What is the meaning of preserves in the opening passage of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities?

There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever.

Is preserves a place that is kept for private hunting, or an activity regarded as being reserved for a particular group? I cannot figure out this sentence grammatically. I understand its allusion to Biblical references, but since I am not a native speaker, I'd also like to be clear about the sentence structure; is there a way to paraphrase this sentence?

  • Is this the complete sentence?
    – Andy
    May 20, 2014 at 20:08
  • 1
    I have edited your question to provide the full quote. Please always provide the full context when asking about a usage.
    – choster
    May 20, 2014 at 20:28
  • The definition "a place that is kept for private hunting" doesn't quite make sense here, nor does "an activity regarded as being reserved for a particular group". May 20, 2014 at 20:36
  • 1
    @PeterShor - Dickens was no slouch. May 20, 2014 at 21:07

4 Answers 4


In both countries, it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever.

I could find no real (original) books that used preservers rather than preserves, so Dickens chose this word purposely.

Preserves in the OED (limited) is defined as a place that is kept for private hunting or an activity regarded as being reserved for a particular group.

There are two Biblical references here worth noting: Clear as crystal is from Revelations 21:11. During the end times, the light coming from Jerusalem will be

like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal.

He is setting us up here for bad times (end of times), and reinforces it with a second Biblical reference, a miracle of abundant food (to feed 5000) from little: from five loaves and two fishes, He fed all the multitiude and had much left over.

Dickens’ Dickens’ allusion to this miracle is highly ironic, as his “lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes” are the French and English aristocrats for whom hunting is a leisure sport. The “loaves and fishes” of aristocratic game reserves were kept for entertainment, not nourishment, and the “preserves” preserve the game from distribution to the hungrier classes. In short, Dickens’ loaves and fishes are not used to feed a multitude, but to entertain an unhungry few.

So it is as you have guessed: it is the preserves kept for hunting to which Dickens was referring, making note that these were not going to be enough, unlike the loaves and fishes, to feed the hungry, and that the aristocracy were just thinking of themselves and their pleasure instead of the state of affairs their countries were in.

It is also worth noting that Carlyle – whose history of The French Revolution was one of Dickens’ chief historical sources – associates the first flight of the French nobles at the stirrings of Revolution with the flight of their game: “On the Cliffs of Dover, over all the Marches of France, there appear, this autumn, two signs on the Earth: emigrant flights of French Seigneurs; emigrant winged flights of French Game! Finished, one may say, or as good as finished, is the Preservation of Game on this Earth…” (Carlyle 195). Earlier in The French Revolution, Carlyle describes these French aristocrats as having “preserved Game not wisely but too well” (192). Invoking Othello (who “loved not wisely but too well” and killed the object of that love), the line emphasizes the self-defeating nature of those preserves.


I'd paraphrase this as:

There was a monarchy in England and France, and the Clerical class in both nations thought everything would continue unchanged.

I interpret "preserves" like a game preserve, and the loaves and fishes to be Biblical. Who manages the dispersal of miracles like loaves and fishes? Priests and Bishops.

  • 2
    This is it, except I think the relevant Oxford Dictionaries online definition is a sphere of activity regarded as being reserved for a particular person or group. So it's not really a place where certain things are kept - more along the lines of Shepherd loaves and caviar are the preserve of the rich. Plus arguably the implied "clergy" metaphorically extend to mean "those faceless men who hold all the real power". May 20, 2014 at 21:36
  • @FumbleFingers can't you expand this as an answer? You've nailed it of course. I find all the wrong answers depressing.
    – user24964
    May 21, 2014 at 0:10
  • @FumbleFingers yes, please expand your answer a little. i find it very helpful. thank you!
    – user76770
    May 21, 2014 at 1:46
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    @TheMathemagician, user76770: Nah. I converted to the "post-modernist" perspective (basically, "the text is all") over 40 years ago. Precisely what Dickens had in mind at the time is pretty irrelevant to most contexts, and may actually be impossible to establish (plus it's Off Topic Lit Crit). Personally, I'd like to think he was making an ironic allusion to the idea of the clergy/aristocracy (established wealth/power in general) performing a reversal of the Biblical miracle (instead of making a small amount feed the many, rich bastards appropriated a large amount to feed the few). May 21, 2014 at 11:19

If you watch the History Channel documentary on The French Revolution, during the food shortages, a loaf of bread cost one month's of wages. The peasants were starving and the nobility and clergy were well fed. This hunger "turns to rage." Preserves here is more closely related "to an activity regarded as being reserved for a particular group"; however, it is not an activity but it is a supply of grain that was reserved for the upper classes. In fact, when the mob of people stormed Versailles, they did so because they thought the Aristocracy was hoarding grain. Also, among the core of the crowd were the powerfully strong "fish ladies of the central markets."


"... lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes" seems to me to be a poetic way of referring to the custodians of the State repositories of grain and other sources of food, and simultaneously invoking the Biblical parable of the loaves and fishes in which the poor were fed by a miracle.

By contrast, Dickens is implying, in France the food that the poor require to survive is not being distributed to them.

'Preserves' in this interpretation could mean the literal 'storehouses' or 'warehouses', or figuratively 'reserves, supply'.

  • Were there such things in the time of the French Revolution? If there were, wouldn't the breadmakers, so prominent in the Revolution of the Tale of Two Cities, have been given grain to bake bread? I mean, when you're facing losing your head, if there were such repositories (as in the Middle Ages and before), wouldn't they have opened them up to the peasants? I thought the whole point was there was terrible mismanagement of the country. There was nothing to eat. May 20, 2014 at 21:14
  • Perhaps so, but my point is perfectly compatible with your interpretation. The ultimate point is that the poor are not getting fed, whether because of mismanagement, the greed of a ruling elite, or famine. In any case, the picture Dickens is painting is describing France just before the revolution, not after it; no question (yet) of losing your head.
    – Erik Kowal
    May 20, 2014 at 21:20
  • I have been researching this, and have found no evidence for the existence of State repositories of grain. In a paper, (Requisition During the French Revolution (1789-1815) by Maurice K. Wise, it seems clear that there were no such repositories of grain anywhere. It was so bad that farmers were, in fact, required to sell any personal stores they had at a set (uninflated) price or face death. May 20, 2014 at 21:36
  • Very well -- you've persuaded me. :)
    – Erik Kowal
    May 20, 2014 at 21:52

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