The first monthly part of A Tale of Two Cities

CoverWell it’s 31 May, which, as the advertisements on the back page of ATYR have been telling us, means the first monthly volume of ATOTC would be available today. This offered any latecomers to the journal the opportunity to catch up with the previous instalments, as well as giving them time to pick up this week’s copy of ATYR and carry on reading! However it’s equally likely that readers of the weekly and monthly parts were distinct from one another – the publication of ATOTC in both formats was a gamble that didn’t quite pay off, with sales of the monthly volume proving disappointing, presumably because everyone was reading it in ATYR first.

The main addition in the monthly volume was the coverwork and two illustrations by Dickens’s long-time collaborater Hablot K. Browne (Phiz). For the first time, readers could see the characters they had been following for the last five weeks visualised. Sadly, this would be the last time Phiz and Boz would work together. In her biography of Phiz, Valerie Browne Lester notes how critics were somewhat damning of these illustrations, feeling that Phiz was increasingly out of date in his style.

The Mail

“The Mail”

The cover work gives, for the first time, clues as to the novel’s tone and structure, in contrast to the plain text that keeps us guessing in ATYR. We can see London and Paris at the top and bottom, and familiar scenes such as Dr Manette and the courtroom scene of this week, as well as portraits of (we assume) MM, and revolutionary scenes that offer weight to the various forebodings Dickens has included in his descriptions thus far of France.

The Shoemaker

“The Shoemaker”

So what do you think? Do the pictures convey the characters as you imagined them? Are they sufficiently interesting or was the initial criticism of them justified? Do they add to our enjoyment of the story – are they indeed worth a thousand words, even Dickens’s words? And are they the scenes you would expect to see illustrated? Personally I’m a little disappointed Phiz didn’t offer us a picture of the spilt wine in France… 


(all these pictures are available from Victorian Web at – but those wishing to avoid spoilers should beware of visiting this site while still reading the story as picture titles obviously can give clues to future plotlines!)

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About Pete Orford

I'm an English lecturer at the University of Buckingham, with a research background in both Dickens and Shakespeare; I am also a father of three, with a research background in dinosaurs and moshi monsters. I'm Chief Investigator for The Drood Inquiry (

5 thoughts on “The first monthly part of A Tale of Two Cities

  1. I like them. I don’t mean to be flippant, but it strikes me that since Dickens was writing a historical tale, maybe an “out-of-date” style of illustration suited it. 🙂

  2. Fair point. I confess, I also fail to understand why the critics of the time were against them. My only complaint is the choice of pictures. But then how long did Phiz have between reading the drafts and drawing the illustrations – this at least explains the choice of the mail from part 1 rather than more from the later parts.

  3. Thanks for this Pete – It’s interesting to think about the differences for weekly and monthly readers. By cutting off the first book after 4 weeks Dickens does allow the monthly readers the satisfaction of a whole book in a single part – maybe he was thinking of that audience as well as his ATYR readers. Given all our discussions about the frustrating ‘tea spoon’ drip feed, it must have been quite a different experience, more of a nugget, to read the first four in a monthly chunk.
    I always love the monthly wrappers, which surely encouraged readers to speculate about where the plot is going. That demure knitting woman on the right is intriguing.

  4. Thanks for posting these wonderful images, Pete! It’s intriguing that the illustrations on the monthly wrapper are ‘spoilers’ of a kind, although, to the original reader, they were probably, as Holly says, tantalising hints and spurs to imaginative speculation. I’m intrigued as to why the monthly parts didn’t sell well; presumably, as Pete says, because people were following the weekly AYR parts instead. The knitting woman is interesting because, balanced by the equally demure young woman on the left-hand side, her presence perhaps suggests a French equivalent of MM? I think the criticisms of Phiz’s illustrations must have stuck with Dickens because he went on to select Marcus Stone to illustrate the Library Edition of Great Expectations in 1862 and the serialised edition of Our Mutual Friend in 1864-65 (although I think those illustrations were received equally badly!).

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