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Three_Jacobin_tricoteuses_in_front_of_the_guillotine_(John_Mclenan)In 1859, as A Tale of Two Cities was being first serialized in weekly instalments in Dickens’ own magazine, All The Year Round, a play by Watts Phillips, called The Dead Heart, made its stage debut at the Adelphi, to much success.

Phillips, a novelist and playwright, had had little luck lately, because he insisted on writing serious, near-austere pieces that pleased the critics (and, apparently, the Queen) more than they did the melodrama-loving general public.

The Dead Heart, though, a stirring tale of the French Revolution, filled with thwarted love, howling injustice, epic struggles, evil abbés, heroic sacrifice, and so on, was a different matter – all the more so because very soon people started to notice the close resemblance between the play and that new novel by Mr. Dickens…

Plagiarism was suspected, and unpleasantness ensued – except, it soon turned out that poor Phillips was not to blame: it transpired that a few years earlier Dickens had attended a private reading of the play, well before he started work on ATo2C, and clearly liked what he saw.

The thing exploded when Sydney Carton’s story was adapted for the stage, in 1860, and the remarkable similarities were exposed for all theatre-goers to see. London split into two very belligerent camps, and then…

And then not much happened. Apparently, the audiences enjoyed their little scandal, there was a double Phillipsroaring success, and Phillips and Dickens settled the matter over dinner. How very civilised.

And if you are curious, here is the full text of The Dead Heart, courtesy of the Internet Archive. Have a look for yourself. All else apart, it is a fascinating glimpse on how Dickens grabbed and made his own another writer’s material.

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