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A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

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History of the Text

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Publication History and Reception: Like many novels published during the Victorian era, which overlapped with and followed the Romantic period, A Tale of Two Cities was not initially published as a complete text. The novel was released by periodicals in sections, the goal being to maximize distribution and profit through serialization. 

  • Weekly: The entire text appeared in 31 weekly installments in All the Year Round, a weekly literary magazine founded and owned by Dickens himself. Each issue of All the Year Round cost two pence. Dickens was able to keep prices low by not including news stories, although he occasionally covered international news, such as the Italian War of Unification (1859). Newspapers and magazines that featured local news were otherwise subject to a special tax. 
  • Monthly: Dickens released eight monthly supplements (the last being a double issue) while the weekly installments were being released. Each supplement contained all of the installments published in All the Year Round that month and cost one shilling. Dickens’s illustrator, Hablot Knight Browne (also known as “Phiz”), designed steel-engraved illustrations for each monthly supplement. 
  • Single Volume: The novel was published in its current single-volume format after finishing its weekly run in All the Year Round. It cost eight shillings and included all sixteen illustrations from the monthly supplements. 

Historical Fiction in the 19th Century: A Tale of Two Cities is part of the historical fiction genre, which became quite popular during the Romantic period (roughly 1770–1850) in Europe. Historical fiction writers of the Romantic period often criticized Enlightenment values, which emphasized the power of reason in improving one’s circumstances (such as poverty). Part of this self-improvement involved overthrowing political figures and rejecting archaic social hierarchies that relied on the oppression of the lower classes. The French and American Revolutions are considered to be partly inspired by Enlightenment ideals. Historical fiction maintained its popularity going into the Victorian period, during which Dickens grew to fame. Other notable European historical fiction writers from the Romantic and Victorian periods include: 

  • Sir Walter Scott: a Scottish novelist, historian, poet, and biographer who is considered to be the inventor of the historical fiction genre, beginning with the novel Waverly (1814). Similar to A Tale of Two Cities, Waverly is set during a turbulent time in European history—specifically, the Jacobite uprising of 1745 in England. 
  • Jane Porter: a Scottish dramatist and novelist. Her most notable work of historical fiction was Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803), a 4-volume novel set during the foreign occupation of Poland in 1790. 
  • William Makepeace Thackeray: a British novelist and satirical writer whose most popular novel, Vanity Fair (serialized from 1847 to 1848), is set before and after the Napoleonic Wars that followed the French Revolution. 
  • George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans): a British novelist, translator, poet, and journalist who is considered one of the key writers of the Victorian period. Her most prominent work of historical fiction was Romola (serialized from 1862 to 1863), which is set in Florence during the Italian Renaissance in the 15th century. 

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