Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England in 1812. As the second of eight children in a very poor family, he lived a difficult childhood. Eventually, his father was sent to debtor’s prison, and Dickens himself went to work at the age of twelve to help pay off the family’s debt. This troublesome time scarred Dickens deeply and provided him with substantial material for such stories as Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield. Steeped in social criticism, Dickens’s writing provides a keen, sympathetic chronicle of the plight of the urban poor in nineteenth-century England. During his lifetime, Dickens enjoyed immense popularity, in part because of his vivid characterizations, and in part because he published his novels in installments, making them readily affordable to a greater number of people.
The Industrial Revolution, which swept through Europe in the late eighteenth century, originated in England. The rapid modernization of the English economy involved a shift from rural handicraft to large-scale factory labor. Technological innovations facilitated unprecedented heights of manufacture and trade, and England left behind its localized, cottage-industry economy to become a centralized, hyper-capitalist juggernaut of mass production. In tandem with this transformation came a significant shift in the nation’s demographics. English cities swelled as a growing and impoverished working class flocked to them in search of work. As this influx of workers into urban centers continued, the bourgeoisie took advantage of the surplus of labor by keeping wages low. The poor thus remained poor, and often lived cramped in squalor. In many of his novels, Dickens chronicles his protagonists’ attempts to fight their way out of such poverty and despair.
A Tale of Two Cities, originally published from April through November of 1859, appeared in a new magazine that Dickens had created called All the Year Round. Dickens started this venture after a falling-out with his regular publishers. Indeed, this period in Dickens’s life saw many changes. While starring in a play by Wilkie Collins entitled The Frozen Deep, Dickens fell in love with a young actress named Ellen Ternan. Dickens’s twenty-three-year marriage to Catherine Hogarth had become a source of unhappiness in recent years, and, by 1858, Hogarth had moved out of Dickens’s home. The author arranged to keep Ternan in a separate residence.
Dickens’s participation in Collins’s play led not only to a shift in his personal life, but also to a career development, for it was this play that first inspired him to write A Tale of Two Cities. In the play, Dickens played the part of a man who sacrifices his own life so that his rival may have the woman they both love; the love triangle in the play became the basis for the complex relations between Charles Darnay, Lucie Manette, and Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. Moreover, Dickens appreciated the play for its treatment of redemption and rebirth, love and violence. He decided to transpose these themes onto the French Revolution, an event that embodied the same issues on a historical level. In order to make his novel historically accurate, Dickens turned to Thomas Carlyle’s account of the revolution. Contemporaries had considered Carlyle’s version to be the first and last word on the French peasants’ fight for freedom.
Dickens had forayed into historical fiction only once before, with Barnaby Rudge (1841), and the project proved a difficult undertaking. The vast scope and somewhat grim aspects of his historical subject forced Dickens largely to abandon the outlandish and often comic characters that had come to define his writing. Although Jerry Cruncher and Miss Pross embody some typically Dickensian quirks—exaggerated mannerisms, idiosyncratic speech—they play only minor roles in the novel. While critics continue to debate the literary merits of the novel, no one denies the light that the novel sheds on Dickens’s development as a novelist. More experimental than the novels that precede it, A Tale of Two Cities shows its author in transition. Dickens would emerge from this transition as a mature artist, ready to write Great Expectations (1860–1861) and Our Mutual Friend (1864–1865).