Wherein we are introduced to the fifth of Dickens’ serial novels, Barnaby Rudge (the sEventh read of our Dickens Chronological Reading Club 2022-24); with a glance at the context of Dickens’ life at the time–with other considerations. Finally, we have an overview of the whole of the reading schedule from September 6 through October 3; with a look ahead to the coming week.
Friends, follow my train of thought for a moment. Imagine the Dickens canon as a sprawling city, a metropolis like Paris or London. In the center of town you have the classic texts, the ones you may have had to read in school—Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol. The books that are endlessly adapted, that number among the bestselling novels of all time (by some measures A Tale of Two Cities is the bestselling novel). These are the literary equivalent of Piccadilly Circus or Times Square—reading them, you feel as though you’ve reached the beating heart of literature, the center of the world.
Then, traveling a bit further outward, you pass through some of the still-beloved but slightly lesser-known works—your Bleak Houses, your David Copperfields, your Pickwick Papers—the Westminsters and Houses of Parliament of Dickens Town. Widely read, oft-adapted, overflowing with characters and moments that have become part of the treasured lexicon of the English-speaking world. Open a chapter at random and you’ll stumble on someone like Jingle or Micawber or Fagin who seem to have existed from before time, like the stones of old London.
Then at last, if you keep traveling long enough, you come to the outer boroughs—to Richmond or Greenwich or Cheapside. If you glance through the window on your way past you’ll glimpse some of the dustiest and most derelict corners of Dickens—forgotten short stories, whimsical experiments, a seemingly endless train of correspondence. A world of ephemera, but no less delightful for being obscure. There’s as much joy in some of these forgotten streets and by-ways as there is in Central Dickens. I enjoy wandering the Battersea and the Barbican more than all the shops of Piccadilly.
Barnaby Rudge belongs in this outermost circle—not because it’s any less worthy of being in the Dickens canon, but because it suffers from being Dickens’s “forgotten novel.” (I had a professor in college who said she had read every novel but this one, because “I don’t want to be someone who can say they’ve read every novel by Dickens”). But in the coming weeks we are going to have an adventure wandering these outer boroughs. And I think we’ll find that even here Dickens is no less strange and enchanting. The old stones of his imagination still have magic in them.
- General Mems
- The Origins of Barnaby Rudge
- Thematic Considerations
- Additional Resources
- Reading Schedule
- Works Cited
If you’re counting, today is day 246 (and week 36) in our #DickensClub! It will be Week One of Barnaby Rudge, our seventh read of the group. Please feel free to comment below this post for the first week’s chapters, or use the hashtag #DickensClub if you’re commenting on twitter.
No matter where you’re at in the reading process, a huge “thank you” for reading along with us. Heartfelt thanks to our dear Dickens Fellowship and The Dickens Society for retweets, and to all those liking, sharing, and encouraging our Club, including Dr. Christian Lehmann and Dr. Pete Orford. Huge “thank you” also to The Circumlocution Office (on twitter also!) for providing such a marvelous online resource for us.
And for any more recent members or for those who might be interested in joining: the revised two-and-a-half year reading schedule can be found here. If you’ve been reading along with us but aren’t yet on the Member List, we would love to add you! Please feel free to message Rach here on the site, or on twitter.
The Origins of Barnaby Rudge
“It would be unwise to think of Dickens’s radicalism as in any sense egalitarian. He feared lawlessness but understood the motives of those who rose up against authority, and this Janus-like attitude towards society enters Barnaby Rudge in a direct way, just as his own troubled relationship with his father lends further depth to his presentation of a world in which most forms of lawful authority are corrupt or corrupting. In which the great secret desire is the breaking of all locks, all chains—all forms of social or domestic servitude.”— Peter Ackroyd
We’ve spoken before about how the public reaction to the New Poor Laws fueled the scathing indictment of systemic poverty that undergirds Oliver Twist and portions of Nicholas Nickleby. In the late 1830s, the miseries inflicted on the working class produced a new, quasi-revolutionary movement known as the Chartist movement, which demanded universal (usually male) suffrage, the secret ballot, and various parliamentary reforms. Dickens largely supported the aims of the protestors but felt the usual English aversion to their methods, which included mass riots. As Ackroyd says, “Although Dickens understood the grievances of those at the rough end of this new industrial age, he never sympathised with those who tried to create a revolutionary movement in England.” (This dualism in Dickens—his sympathy for the justly aggrieved poor but loathing of the bloody mob—would later reach its apex in his other historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities.) There’s a lively debate among Dickens scholars over the extent to which Barnaby Rudge was written in response to the riots.
The Gordon Riots
Dickens saw in the Gordon Riots of 1780 a fitting historical analogy for the political unrest that had governed the 1830s and was threatening to spill over into the next decade. As he would later do in A Tale of Two Cities, he used a tale of riot and revolution set some decades in the past to warn of the potential for Britain to collapse into anarchy and mob rule, a fear that was widely shared by the upper and middle classes at the time.
Mark Willis provides a succinct overview of the historical backdrop against which the events of Barnaby Rudge take place:
“At the time of the Gordon Riots, ‘no Catholic could be attorney, or Justice, or postmaster, nor sit in Parliament, nor vote at elections.’ The Catholic Relief Bill, sympathetic to the Catholic cause, was presented to Parliament in 1780, for ‘the relief of the Catholics in England from their present grievances and shameful disabilities.’ The Protestant Association, headed by Lord Gordon, opposed The Bill. The Association produced a petition against the passing of The Bill, and, under Lord Gordon’s leadership, proceeded first to gather and then to riot in the streets of London. The ensuing mob torn down known Catholic establishments including churches, schools and private houses at Moorfields and Hoxton, before moving on to destroy both Newgate and Fleet prisons, and threatening to assault the Bank of England. The riot lasted in earnest from June 2nd until June 8th, and left 210 shot dead by the army, with a further 75 to die later of their injuries.“
The Gordon Riots haunted the memory of the first half of the nineteenth century in Britain, and came to be seen as a precursor to the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. They severely weakened the faith of other countries in the British parliamentary form of government, which developed a reputation for instability. It can be hard to remember now because the British government proved remarkably durable during the various upheavals of the 1840s and ‘50s, when revolution was sweeping the European continent, but at the time many observers within and outside of Britain expected a similar revolution in Britain—the overthrow of the monarchy and perhaps even the overthrow of Parliament.
Ghosts and the Supernatural
Barnaby Rudge has one of the more Gothic openings in the Dickens canon, rivaling only The Mystery of Edwin Drood. (Fans of Harry Potter may experience a feeling of déjà vu when reading about the mysterious double murder in an old house, spoken of in whispers at a local pub.) John Mullan, in his seminal book The Art of Dickens, notes the prevalence of ghosts as a motif in this novel: early on, John Willet reports that he just encountered the ghost of a man long believed to be dead, and says, “I have heard it said that as we keep our birthdays when we are alive, so the ghosts of dead people, who are not easy in their graves, keep the day they died upon.” (More déjà vu for Harry Potter fans!)
Fathers & Sons
Several of Dickens’s pre-Dombey novels have been criticized for being insufficiently cohesive. Oliver Twist sometimes feels like two separate novels only loosely connected, as does The Old Curiosity Shop. This defect in Dickens was never clearer than in Barnaby, which fluctuates unevenly between domestic novel and Gothic melodrama. Thematically Dickens employs a series of fundamentally broken father-son (and master-apprentice) relationships to give the story a semblance of unity. As Paul Benjamin Davis has noted, both Hugh and Barnaby are abandoned by their fathers at a young age; perhaps not coincidentally, both men later find themselves at the head of the mob. Dickens is keen to suggest that familial dysfunction can have lasting consequences for the broader social order. Likewise, Edward’s father refuses to let him marry the woman he loves, while John Willet insists on treating Joe as a child well into adulthood. It’s a series of parallels familiar to any great lovers of Shakespeare, whose Hamlet and King Lear are both threaded with sons whose anguished paternal relations make them nearly mirror images of each other.
There are fewer screen adaptations of Barnaby Rudge than of almost any other Dickens novel; the most recent is a BBC TV miniseries from 1960 which is available to buy on DVD, though hard to find. Over at Books N’ Things, fellow Dickensian Katie Lumsden attempts to rehabilitate Barnaby from critical disapproval by noting the elements that might appeal to more modern sensibilities—its action, its violence, its sprawling cast of unusual characters (she singles out the grotesque and hilarious female characters, especially). Katie further notes that certain elements of the book—Dickens’s repeated use of the word “idiot” to describe Barnaby, a technical term at the time—haven’t aged well, although the decision to make him one of the book’s central and most sympathetic characters is an interesting one.
|Week One: 6-12 Sept, 2022||1-19||Since these were published in weekly rather than monthly installments, we’ve divided the book up into (approximate) quarters, rather than by installment sections.|
|Week Two: 13-19 Sept, 2022||20-39|
|Week Three: 20-26 Sept, 2022||40-59|
|Week Four: 27 Sept – 3 Oct, 2022||60-“Chapter the Last” (the 82nd Chapter)|
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.
Browne, Harry. Access to History in Depth: Chartism. Hodder & Stoughton, 1999.
Davis, Paul Benjamin. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. Checkmark Books, 1999.
Mullan, John. The Artful Dickens: The Tricks and Ploys of the Great Novelist. London: Bloomsbury, 2020.
Slater, Michael. Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
Stone, Harry. Dickens and the Invisible World: Fairy Tales, Fantasy, and Novel-Making. Indiana University Press, 1979.
Stone, Harry. The Night Side of Dickens: Cannibalism, Passion, Necessity. Ohio State University Press, 1994.