A review of Barnaby Rudge
By Charles Dickens
(Page references are to the Penguin paperback edition, 2003)
Dickens at his worst is always worth reading. At best, his work carries a life-changing excellence. Barnaby Rudge, though one of Charles Dickens' least popular novels, absolutely did not disappoint.
On the surface, it's about the Protestant vs Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780. It's a subject that has sunk deservedly into historical obscurity: five days or so of anti-Catholic sentiment and mob violence, culminating in the sacking and burning of a few prisons, some Catholic churches and chapels, and the houses of some Catholic-sympathising notables.
As in most Dickens novels, though, the real subject is people. The most amazing and wonderful people live between the covers of Barnaby Rudge - drawn with a sympathetic hand and coloured in with marvellous richness.
I wasn't taken along with the story as much as I was with "A Tale of Two Cities", though Barnaby Rudge was very compelling while I was reading it. I found, though, that if I put it down, and then picked it back up after a space of two or three days, I couldn't always sort out all the threads of plot easily, and needed a reprise of the previous chapter or two. This was the only criticism I have of the book - that it was just strung-out enough to put distance between Itself and Me. Dickens habit of leaping over years' worth of plot in a few sentences exacerbated this feeling.
The first two-thirds of the book are dedicated to the history of the major characters, of which there are many. (This is the original "ensemble cast" production - there really is no Main Character, as such.) The final third of the book moves incredibly quickly. I didn't want to put it down. Once the riots begin, and our hero (antihero?) Barnaby is swept up into them, the action moves with amazing rapidity and force. This is where the book really evokes the mood of the "Tale", which Dickens wrote 19 years after Barnaby Rudge. The mob scenes are really, honestly frightening. The violence is chilling and poetic. The most important part, though, is that all Dickens' plot-meanderings and time spent fleshing out characters really pays off - everyone's fate gathers around them in the last third of the book, and all the loose ends are tied up (more or less).
But what you probably came here to read about was Dickens treatment of Barnaby Rudge, the 'idiot'. And with that, it really gets interesting.
Dickens' approach to Barnaby's character is complex. In the first half to two-thirds of the book, Barnaby appears as the classic Eternal Child picture - the "boy who never grows up". He is labelled both "an idiot" and "natural" in the narrative...his connection with nature is intense. (In fact I've seen him described by critics, amusingly, as a 'proto-hippie'.) Here are some of the lines Dickens uses with respect to Barnaby.
“Startling as his aspect was, the features were good, and there was something even plaintive in his wan and haggard aspect. But the absence of the soul is far more terrible in a living man than in a dead one; and in this unfortunate being its noblest powers were wanting.” (35)
The absence of the soul....ouch.
Or how about this one:
"It is something to know that Heaven has left the capacity of gladness in such a creature's breast...the Great Creator of mankind imparts it even to his despised and slighted work." (208)
You could read this sentence in more than one way, but I believe Dickens means "despised and slighted by man", not "despised and slighted by the Creator"...in any case it still sticks in my 21st century gullet.
Here Dickens narrates Barnaby's thoughts on the appearance of the father he had believed dead:
"...where had he been so long, and why had he left his mother by herself, or worse than by herself, with her poor foolish boy?" (520)
"Worse than by herself"?...hm.
But although he did write those lines, I'll tell you something. Now that I’ve read the entire book from top to tail, twice, along with the preface and the introduction and the map at the end, here’s what I know - Charles Dickens loves Barnaby Rudge. He has made Barnaby’s character beautiful and noble, independent and decisive. Barnaby has discernment and decision, and takes his own fate in his hands. (476-478)
The book suggests several times that Barnaby has been tricked by the rioters - that he does not know what he is doing. The defense that eventually brings him a pardon and a reprieve from the gallows is the very fact of his 'darkened intellect', as his mother puts it. However, it also says that Barnaby, once entrusted with his role as sentry (for the wrong side - the 'bad guys'), is proud and happy. He discharges his duty with honour and care, and his conscientiousness, in one scene, actually strikes the villains Hugh and Dennis with shame in their own behaviour. (432) Does Barnaby understand the politics at the heart of the issue? Dickens says, no. ("He had no consciousness, God help him, of having done wrong." 573) I'd argue, though, that most of the rioters did not understand the politics, nor cared to.
Reading the kind of language I've used in reference to an intellectually disabled man (proud, happy, conscientious), it might seem that Barnaby has been written as one of those symbols of disability, which so annoy people with disabilities in OUR time. You know what I mean - one of those Tiny Tim figures, angelic and innocent, meant to move the rest of us to some kind of self-admonishing pity. But Barnaby is too complex a character to be assigned the literary status of "poor happy cripple". He's got a lot more going on than Tiny Tim (who was simply a plot device – not a real human).
For one thing, he’s got the physical courage necessary to stand his ground and defend the post entrusted to him…if necessary, by bashing people's brains out. ("...[he] settle[d] hurriedly within himself at which of them he would strike first... He caught the eye of the one in the centre, and resolved to hew that fellow down, though he died for it." (478) For another, he's got a lot of moxie. "'You talk boldly to a caged man,' said Barnaby, in anger. 'If I was on the other side of the door, and none to part us, you'd change your note...'" (484...go Barnaby! Kick some ass!) And then there are the numerous instances where he is shrewd (151), noble (643) or beautifully creative (94). He has a deeply poetic soul.
No, relegating Barnaby to the rank of symbol is a mistake.
Of the many things I could say about this book, and its treatment of disability, there are two I'd particularly like to note. The first is with regard to the subject of institutionalisation, and deinstitutionalisation. Consider this paragraph, which has some extremely interesting reverberations in our modern age.
"A rumour had now got into circulation, too, which diffused a greater dread all through London, even than these publicly-announced intentions of the rioters...It was said that they meant to throw the gates of Bedlam open, and let all the madmen loose. This suggested such dreadful images to the people's minds, and was indeed an act so fraught with new and unimaginable horrors in the contemplation, that it beset them more than any loss or cruelty of which they could foresee the worst, and drove many sane men nearly mad themselves." (557)
Now, get this: previously, the rioters had burned TWO PRISONS and released over three hundred criminals from Newgate alone. But releasing "madmen" - now you're really crossing the line!
There are a lot of great paragraphs dealing with deinstitutionalisation. There are wonderful parallels to be drawn between the release of the prisoners from Newgate, and the phenomenon of deinstitutionalisation in more recent times. (And The Secret Scripture, if you remember, on this subject was chock-full of food for interesting discussion.) Consider this:
"There were some broken men among these debtors who had been in jail so long, and were so miserable and destitute of friends, so dead to the world, and utterly forgotten and uncared for, that they implored their jailors not to set them free, and to send them, if need were, to some other place of custody. But they, refusing to comply...turned them into the streets, where they wandered up and down hardly remembering the ways untrodden by their feet so long, and crying - such abject things those rotten-hearted jails had made them - as they slunk off in their rags, and dragged their slip-shod feet along the pavement." (556)
Or how about this?
"Anon some famished wretch whose theft had been a loaf of bread, or scrap of butcher's meat, came skulking past, barefooted, - going slowly away because that jail, his house, was burning; not because he had any other, or had friends to meet, or old haunts to revisit, or any liberty to gain, but liberty to starve and die." (539)
Dickens, a product of his age and a protester against imprisonment, had a lot of insight into the horror of humans in captivity. (His own father was imprisoned for debt, and he himself endured some cruel, miserable years, from the age of 12, in a boot-blacking factory to help feed his family.) I wonder if he viewed the "Bedlamites" with the same sympathy as he shows the men newly released from The Clink, or from Newgate? Reading between the lines of Barnaby Rudge, that seems less certain.
And, lastly, I was struck a few days ago by an amazing duality that I hadn't even noticed before. And that's saying something, because to me, duality is absolutely the most notable theme of this book. It recurs throughout, in all levels of the story and in all circumstances. There are mirror image places (think of all the inns), mirror image people (John Willet and Gabriel Varden, Emma Haredale and Dolly Varden) and mirror image events (the appearances of the "ghost"). But the most significant one had completely escaped me, through two readings, until I was driving along the other day, thinking distractedly about Barnaby Rudge.
For our purposes today, Barnaby Rudge and Joe Willet are the most important pairing in the book. Joe Willet, the innkeeper's son, could run the Maypole singlehandedly, but his irascible, stubborn father won't even admit he's a man full-grown. ("...the landlord's son Joe, a broad-shouldered strapping young fellow of twenty, whom it pleased his father still to consider a little boy, and to treat accordingly." ) Joe, finally fed up with his father's refusal to admit that he is capable of management and independent thought, leaves home to join the army, who at the time were fighting in America. John Willet makes up notices depicting a little boy running, with a stick-tied handkerchief over his shoulder, and posts them throughout the countryside.
Barnaby, on the other hand, is physically full-grown but intellectually immature. His mother says of him that he is "...th[e] one remnant of the promise of a happy life, out of whose affliction, even, perhaps the comfort springs that he is ever a relying, loving child to me - never growing old or cold at heart, but needing my care and duty in his manly strength as in his cradle-time..." (154) He, too, leaves his parent to join an army, of sorts, and in the course of time bears the consequences both good and ill.
Joe Willet, missing for years with no word sent, materialises during the Riots - with a disability of his own, and thus an even stronger literary parallel to Barnaby. He has lost an arm "at the defense of the Savannah". Of his new disability, Dickens says some interesting things. He says that Mr. Willet "...was rather timorous of venturing on Joe; having certain vague misgivings...[that Joe would] immediately withdraw to China or some other remote and unknown region, there to dwell forevermore; or at least until he had got rid of his remaining arm and both legs, and perhaps an eye or so, into the bargain." (600) What a great paragraph! It lets Dickens' Victorian readers -- and his 21st century readers, too -- all have a laugh at Mr Willet's expense. We can all smile indulgently and shake our heads. "What a silly man," we can say to each other with a little roll of the eyes, "he equates disability with the unknown and the terrifying. Imagine!!"
And if we don't notice, and don't dissect our thoughts....well, we've read it all the same, haven't we?
Clever, clever Charles Dickens.
All in all, Barnaby Rudge was a cracking good read. I thought I knew, before I even read it, what I would write about in my review - I had visions of a young man with intellectual disabilities being used, to borrow Dave's phraseology, "as a patsy". Instead, what I found in this story was a complex, deftly-turned pattern of characters with all their strengths and weaknesses, their goods and their evils, circling around each other, just as people do. It was a wonderful, sympathetic, angry, funny, appalling, ecstatic story.
Thank you so much, Dave, for proposing Barnaby Rudge for your book club. I thoroughly, completely enjoyed it.
1-"...where had he been so long, and why had he left his mother by herself, or worse than by herself, with her poor foolish boy?" (520) Considering who is speaking (Barnaby), do you think this reflects Dickens' own opinion? Or is this quote for dramatic effect?
2-In this book, there are a lot of intergenerational pairings (sons and fathers, daughters and mothers, masters and apprentices). How is Dickens' treatment of the dyads indicative of the social opinions he held?
3-See Chapter 48. Do you think Barnaby is a symbol of innocence swept up by evil?
4-How does Hugh's character change from the beginning to the end of the book? To what extent is this influenced by Barnaby himself?
5-For the most part, people respond to Barnaby with "true pity" once they learn of his disability. Is this good, or bad? Why? What is different about NOW as opposed to THEN? If this book were set in 1980 – say, IRA riots – how would it change your response? Their response?
6-There are several people who have disabilities in the book, or who acquire them in the course of the story. Why do you think Dickens gives these characters their disabilities? (Barnaby, Stagg, Joe, Simon Tappertit, and even John Willet, Joe’s father )
7-in Chapter 47, there is a chilling scene with a country magistrate who persecutes Barnaby, his mother, and his pet raven. One of his memorable quotes is "An idiot, eh?...why don't you shut him up? we pay enough for county institutions, damn 'em. But thou'd rather drag him about to excite charity - of course. Ay, I know thee." (390) Considering the character Dickens has used to deliver these lines, what does this scene say about Dickens' opinions? What is he saying about his society?
8-Does the fact that Barnaby was duped into taking part in the riots, make him innocent? To what extent, if at all, does his disability excuse his violence? Should it? What do you think is the author's opinion on this?
9-following his father's execution and his own release from prison, there is a lifting of the blood curse, stemming from pre-natal trauma, that is held responsible for Barnaby's disability. Dickens says that Barnaby becomes 'more rational' . How do you feel about this