Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

Sins of the fathers…

😀 😀 😀 😀

In 1775, a group of elderly men gather in the Maypole, an ancient inn owned by John Willett, and tell a stranger about a murder that was committed nearby years before. The owner of the large house in the neighbourhood, Mr Harefield, was killed, apparently during a robbery, and some time later another body was found, identified as his servant, also murdered. The servant’s son, Barnaby Rudge, was later born an idiot, assumed to be so because of the shock his widow had suffered during her pregnancy. Now Barnaby is a happy young man, earning a little money by running messages and spending the rest of his time running wild in the countryside, revelling in the natural world which he loves. But Barnaby is gullible and easily influenced, which will one day lead him into serious trouble.

Skip forward five years to 1780, and trouble is abroad in the streets of London. Lord George Gordon is leading protests against the passing of an act that will remove some of the legal restrictions under which Catholics have suffered since the time of the Reformation. A weak man himself, Gordon is surrounded by unscrupulous men using him for their own ends. Some of his followers are men of true religious beliefs, bigoted certainly, but honourable in their own way. But many, many others are the detritus of the London streets – the drunks and thieves, the violent, the cruel. Others are the desperate – those whose argument with the government is nothing to do with religious questions about which they know little and care less. These are the poor and marginalised, those with no hope. Together these men and women will become that great fear of the establishment – the mob, wild, destructive and terrifying. And among them and affected by them are the characters we met in the Maypole, including young Barnaby Rudge…

Barnaby and his pet raven, Grip

Structurally this one is a bit of a mess. The two halves are each excellent in their own way but the sudden time shift halfway through, complete with a total change of central characters and tone, breaks the flow and loses the emotional involvement that was built up in the first section. Barnaby Rudge is also an unsatisfactory hero in that, being an idiot with no hope of improvement, there’s no romance for him nor does he get to be heroic. However, even a weaker Dickens novel is always enjoyable and this is no exception. My four star rating is a comparison to other Dickens’ novels – in comparison to almost every book out there, this is still head and shoulders above them.

Book 61 of 90

If I’d been Dickens, I’d have called it Dolly Varden – she pulls the two strands together more than most of the other characters. Daughter of locksmith Gabriel, Dolly is the major love interest of the character who appears to be the hero in the first half, Joe Willett, son of the owner of the Maypole. Young, flirtatious and silly, Dolly plays hard to get at the wrong moment and Joe takes the King’s shilling and goes off to fight those pesky American colonists who were having some kind of little rebellion round about then. Five years on, Dolly is still single, secretly hoping that one day Joe will return. But her beauty has made her a target for other men, including two who will play major roles in the second half of the book. Dickens often showed how vulnerable women were to unscrupulous men, but with Dolly he takes it a stage further. There is one scene in particular where she is the victim of what can only be described as a sexual assault, and later, in the riots, Dickens doesn’t hold back from showing how rape is one aspect of what happens when there’s a breakdown in social order. While it’s all done by hints and suggestion, very mild to our jaded modern eyes, I imagine it must have been pretty shocking to the original readership. Dolly is an intriguing Dickens heroine – unlike many of his drooping damsels, she’s a lot of fun, revelling in her beauty and the effect it has on men while still being kind-hearted and true. He allows her to grow and mature in those five years, which is not always the case with his heroines, and she’s a great mix of vulnerability and strength of character.

Dolly playing hard to get…

The first half is the fairly typical Dickens fare of various eccentric characters and young lovers and a mystery in the past, of the style of Oliver Twist or Martin Chuzzlewit, say. The second half is much more reminiscent of the later, and much better, A Tale of Two Cities. The mob scenes in this are just as horrifying, but the characters aren’t as unforgettably drawn as Sidney Carton or Madame Defarge. More than that, it seems as if Dickens is less sure of where his sympathies lie. The Gordon rioters are fighting to ensure that anti-Catholic laws remain in place, and clearly Dickens thinks this is abhorrent. But that means that he almost comes over as pro-Establishment, since on this occasion the Establishment are the ones wanting to do away with those laws. So while in Two Cities he’s against the mob but understanding of the poverty and inequality that drives them, here he gets a bit muddly – he clearly wants to suggest that it’s all because they’re poor and uneducated but has to also show that they’re religious fanatics, fighting not to better themselves but to keep others down. However, I thoroughly enjoyed Dennis the hangman, who is not only a typically Dickensian villain but is also based on the real-life hangman of the time, and gives Dickens an opportunity to show the gruesome barbarity of this form of social control.

The Maypole Inn

As always with Dickens there are far too many aspects to cover in a review without it becoming as long as one of his novels. Overall, this is one where the individual parts may not come together as well as in his greatest novels, but it’s well worth reading anyway, for the riots and for the interest of seeing Dickens experiment with the historical novel as a form. I read the Oxford World’s Classics version – my first experience of a Dickens novel in their edition – and thoroughly enjoyed having the informative introduction and particularly the notes, which I found extremely helpful since this is an episode of history I knew little about. The book is also generously full of the original illustrations. I say it every time but I’m so glad I live in a world that once had Dickens in it!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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48 thoughts on “Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

  1. You’ve got a good point, FictionFan. Even a weak Dickens is head and shoulders above most people’s best. And you’ve mentioned the things that I always think really make a Dickens novel work: the characters and the social commentary, which he does without preaching. He shows the points he’s making, rather than complain about them, just by showing what happens to the characters, if that makes any sense. Little wonder you found things to like about this, even if it’s not the best Dickens you ever read.

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    • That’s the thing about Dickens – there’s so much in each book that even if it doesn’t quite work structurally, there’s still plenty to enjoy. And he’s so good at riots and mobs and all the social injustice stuff. I did like Dolly in this one, too – sometimes his heroines are too insipid for my taste, but she’s got plenty of personality. 🙂

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    • Don’t like Dickens???? *faints* Never mind, I’ll brainwash you eventually. My mission in life is to turn everyone into a Dickens fan… 😉 I like his attempts at historical novels, although I do think A Tale of Two Cities is quite a bit better than this one. Have you read it? I’m sure you’d enjoy it… 😉

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  2. I’ve still to read this one, as I opted for Chuzzelwit for my own winter Dickens. I think I would probably find Barnaby a tad troubling as a central character, as it sounds as if Dickens had not quite got the hang of writing convincingly about disability at this point in his career. I could also quite easily believe in its somewhat uneven quality, as I had a similar experience with Chuzzelwit and The Old Curiosity shop. Dolly on the other hand sounds fascinating, and a bit tougher than some of his more well known heroines, so for her alone, I reckon it would be worth reading.

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    • I found the whole American thing in Chuzzlewit similar to the sudden shift in this one – kinda threw me out of the story. But again I enjoyed both strands of Chuzzlewit separately even if they didn’t quite work together. I suspect the format of writing in instalments for readers to read over very lengthy periods might be the reason for these structural issues – now we read them so comparatively quickly, we notice these things more perhaps. Yes, I don’t think disability was his thing – he does tend to get overly sentimental and over-compensates by making the characters unnaturally good. I didn’t really find Barnaby particularly believable at any point in this, except perhaps the very early stages before he got swept up in the riots. But I did like Dolly…

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  3. Never read this one! I read A Tale of Two Cities and Martin Chuzzlewit though. Makes sense that you’d say that a weak Dickens novel is still better than many books out there.

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    • This one’s well worth reading but it’s not at the same standard as A Tale of Two Cities, though I might put it at the same level as Martin Chuzzlewit. Also in this one the moment of history he’s picked isn’t so well known now even in Britain much less elsewhere.

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    • Thank you! Truthfully so do I, much though I love him. I tend to only read twenty or thirty pages a day and then move on to something that requires a bit less concentration! It means it takes me ages to read the book since they’re always so long, but I enjoy it more than trying to binge read them…

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  4. I haven’t read this one, but I kind of like the idea of good illustrations, especially when we’re dealing with a long-ago time that many of us aren’t familiar with. Dickens probably wasn’t an outliner, either (and I find myself sympathetic to that, ha!)

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    • I love the illustrations – they do add so much. I wish it hadn’t gone out of fashion for books to be illustrated. These days you either get none or it goes full scale graphic novel! Ha! I don’t know how Dickens wrote but I do know he used to change the stories as he went along according to how readers reacted to the early instalments… it must have been so different writing for serialisation, I guess.

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  5. The photos (etchings) you use in your Dickens posts look like the ones found in my collected set of his works. I’ll have to pull Barnaby Rudge off the shelf and compare. I’ll admit I marked this one in my library app just because I think it would be easier to read that way. I still love real books, but sometimes digital (whether on my phone or my kindle) is just more convenient!

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    • I usually try to find the original illustrations on the grounds that they’ll be the ones Dickens himself approved, so I feel they probably match his own ideas of what the characters and buildings looked like. I went through a long phase of reading nearly everything on my Kindle, especially classics because they’re so easy to get hold of, but recently I’ve fallen back in love with reading paper books. I seem to take them in better somehow…

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  6. Another intelligent review, an object lesson in how to appraise a book without giving away potential spoilers, even-handed with praise and censure, and entertainingly described. I feel I’ve got a good sense of the novel and am even encouraged to tackle it some time!

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    • Thank you! 😀 It’s almost impossible to review Dickens’ novels because there’s just so much in them, so I don’t really try any more – I just pick up on a couple of the things that stood out for me. Despite it not being one of his best, it’s still well worth reading – hope you enjoy it if you get around to it!

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      • Some novels are just so rich in detail that I have to do supplementary posts to cover all the points that weren’t appropriate for a review (which in my view should only be an amuse-bouche rather than a deeper analysis). Still, I somehow got away with just reviews of A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations so we’ll see what reaction BR evince from me!

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    • I think I’ve read them all now but sometimes when I start what I think is a re-read I realise I must only have seen an adaptation before. This is well worth reading despite the structural unevenness.

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  7. This sounds really interesting as a kind of precursor to A Tale of Two Cities (my favourite Dickens). And I like the idea of a stronger female character from Dickens – that was something that rather bothered me in Bleak House.

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    • It was interesting to compare it with A Tale of Two Cities, especially since in both it’s the mob scenes that stand out most. But overall A Tale is a much more successful book, I think. Yes, Esther is one of his less successful heroines – I like her but she’s one of the too good to be true types. Dolly is much more realistic – good, but with a wicked twinkle in her eye… 😀

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  8. I haven’t read this one yet, but agree with you about Oxford World Classics, I think their notes and introductions are brilliant, and this is an occasion when I’ll need them. And very pleased they include the illustrations too!

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    • Having just said I’m addicted to the BL books, I now have to admit to being addicted to the OWC ones too. The intros are just right – not too long and academic but really setting the book in its historical context. And especially for books that concern real events and people the notes are invaluable. I was surprised that the illustrations were included – I wasn’t expecting them to be – so that was an added pleasure!

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  9. I agree with every word you’ve said here, FF. A book of two halves with parallels to Martin Chuzzlewit in many respects. I’m working through Dickens chronologically so came to Barnaby before Martin and of the two I prefer the former. Chuzzlewit was quite a slog at times! I have the vaguest recollection of reading somewhere that this book was originally to be called Dolly Varden – certainly it didn’t begin life as Barnaby Rudge. But where did I read that? Your guess is as good as mine! 🤦‍♀️

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    • Ah, I actually preferred Chuzzlewit of the two, although I don’t think either of them is Dickens at his very best. It was the American stuff in Chuzzlewit I liked but I think that was partly because I had just read Mark Twain being hideously rude about Europe in The Innocents Abroad, so thoroughly enjoyed watching Dickens give those Yankees a taste of their own medicine… 😉 Hmm, no Gabriel Varden doesn’t sound right – he was a good character but again not proper hero material!

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      • And it was the American stuff in Chuzzlewit which I found tiresome. Back with Barnaby though, I agree about the character of Dolly. But I also enjoyed Miggs! (Currently reading Dombey & Son and finding it surprisingly enjoyable. So far, each time I begin one of these earlier, less popular works, I have been very pleasantly surprised. Now I’m beginning to wonder how I’ll fare when I get to the ‘good’ books!)

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        • I liked Miggs too, and Simon – well, not liked, exactly…

          I must say I think every one of the novels is well worth reading. Even the ones I don’t like so much overall all have something to recommend them. Oliver Twist has Bill and Nancy, Great Expectations has Magwitch and so on. It’s ages since I read Dombey & Son – must be due a re-read soon…

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  10. I’m not a great fan of Dickens, so if a big fan such as yourself thinks this is a weaker offering I’ll probably give it a miss. Dolly does sound more fun than his usual heroines though. It sounds as if it could make a good adaptation if they trimmed it a bit – I’ve just googled and the last adaptation was 1960, surely its a contender for a BBC Christmas special?!

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    • It might be quite hard to adapt because of the total shift of tone and change of characters halfway through. It does all come together at the end but I think they’d have to change it out of all recognition to make it work, and then purists like me would be writing letters of complaint! 😉

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  11. Ah yet another Dickens novel I wish i had the time to read! I’ve only read a few of his works, which I was forced to in University but i haven’t been back since. Your reviews are at least keeping me up-to-date on everything I’m missing 🙂

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