It has been a while since I delved into Dickens. Barnaby Rudge was the most recent volume I found at my used bookstore, and this summer seemed like a good time—plus, I wanted to slow down my reading for a week, and this certainly did the trick. What I wasn’t expecting was such an interesting example of Dickens experimenting with his style and indeed the form of the novel itself. Barnaby Rudge is a delightful example of nineteenth-century historical fiction.
The eponymous character does not actually loom large in the story. According to the introduction of my edition, Dickens originally intended to name the book after Gabriel Varden, the locksmith. The first part of the novel takes place several years prior to the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots before jumping forward in time to tell the story of the riots through the lens of the characters Dickens has established. In addition to Varden and Barnaby, you have Varden’s wife and daughter; John Willet, an innkeeper, and his son, Joe; Barnaby’s mother; Lord Gordon himself; Simon Tappertit, Varden’s apprentice; and Hugh, a ne’er-do-well who throws his lot in with Gordon’s crew because, hey, why not?
This novel sees Dickens merge his slice-of-life social commentary with an attempt at retelling historical events and reinterpreting them for his contemporary audience. The “riots of eighty,” as he calls them, were sixty years past when he is writing. It’s so fascinating to read historical fiction written at quite a remove in history from the present day; Dickens himself needed to do research and read both contemporary and historical accounts of the riots to better understand them. As a result, I suspect Barnaby Rudge might be one of the more difficult Dickens novels for a modern reader to follow, simply because of how much it immerses itself in a time even more removed from the modern reader.
The actual story is fine but never quite approaches the depth of tragedy or comedy that Dickens is best known for in his other works. Barnaby himself is a sympathetic figure. He has a developmental disability, and Dickens portrays Barnaby as existing in a state of atemporal, child-like wonder and contentment—even when he is about to be hanged for allowing himself to be swept up in the rioting. But some of the other characters, like Joe Willet or even Simon Tappertit, are just a bit too much of a caricature for my tastes.
The novel is at its best when it is slowly building the scene towards a short-term confrontation. As the story wears on and the riots reach their peak, there’s actually a good deal of tension—this is especially evident in the imprisonment of Dolly Varden and Emma Haredale. Alas, the Dickensian resolution is rushed, with a trite marriage and a lot of reveals that are not as shocking as perhaps they should be.
These issues aside, however, Dickens’s trademark enthusiasm for storytelling is on full display here. It’s hard to deny, or indeed fail to delight in, the cast of characters he has created. The dynamic between the Willet father and son, mirrored by that of the Chester father and son, is interesting, as is the nascent but largely unexplored friendship between Dolly and Emma (oh would a woman had written this book and chosen instead to focus on these two, what a story that might have been). There is much about this novel that can be fulfilling, yet you have to deliberately look for it.
Additionally, as I mentioned at the start of my review, I really enjoy the historical nature of the story. It’s neat to see Dickens interpret the riots from his position and draw connections to what’s happening in the 1830s, especially around labour movements. Dickens clearly wants to tell a story about the dangers of dispossession and discontent, but because he has chosen to bind himself to a historical framework, he ends up projecting his ideas onto a series of actual events in a way that doesn’t quite work—but it is fascinating to see how things don’t quite line up. Tappertit, for example, could be such a sympathetic character given how he feels hard done by his employer. Yet he very quickly subsumes his pro-labour beliefs into the larger, more nebulous anti-Catholic sentiments as stoked by Gordon and Gashford.
Overall, Barnaby Rudge is not the first work one thinks of when Dickens comes to mind, and I can see why. At the same time, I think this might be one of his more enjoyable works (at least of those that I have read so far), certainly one with a very congenial ending for most of the sympathetic characters.