Dickens published his twelfth novel, A Tale of Two Cities, in his own literary journal called All the Year Round in weekly installments from April to November of 1859. He got the germ of the idea for the novel from a play by Wilkie Collins called The Frozen Deep, in which he played the self-sacrificing hero. Dickens decided to transplant the emotive issue of self-sacrifice onto the time period of the French Revolution, and he modeled Sydney Carton after Collins's hero. To ensure that his novel would be as historically accurate as possible, Dickens pored over his friend Thomas Carlyle's classic history of the French Revolution.
A Tale of Two Cities is in part a historical novel, which sets it apart from Dickens's other work. Although Barnaby Rudge deals with the Gordon Riots in England, it discusses them only peripherally. In A Tale of Two Cities Dickens narrates aspects of a major historical event, the French Revolution. Because Dickens focuses on the effect of political upheaval more than on character development and wit, A Tale of Two Cities feels atypical among readers who know his other novels, and critics continue to debate its relative place in the English literary canon.
The French Revolution, which raged from 1789 to 1793, involved an overthrow of the aristocratic ruling order by the lower classes and was followed by a period of terror. The guillotine was used as a great equalizer, in that everyone from Queen Marie Antoinette to lowly peasants were beheaded by it. The Revolution at first garnered some support among radicals in England, creating a backlash among Conservatives, most notable in Edmund Burke's scathing Reflections on the Revolution in France. As the bloodshed became prolonged, support for the revolution waned in England, and a comparable social movement never started there.
When Dickens was writing A Tale of Two Cities, the French Revolution was still the most dramatic issue in the public's recent memory. The revolution involved contentious issues for Dickens, a political radical who believed in poor law reform and who campaigned for a more equal society. He vividly portrays the hunger of the French people and the brutality of the French aristocracy, embodied in the novel by the Evrémonde family, and he seems to justify the lower class's desire for a revolution. Yet, he just as dramatically illustrates the barbarity of the revolutionaries when they do rise to power.
This ambivalence is exemplified in his depiction of Madame Defarge, perhaps the most interesting of the main characters. She is ruthless in her desire for retribution against the wrongs that have been done to those of her class. Dickens indicates that Madame Defarge has good reason for her anger, but her death in a scuffle with Miss Pross at the end of the novel implies that Dickens cannot sympathize with the extent of her (or the revolutionaries') ceaseless bloodthirstiness.
Dickens's novel is built around a great and stable love story, although as he wrote, his own marriage was failing spectacularly. Dickens was unhappily married to Catherine Hogarth, and he met and fell in love with a young actress named Ellen Ternan while he was acting in Wilkie Collins's play. This situation proved to be the final disaster in his marriage, and he separated from Catherine Hogarth in 1859. This unusual split, along with some well-publicized affairs that came afterward, increased the author's' notoriety but decreased his popularity somewhat towards the end of his life.