Well, I’ve now read all Dickens’s novels. Barnaby Rudge & Martin Chuzzlewit were the last two on my list & I’ve read them both during this Bicentenary year. I’d always been put off Barnaby because of the title. Onomatopoeia has a lot to answer for! Rudge made me think of stodge & I couldn’t feel very interested in a book about the Gordon Riots so I just got on with reading & rereading my favourite Dickens novels – Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend & Bleak House. I was very pleasantly surprised though. Barnaby Rudge is a wonderful book, very involving & with some great characters including a talking raven.
The story begins in 1775, some five years before the riots inspired by Lord George Gordon’s determination to stymie the bills before Parliament to allow Catholics more freedom. In a way the story begins 25 years before that when Reuben Haredale, landowner of The Warren, & his steward, Mr Rudge, are murdered. Another servant, who disappeared on the night of the murders, was blamed for the crimes but was never apprehended. Now, Reuben’s brother, Geoffrey, lives at The Warren with his niece, Reuben’s daughter, Emma. They are Catholics & Emma is in love with Edward Chester, son of Sir John Chester, a staunch Protestant. Both Sir John & Mr Haredale disapprove of the match & the lovers have to meet in secret, helped by Dolly, daughter of locksmith Gabriel Varden.
Gabriel Varden is a good man burdened with a wife who makes his life a misery. Mrs Varden is contrary, pious & hypocritical. Her maidservant, Miggs, is a sly troublemaker. Miggs is in love with Varden’s apprentice, Simon Tappertit, but Simon is in love with Dolly. He also suffers from delusions of grandeur & is a member of a secret society of apprentices & shop workers who will eventually become involved in the riots. Simon dreams of overthrowing the ruling classes & ruling his own little world with Dolly at his side.
Dolly has many suitors. She is pretty & wilful & very pleased with the effect she has on men. Joe Willet, son of the landlord of the Maypole, is just one of Dolly’s suitors. Joe is oppressed by his father who treats him like a child & allows him no freedom at all. When Joe has had enough & runs away from home, he stops at the locksmith’s to ask Dolly to marry him. Her refusal sends him off to take the King’s shilling & join the army where he takes ship for the American wars.
Mr Rudge’s widow has lived for the last twenty years as an honoured servant of the Haredale family because her husband had tried to stop his master’s murder. She has a son, Barnaby, who is cheerful but simple-minded. The novel opens with the arrival of a mysterious stranger who terrifies Mrs Rudge & blackmails her into giving him money.
Barnaby’s best friend is his pet raven, Grip, who was my favourite character, I must admit. Grip is a mimic who, like all birds, has his favourite sayings. Grip’s favourites include, “I’m a devil, I’m a devil” & “Polly put the kettle on”. Grip was based on a pet raven that belonged to Dickens. This is a picture of the four eldest Dickens children & Grip. It was painted by Daniel Maclise for Dickens & his wife, Catherine when they set off for their trip to America. It’s obvious that Dickens had studied the ways & wiles of the raven as Grip is a wonderful portrait.
It’s almost half way through the book before the action skips five years & the buildup to the Gordon Riots begins. Lord George Gordon was a weak, well-intentioned young man who was fiercely anti-Catholic & influenced by his secretary, Gashford, who had reasons of his own for creating civil unrest. Gordon’s speeches inflamed the old prejudices against Catholics that stemmed from the reign of Mary Tudor & the unrest was taken advantage of by other disaffected groups who took the opportunity to run riot through London, destroying property & terrorising Catholic families.
The riots involve all the characters in the novel from old John Willet whose pub is destroyed to Gabriel Varden, who is abducted by the rioters & taken to Newgate Prison where they try to force him to break the locks. Barnaby is caught up in the riots too as a friend of some of the leading malcontents. The scenes of the storming of Newgate & the lawless rampages of the rioters are very exciting & written with real passion. Dickens had done extensive research in the newspapers & accounts of the riots. The book was written partly as homage to the great historical novels of Sir Walter Scott.
Barnaby Rudge is really a book of two parts but the two parts are both essential to the success of the novel. It may seem strange to read half the book before the central theme is introduced but it worked. The reader is able to get to know all the characters & their complicated relationships & histories before the climax of the riots sweeps everyone along – some to destruction. There’s certainly a lot of melodrama in the plot. Mrs Rudge is a tortured woman & does a lot of hand wringing & prophesying doom. She’s overly protective of Barnaby because of his simple mindedness but also because of something she fears from the past. There’s also a lot of grim humour in the book. Mr Dennis, the hangman, who joins the rioters but doesn’t let on what his job is because it tends to put people off. All his clothes were perquisites from his victims & he sizes up everyone he meets as if he was required to “turn them off”as he puts it.
There’s also pure evil in some of the characters. Hugh, a stablehand at the Maypole, becomes a leader of the rioters. He’s the son of a woman hanged for a trivial offence & he’s jealous of Joe Willet & in love with Dolly. Hugh takes advantage of the chaos of the riots to kidnap Dolly & Emma Haredale & there’s real menace in his plans for the two young women. Hugh is also in the pay of Sir John Chester, a smooth villain who lives a life of luxury although his money is gone & wants his son, Edward, to marry an heiress to save the family fortunes. Sir John manipulates Hugh & the other rioters for his own ends.
I’m glad I finally got around to reading Barnaby Rudge. I’m only sorry it took me so long!