Cities”. Looks like it’s time for me to start it in English as my French is impossible. I would say with this work you are healthy and well!

    • Hugh Nelson says

      Bonjour Chuck! I was thinking that I was missing stuff in French, so I reread some of it in English. Dickens writing is quite complex. After that I didn’t feel so bad about my French – the English was also a challenge to understand.

  3. Hello Hugh my name is Rick Greig. I don’t know if we’ve ever met but we sure have been to a lot of the same places and have many things in common. I’ve been to Paris a so many times. I’ve spent countless days walking through the different neighborhoods and the Bois de Vincennes enjoying the sights, sounds, smells and tastes. I spent 18 months in the Mediterranean on CVA 42, visiting Marseilles, Nice and surrounds. I taught French at the USNA. (Although I still consider myself to be more of a francophile than a francophone.) I lived 5 years in Peoria. We lived 12 years on the north shore of Lake Erie and traveled the Gaspard Peninsula a few times. I now live in Poulsbo, home of the Kiana Lodge. We’ve done London a few times and walked from Porto to Santiago on the Portuguese Camino. Hugo is one of my favorites and I’ve read a few of his books. Starry Nights was on my wall and I drink Absente Van Gogh in my Sazeracs. I have a brother in law in Larroque St Sernin who we visit as often as we can. Je suis un grand fan de l’Armagmac. Small world!

    • Hugh Nelson says

      Bonjour Rick! Your note was kind of stunning. I grew up in Peoria, have friends in Vincennes, been to the south shore of Lake Erie, served in the Navy, went to USNA, was married at Kiana Lodge, am interested in the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (friends have biked there a couple times). I’m still the webmaster for Poulsbo Rotary. I looked up where you live and know the house. If you walk up Eliason to 6th Ave and go 2 houses down the hill (18769), that’s the house we built in about 2000. Nice meeting you!

  4. Patricia Ryan says

    Holy smokes, Hugh! Thanks for the tutelage. A classic read in French. you get double points.
    Pat

  5. Terry Mahony says

    You do lead an interesting life. Look forward to Part two.
    Terry

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