What inspired A Tale of Two Cities? by Professor Michael Slater

Highlights from the Charles Dickens Museum collection 

Throughout July 2017 the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park presents its exciting new interpretation of Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859). In celebration of the production, Professor Michael Slater here shares his highlights from the objects on display in the Museum that relate to the novel -- and gives the intriguing stories behind its making.


A Tale of Two Cities Monthly Part CoverFront cover for A Tale of Two Cities monthly part, © Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens wrote the novel A Tale of Two Cities as a serial to help launch his new weekly journal All The Year Round in the Spring of 1859. It was a critical time in both his personal and professional life. He had, against a background of much gossip, separated from his wife Catherine after twenty-three years of marriage and the birth of ten children. He had quarrelled with his publishers, also after twenty-three years, and had terminated the weekly journal Household Words that he had been publishing with them since 1850. Added to that, he was considering starting a new career as a public reader of his own work.

In his preface to the volume publication of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens states that the idea for the story first came to him in 1857 when he was playing the hero Richard Wardour in Wilkie Collins’s melodrama The Frozen Deep, in a fund-raising effort for the projected Guild of Literature and Art, a sort of trades union for writers and artists. Wardour sacrifices his own life to save that of the younger man who is loved by the young woman whom he himself desperately loves. This is just what Sidney Carton does in A Tale of Two Cities. Meanwhile, in real life, the 45-year-old Dickens was himself falling passionately in love with the fair-haired 18-year-old professional actress Ellen Ternan who was also playing in The Frozen Deep. Dickens was startled when it was pointed out to him that the first name and the initials of Charles Darnay – the man whom the golden-haired heroine Lucie loves and marries in A Tale of Two Cities – were identical with his own.

Playbill for Frozen Deep

Frozen Deep playbill, © Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens’s setting of A Tale of Two Cities at the time of the French Revolution was doubtless inspired by his huge admiration for the philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle whose ‘wonderful book’, as Dickens called it, The French Revolution (1837), includes an intensely dramatic description of the fall of the Bastille. This would have greatly affected Dickens, haunted as he was by desolate childhood memories of his own father’s imprisonment in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison. He had, in fact, already powerfully described the burning of Newgate Prison in the Gordon Riots of 1780 in his only other historical novel, Barnaby Rudge (1841).  

A Tale of Two Cities was published at a time when there were considerable diplomatic tensions between Britain and the France of Napoleon III, whose Second Empire regime was not considered very stable by many in Britain. This would doubtless have given a contemporary significance to Dickens’s tale of the French Revolution of 1789.


At the Charles Dickens Museum, there are several objects on display that tell this story. Here are the highlights:


Playbill for The Frozen Deep

Located in the entrance hall, on the left-hand side

The playbill pictured above is for the production of Wilkie Collins’s melodrama The Frozen Deep in which Dickens played the hero. Dickens wrote in the preface to A Tale of Two Cities that he got the idea for the novel while acting in the Collins’s play. What he did not declare openly was that he also fell in love with his fellow cast member Ellen Ternan, who later became his lover.


Sidney Carton at the Guillotine

On display in the ground floor dining room, to right of the door

Sidney Carton at the Guillotine

Sidney Carton at the Guillotine by F. Barnard (1846-96) for Chapman and Hall’s 1871 Household Edition of Dickens’s works, © Charles Dickens Museum

A Tale of Two Cities ends with Sidney Carton’s last moments when he speaks the words: ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known’.


The Bastille Prisoner

Located in the drawing room on the first floor, above the velvet reading desk in the glass case

The Bastille Prisoner

Dickens's annotated copy of The Bastille Prisoner, © Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens made this version of passages from Book 1 of A Tale of Two Cities for him to read publicly. It deals with Lucie Manette’s rescue of her father from the self-imprisonment in Paris that results from his mental state after his long incarceration in the Bastille. Dickens elaborately prepared and rehearsed it in 1861 but it was never performed.


Carte de visite of Dickens reading Carlyle’s The French Revolution

Located in the study on the first floor, in the large bookcase to the left of the window

Dickens poses in his garden in Kent reading The French Revolution (1837) by the historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle. This book is believed to have inspired Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities.

Carlyle was sent the image by the photographer Mason very shortly after Dickens’s death. On the back of the card is a note handwritten by Carlyle himself. It says:

‘Charles Dickens at the back of his house Gadshill reading a vol of French Revolution 6 or 7 Augt. 1866. See Letters 1 and 2 of the Photographer Mason who sent it 18 June 1870; a thing really touching and tragical to me - & to be kept private withal. T.Carlyle.’


The Goldbeater’s Arm

Located in the first floor extension, past the special exhibition room

Goldbeaters Arm

The Goldbeater's Arm, © Charles Dickens Museum

In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens mentions a building adjacent to Dr Manette’s home near Soho Square, London. Various trades were carried on in this building. One of them was gold-beating. This was indicated, Dickens writes, by ‘some mysterious giant who had a golden arm starting out of the wall of the front hall – as if he had beaten himself precious, and menaced a similar conversion of all visitors’.

The street Dickens describes was called Rose Street but was renamed Manette Street in his honour in 1895. The goldbeater’s sign was subsequently given to the Charles Dickens Museum and displayed here.


For more about Open Air Theatre’s production of A Tale of Two Cities in Regent’s Park, London, visit https://openairtheatre.com/production/a-tale-of-two-cities


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