Getting Out of Hand: Barnaby Rudge – Charles Dickens

Barnaby RudgeBarnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

A novel about murder and injustice, intolerance and mayhem, Barnaby Rudge is a solid Dickens novel and maybe one of his most underrated books to boot.

Set in London of the late 18th century, Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge follows a group of characters on both sides of society and law: a cold-hearted aristocrat, a domineering father, a pompous apprentice and a mentally handicapped young man. Oh, there’s also a chirping raven named Grip, but more on him later.

The novel roughly follows the events around the Gordon riots of 1780, which in a nutshell had groups of anti-Papists roaming around London, causing mayhem and breaking into jails to set prisoners free. Largely fuelled by Lord Gordon’s inflammatory rhetoric against a bill proposing relief to Roman Catholics, these riots exposed the deep divide between the two religions in England, a divide going back to Mary Queen of Scots’ claim to the throne a century beforehand. For a few days, crowds overran the city; eventually, the military was called in, killed scores of rioters and eventually hung a number of people.

Dickens novel takes these riots and injects a classic angle: a young man falls for a young lady from a family at odds with his own. A triangle develops when a rough, crude and assholish stableman falls for her as well. And through a web of connecting characters, ranging from several elected officials, an innkeeper, a locksmith and even a hangman, Dickens has this couple (and their at-odds fathers) basically cause a disastrous riot.

And that’s not even getting into the titular character! Barnaby is a simple-minded person (he comes across as someone on the spectrum) who cares little for the long-term and is all about here and now, not to mention his mother. He helps out when he feels like it, but at other times likes to roam around the countryside with his pet raven, Grip. Later, he gets sucked into the anti-Papist movement, motivated by a desire to help his mother out financially. But for the first half of the book, he’s almost the glue between the wide group of characters; he’s someone everyone knows and looks out for.

Episodic in nature, this book defies an easy summarization: it’s not just a love story, and it’s not just about the riots either. It has a larger cast than some of Dickens other novels (see: Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers) and their subplots often feel as important as the main story of the riots.

Indeed, his cast of characters is as memorable as any of his books. There’s innkeeper John Willet’s domineering, almost brutal relationship with his son Joe, who he treats like a bad dog. There’s locksmith Gabriel Varden and his sanctimonious, passive-aggressive wife and her maid. There’s his apprentice Simon Tappertit, who feels he’s destined for great things and puts on airs.

But the one I enjoyed most is Dennis, the hangman. He’s vulgar in a charming, ruffian kind of way. He wears clothing of people he hanged and carries a stick fashioned by a prisoner in their final days. He thinks his job is as important as any in England and enjoys it so much he tries to work in a hanging at any possible opportunity. In one memorable scene, he finds himself fixated on someone’s neck in the way one might expect a plastic surgeon to stare at a nose they’d like to operate on. He plays an interesting role in the novel, at once the reactionary who spreads chaos and comic relief from the tense, fast-paced riot sequences.

And those sequences, which form the bulk of the novel’s back end, are where the book really takes flight. His scenes where the mob storms and razes a house or where they storm the Newgate prison are as good as anything of his I’ve read. They’re almost cinematic, cutting back and forth between scenes in vivid detail and constantly raising the tension as rioters storm the jail, take Varden hostage and set fire to the city.

However, elsewhere the book is occasionally slow. It’s not as concise as Oliver Twist and, like Pickwick Papers, it’s episodic nature gives it a sprawling, almost rambling feel, especially in the final chapters. And with all the characters, there was bound to be a dud or two; Emma Haredale, for example, comes across as little more than a description, not a fleshed-out character like the rest. Hell, Grip seems like more of a person and he’s a raven! Granted, he sings and dances, too.

Still, I couldn’t help but think how we live in a time where the occasional elected official will go on rants about a religious group plotting to overthrow the government and protests in the street turn into incited violence. And in one sense, Barnaby Rudge feels as relevant as anything Dickens wrote: the riots, the intolerance, the easily led people looking for an excuse to wreck havoc. We’d be well to remember our own Lord Gordons are mad, too.

Rating: 6/10. Barnaby Rudge is an enjoyable read, if a little long in the tooth, and easily one of Dickens’ more overlooked novels – although I’d also argue it’s one of his lesser books, too.




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