Sunday, 4 October 2015

Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens (1841)

Originally Written in 2008

Even the greats have off days. Even Homer nods, as the saying goes. And even the most famous authors have books to their name that are less well-regarded and less read. Martin Chuzzlewit, for instance, would be one of Dickens' less-popular works, but even that novel has the distinction of being adapted into a television mini series in the period-drama boom during the latter quarter of the 20th century, a feat that Barnaby Rudge falls short of. Being one of Dickens' less esteemed works, it has only been adapted twice - a 1915 silent film and a 1960 BBC production.

Barnaby Rudge is not only Dickens' first attempt at a historical novel, the only other being A Tale of Two Cities, but is also a novel which was supposedly an ambition of the author's for a long time: "to write about the Riots of 'Eighty", a generally forgotten incident of frenzied anti-Catholic sentiment in London in the year 1780. For some reason Dickens put off writing this book whilst fashioning his first few novels, but eventually he turned to the subject matter that had long interested him. It primarily concerns itself, then, with the "No Popery" or Gordon Riots of 1780, and three-fifths of the novel is set in that year with the remainder in 1775.

This novel turned out to be something of a mixed bag. The beginning chapters, up to about Chapter 30 or so, are actually fairly dull once the pulse-racing opening is over and done with, mostly set-up and exposition. This is likely to put off readers if they have to trawl through the first 200 pages of plodding leadenness to get to the exciting riot scenes.

However, that dramatic and atmospheric opening does grab the attention of the reader very well (Dickens rarely wrote bad openings, let's be honest), almost all of the characters are well-realised and written; and the tense feel just before the riots begin fantastically bridges the early focus on mystery and the murder of an individual and the latter focus on public violence and tumult. The cheerful domesticity and pleasant cosiness of the Maypole Inn makes a good contrast with later scenes that are much more frenzied. The riots are vividly described, and Dickens is at his most brilliant and terrifying when he depicts the infuriated mob marching relentlessly through the streets of London to set Newgate Prison on fire; when he narrates the bravery of Gabriel Varden refusing to pick the lock; when he conveys the anger and churning rage of the rioters; when he describes how, during the conflagration of Haredale's house, one lad's head is seared by liquid fire and melts like wax. Surely these are the most action-orientated scenes ever to appear in a Dickens novel.

Most of the characters are fantastic - the dull-witted and tyrannical John Willet, plus his pub-going cronies; the Varden family and the shrewish Miss Miggs; the sympathetically-portrayed Lord George Gordon, with his loyal and likeable manservant John Grueby and his nasty secretary Gashford; the sycophantic, grotesque hangman with the hilariously prosaic (for Dickens) moniker of Dennis; Simon Tappertit, the jumped-up 'prentice; Hugh, the vile and lecherous riot-leader; and best of all, the aristocratic and cool-headed John Chester. Barnaby Rudge himself, while a beautifully oblivious character at points, was generally sidelined and vastly underused - I think his warmth and charm ought to have shone through a little more to merit his status as the eponymous character. But I loved his raven. Faithful old Grip the Raven, uttering old truisms that are on occasion frighteningly accurate and perceptive skewerings of mankind.

The bottom line: if you can get past the slow opening, Barnaby Rudge really kicks into gear and becomes something special. The latter half is as complex and fascinating as anything Dickens ever wrote, with some truly magnificent and vivid riot scenes that make this a novel well worth reading.

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