I have taken a long time to get around to reviewing Barnaby Rudge, but not because I didn’t enjoy it. In fact, The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge are my favorites of the five Dickens novels I have read for my Dickens Project so far. I remembered really liking Barnaby Rudge the first time I read it, and it didn’t disappoint the second time.
Barnaby Rudge is one of two historical novels by Charles Dickens — the other being A Tale of Two Cities. Both are very dramatic and graphic. In the first, the Gordon Riots are presented in all their horror — pillaging, looting, burning, abduction, drunkenness, terror, death. The story has two notable villains — Sir John Chester and Mr. Gashford — both characterized by a terrible contempt for human life. To these two men, the lives of others are simply pawns to be used in the accomplishment of their own ends — revenge. Some of Sir John Chester’s nonchalant attitude toward death is shown by his discussion of murder with Mr. Willet, Sr.: “All the circumstances after a murder … must be dreadfully unpleasant—so much bustle and disturbance—no repose—a constant dwelling upon one subject—and the running in and out, and up and down stairs, intolerable. I wouldn’t have such a thing happen to anybody I was nearly interested in, on any account. ’Twould be enough to wear one’s life out” (Ch. 10).
Interestingly, the titular character, young Barnaby is a simple — mad — young man. Simple, but unfortunately dangerous. In the beginning of the story, he is flighty, but harmless and affectionate — a comfort and purpose of life to his mother. However, he would indeed have to be stupid to believe that something that causes his mother sorrow, will make her happy. I don’t think he was to blame for joining the riots — Hugh was — but it would still be dangerous to have a person around that could so easily be led into hurting people. Despite his horror of blood, and his mother’s distress, Barnaby whole-heartedly joins the riots, knocking a soldier from his horse on the first day. For the most part, however, his activities are confined to “guarding”. Those responsible for leading him into the riots are careful to keep him from the particular knowledge of it that would turn him against them — notable in their concealment of the ransacking and burning of the home of one of Barnaby’s friends, the Catholic Mr. Haredale.
Barnaby’s mother, Mrs. Rudge, I found to be an annoying character. To cover up that long for a murderer, to let others take the blame for his crime, and to potentially put her son in danger of abduction by that man, is not excusable by the fact that he was her husband, and that she had loved him.
A theme of Barnaby’s life is his horror of blood, symbolized by the birthmark on his wrist. Of the night that he does the murder, Mr. Rudge relates that his wife “thrust me back with a force that cast me off as if I had been a child, staining the hand with which she clasped my wrist” (Ch. 62). Mrs. Rudge was at that time pregnant, and “when her son was born, upon the very day the deed was known, he bore upon his wrist what seemed a smear of blood but half washed out” (Ch. 5). He is also born stupid and with a horror of blood. I found this rather interesting, as recently some papers of my great great grandmother were found, in which she insisted upon the truth of several similar stories — how a man who had refused to kill a spider for his wife, had a child born with a birthmark like a spider on its hand, and other similar superstitions.
My favorite characters are Dolly Varden, Edward Chester and Joe Willet, and Mr. Haredale. Edward Chester’s father raises him to expect wealth and a life of ease, calculating on Edward to support him by marring an heiress. When Edward finds that he and his father are little more than paupers, living on appearances, he immediately determines to earn his own living, to be able to support the woman he wants (against his father’s wishes) to marry. He succeeds. Joe Willet is oppressed by his father, who treats him patronizingly, as a young boy, not worth listening to and only good for free labour. I don’t think that Joe should have knocked an old man down in his exasperation, but I like how he wouldn’t stand for being treated like a boy, and his determination to take responsibility for his own life.
I found Mr. Haredale an interesting character. Although he is not a particularly good man (he is very bitter), he has an honesty and bravery that contrasts with the characters of his enemies — Sir John Chester and Mr. Gashford, two men who are cowards and duplicitous to the very soul. He cares deeply for his niece, Emma. He detests the underhanded way in which he attempts to separate her from her fiancé, Edward Chester. Knowing Edward’s father to be a cruel, treacherous man, he naturally supposes that Edward will in some measure share these qualities, and determines to separate them — even if it means working with Edward’s father to accomplish. He eventually comes to the realization that Edward is an upright, honorable man, and to deplore his part in separating him from his niece. He tells them, “Let no man turn aside, ever so slightly, from the broad path of honour, on the plausible pretence that he is justified by the goodness of his end. All good ends can be worked out by good means. Those that cannot, are bad; and may be counted so at once, and left alone.” (Ch. 79).
And then there is pretty, coquettish Dolly Varden. Coquettishness is a part of Dolly’s very character. However, Dolly is not timid. When she and her friend Emma Haredale, are abducted during the riots, unlike Emma, she doesn’t faint, but energetically defends herself, to the point where the man who plans on forcing her to marry him is compelled to call for help to get away from her. “As he said these words he advanced towards her. Dolly retreated till she could go no farther, and then sank down upon the floor. Thinking it very possible that this might be maiden modesty, Simon essayed to raise her; on which Dolly, goaded to desperation, wound her hands in his hair, and crying out amidst her tears that he was a dreadful little wretch, and always had been, shook, and pulled, and beat him, until he was fain to call for help, most lustily.” (Ch. 59).
Another character that I found to be particularly amusing is Mr. Willet, Sr. — Joe’s father. A rather slow subject, it takes a while for it to occur to Mr. Willet “dimly and afar off, that” Mr. Chester’s attitude toward murder “might by possibility be a cool way of treating the subject” (Ch. 10). His treatment of his son is, frankly, despicable. He is pompous and arrogant. It is all in such a slow, fat, pontifical manner, however, that it invites us to be amused by him as much as we despise him. His ending is appropriate. Having lost most of his mental faculties from the shock of the riots, he makes way for Joe to take over as landlord of the Maypole. The sight of his first grandchild is another shock to him. “Being promptly blooded, however, by a skilful surgeon, he rallied; and although the doctors all agreed, on his being attacked with symptoms of apoplexy six months afterwards, that he ought to die, and took it very ill that he did not, he remained alive—possibly on account of his constitutional slowness—for nearly seven years more” (Ch. 82).
The whole book is written with Dickens’s customary sarcasm and humour. I enjoyed his description of Mrs. Rudge’s house: “It was not built of brick or lofty stone, but of wood and plaster; it was not planned with a dull and wearisome regard to regularity, for no one window matched the other, or seemed to have the slightest reference to anything besides itself.” (ch. 4). There are, of course, many other characters in the story — Dolly’s good-natured, staunch father; her irritable mother; Mr. Varden’s absurd, small-limbed and arrogant apprentice Simon Tappertit; Mrs. Varden’s waspish maid Miggs; the historical Lord George Gordon, a weak man with visions of grandeur; his loyal servant John Grueby; the rough Hugh, who, though evil, we cannot help feeling a little sorry for in the end; the hangman Dennis, who comes to an appropriate end; among others. The riots provide an opportunity to test the depths of these people’s characters. Some bravely resist the violence, risking their safety and even lives. Others follow the crowd and become savage monsters.
“Halloa, halloa, halloa! What’s the matter here! Keep up your spirits. Never say die. Bow wow wow. … Polly put the ket-tle on” — Barnaby’s wonderful Raven, Grip (repeated sayings).
This post is part of the Dickens Project that “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter and I are doing. You can read Sophie’s post here: ‘A Tale of the Riots of ’Eighty’.
I read Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens (London: The Folio Society, 1987; drawings by Charles Keeping) October 16 – November 27, 2012.
By Kyd (Joseph Clayton Clarke, 1856 – 1937): Barnaby Rudge.
By Charles Green (1840-1898): The Gordon Riots.
By Fred Barnard (1846-1896): “The Pole Swept into the Air”, “It Flitted Onward, and Was Gone”, & “Grip the Raven”.
By William Powell Frith (1819-1909): Dolly Varden.
By R. Bran: Lord George Gordon (1751-1793).