The first of Dickens's historical novels, Barnaby Rudge, written in 1841, is set at the time of the anti-Catholic riots of 1780, with the real Lord George Gordon, leader of the riots, appearing in the book. The characters are caught up in the resulting mob lawlessness which climaxes in the destruction of Newgate prison, an actual event brought to life in the novel. The plot turns on the relationship between Catholic Emma and Protestant Edward, further complicated by the earlier murder of Reuben Haredale, supposedly by Barnaby though actually by his evil father; but the real focus of the book, as so often in Dickens, is London itself. This is a nightmarishly vivid picture ofa capital city's subterranean life. In A Tale of Two CitiesDickens was to recapture his vision of the mob in all its moods, but he never surpassed the sense of pulsating energy and dangerevoked in thecrowd scenes of Barnaby Rudge. Nor did he often rival the touching relationship between Barnaby and his pet raven, Grip, who embodies the mystical powerof innocence. Although Barnaby Rudge is one of Dickens's lesser known novels, the bond between boy and bird makes it one of his most touching.
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
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 first half is, of course, full of Dickensian characters. For me, getting through the first 100 pages, ending with the painting of the character of Hugh, was a hurdle. I can honestly say that a reader can stick with this portion and will find joy and relief in the latter half of the book. The maidens are full of distress and loveliness, the men are jovial and satirical, but Dickens is able to twist the knife in the character of his own father by naming two horrible men, who happen to be fathers of sons John." Both men have good sons, and neither father is deserving of such good sons.
But within the details of the characters lies less satire or over-the-top descriptions and much more malice and true goodness. The character of Barnaby is kind and quaint, the character of Dolly Vickens is sweet and . . . flirtatious without caring whether she breaks men's hearts. The character of Mrs. Vickens is brilliantly martyred (helped by her lady's maid) . . . with an undercurrent of vindictiveness. And Simon Tippertit is almost, but not quite, a spoof of the hapless apprentice . . . until he joins with the apprentice "court" and becomes a court favorite by his similarly uncaring ways.
Then we get to the second half and the Gordon Riots of 1780. I had not known these riots existed, even, and they are brilliantly described in their horrible detail: the sound made by the mob is consistently referred to with water imagery (some earth imagery might also have been good, or references to an avalanche), the destruction they cause is described in horrible detail, and their motivations for destroying the churches? Well, religion is the excuse but hatred and vengeance and a need to get back it others is the real reason. Dickens' descriptions of the "false enthusiasm and vanity of being a leader" as Lord Gordon's foundation for his personality are spot-on, and the methods to motivate a crowd, not by standing on London Bridge and "calling till . . . hoarse . . . might have influenced a score of people in a month. . . . But when vague rumors got abroad, that in this Protestant association a secret power was mustering against the government for undefined and mighty purposes; . . . then the mania spread indeed and the body . . . grew forty thousand strong." These are the truest words about vain and weak leaders that I've read yet.
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
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.