'What dark history is this?'This is the question that hangs over Dickens's brooding novel of mayhem and murder in the eighteenth century. Set in London at the time of the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots, Barnaby Rudge tells a story of individuals caught up in the mindless violence of the mob. Lord George Gordon's dangerous appealto old religious prejudices is interwoven with the murder mystery surrounding the father of the simple-minded Barnaby. The discovery of the murderer and his involvement in the riots put Barnaby's life in jeopardy. Culminating in the terrifying destruction of Newgate prison by the rampaging hordes,the descriptions of the riots are among Dickens's most powerful.Written at a time of social unrest in Victorian Britain, Barnaby Rudge explores the relationship between repression and liberation in private and public life. It looks forward to the dark complexities of Dickens's later novels, whose characters also seek refuge from a chaotic and unstable world.
Memorable characters include the vain apprentice Sim Tappertit, the amoral and dangerous Mr Chester and the rough and dangerous Hugh, a far more convincing low-life villain than Bill Sykes.
This tale is sort of Romeo and Juliet set in the time of the Gordon Riots between Protestents & Catholics. Of course, as usual with Dickens, there are plenty of subplots and interesting characters.
Mil Nicholson once again is marvelous in this Librivox recording of Dickens. Highly recommended.
Despite being the title character (and one of my personal favourites), Barnaby himself is not really the lead in this book; it feels like a real ensemble piece, being marvelously unpredictable in terms of which characters will join which side of the riots. The riot setpieces themselves, and how easily Barnaby is swept up in them (perhaps reflecting on how so many others were swept up, in some cases unwillingly and in some cases just due to the Trump-esque mob mentality), are particularly moving. What works here is Dickens' incredible skill at description; every home and street feels truly lived in, even if none of the characters in this novel - even the irrepressible Dolly Varden - have any real internal life. To be honest, I feel as if the first half of the novel is a bit repetitive, while the second half spends so much historical time on the one situation that the book could easily be a two- or three-hour miniseries rather than the kind of lengthy soap opera which could be spun from Little Dorrit. Anyhow, if only the BBC would give us a modern Barnaby Rudge, perhaps the book would be more widely read! In truth, I'd place this fairly low down the Dickens totem pole, lower than Dombey and Son, perhaps equal to The Old Curiosity Shop, but I find it interesting to see Dickens applying his skill to history, which gives him a chance to further investigate why men do what they do, a question he will plunge into with great fervour later in his career. By the time Rudge was done, Dickens was off to America, and the next phase of his remarkable career.
If this is Dickens' least popular novel, I blame its title character. Barnaby is an innocent simpleton whose cognitive abilities slide up and down the scale as the plot demands. He's a rare personality that Dickens could not get a handle on, or at least was less true in portraying for the sake of directing his story. He was also Dickens' third variant on the helpless innocent motif, following Oliver and Little Nell, and the most shallow even by that comparison. From the first page we meet him he is living a vacant-minded idyllic life, and almost nothing shakes him from it. It's as flat a character arc as you might imagine.
The book isn't really about Barnaby, however, despite its title, since there's nothing central about him and he remains a sideshow in his own story. The secondary plot romances are far more engaging and often feel primary. Only thematically can I find a purpose for Barnaby, where he serves as an extreme symbol of disparity between mob mentality and the individuals that comprise it. Potential blame for this novel's being unpopular might also lie with the subject matter. How many people outside England today have heard of the Gordon Riots, or can imagine Protestant extremists? On the other hand riots, political unrest and religious angst are abundantly relevant in our modern context. This work could win a renaissance for reminding us there is nothing new under the sun.
The characters seem to be more realistic and better developed than in earlier books. The villains are more believable - Hugh was an abused and neglected orphan who grows to be an abusive and uncontrolled adult; John Chester is a picture of an silver tongued upper class villain, Dickens' first real villain from that class; and Gashford as the duplicitous and conniving assistant to Lord Gordon. These characters are so much better than the one dimensional bad guys (like the dwarf in the Old Curiosity Shop) of previous works.
The comic characters are also well done in this book. The slow thinking publican at the Maypole; Mrs Varden of "an uncertain temper"; Miggs the waspish maid are all well described and a lot of fun.
Unfortunately, Dickens reverts to simplification of good and bad in his portrayal of the riots. He paints a picture where a village idiot and the Crown's hangman become representative leaders of the riots. All a little disappointing.
So, while Wikipedia reports this as a "less esteemed" work of Dickens, I found it to be a good novel, but a poor historic novel. Read January 2012.