Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

I knew absolutely nothing about Barnaby Rudge: a Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty before I started to read it. It’s not a book that I’ve seen dramatised. But whilst reading (very slowly) Claire Tomalin’s biography, Charles Dickens A Life I came across the following information. In May 1836, the year that Dickens, then 24, married Catherine Hogarth on 2 April, he agreed he would write a three volume novel, called Gabriel Vardon by November. But by November he was trying to withdraw from the agreement, due to his commitments in writing Pickwick and Sketches by  Boz. He began writing Gabriel Vardon in 1839 and it was only in February 1841 that its serialisation began. By then he had renamed it as Barnaby Rudge.

It’s a murder mystery as well as a historical novel, mainly concerning the events surrounding the Gordon Riots of 1780. The Riots began in protest to the Catholic Relief Act of 1778, which granted Roman Catholics exemption from taking the religious oath when joining the British Armed Forces and granted them a few liberties, previously denied to them. Led by Lord George Gordon the protests quickly turned violent, Parliament was invaded and Newgate prison was burned to the ground. I was rather surprised that Tomalin gave away most of the plot in describing Barnaby Rudge and gave away the identity of the murderer. I don’t intend to do the same as it spoilt the mystery for me.

Barnaby Rudge begins in 1775, five years before the riots as a group of customers in the Maypole Inn in the village of Chigwell, on the borders of Epping Forest and about 112 miles from London, recollect the murder of Reuben Haredale, the owner of The Warren, 22 years earlier to the day. His steward, a Mr Rudge was found months later, stabbed to death.The murderer had never been discovered. Reuben’s brother Geoffrey had lived at The Warren with his niece, Emma ever since.

From then on the book becomes much more complicated with many characters and sub-plots. There is the love story of Emma, a Catholic and Edward Chester, the son of Sir John Chester, a Protestant and opponent of her uncle, who is dead against their marriage. Also crossed in love are Joe Willet, whose father John Willet is the landlord of the Maypole and the captivating Dolly Varden whose father Gabriel Vardon is a locksmith. Barnaby Rudge is a simple young man, living with his mother. His pet raven, Grip goes everywhere with him. He’s a most amazing bird who can mimic voices and seems to have more wits about him than Barnaby. Grip is based on Dickens’s own ravens, one of whom was also called Grip. (Edgar Allen Poe was inspired by Dickens’s portrait to write his poem The Raven).

It’s a long book and in parts loses its impetus, but picks up when Dickens jumps five years forward into the Riots and I was taken aback by his vivid and dramatic descriptions of the violence and horror:

If Bedlam gates had been flung wide open, there would not have issued forth such maniacs as the frenzy of that night had made. … There were men who cast their lighted torches in the air, and suffered them to fall upon their hands and faces, blistering the skin with deep unseemly burns. There were men who rushed up to the fire, and paddled in it with their hands as if in water; and others who were restrained by force from plunging in, to gratify their deadly longing. On the skull of one drunken lad – not twenty, by his looks – who lay upon the ground with a bottle to his mouth, the lead from the roof came streaming down in a shower of liquid fire, white hot; melting his head like wax.

And then there is the attack on Newgate prison, the release of the prisoners and finally the scene as the mob set fire to the prison, scenes that rival the storming of the Bastille in A Tale of Two Cities.

By the end of the novel the murderer is revealed and all the plot strands are completed. There are a number of themes running through the novel – the relationship between fathers and sons, the position of authority, justice and the question of punishment for crime, and religious conflict. Dickens paints a picture of London, the dirt and poverty, the terrible condition of the roads, the perils of footpads and highwaymen which is in contrast to the countryside that still at that period surrounded London making it a cleaner, purer place to live in. There are detailed descriptions of the old inn, the Maypole and Vardon’s house and shop with their individual irregularities and strangeness.

And alongside all this are the characters, the restless innocent that is Barnaby, his over-protective and distracted mother, the melodramatic servant Miggs, the pure evil of Hugh, an idle servant at the Maypole who becomes one of the leaders of the riots, and Mr Dennis, the hangman to name but a few.

It wasn’t such a success as some of Dickens’s other novels but I think that that is not a fair reflection of its qualities. It’s almost a book of two parts and the dramatic second half, to my mind, more than makes up for the slow beginning which I had to read slowly and carefully. The portrayal of Barnaby Rudge is also masterly – a sympathetic but totally unsentimental characterisation of his ‘madness’ and his underlying common sense.

Barnaby Rudge was number 6 in the Classics Club Spin, which is the reason I’ve been reading it this June, rather than later.  I’ve had the book on my Kindle since March 2013, so not as long as some of my to-be-read books, so it also counts towards the Mount TBR Reading Challenge and the Historical Fiction Challenge too. There are numerous editions of Barnaby Rudge and each one gives different page numbers, depending, I suppose on the format and font size. The Kindle edition estimates its length at 845 pages, so it also counts towards the Tea and Books Challenge.

About Margaret

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