Monday, October 15, 2012

Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

Well.  It's been more than a month since I posted anything -- I haven't fallen off the face of the earth, I've just been busy, work and travel and the Jane Austen Society Annual General Meeting, which was fabulous.  I've really been wondering if I need to give up blogging for awhile.  But fear not, I have been reading!

Before I give up on blogging, I need to make a case for Barnaby Rudge, probably Dickens' most least-popular work -- yes, less popular even than Martin Chuzzlewit or Dombey and Son, both of which I've read in the past two years.  It's a shame really, because after I finally gave it my full attention, I actually liked BR better than the other two.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Barnaby Rudge was published in 1841, just after The Old Curiosity Shop (one of the most popular) and before Chuzzlewit, one of the least popular.  Dickens was inspired by the works of Sir Walter Scott to write a sweeping historical story -- his only other historical work is A Tale of Two Cities, and I can definitely see in BR glimmers of the great writing to come.  Barnaby Rudge is "A Tale of the Riots of 'Eighty," but it's not just a historical novel.  It's about fathers and sons, a double murder, two feuding families, divided lovers, an abduction, even a talking raven -- tons of great stuff, right?

The real Grip the Raven, Dickens' pet, now on view at the Free Library of Philadelphia
It starts out in 1775, in a small village about ten miles or so from London, and much of the action centers around a inn called The Maypole.  John Willet is the proprietor and his son Joe is much-maligned and dissatisfied; there's also another unhappy father and son, the rich and sleazy Mr. Chester and his noble son Edward.  Edward is in love with the local beauty, Emma Haredale, but a long-time feud between the Chesters and the Haredales threatens to separate them forever.  Also, Emma's father was murdered years before under mysterious circumstances, along with his faithful steward Mr. Rudge, father of the eponymous Barnaby, the local village simpleton with a heart of gold, who owns a talking raven, Grip.  We also meet another family, the Vardens.  Gabriel Varden is a locksmith with a shrewish wife, a beautiful, coquettish daughter Dolly; a scheming apprentice, Simon Tappertit; and a shrieking maidservant, Miggs, who provides most of the comic relief.

The first half of the book sets up all these different characters and gives some back story, along with a mysterious stranger.  Then, about halfway through the novel, the action jumps forward in time five years, to the beginning of the "No Popery" riots of 1780, also known as the Gordon Riots, which I'm sorry to say I knew nothing about.  My sincere apologies to any British readers, but is this a subject that anyone ever learned in school?  My shoddy Yank education regarding the 18th century was much more centered on the American Revolution.

If you didn't know either, the Gordon Riots were a backlash against Catholics, that culminated in anti-Catholic mob violence and riots, including a mob of at least 40,000 that marched on Parliament in June of 1780.  Churches, embassy, and prisons were burned, including Newgate.  (If you want to read more about it, click here).

I really think that's one reason Barnaby Rudge isn't popular -- honestly, a lot of people know enough about the French Revolution and the guillotine to make ATOTC a much more compelling subject.  And Barnaby Rudge is a terrible name, right up there with Martin Chuzzlewit.  I know Dickens has a talent for giving his characters goofy names to reflect their personalities, but surely he could have come up with something better!  Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and even Edwin Drood have mystery, romance, or some other interesting qualities to entice readers.

My biggest problem with this novel is how it shifts.  The first half sets up the mystery and the characters -- there are so many, it's confusing and there really isn't that much development of any of them -- and then -- ta-da!!!  The story jumps forward in time five years, to just before the Gordon Riots, and we get very little information about what's happened to most of the characters.

Don't get me wrong, the part about the riots and the mobs are extremely well-written, and I was riveted -- and I'm normally bored by big action scenes.  Dickens is really good at describing the mobs and the violence, and it's pretty scary.  But I really wanted more about the characters, and the story itself was kind of all over the place.  After the riots, things wrap up very quickly, and I just felt it was uneven.  Having read most of the Dickens canon, I can see hints of all the great stuff to follow -- Bleak House is a great murder mystery, and so many of his later novels have complex plots and multiple characters, plus there's all the great history in A Tale of Two Cities.  (Barnaby Rudge even has a little shout-out to Oliver Twist, with mention of a pick-pockets' gang).

Anyway.  I'm really glad I finished Rudge;  I'm nearing the end of my quest to complete all the works of Dickens -- only three left to go of the major works:  The Old Curiosity Shop, The Pickwick Papers, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Has anyone else read Barnaby Rudge?  What did you think?  Am I crazy to want to complete all of Charles Dickens' works?


  1. I don't think you're crazy, but then I've been thinking of doing the same with Trollope - at least the novels. I had no idea what Barnaby Rudge was about - your synopsis is so interesting!

    Selfishly, I hope that you don't give up blogging completely! and I'm glad that you got to go to the AGM, I've heard such good things about it.

    1. I want to read all of Trollope someday too -- I have about 42 novels left to go, so it'll be awhile. Of course I think he's easier to read than Dickens, and a lot of his novels are shorter.

      Barnaby Rudge was much better than I thought it was going to be. It was a group read with an online book group, I don't know if I ever would have tackled it on my own. And I did some of it on audio, which really helped.

      The AGM was amazing, hopefully I'll get around to posting about it before too long. If you're a Janeite, I highly recommend it if you ever get the chance.

  2. So not crazy! Or if you are crazy, I am crazy too. The only exception I will make is for The Mystery of Edwin Drood...I don't want to read a version finished by someone else and I don't want to read an unfinshed version.

    I have not read it yet, but am very glad to hear that Barnaby Rudge was good. Personally, I loved Martin Chuzzelwit. My least favorite might just be A Tale of Two Cities, which is much loved by others. So, there you go, no accounting for taste!

    Please don't stop blogging. If once a month is what you can manage, I will take it. You are my source for classics.

    1. I didn't love A Tale of Two Cities either, but there are parts that I thought were excellent. However, I found Lucie Manette to be truly annoying, like most of Dickens' ingenues. There were two beautiful young women in Barnaby Rudge, but they didn't have enough character to get on my nerves.

      I liked Chuzzlewit but there were parts that really bored me. My favorites by Dickens are Bleak House, Oliver Twist, and Our Mutual Friend. But I really do think there's a Dickens for everyone!

  3. I don't think you're crazy at all. I suppose I'm a little OCD, but I'd like to read all of Dickens, Trollope, and a bunch of other 'classic' authors. Read on!

    1. I'm not sure if I'll end up reading all his short stories and minor works, but I definitely want to finish all the novels. I think Old Curiosity Shop will be next.

  4. I've just got in from a very dark and atmospheric 6 am walk with the pooch. On my podcast was a chat by Simon Callow about his play currently on in the West End - he portrays 49 characters from the works of Dickens! I've only ever read A Christmas Carol but one of these days I would love to delve into his other books.

    Blog when you can and for yourself, Karen! We'll take you when we can get you.

    1. I must find that podcast!! I loved Dickens' Women by Miriam Margolyes -- if you weren't lucky to catch her tour, you can still get the audio CD.
      And thanks for the kind words of encouragement.

  5. I'm trying to read more Dickens... and even recently started A Tale of Two Cities, but I may have to start over again later. I hadn't even heard of this one before, so I am glad you wrote about it!! -Sarah

  6. I know you don't like it, but Rudge is a real name. It was my grandmother's maiden name. Like all the Rudges I've found, her father was born, lived, and worked on a canal barge. They were illiterate as going to school isn't an option when you are continually on the move. They also had their own slang, vernacular and colloquialisms, so I wonder if Dickens met a canal Rudge and assumed his language and illiteracy meant he had a learning disability. I haven't found any Rudges called Barnaby, but a woman I worked with on 2007 named her baby Barnaby. So while it's not common, it's still in use in the UK.


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