Barnaby Rudge was published in 1841 and was Charles Dickens’ first historical novel.
It is his least read book, which surprised me as the story is very interesting. It is based on a real historical event and includes a murder mystery, a talking raven, two romantic dramas, as well as being a social commentary on mob rule – all of this is interspersed with characteristic episodes of Dickens-type humour.
The book’s subtitle, ‘A Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty,’ refers to the Anti-Catholic (‘No Popery’) Riots of 1780 led by Lord George Gordon. The riots began peaceably enough when about 50,000 protesters marched to petition Parliament to revoke The Catholic Relief Act.
This Act, which was passed in 1778, lifted restrictions on the civil rights of Roman Catholics.
Dickens vividly describes the degeneration of the march as troublemakers and anyone with an axe to grind about anything joined in, resulting in a week of rioting and basic anarchy which some historians consider to be the closest Britain has ever come to a fully-fledged revolution.
During the riot hundreds of people died; public buildings, including Newgate Prison, were burnt down; the Bank of England was attacked, chapels were destroyed and private homes belonging to Catholics were looted and burned.
It was not until King George III sent out around 15,000 troops, who shot dead nearly 300 of the rioters, that order was restored.
‘One other circumstance is worthy of remark; and that is, that from the moment of their first outbreak at Westminster, every symptom of order or preconcerted arrangement among them vanished. When they divided into parties and ran to different quarters of the town, it was on the spontaneous suggestion of the moment. Each party swelled as it went along, like rivers as they roll towards the sea; new leaders sprang up as they were wanted, disappeared when the necessity was over, and reappeared at the next crisis. Each tumult took shape and form from the circumstances of the moment; sober workmen, going home from their day’s labour, were seen to cast down their baskets of tools and become rioters in an instant; mere boys on errands did the like. In a word, a moral plague ran through the city. The noise, and hurry, and excitement, had for hundreds and hundreds an attraction they had no firmness to resist. The contagion spread like a dread fever: an infectious madness, as yet not near its height, seized on new victims every hour, and society began to tremble at their ravings.’
Barnaby Rudge is worth reading just for his depiction of the madness of crowds and the descent into mob rule, but there is also a memorable cast of characters.
Barnaby Rudge is the central character in many ways as the various other characters come into contact with him in during the story. However, other characters have predominance in parts of the story and we lose sight of him from time to time. He is a simple fellow who unwittingly falls in with the rioters:
‘He was about three-and-twenty years old, and though rather spare, of a fair height and strong make. His hair, of which he had a great profusion, was red, and hanging in disorder about his face and shoulders, gave to his restless looks an expression quite unearthly—enhanced by the paleness of his complexion, and the glassy lustre of his large protruding eyes. Startling as his aspect was, the features were good, and there was something even plaintive in his wan and haggard aspect. But, the absence of the soul is far more terrible in a living man than in a dead one; and in this unfortunate being its noblest powers were wanting.’
The landlord of the Maypole Inn, John Willet:
A burly, large-headed man with a fat face, which betokened profound obstinacy and slowness of apprehension…
The landlord’s son Joe, a broad-shouldered strapping young fellow of twenty, whom it pleased his father still to consider a little boy, and to treat according.
Joe was in love with Dolly Varden but left his father’s house and joined the army. Dolly was quite the coquette and although she loved Joe she was too silly to display her feelings and Joe went away thinking he didn’t stand a chance and that he would never see her again.
Mr Gabriel Varden, the locksmith, a genial, honest man with a beautiful daughter and a capricious wife, plays a prominent role in the story.
Mrs Varden was a lady of what is commonly called an uncertain temper—a phrase which being interpreted signifies a temper tolerably certain to make everybody more or less uncomfortable.
Sir John Chester was a devilish character who separated his son, Edward, from the woman he loved in order that he would marry into wealth and so provide for his father’s lavish lifestyle.
Sir John was, ‘of the world most worldly, who never compromised himself by an ungentlemanly action and was never guilty of a manly one.’
He had ‘the head and heart of an evil spirit in all matters of deception.’
Stagg, a blind man who blackmails Barnaby’s mother, a woman who holds a terrible secret.
‘The change in his manner was so unexpected, the craft and wickedness of his deportment were so much aggravated by his condition—for we are accustomed to see in those who have lost a human sense, something in its place almost divine—and this alteration bred so many fears in her whom he addressed, that she could not pronounce one word…
Have I no feeling for you, because I am blind? No, I have not. Why do you expect me, being in darkness, to be better than men who have their sight—why should you? Is the hand of Heaven more manifest in my having no eyes, than in your having two? It’s the cant of you folks to be horrified if a blind man robs, or lies, or steals; oh yes, it’s far worse in him, who can barely live on the few halfpence that are thrown to him in streets, than in you, who can see, and work, and are not dependent on the mercies of the world. A curse on you! You who have five senses may be wicked at your pleasure; we who have four, and want the most important, are to live and be moral on our affliction.’
Dickens’ fictional account of the Gordon Riots is well told and riveting, although the story is a little disjointed at times. It is a neglected classic that deserves to be more widely read. Yes, Dickens wrote other novels where the characters were more fully explored but Barnaby Rudge revolves around an historic event that absolutely appalled and shocked him. His only other historical novel was A Tale of Two Cities, which was set during the French Revolution and published eighteen years after Barnaby Rudge. The London riot of 1780 could have degenerated into something like what occurred in France in 1789 – 1799, an appalling thought for anyone.
Barnaby Rudge is free to read on Gutenberg.