Or, A Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty
Charles Dickens (Oxford, 1991) 
Having been forewarned that Barnaby Rudge was one of Dickens’ lesser works, I approached it with relatively low expectations. Perhaps partly for that reason, I found it pleasantly surprising and quite enjoyable. It is a “serious” novel, dealing with weighty and often dark themes; it contains an unusually large amount of unusually frank violence; the arc of the story culminates at a gibbet. And yet at the heart of the novel there is romance and a good deal of Dickensian humour, and it seems to me that those lighter, warmer elements carry the day.
It is an historical novel, which is a rarity for Dickens. In the background of the story — and in the foreground, too, to a considerable extent — are the Gordon Riots of 1780, in which, in response to a Parliamentary act repealing certain of the penalties that had been imposed on Catholics a century earlier, a Protestant mob under the leadership of Lord George Gordon wreaked havoc in the streets of London for the better part of a week, tearing down Catholic chapels, firing homes and public buildings, and battering down prisons. I have a special interest in the plight of Catholics in post-Henrician England, but I confess that I knew nothing about the Gordon Riots — not even that they had happened; for me, learning about this episode in English history was reason enough to read the book. Dickens was, of course, himself a Protestant, but he has no sympathy for the rioters. He paints them as opportunists and criminals who, for the most part, care neither for Protestantism or Catholicism, but who relish a good street fight and an easy robbery.
The riots are the focus of the novel’s middle and final acts; it opens with a more conventional Dickensian scheme of young romances fighting against the obstacles bestrewing the course of true love. Here again, as he did so splendidly in Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens gives us rousing portraits, in the persons of Joe Willet and Edward Chester, of virtuous and honourable young men, and, in Dolly Varden (“sweet, blooming, buxom”) and Emma Haredale, suitably attractive, demure, and faithful young women. The romance between Dolly and Joe is especially winsomely drawn; both are shy and inexperienced, and their love is conveyed obliquely, through dropped utensils, tangled shoe strings, and sideways glances. It’s lovely:
And did Dolly never once look behind—not once? Was there not one little fleeting glimpse of the dark eyelash, almost resting on her flushed cheek, and of the downcast sparkling eye it shaded? Joe thought there was—and he is not likely to have been mistaken; for there were not many eyes like Dolly’s, that’s the truth.
The fact that the Gordon Riots interrupt these sweet adventures in mid-stream does, admittedly, give the novel an awkward shape, even if the threads are eventually drawn together again and tied into pretty bows. Personally I did not mind, as I found the historical material engrossing, but the apparent disjointedness might account for the novel’s relative lack of popularity.
Another possible reason for Barnaby Rudge‘s neglect may have to do with Barnaby Rudge himself. He is, or is at least supposed to be, a sympathetic character: a young man who is, as we say, ‘touched’. His joys are simple; guile is far from him — so far, in fact, that he cannot recognize it in others. But there are a few problems. His character is not developed very thoroughly; he is, as Chesterton says in his typically enlightening introductory notes to the novel, an exercise in the picturesque: an eccentric young man, bedecked in bright colours and feathers, with a big black crow on his shoulder. He is almost more effective (and affective) as a still life. His tender-hearted mother fares better, but even with her example I found it difficult to really care for him.
A second problem with Barnaby is that, in his simplicity, he is caught up with the rioters and commits acts that strain our sympathy up to, and possibly past, the breaking point. I understand that we are to understand that he does not understand what he is doing, or at least does not understand the moral merits of the two sides of the conflict in which he is involved, and that this understanding is to soften our disapprobation and excite our pity. But, for me at least, the monumental obtuseness which I was thereby forced to attribute to him was asking too much.
This is not to deny that there are real and considerable pleasures to be found in these pages: valour, courage, virtue rewarded, wickedness punished, and sparkling, dark eyes. It is a fine book.
(Incidentally, March 19 is a date that pops up several times in the course of the novel; that I post this Book Note today is a nice coincidence — or is it?)