Paris, France

Paris, 18th Century
Public DomainParis, 18th Century
From the storming of the Bastille Prison in July 1789, Paris entered a decade of destruction as successive Revolutionary governments declared war on what constituted the fabric of everyday life--renaming the streets, the months and seasons, instituting a 10-day working week, with different weekday names, of course. All of which led to a sense of disorientation, instability and paranoia.

Paris was still a mediaeval and Renaissance city of narrow, overcrowded streets with pillow-sized paving stones all coated in a stinking acidic black mud--the coagulating mess of refuse left to rot on streetcorners and stable sweepings--through which carts and carriages drove wildly without regard for pedestrians or tradesmen.

The many noble residences--majestic, ornamented stone buildings some 6-7 stories high--in the Faubourg St. Honore, along the Champs Elysees, and in the Faubourg St. Germain, had been appropriated by the state, their interiors looted, and stood either empty or rented out, floor by floor--the richer living on the lower floors and the poorer at the top.

Paris, 1791
Public DomainParis, 1791 - Credit: Pierre-Antoine Demachy
Street lighting was provided by oil lamps hung on ropes suspended between buildings.

Political clubs and coffeehouses abounded.

The mob ruled, attacking private houses, burning books, smashing statuary, meting out murderous summary justice.

The city's churches, convents and monasteries were an early casualty of Revolutionary zeal. Ancient stone churches were demolished or turned into armaments factories or warehouses, their bells melted down for cannon, their clergy turned out into the street. On the Left Bank, the many walled cloisters and convents were turned into prisons or abandoned.

In 1789 there was one prison in Paris with 9 prisoners; by 1796, there were over 60 prisons, all filled, with only one sentence handed down.

At the centre loomed La Guillotine, in the Place de la Republique, where at the height of the Terror some 40 individuals were guillotined each day while les tricoteuses, knitting and singing, looked on in glee.

by M.M. Bennetts

London, England
City of London, c.1750
Public DomainCity of London, c.1750 - Credit: Samuel Scott

London in the late 18th century was a robust and rambunctious place with all classes and trades--aristocrats, merchants, workers and poor--rubbing coat-tails in a Hogarthian panorama.  By 1800, it was the greatest metropolis in Europe, with a population of  1.1 million.

The Great Fire of 1666 reduced much of the city to ash, so the next century saw unprecedented building work, making it a rambling amalgamation of the Tudor, Restoration and Georgian building, development and neglect, shopfronts and rooming houses.

The better end of town, the West End, was full of neo-classical dwellings only recently completed, with building sites and builder's rubbish everywhere.  Beyond, the rest was neither new nor pristine...

For London was home to the industries which had made the city rich--global banking and mercantile interests--as well as being the centre of government, home to the Judiciary, and a great port.

Old London's slums had the most notorious reputation:  the 'Mint'--a place of uninhabited ruins, leaning precariously over their foundations.  There was the Almonry too, called 'the Devil's Acre', and St. Giles, called the Rookery or Little Dublin because of its predominately Irish population.  Soho was home to the large population of French emigres who'd fled the Revolution, while St. Katherine's was known for its Indian and Asian population.

The names of the streets evoke most effectively this London:  Dark Entry, Cat's Hole, Pillory Lane--mazes of streets with evil reputations and a gin shop on every corner, into which wayfarers were said to vanish and never emerge.

The roads and streets were clay poured onto grit--with a central gully to serve as an open sewer--turning to sludge-soup in heavy rain.

Visitors were often by struck by the beauty and magnificence of the great monuments such as St. Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, and the "tumult and blaze", the noise and coal smoke and fog--a dull grey blanket hanging perpetually over the city, which could be smelled and tasted on the wind from as far away as 50 miles.

by M.M. Bennetts

The French Revolution
Marie Antoinette
Public DomainMarie Antoinette - Credit: Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun

Everyone has heard the famous line allegedly spoken by Marie Antoinette when news came that the peasants had no bread: ‘let them eat cake’.  Whether or not she actually voiced it, the line captured the prevailing attitude of the King and Queen of France and probably most of the aristocracy — complete ignorance of the hardships many people faced and a lack of concern towards the starving peasantry. The peasants, who made up ninety percent of the population, were also struggling under a heavy burden of taxation which helped to keep the nobility in their luxurious lifestyles.

The Tennis Court Oath
Public DomainThe Tennis Court Oath - Credit: Jacques-Louis David

Before the revolution, France was divided into three social orders, or estates: the clergy, the nobility and the commoners. In 1789 King Louis XVI convened a meeting of the Estates-General at the Palace of Versailles. After presenting a list of their grievances, which fell on deaf ears, the Third Estate decided to break off relations with the clergy and the nobility, and on 10th June declared a National Assembly. On 20th June they took the Tennis Court Oath and swore to create a new constitution. When the infamous prison, the Bastille, was stormed on 14th July 1789, one of the iconic symbols of the ancien régime was toppled. The National Assembly forced through constitutional changes which benefited the poor and disempowered the nobility. Liberty, equality and fraternity became the war cry of revolutionary France. Many noblemen fled the country, and were henceforth scorned as émigrés. King Louis XVI was imprisoned, and was eventually executed in 1793. 

The Reign of Terror: Robespierre guillotines the executioner as no one else is left
Public DomainThe Reign of Terror: Robespierre guillotines the executioner as no one else is left
Young woman led to the guillotine
Public DomainYoung woman led to the guillotine

The early democratic promise of the revolution soon gave way to a reign of terror, led by Maximilien Robespierre. The Jacobin Club, a key revolutionary group, terrorised the nation, and many innocent people were carted off to the guillotine. The character of Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities exemplifies the wronged lower classes who had been humiliated by the aristocracy and who now sought their revenge. In Dickens' words, she was “imbued from her childhood with a brooding sense of wrong, and an inveterate hatred of a class”.

In the preface to his book, Dickens wrote, "It has been one of my hopes to add something to the popular and picturesque means of understanding that terrible time". He felt that 19th century England was in a similar position to pre-revolutionary France, in that the ruling classes were shirking their responsibilities by allowing injustice and poverty to go unchecked among the working classes. But Dickens was firmly against the rule of the mob and the demoniac revenge that Madame Defarge wishes to visit on the Evrémonde dynasty. Carton echoes Dickens’ own views on the futility of violence when he says, "I see Barsad, and Cly, Defarge, the Vengeance, the Juryman, the Judge, long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument [the guillotine], before it shall cease out of its present use."