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A Tale of Two Cities

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. It was one of the best and worst times in history. It was a time of great intelligence and ignorance, belief and disbelief, good and evil, hope and hopelessness. We had everything to live for, and we had nothing to live for. Everyone was going straight to Heaven and straight to hell. Basically, it was just like

the present

1859, the time at which Dickens was writing

the present
, with experts of the time insisting on seeing its events only in terms of contrasting extremes.
There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever. A stern-looking king and a plain-looking queen ruled England. A stern-looking king and a beautiful queen ruled France. In both countries, it seemed obvious to the people managing the royal food supplies that things were stable and nothing would ever change.
It was the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five. Spiritual revelations were conceded to England at that favoured period, as at this. Mrs. Southcott had recently attained her five-and-twentieth blessed birthday, of whom a prophetic private in the Life Guards had heralded the sublime appearance by announcing that arrangements were made for the swallowing up of London and Westminster. Even the Cock-lane ghost had been laid only a round dozen of years, after rapping out its messages, as the spirits of this very year last past (supernaturally deficient in originality) rapped out theirs. Mere messages in the earthly order of events had lately come to the English Crown and People, from a congress of British subjects in America: which, strange to relate, have proved more important to the human race than any communications yet received through any of the chickens of the Cock-lane brood. It was 1775. People in England were as superstitious then as they are now.

Mrs. Southcott

a woman who claimed to be a prophet

Mrs. Southcott
had just turned twenty-five, and a private in the British army who claimed he could tell the future announced her appearance by saying that London and Westminster would be destroyed. Even the

Cock Lane Ghost

the ghost of a woman believed to haunt a house on Cock Lane

Cock Lane Ghost
had only been gone twelve years since last tapping out its messages, as the very unoriginal ghosts of last year tapped out theirs. A

group of British subjects in the American colonies

the First Continental Congress

group of British subjects in the American colonies
had recently sent messages to the King of England, and oddly enough, these earthly messages proved more important than any of the supernatural ones from Cock Lane.
France, less favoured on the whole as to matters spiritual than her sister of the shield and trident, rolled with exceeding smoothness down hill, making paper money and spending it. Under the guidance of her Christian pastors, she entertained herself, besides, with such humane achievements as sentencing a youth to have his hands cut off, his tongue torn out with pincers, and his body burned alive, because he had not kneeled down in the rain to do honour to a dirty procession of monks which passed within his view, at a distance of some fifty or sixty yards. It is likely enough that, rooted in the woods of France and Norway, there were growing trees, when that sufferer was put to death, already marked by the Woodman, Fate, to come down and be sawn into boards, to make a certain movable framework with a sack and a knife in it, terrible in history. It is likely enough that in the rough outhouses of some tillers of the heavy lands adjacent to Paris, there were sheltered from the weather that very day, rude carts, bespattered with rustic mire, snuffed about by pigs, and roosted in by poultry, which the Farmer, Death, had already set apart to be his tumbrils of the Revolution. But that Woodman and that Farmer, though they work unceasingly, work silently, and no one heard them as they went about with muffled tread: the rather, forasmuch as to entertain any suspicion that they were awake, was to be atheistical and traitorous. France, which was less interested in spiritual matters than England, was headed straight toward disaster, printing lots of paper money and spending all of it. Under the leadership of the clergy, the French government entertained itself with such activities as cutting off a young man’s hands, pulling his tongue out with pliers, and burning him alive. The French government did this because the man didn’t kneel down in the rain to pay tribute to a group of dirty monks walking by fifty or sixty yards away. While this young man was being put to death, trees were growing in the forests of France and Norway that Fate had decided would one day be used to make the guillotines that would play a terrible role in history. It’s likely too that on the crude farms near Paris sat rough, filthy carts, which pigs snuffed around and poultry roosted in, that Death had decided would be used during the Revolution to cart people to the guillotine. Though Fate and Death work constantly, they also work quietly, so no one heard them as they went sneaking around. Instead, if a person even suggested that bad times were on the way, he would be accused of being an atheist and a traitor.

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