The Grindstone

"The Grindstone" (p. 124) by Fred Barnard. 1870s. 10.5 x 13.6 cm (framed). In what in a Phiz-illustrated book would be termed a "dark plate" Fred Barnard realises the moment at which Jarvis Lorry and Alexandre Manette look out upon the courtyard of the mansion that Tellson's has acquired in Paris. What they see through the partially opened blind is the shocking spectacle of a crazed mob preparing to sharpen their weapons on a large grindstone in "The Grindstone" in Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, Book 3, chap. ii, originally in the November 1859 monthly number.

Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite it in a print one.]


Having encountered in Dickens's Carlylean prose in "The Grindstone," and having already witnessed (so to speak) the rough justice administered by the slovenly "officials" of the new regime on Charles Darnay in the previous illustration, the reader of the Household Edition now shudders as he or she inspects the horrid details and swirling energy of the woodcut in which Barnard realises Dickens's all too vivid description of the mob violence of the September Massacres of 1792, the date given by Dickens being just past the middle of that month:

But such awful workers, and such awful work!

The grindstone had a double handle, and turning at it madly were two men, whose faces, as their hair flapped back when the whirlings of the grindstone brought their faces up, were more horrible and cruel than the visages of the wildest savages in their most barbarous disguise. False eyebrows and false moustaches were stuck upon them, and their hideous countenances were all bloody and sweaty, and all awry with howling, and all staring and glaring with beastly excitement and want of sleep. As these ruffians turned and turned, their matted locks now flung forward over their eyes, now flung backward over their necks, some women held wine to their mouths that they might drink; and what with dropping blood, and what with dropping wine, and what with the stream of sparks struck out of the stone, all their wicked atmosphere seemed gore and fire. The eye could not detect one creature in the group free from smear of blood. Shouldering one another to get next to the sharpening-stone were men stripped to the waist, with the stain all over their limbs and bodies; men in all sorts of rags , with the stain upon those rags; men devilishly set off with the spoils of women's lace and silk and ribbon, with the stain dyeing those trifles through and through. Hatchets, knives, bayonets, swords, all brought to be sharpened, were all red with it. Some of the hacked swords were tied to the wrists of those who carried them with strips of linen and fragments of dress: ligatures various in kind, but all deep of the one colour. And as the frantic wielders of these weapons snatched them from the stream of sparks, and tore away into the streets, the same red hue was red in their frenzied eyes; — eyes which any unbrutalised beholder would have given twenty years of life to petrify with a well-directed gun. [121]

Whereas John McLenan in the Harper's Weekly series uses "But such awful workers, and such awful work!" for 1 October 1859 had realised the same scene and given a very good representation of the gigantic grindstone, his dozen "patriots" — all looking rather alike, owing to the moustaches that Dickens mentions — seem more human and less deranged than those far more numerous semi-nude maniacs in Barnard's Household Edition illustration, although the massive swords which McLenan's fully-dressed males are sharpening are certainly formidable implements of destruction. Muting the horror, McLenan has but sparingly adorned his figures with the linen mentioned in the text, and only one — the one to the left turning the grindstone — has a hatchet stuck in his belt. Barnard's version of the same scene is a far more grisly but also a far more effective visual rendition of Dickens's nightmarish description of the Paris mob. All the more horrible is the obliqueness of Dickens's description, for he merely suggests the carnage by repetition of the colour "red," "blood," and "bloody," implying by references to linen, ribbons, and lace that the victims are helpless civilians. In fact, the mob have been attacking the inmates of such prisons as La Force, where Darnay has been incarcerated, awaiting trial. Dickens seems to be appealing to the reader's prior knowledge of the history of the revolution, for he has situated Tellson's bank in the neighbourhood of the converted prison of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where the massacre of prisoners began in early September, 1792. One needs no such specific knowledge of the liquidation of some 1,200 aristocrats to feel the utter horror and disgust that Dickens's prose and Barnard's illustration convey with such immediacy.

In "Before the Prison Tribunal" in the first of the two illustrations for November 1859, Phiz had commented on the laxness of the justice administration appointed by the new regime, but had not dwelt on the atrocities of the September Massacres. Barnard, however, offers a pair of visual commentaries on the more brutal aspects of the revolution, taking his cue, as we have seen, from Dickens's indignation at the wanton slaughter of women and children by bloody, savage proletarians maddened by wine and years of poverty and neglect. The time, as the darkness of the plate suggests, is night. Lucie, her father, and daughter have just arrived to support Charles Darnay, who they fear has fallen into the hands of violent revolutionaries. Shortly after their arrival at Tellson's banking house in the St. Germaine quarter of Paris, a mob of forty to fifty has turned up in the courtyard to re-sharpen weapons made blunt by slaughter. Ironically, before we encounter the sensational illustration we read the message from Doctor Manette that "Charles is safe" (123); we doubt that assessment and fear for his safety and that of his family as we turn the page.


Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. Illustrated by Phiz. London: Chapman & Hall, 1859.

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. Illustrated by Fred Barnard. The Household Edition. London: Chapman & Hall, 1870s.

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. Illustrated by John McLenan. Harper's Weekly. (1 October 1859): 637.

Last modified 5 March 2011