The Mail The Wine-Shop

Left (A): "The Mail," Book I, Chapter 2 (for June, 1859; issued 30 April in weekly numbers without illustration): see Penguin edition (1970), opposite 42.

Right (B): "The Shoemaker," Book I, Chapter 6 (for June, 1859; issued 2 May in weekly numbers without illustration): see Penguin edition (1970), opposite 76.

[Click upon illustrations for larger images.]

In the June 1859 installment of A Tale of Two Cities, Phiz provides contrasting and complementary scenes in the narrative: in the first, Tellson's confidential messenger, Jerry Cruncher, has just stopped the Dover mail to deliver the famous watchword "Recalled to life"; in the second, the St. Antoine wine-seller Ernest Defarge conducts Mr. Lorry and Lucie Manette up to the loft above his shop to see the latest Saint Antoine curiosity, the old Shoemaker, recently released from the nearby prison-fortress, the Bastille. Discounting the horses in plate one, each illustration contains four figures and elaborates the message that Jerry has delivered. The pictures establish relationships that will be significant in the novel (Jerry Cruncher and Jarvis Lorry of Tellson's Bank; Earnest Defarge and his former master, Dr. Alexandre Manette) and exemplify clandestine activities amidst an atmosphere of impending doom.

The polarities of the two steel engravings are obvious: outside versus inside, England versus France, figures muffled versus figures clearly seen. In both, background details are minimized to focus on the poses of the figures, although in what is almost a dark plate of the type the illustrator employed in Bleak House Phiz is careful to delineate the guard's blunderbuss, trained on the muffled horseman still. The artist merely hints at the highroad setting of Shooter's Hill by broadly outlined bushes in the rear. The twin focal points are the coach lantern and the reader (Mr. Jarvis Lorry) beneath (centre) and the guard with Jerry Cruncher beneath him (left), leaving us to ponder what lies ahead (right). Comprehending the identities of these figures, of course, depends upon the viewer's becoming a reader who must then mediate between text and picture. Significantly, we have not yet seen enough of either Jerry Cruncher or Mr. Lorry to identify them in subsequent illustrations — pictorially, we remain in the dark until the plate entitled The Shoemaker reveals the artist's conception of the aged bachelor and bank clerk, Mr. Lorry. The darkness of plate one, like the presence of Mr. Lorry, makes a visual connection to the wrapper's two dark scenes, mercantile London (above) and revolutionary Paris (below).

Although the second of the first installment's plates, The Shoemaker, is alluded to in the lower right register of the monthly wrapper (paralleling the robbing of the grave to the left), in other words, in pre-reading, its connection with the other lower register scenes (the female Jacobin, and the arrival of the tumbrils at the guillotine) is made apparent only much later in the story. (These details are significant in that, from the first, the illustrator was likely aware of the trajectory of the plot.) In contrast to the panoramic scene of coach, horses, driver, guard, passenger, and messenger in the first plate, The Shoemaker — itself perhaps a realization of a famous tableau entitled Roman Charity (Martin Meisel asserts: "Doubtless Dickens encountered the image of Roman Charity in more than one obscure gallery; in the private palaces of Rome, for example, where he thought 'pictures are seen to the best advantage' [Pictures from Italy, London, 1846: p. 22]." — Meisel, Realizations, 30.)

Earlier, in A Tour in Italy and Sicily (London, 1828), Louis Simard had expressed his admiration of Guido's Roman Charity in Genoa's Durazzo Palace, a visit to which Dickens alludes in a letter to Lady Blessington. Meisel argues that, although there is a Shakespearean parallel in Cordelia's tending Lear, Amy's comforting her father in Little Dorrit and Lucie's rocking her father on her heart "like a child" (I, vi) in A Tale of Two Cities are manifestations of Dickens's fascination with such paintings of Roman Charity as Andrea Sirani's (1630-42).

The image of Roman Charity recurs in A Tale of Two Cities, in a section entitled "Recalled to Life." It takes form (like a tableau vivant) in a prepared fictive setting, designed to accommodate the actual world to the mental world of the prisoner. Dr. Manette, recently released from the Bastille but unable to accept his condition, is brought together with his daughter, Lucie, in a garret room that has been darkened and made into a pseudo-cell. The wine-shop keeper, Defarge, ostentatiously wielding a key, stands for the jailor. Lucie is required by her father's fragile mental state to restrain her "eagerness to lay the spectral face upon her warm young breast, and love it both to life and hope." — Meisel, 35.

This close-up focuses on the reunion of father and daughter. In their grotto-like space, they are surrounded by an aura that visually connects this scene to the lantern of the first, and that hints of the forthcoming Manichaean conflict between the forces of darkness and of light. Here, however, there is no apparent source of illumination; rather, the light seems to emanate from the central figures themselves. Only reading the text will enable the viewer to unmask the characters in "The Mail" and to connect that scene to "The Shoemaker." The two horizontal plates are complementary, too, in that the first involves a scene towards the middle of the second chapter while the second describes a scene right at the close of the first instalment, so that, while the reader can quickly resolve the riddles of the first, he or she must peruse almost the entire number to decode the implications of the second.

Finally, the opening scene of his visual program for A Tale of Two Cities reveals once again Hablot Knight Browne's capacity for conveying a sinister or mysterious atmosphere, and for depicting nocturnal scenarios — and credible horses, a feature of his style ever since he was awarded a medal by the Society of Arts for John Gilpin's Ride (from William Cowper's 1782 comic ballad, The Diverting History of John Gilpin) in 1833, which in turn led to his being commissioned to provide the plates for Surtees' Jorrocks' Jaunts and Jollities (1838). Apparently, Christmas Book illustrator John Leech envied Phiz for his ability to draw life-like horses. The heads of the rearing steeds of the Marquis' carriage in The Stoppage at the Fountain (August) contribute a sense of high drama, and suggest that the horses of the state, the proletariat, once out of their former masters' control, will destroy the innocent as well as the guilty, and will not be easily righted. Although the pair of horses' heads in The Spy's Funeral (September) do not make similar contributions to the comic vignette, they do provide a visual connection to the complementary carriage scene in France, The Stoppage at the Fountain. The English horses, in contrast, are as placid as (despite the rollicking nature of the scene) the London mob is relatively benign. In contrast to those set in England, there is little comedy in the French scenes, but plenty of melodrama.

Related Materials

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Cayzer, Elizabeth. "Dickens and His Late Illustrators. A Change in Style: Phiz and A Tale of Two Cities." Dickensian 86, 3 (Autumn, 1990): 30-4.

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.

Daiches, David, and John Flower. Literary Landscapes of the British Isles: A Narrative Atlas. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

Dickens, Charles. The Letters of Charles Dickens. Vol. 9 (1859-61), ed. Madeline House, Graham Storey, and Kathleen Tillotson. Oxford: Clarendon, 1999.

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

Pevsner, Nikolaus. The Buildings of England: London I: The Cities of London and Westminster. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957.

Sanders, Andrew. The Companion to A Tale of Two Cities. London: Unwin Hyman, 1988.

Last modified 21 September 2016