scan0103The past two weeks have been busy ones at the Charles Dickens Museum in London, where I am lucky enough to be a part-time volunteer. Coinciding with Bastille Day, Tuesday marked the opening of our new exhibit, “Shadow of the Guillotine,” which celebrates  the 150th anniversary of the publication of A Tale of Two Cities, a historical novel set in London and Paris during the time of the French Revolution.  To kick off the exhibit, we held a private viewing for the French Ambassador, who spoke movingly of the bloody Reign of Terror and also pointed out the ongoing relevancy of the novel’s opening line (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”)

The book was one of only two historical novels penned by Dickens (the other being the not-very-well-known tale Barnaby Rudge) and the idea for the book came about in part from a  play he co-wrote and performed with Wilkie Collins called The Frozen Deep. In the play, a deeply flawed but courageous man sacrifices his life to save the life of his rival. Dickens’ other influence was Thomas Carlyle’s three-volume text, The French Revolution: A History. As Dickens wrote in the preface to his novel, “It has been one of my hopes to add something to the popular and picturesque means of understanding that terrible time, though no one can hope to add anything to the philosophy of Mr. Carlyle’s wonderful book.”

Among the many historic objects the museum will have on display during the course of the exhibit, which runs through December, are first editions, lithographs of the novel’s original illustrations by Phiz, and a stunning oil painting by Victorian painter, E.M. Ward, which depicts the final hours of the French royal family imprisoned in the Temple (a medieval fortress once located in Paris’ 3rd arrondissment.) If you’re planning a visit to London in the next six months, do stop by the museum to check out our new exhibit! –Joni Rendon