Dickens, for all his long-windedness, has a way of leaving you at the end of each chapter with a desire to keep reading. I suppose this was a necessary skill he needed, since his stories were published chapter-by-chapter.
Barnaby Rudge was published during 1841, but he first began writing the novel in 1836, back when Oliver Twist was being published. Originally, the book was entitled Gabriel Varden—the Locksmith of London, though I’m unclear yet as to why he changed the title.
This was his first attempt at a historical novel—his only other historical novel is the book that made me start this whole project, A Tale of Two Cities. This one takes place mostly in London during the Gordon Riots of 1780 (which, I admit, I hadn’t heard of before starting the novel). Basically, this guy named Lord George Gordon, a Protestant, got upset that some laws were going to be passed that granted certain freedoms that had been denied to Catholics. Gordon spent a lot of time rallying other Protestants together, and they caused violent riots. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad if England wasn’t also preoccupied with this other set of rebellious people who’d gone and made their own country. Silly Americans, always causing so much trouble.
At the time of publication of his fifth novel, Dickens was 29. His second son and fourth child was born in February, the same month the serialization of Barnaby Rudge began. This is also the year that the family’s pet raven, Grip, died and Dickens had him stuffed. It’s no coincidence that Grip the raven is a prominent character in Barnaby Rudge.
But enough fun facts—on to the story!
A depiction of Barnaby and his raven, Grip.
Violence is never a good idea but makes for a good story.
I began this book like many of the others—not knowing much about it. The back description told me it was a murder mystery during the Gordon Riots of 1780 and followed the journeys of the title character, Barnaby Rudge. It sounded intriguing. And it has proven to be so far.
The beginning chapters seem to trade-off between characters, and it was difficult to figure out who were the main characters and who were just bystanders. Barnaby wasn’t even introduced until a good forty pages into the book, and I expected him to be the main character. I’m about half way through the book now, and it still jumps around between the characters. I’m of the opinion that there is no one main character, which is fine.
There are two love stories here, in the midst of the double murder mystery: The murder took place twenty years previous to the novel’s beginning. A rich man, Mr. Haredale, was found murdered in his home and a few days later the body of his steward was found in the river. They’ve never discovered who killed them or why. Mr. Haredale’s only child, Emma, now lives with her uncle. Unbeknownst to her uncle, she is in love with Edward Chester, the son of Haredale-the-uncle’s enemy (for some unknown reason). Mr. Chester finds out and plots to tear his son and Emma apart (he’s a pretty conniving dude). Attempting to help Edward and Emma are Joe and Dolly. Joe’s father owns an inn and disapproves of pretty much anything Joe does. Dolly’s father is a decent guy, but her mother is pretty ridiculous, and she herself is a bit materialistic and does not commit to Joe.
Just when everything falls apart for the lovers—Chester succeeded in tearing Edward and Emma apart, and Edward leaves his father, disowning his father as his father disowns him; Joe has finally had enough at home and runs away to join the military, saying goodbye to Dolly who doesn’t believe that he’s really leaving—the book jumps five years into the future, to 1780, and introduces new characters that give rise to the Gordon Riots.
Now, where is the title character in all this? you may ask. Barnaby is the son of the murdered steward, and he lives with his mother. He’s also mentally disabled and referred to often as “the idiot.” I find him a fascinating character—he’s optimistic and easily distracted, yet he seems to know and understand more of what’s going on around him than he lets on. I will perhaps discuss him more when I finish the novel; I feel that I can’t do him justice as of yet.
The last character I must mention is the mysterious stranger. He name is unknown, but he is shown as a dangerous and shady character. He stabs and robs Edward Chester, and he takes money from Mrs. Rudge. She appears to know him, but she tells no one of his actions or his existence, and instead abandons her home and her life in order to avoid him and avoid giving him money. She takes Barnaby and they live where no one can find them for the five years that the book does not detail. I have my suspicions about who this mysterious person is—I think it’s possible he could be one of two people—but I’ll have to keep reading to figure it out for sure.
As for dates with Charlie, I must admit we’ve had a downer of a week, but he’s been understanding and supportive. One of my coworkers—the same one who gave me the stunning biography of Charles Dickens—passed away suddenly about a week and a half ago. I’d like to think that her memory will live on in my blog posts, due to this gift of the biography. I talked about death in my last post, however, so I don’t want to dwell too much on it. I will say that it caused me to write a poem, which I only do when I’m feeling a strong emotion. Charlie, though he writes poetically, doesn’t quite understand poems. Nevertheless, he is no stranger to tragedy, and he’s been encouraging to have near.
As always, I’d like to leave you with a quotation. However, this time, I’m not sure if I agree with what Dickens is saying, and I’d like some feedback from you.
This lord was sincere in his violence and in his wavering. A nature prone to false enthusiasm, and the vanity of being a leader, were the worst qualities apparent in his composition. All the rest was weakness—sheer weakness; and it is the unhappy lot of thoroughly weak men, that their very sympathies, affections, and confidences—all the qualities which in better constituted minds are virtues—dwindle into foibles, or turn into downright vices. (Chapter 36)
What do you think? Can weakness in a person turn virtues into vices? I’d like to hear your opinions, and then I’ll discuss it more in my next post.
For those curious about the title of this post: Barnaby means the son of comfort and Rudge is a variant of ridge, or a long, narrow mountain range.