Saturday, July 27, 2019

Traces of Scott in Dickens' Barnaby Rudge

The Maypole in Barnaby Rudge was based on the 16th century inn Ye Olde King's Head, in Chigwell, Essex. It now houses a child-free dining venue for blingy partygoers. 
[Image source:]

It is the privilege of tale-tellers to open their story in an inn, the free rendezvous of all travellers, and where the humour of each displays itself without ceremony or restraint.

So begins Scott's Kenilworth (1821), prefacing a meeting of travellers at the jolly Black Bear in Cumnor, near Oxford.

The brilliant opening chapter of Barnaby Rudge (1840-41) likewise begins in an inn, the Maypole in Chigwell. It's a tempestuous evening in March.

The bad weather is pure Dickens: Scott rarely thinks of mentioning weather. But the scene within recalls the earlier book.

The male leads are here: Edward Chester in BR, Edmund Tressilian in K, neither of them much inclined to talk. Likely villainy is more assertively present. But the host Giles Gosling's frosty attitude to his ne'er-do-well kinsman Mike Lambourne is transformed by Dickens into the host John Willet's bullying treatment of his son Joe.


When, much later in Barnaby Rudge, we encounter Dennis the Hangman, the graveyard humour and creepily loving affection for his clients owes more than a little to Petit Andre in Scott's Quentin Durward (1823).

"...—Well. Be as churlish as you list—I never quarrel with my customers—my jerry come tumbles, my merry dancers, my little playfellows, as Jacques Butcher says to his lambs—those in fine, who, like your seigniorship, have H. E. M. P. written on their foreheads.—No, no, let them use me as they list, they shall have my good service at last—and yourself shall see, when you next come under Petit Andre's hands, that he knows how to forgive an injury."

... [Quentin] therefore swallowed his wrath at the ill timed and professional jokes of Mons. Petit Andre

(Quentin Durward, Chapter XIV)

‘Did you ever, Muster Gashford,’ whispered Dennis, with a horrible kind of admiration, such as that with which a cannibal might regard his intimate friend, when hungry,—‘did you ever—and here he drew still closer to his ear, and fenced his mouth with both his open hands—‘see such a throat as his? Do but cast your eye upon it. There’s a neck for stretching, Muster Gashford!’

The secretary assented to this proposition with the best grace he could assume—it is difficult to feign a true professional relish: which is eccentric sometimes—

(Barnaby Rudge, Chapter XXXVIII)


Quentin Durward has another deeper-level connection with Barnaby Rudge. Some elements of Scott's Hayraddin Maugrabin can also be seen in Hugh: neither of them altogether villains, two gipsies (of a sort), both notably attached to animals and also to certain people that we care for (Quentin and Barnaby respectively), both criminals whose inevitable executions leave us feeling uneasy.

(In both this and the former instance, we might suspect unconscious influence, one of whose features is its lack of waking logic. The Scott characters are markedly unlike the Dickens characters.)


Dickens was very fond of Chigwell, in his day a country village, and still more so in 1775, the date when Barnaby Rudge begins. Now it's on the Central Line, just 46 minutes from Oxford Circus. The novel moves obsessively between Chigwell and London, and this is also a Scott technique, seen at its plainest in Woodstock (1826) where the action moves repeatedly between the house and the town. But Kenilworth too shows something of this organization of travel: Tressilian is always travelling, but the book isn't picaresque in structure: one is never merely on the road, the destinations are momentous, and the arrivals key to the story.


This advice was received as such advice usually is.

(Barnaby Rudge, Chapter 3, referring to Gabriel Varden's attempts to moderate the dispute between the Willets, father and son.)

That's a very Scott-like sentence!


When Barnaby Rudge is described as influenced by Scott's novels, the most commonly-mentioned specific example is The Heart of Midlothian. The description of the Porteous Riots at the beginning of that novel, including the storming of the Tollbooth prison, is obviously pertinent. Additionally, Gissing suggested that the figure of Barnaby owed something to Madge Wildfire (though he surely owes more to Wordsworth's Idiot Boy).


In these brief annotations, I've been avoiding larger generalizations about Dickens and Scott. They are, of course, often raised in connection with Barnaby Rudge in particular. Despite it being an essay into Scott's terrain, the historical novel, the overall effect is remarkably unlike Scott. Sometimes this is sensationalized into Dickens' "rejection" of Scott, but there seems no real justification for this. The two authors had interests that overlapped a bit, but were fundamentally different.

It's interesting that the Scott novels I've been reminded of while reading Barnaby Rudge are set in southern England (Kenilworth, Woodstock) and in northern France (Quentin Durward)... that is, they're among the relatively few Scott novels that fall within the strangely restricted geography of Dickens' world. Dickens' phantasmagoric imagination only really lights up in southern England (London above all), though he also loved  France. For a voluminous national novelist, he takes notably little interest in the other parts of the UK; even in northern England his imagination is under constraint. As for Wales, Scotland and Ireland, their presence in Dickens's fiction is minimal. And it's remarkable how very few Welsh or Scottish or Irish (or black) people cross our paths in Dickens' London; there were many. Scott's grandest theme, the meeting (or clash) of cultures, is somehow antipathetic to Dickens' vision. (As a matter of fact, Barnaby Rudge does contain a Scotsman: Lord George Gordon. But you could be forgiven for not realizing, because Dickens makes absolutely nothing of his Scottish background.)

I don't mean, of course, that Dickens was ignorant of or ill-disposed towards Scotland etc. In fact the riot scenes in Barnaby Rudge were actually written in Scotland, in July 1841. Dickens thoroughly enjoyed his Scottish tour, being especially awed by the tremendous gloomy pass of Glencoe ( he was forced to travel back through it in dreadful weather conditions; he and Kate and the coachman narrowly avoided a fatal mishap); he was lionized in Edinburgh and spent a day at Abbotsford. Despite all these excitements, Dickens's deeper imagination lay elsewhere. He wrote to Forster:

Sunday, off at seven o'clock in the morning to Stirling, and then to Callender, a stage further. Next day, to Loch Earn, and pull up there for three days, to rest and work. The moral of all this is, that there is no place like home; and that I thank God most heartily for having given me a quiet spirit, and a heart that won't hold many people. I sigh for Devonshire Terrace* and Broadstairs, for battledoor and shuttlecock; I want to dine in a blouse with you and Mac; and I feel Topping's merits more acutely than I have ever done in my life.

 (Forster I.15-16).

*Dickens's London home from 1839 - 1851, now demolished. Site of the Charles Dickens Memorial in the Marylebone Road.


Re the un-Scott-like nature of Barnaby Rudge, I think Sir John Chester, one of its under-lauded triumphs, is quite a revealing instance. Sir John fascinates us, but he has a typical quality that is very unlike the many noblemen that cross our paths in Scott's books. They are individuals, with individual histories and ancestries, individual quirks of behaviour and language, individual opinions and lines of conduct profoundly rooted in their backgrounds. None of this is precisely untrue of Sir John Chester (though Dickens is not very interested in his background), but what holds our attention is something quite different. We understand very quickly that he represents a thesis about the ruling classes in general: he illustrates tendencies that, however submerged in many noble individuals, are intrinsic to British society of the 1770s (and not altogether absent from the 1840s). We appraise him not as a convincing portrait but as a convincing argument.

Take, for example, his infuriating and everlasting coolness; the coolness that even the locksmith bringing sensational news from Newgate can only shake, not dispel. In another kind of book this could be seen as portraying an individual who is singularly fortified against change, as we all are to some extent, by the ego's self-serving architecture of rationalizations and habits.  But here, the coolness demonstrates something else: the absolute security of the ruling-class and the means by which it contrives to unarm opposition and to convert people into tools for its own use. (Chester's power, by the way, is only in a moderate degree economic; connections, education, living in high style and dispensing with moral scruples all count for much more.)

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

Powered by Blogger