Before the Prison Tribunal The Knock at the Door

Left: 6A. Before the Prison Tribunal: Book III, Chapter 1 (for November 1859, published 3 Oct.; issued 7 September in weekly numbers). See opposite p. 280 in the Penguin edition. Right: 6B. The Knock at the Door, Book III, Chapter 7 (for November 1859; issued 8 October in weekly numbers). See opposite p. 320 in the Penguin edition. [Click upon the thumbnails for larger images.]

Although Browne obviously felt some interest in the six November-December plates that close the pictorial-narrative sequence, Before the Prison Tribunal (Book III, Chapter 1; November) suggests that the graphic artist found this part of the text less than inspiring; certainly, this section offers few "descriptive passages [that are] sparkling and effective" (Edgar Browne 233). Indeed, the artist's son, perhaps implying a bias towards Dickens's earlier monthly serialisations, finds the concluding book of A Tale of Two Cities "huddled up, instead of being spread out and elaborated in the usual Dickens manner" (225). Cayzer notes that in Before the Prison Tribunal Dickens had offered little upon which the artist could elaborate:

an unadorned catalogue outlining the people, their states and behaviour, nd the setting that Darnay finds himself in. The monotony of the prose . . . blots out all personality and only gives Browne a few definite objects to include: the oil-lamps, and the registers lying on the desk. He does what he can, though, with this illustration bringing to mind, in its general composition, his depiction of Darnay's first trial in England, The Likeness (Book II, Chapter 3). A corresponding indifference and pitilessness . . . is also evident. But whereas in that picture there is a sense of decorum in the courtroom — judge and barristers in wigs, and spectators, in the main, fashionably dressed — Darnay's next ordeal . . . occurs, as Dickens's prose has indicated, under arbitrary circumstances. [139]

Surely the greatest difference between the two scenes lies in the animation of the courtroom spectators and the dramatic juxtaposition of Carton and Darnay in The Likeness as opposed to a general lack of drama in Before the Prison Tribunal, in which Browne depicts over half the figures as totally unconcerned about Darnay's arraignment. Browne has found some pictorial interest in the headgear of the figures, for in addition to the omnipresent revolutionary symbols, the Phrygian "red cap and tri-colour cockade" (Book III, Chapter 1, page 279) that Dickens mentions, the artist has included several examples of the Jacques Louis David-designed feathered hats [linked costume note] of the revolutionary dignitaries. Darnay's military judge, "an officer of a coarse, dark aspect" (280) as in the printed text, even wears the colour-coordinated taffeta sash designed by the great pictorial chronicler of the French Revolution (these details are not mentioned until the sixth chapter, although the artist may, like Dickens, have consulted Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution, III, v, rather than that future chapter). Phiz has chosen to illustrate the precise moment at which Darnay questions the justice of the regime that the fanatics of The Sea Rises have installed. Consigned by the magistrate to the old debtors' prison of La Force, now rehabilitated for the reception of political prisoners, the arrested man exclaims as Phiz has him point at the slip of paper on which the sitting officer has been writing: "'Under what law, and for what offence?' The officer looked up from his slip of paper for a moment" (280).

However, Darnay seems no more agitated or impassioned here than he does in The Likeness. While those about smile grimly, whisper, or regard him with glum expressions, he actually seems to smile faintly — but his expression is much the same in The Knock at the Door. Is Phiz suggesting that Charles Darnay is the epitome of eighteenth-century Rationalism (what Lord Kenneth Clark in Civilisation terms "The Smile of Reason"), a French democrat who has rejected the privileges of birth to join the British middle class Phiz's costuming of Darnay in this scene supports an affirmative answer. We note that he is distinguished from the rabble of patriots present by his fashionable English dress: caped travelling coat and top hat, held in the left hand (out of respect for what the judges before him ought to represent).

The officer of "dark aspect" in Dickens's text presides over open registers, surely intended to connected him to other documents memorializing the past and that other dark recorder, Madame Defarge. Unfortunately, Phiz has not followed up Dickens's textual description: no such books are evident. While the novelist merely has "certain soldiers and patriots . . .standing and lying about" (280), Phiz has elected to show them clustered around a table, animatedly arguing while smoking and drinking while utterly oblivious to the arrest of yet another aristocrat. Another detail Browne has added is the fireplace (centre), in front of which a uniformed soldier warms himself.

The hanging lamps, however, are consistent with "the waning oil-lamps of the night" (280), although Browne has made the one above the socializing guardsmen clear burning and the other, above Darnay, smokey, an arrangement which Cayzer interprets as intended to "echo the shape of the scales of justice" (140). Certainly, Darnay's fate at this point remains unclear. In the end, his escape will be facilitated by the dubious figure of Barsad (who, like Darnay, has both French and English identities and fluency), whom in The Double Recognition Miss Pross recognizes as her lost brother, Solomon, who instantly sees that her public exposure of his true identity will almost certainly bring about his death. In that this scene paves the way for the resolution of the main action and resolves the Barsad subplot, it marks a key moment in the story. It prepares us for Darnay's escape and Carton's death, equally exciting moments that the artist has avoided illustrating for fear of giving away the climax before the reader had even opened the accompanying text. While the November and December parts came out as a single issue early in November, weekly parts encompassing Book III, Chapters through 5 continued to be issued via the pages of All the Year Round. Thus, in purchasing the much more expensive final double-number, the monthly reader early acquired knowledge of story's outcome not available to the weekly reader.

The novel's final sequence begins with Darnay's re-arrest by three uncouth figures in The Knock at the Door (November). Although Phiz's placing two of the arresting party in trousers and clogs rather than the respectable shoes and the breeches of the leader is consistent with the "rude clattering of feet" (Book III, Chapter 7, page 319), why Phiz has depicted three instead of four is problematic. In number (and possibly by implication moral force) the minions of brutality and oblivion are equal to the family of well-dressed, middle-class adults whom they menace. The three armed men (suggestive perhaps of the Three Fates) form a solid block, separating the pyramidal family (like her child, Lucie leans for protection against her husband, who relatively unmoved and tower-like stands head and shoulders above his wife) from the retreat of the roughly sketched-in door behind them. Juxtaposed against the refined furniture and elegant fireplace and mirror of the drawing-room, the heavy-set males seem especially out of place. Phiz depicts the head of the leader as bestial or non-human (implying an absence of both intellect and compassion) and all three as armed to the teeth, the "sabres and pistols" of the printed text augmented by the leader's sword and his followers' shortened spears, which point upward as if denoting the family's fate.

Other, non-Dickensian details that are at variance with the text add to the scene's melodrama. The clock on the mantlepiece is set at five minutes to midnight, signaling the doom that threatens to engulf the family. Dr. Manette's candle (in the printed text, the light is clearly described as a "lamp") has gone out, its smoke without light recalling the smoking lamp in the guardroom of the companion plate, Before the Tribunal. Although the scene in the text is indeed lit by the fire, the text implies by the departure of Miss Pross and Jerry Cruncher to buy provisions that the hour of the arrest is somewhat earlier. Downstage (and the stage direction is pertinent, considering the tableau poses and the shallowness of the field), nearest us, is Dr. Manette, who will again attempt to intervene, but whose bent figure and gesture towards a reasonable mean (like his snuffed candle) already imply his failure to counteract the anarchic course of events that the Defarges and a mysterious "one other" (still not identified in the letter-press at this point) have set in motion.

Thus, in the final sequence Phiz uses elements of contemporary, domestic melodrama inherited from the Gothic novels of Matthew G. Lewis and Ann Radcliffe (particularly physical threats to the hero, a child or young woman in distress, and the possible triumph of evil over good and the foreign over the English) to build suspense without giving away the climax and resolution of the conflict. In Before the Tribunal, as we have seen, Phiz undercuts the melodrama by having the majority of the plate's figures utterly unconcerned about Darnay's plight. Their utter lack of interest in Darnay's arrest and disposition foil the reader/viewer's engagement with text and plate. That Darnay's initial release is but a "red herring" is revealed immediately by the succeeding plate — one need not even scan the letter-press to understand the twist in the plot. The power to influence the outcome has shifted from Darnay (right in Before the Tribunal), pointing his finger at the military judge (reflecting the friendly difference of opinion between two of the carousers, right) to suggest his self-confidence, to the shag-eared villain (right) who points accusatorially at Darnay in The Knock at the Door. The hand that before had lightly held his respectable top-hat now gestures downward, as if he is pleading to remain with his wife and child. At this tense moment, the flame of hope, represented by the smoking taper that Dr. Manette holds, seems to have been irrevocably snuffed. The viewer fully expects that the last, double number will feature a scene depicting either Darnay's being transported by tumbril to his place of execution or his being placed under the ominous blade of Madame de la Guillotine.


Allingham, Philip V. "'Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (1859) Illustrated: A Critical Reassessment of Hablot Knight Browne's Accompanying Plates." Dickens Studies. 33 (2003): pp. 109-158.

Browne, Edgar. Phiz and Dickens As They Appeared to Edgar Browne. London: James Nisbet, 1913.

Cayzer, Elizabeth. "Dickens and His Late Illustrators. A Change in Style: Phiz and A Tale of Two Cities." Dickensian 86, 3 (Autumn, 1990): 130-141.

Cohen, Jane R. "Part Two. Dickens and His Principal Illustrator. Ch. 4. Hablot Browne." Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: University of Ohio Press, 1980. Pp. 61-124.

Dickens, Charles. (1859). A Tale of Two Cities, ed. Andrew Sanders. World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

______. A Tale of Two Cities (1859), ed. George Woodcock. Illustrated by Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

Hammerton, J. A. The Dickens Picture-Book. The Charles Dickens Edition of the Works of Charles Dickens. London: Educational Book, 1910.

Last modified 24 October 2018