Friday, August 09, 2019

Charles Dickens: Barnaby Rudge (13 Feb - 27 Nov 1841)

Barnaby, his mother, and Grip

[Image source: . From the 1960 BBC dramatization. Barnaby was played by John Wood, Mrs Rudge by Isabel Dean.]

It's been a few years since I last read a Dickens novel, and this reading has been a particular thrill for me, because Barnaby Rudge was perhaps the first Dickens book I absorbed in its entirety, when I was about seven: in the form of a comic-book. I haven't managed to track down any online images from that saddle-stitched publication, a battered item on a school dormitory bookshelf. I'm sure they were very inferior to Phiz and Cattermole's originals, but I would have enjoyed seeing them again.

[Even before that, I had read a very short Dombey and Son, but I think it can only have contained a few early episodes: I was enchanted by Captain Cuttle and horrified by Good Mrs Brown.]



So, it soon got whispered about, that Mr Chester was very unfortunate in his son, who had occasioned him great grief and sorrow. And the good people who heard this and told it again, marvelled the more at his equanimity and even temper, and said what an amiable nature that man must have, who, having undergone so much, could be so placid and so calm. And when Edward’s name was spoken, Society shook its head, and laid its finger on its lip, and sighed, and looked very grave; and those who had sons about his age, waxed wrathful and indignant, and hoped, for Virtue’s sake, that he was dead. And the world went on turning round, as usual, for five years, concerning which this Narrative is silent.

(end of Chapter 32)

One of the joys of finishing a classic novel (not something I manage very often) is reading what others have made of it. In this case there were some very good things on the internet.

And one of the best remains Edgar Allen Poe's fascinating early review:
Poe playfully suggests that Dickens changed his mind after some of the numbers were already published: his book began as a murder mystery, but he then decided, with some awkwardness, to centre it on the Gordon Riots instead. (Poe admitted that Dickens had stated otherwise.) Forster may have read this when he came to give his own somewhat critical views on the structure of Barnaby Rudge in the Life of Dickens (see Vol I Chapter 14).

Some of the loose ends that Poe discovers may have other explanations. But he's right to ponder on the famous five year gap at the end of Chapter 32, because it's a very odd thing, as well as a very effective thing. Poe's mischievous suggestion is that Dickens was driven to it because he had thoughtlessly specified the date 1775 in his opening number and then, because of the change of plan, found he needed to advance the clock to 1780, the historical date of the Riots.

Poe's theory is wrong: the long-planned novel (in 1836 prospectively titled Gabriel Vardon, the Locksmith of London) was always going to be about the (historical) locksmith who refused to pick the lock of Newgate prison; Dickens named the topic as the "Riots of Eighty" in a letter to S. Laman Blanchard dated 9 February 1839; and after all, as early as Chapter 4 the theme of the riots is being prepared for when Sim Tappertit hints at "certain reckless fellows that he knew of" and "a certain Lion Heart ready to become their captain"; or consider the subtle comment in Chapter 10 about Barnaby "who, so that he thought himself employed on a grave and serious business, would go anywhere" -- foreshadowing how Hugh will draw him into the movement, and how fearlessly he'll serve it; and finally, the idea of a five year delay to Edward's and Emma's marriage had already been signalled in Chapter 15.

But still, Poe is quite right to notice that the time-gap is odd. Five years is quite a long time, especially for young marriageable heroines. If Dolly was coquetting around in 1775 (she's already chatting with her father about husbands, while her mother professes that her one desire is to see Dolly "comfortably settled") , there's a strangely static quality to her subsequent five years of reducing coachmakers etc to despair . We aren't, I think, told Dolly's age -- I suppose she might be 18 in 1775 and 23 in 1780. Well, that wouldn't raise any eyebrows. (Tappertit still calls her "the locksmith's child".) But Emma Haredale, we happen to know, is already 23 in 1775 (because she was one year old when her father was murdered; she is thus a year older than Barnaby, who was born the day after the murder) ... This would make her 28 in 1780 which, as Poe notes, places her -- in the social judgments of the time, which were applied even more mercilessly to fictional heroines than to women in real life -- , distinctly in old maid territory.* Her lover Edward Chester, 27 in 1775, must be 32 in 1780. Barnaby,  in 1780, remains a man-child, (apparently without any interest in sex) -- so an actual age of 27 is perhaps acceptable, given his "darkened intellect".

[* "A woman of seven and twenty," said Marianne, after pausing a moment, "can never hope to feel or inspire affection again, and if her home be uncomfortable, or her fortune small, I can suppose that
 she might bring herself to submit to the offices of a nurse, for the sake of the provision and security of a wife. In his [the 35-year-old bachelor Colonel Brandon's] marrying such a woman therefore there would be nothing unsuitable. I would be a compact of convenience, and the world would be satisfied. In my eyes it would be no marriage at all, but that would be nothing. To me it would seem only a commercial exchange, in which each wished to be benefited at the expense of the other" (Sense and Sensibility, Ch VIII). The sixteen-year-old Marianne, of course, is a hard-liner in this matter. Jane Austen didn't agree with her, and made Anne Elliot twenty-nine in Persuasion -- though uncomfortably conscious of it.]

Usually when stories include a time gap, it's to allow time for things to happen. In such cases we are told that in the mean time A has married, B has bloomed, C has died, D has become sourer than ever, E has turned to drink or given it up, F now has a young family... There's remarkably little of that kind of thing here, as Poe noticed. Dickens did require some sort of a time-gap, true. He couldn't very well have Edward Chester and Joe Willet rushing in as miraculous saviours when they had only just exiled themselves.  And Joe, at least, has changed in the mean time, not only by the loss of an arm. Haredale, Chester and Varden are perceptibly older, though without any change of personality. Simon and his fellows have served out their apprenticeships and are now journeymen (the Prentice Knights have become the United Bulldogs); Varden has joined the Royal East London Volunteers; Mr Chester has become Sir John Chester, MP; Dolly has been living at the Warren; Hugh has conceived a hatred of Haredale. It's quite a meagre harvest. Dickens' time-gap is not so much about allowing time for things to happen as about observing that nothing much has happened at all.

So as far as his narrative requirement goes, a time-gap of (say) two years would surely have done as well. And why did Dickens need to make the murder so remote in time: mightn't it just as well have taken place eighteen years ago (say) as twenty-two (or twenty-three, or twenty-four, as he uncertainly states on a couple of occasions)? Dickens' problem about Emma Haredale's age -- if you regard it as a problem -- is thus entirely and unnecessarily self-inflicted.

But I think it's possible to argue that Dickens had no wish to conceal Emma's age and subtly portrays her as a stronger and older woman in the second half of the novel. There's another factor too. Barnaby Rudge is of course opposed to religious prejudice, but I suspect that Dickens wished to persuade his readers rather than affront them. Maybe he sensed he could get away with portraying a mixed-faith marriage like Edward's and Emma's, but only by making various concessions. It had to be placed in the background and presented in a sober spirit rather than as full-on celebration. Part of this toning-down process might have been to make the eventually happy couple a little older than romantic couples usually are.

Anyway, back to the five-year gap. I can't entirely fathom it, but it seems that Dickens felt a strong poetic need to stretch out time: from the murder to 1775, and from 1775 to the Riots. It was part of a vision of England going along in much the same way for a very long time; suffering violent outbreaks (a double murder in 1753, or a week of rioting in the capital in 1780) but always regrouping into a tense stasis. At the very end of the book (via the mythically long-lived raven Grip) we are brought right up to 1841, with the suggestion that this pattern of stasis still subsists. (I'm taking these thoughts largely from Carolyn Williams' essay, referenced below.)

One thing I think is certain, the closing words of Chapter 32 always come as rather a shock, and yet the effect on the reader isn't one of disappointment, of something being snatched away from us, but of excitement and anticipation: 1780 is going to be a big year.

Perhaps the real function of the time-gap comes retrospectively: when the reader glances back from some nightmarish scene in front of the battered prison door or in the pool of burning spirit outside the vintner's and ponders, How the hell did we get to this? And since there's nothing in the last five years to inspect, we perforce look back to the apparent tranquillity of 1775 and find its shadow there. As if Dickens is saying: the proximate causes of a popular eruption are just distractions, its tap-root always goes this deep.



My grandmother's interests were more musical than literary, but Dickens wasn't the preserve of literary people. Once, in my teens (scanning the glass-fronted book-case of Galsworthy and Kipling -- the one she rarely seemed to pick a book from) it occurred to me to ask her why she had no Dickens. She had never cared for Dickens, she told me. Struggling to describe this aversion, she suggested that his books contained too many nasty children.

(Maybe I should explain that my grandmother was generally fond of children in her reading matter:  over the years we had spent many happy hours together with A.A. Milne, Ursula Moray Williams (Anders and Marta) and Arthur Ransome.)  

Literally, her assertion is wrong. Dickens' books aren't full of nasty children;  and Dickens would never dismiss a child as simply nasty. (My thoughts pause briefly on the demonic urchin Deputy in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but no, he's actually employed by Durdles to throw stones at him...) And yet that unsympathetic phrase "nasty children" seemed, I thought, to express something profound about Dickens' imaginative vision. Dicken's world teems with the dirty, the ragged, the unkempt, the ill-educated and noisy. Many of these figures are children and many more, from Quilp to Boffin, are strangely child-like. I could understand how, for someone like my grandmother, one might close a volume of Dickens with a distinct sense of the then-popular notice NOW WASH YOUR HANDS.

Barnaby is one of those childlike figures, of course: In fact he belongs to a subcategory that preoccupied Dickens in novels of this period, the mentally deranged: Smike in Nicholas Nickelby, Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. [Of course it's Nell's childlike grandfather who is more evidently deranged, but the child's mentality is catastrophically warped by her circumstances: .]

Of actual children, on the other hand, Barnaby Rudge has a remarkable scarcity, until its final pages. The characteristic location of the book is the inn: the Maypole, the Boot, the Black Lion. The Maypole, Dickens tells us, used to be a home. But now:

It was no longer a home; children were never born and bred there; the fireside had become mercenary—a something to be bought and sold—a very courtezan: let who would die, or sit beside, or leave it, it was still the same—it missed nobody, cared for nobody, had equal warmth and smiles for all. God help the man whose heart ever changes with the world, as an old mansion when it becomes an inn!

(Chapter 10)

We begin to see that Barnaby Rudge conjures a world in which the most cohesive of all social forces, young children and their mothers, are absent. And it's a world that idles -- like Sir John Chester's contented butterfly life --, a world without real objects, endlessly rehashing the distant past and fearfully but cosily speculating on a sequel it does nothing to bring about, like Solomon Daisy.

What we do have is the dissatisfaction of young men -- adolescents, we might call them, though they're all in their early twenties -- : Hugh, Simon Tappertit and Joe Willet.  All are characterized, in their very different ways, by a certain violent energy. Even Barnaby, the man-child, eventually breaks from his mother's control, and there's nothing she can do about it.

Dolly Varden plays a part in building up this sense of pent-up energies threatening to erupt. Of a similar age, but not at all a rebel or violent herself, she arouses testosterone-fuelled excitement in every young man who sees her: notably including Hugh, Simon and Joe.


Dickens is unusual among prolific novelists (in any language) because all his novels are masterpieces. In English, the nearest equivalent is Jane Austen, but there we are talking about six novels compared to fifteen. (Some might want to murmur Henry James at this point). I'm not at all sure how meaningful this observation is, but I want to emphasize that it isn't just a matter of opinion. One crude measure could be the flood of academic debate about each of Dickens' novels: compare it with the mere trickle attracted by, say, Scott's The Betrothed or Thackeray's The Virginians.

I've often argued that greatness or canonicity is a communal creation: the author plays a huge part, of course, but so does the serendipity of being in the right place at the right time, availability, popular appeal, being taught in schools, becoming part of the cultural currency of newspaper columns. The momentum towards a recognition of greatness increases as debate, acclaim and indeed disparagement accrete around a body of work; we want to hear what others are saying about it, we want to join in, and eventually this debate influences our perception of the world and its people, our values, social attitudes and public policy: it begins to be historically significant and unavoidable, regardless of our personal tastes. Hard to imagine us ever not needing to talk about the thirty-seven plays of Shakespeare; or the fifteen novels of Dickens.

Of course Dickens often wrote badly, both in his voluminous other work and within the novels themselves. But that's unimportant. What's important is that each novel has a definite identity, i.e. it doesn't just play variations on past triumphs, and each novel has its own meaning: it has something definite, new and significant to say.

[When I say it's definite, I mean definite to us. Part of the fascination of Dickens is that he seems to be averse to analysing and perhaps doesn't himself understand, what he's about. The opening paragraph of the Carolyn Williams essay referenced below puts it well:

Dickens was anything but stupid. But, as Rosemarie Bodenheimer argues in Knowing Dickens, his "revealing and concealing intelligence" is rarely explicit about exactly what he knows. His complex awareness "lurks somewhere," but it is difficult to pin down, and this "absence of analytical distance was probably central to [his creative] process" (2, 205). Yet we can only know Dickens when we understand that he always knows more than he states explicitly -- and more, perhaps, than he knows he knows. 

This lack of analytical self-awareness has something to do with Dickens' popular appeal: no reader of Dickens is repelled by the feeling that the author is far more educated or cleverer than her/himself and is full of fancy ideas. And it gives a profound integrity to his work: a bit like folk-tales. They exist rather than assert. You can't really argue with them, you can only (like my grandmother) opt not to read them.]

I'm mentioning this all-canonical aspect of Dickens's novels partly because you still sometimes hear Barnaby Rudge described as a minor or lesser novel (though not, I suspect, by academics). And actually, if I had to choose a single era when the seeds of Dickens's present and future reputation were decisively established, I think I'd venture the era of Master Humphrey's Clock, the weekly in which both The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge were serialized.

Serialization, I'm sure, lay at the heart of it. It was for Dickens what the public playhouse had been for Shakespeare: a brand-new popular arena that awaited its master. Scott, a few years earlier, had shown how the rapid publication of novels that were distinguished by popular appeal, excitement and constant reinvention could become a sequence of public events: a franchise. But Dickens took this further. Serialization made the writing of a novel into a public display: the novelist became a performance artist. In more recent times, it is not to novels that we must look for an analogy -- not in the west anyway -- but to novel media: the cinema and recorded music. The pioneers (Alfred Hitchcock, Billie Holliday...) have attracted, and will continue to attract, the accretion of debate in a way that Angus Wilson, for example, could never hope to do. The novel has become an old, established form, occasionally agitated by experimental gestures but essentially limited; we have a pretty good idea now what a novel can be and what it can't be. But Dickens' readers did not: the novel was still young.

It was Dickens' business to keep enlarging their conceptions with each new novel and, if possible, with each monthly number; or even -- in the era of Master Humphrey's Clock -- with each weekly number.  And that's just what he wanted to do and felt sure of doing: we can hear it in his language, the unbounded "confidence in my own powers", and in his self-description, the "Inimitable". We can also see the process at work. The hysteria over Little Nelly was something that went beyond any previous fiction, including his own -- regardless of what we think of it now, it was a signal instance of the enlargement mentioned above. Barnaby Rudge is another instance of "going beyond": by taking on history, and by doing it in his inimitable way and not in Scott's, he proposed a new way of inscribing history into the novel. (Compare, in early Shakespeare, how The Comedy of Errors consciously goes beyond all previous Plautine comedies, and Titus Andronicus consciously goes beyond all previous tragedies of blood....)

It's possible to see how it plays out on a smaller scale, too. Each weekly number consisted of only a couple of chapters. It meant that Dickens conceived his chapters not merely as progressing the story but as striking a series of blows in the cause of enlargement: each chapter should introduce something new, it should enlarge our conception of the work before us.

Take the sequence of Chapters 7 - 10.

Chapter 7 introduces us to Mrs Varden and Miggs and the unforgettable and quite wonderful double-acts that Varden is made to endure. ("'Such spirits as you was in too, mim, but half an hour ago!' cried Miggs. 'I never see such company!'"). The themes of male authority, energy and rebellion just took an unexpected turn: Varden is no longer the unmarked case, he is both a patriarchal authority being rebelled against, and himself a rebel against religion and the responsibilities of matrimony.

Chapter 8 follows Sim Tappertit out into the night and introduces the 'Prentice Knights at their cellar in Barbican. The enlargement now is of Simon - while still essentially a ridiculous boy (as Varden considers him) - into a Byronic chieftain, like the Corsair. Simon's rebel organization is presented as high farce, impossible to take seriously, until the chapter executes its brilliant reversal at the very end:

'Good night, noble captain,' whispered the blind man as he held it open for his passage out; 'Farewell, brave general. Bye, bye, illustrious commander. Good luck go with you for a -- conceited, bragging, empty-headed, duck-legged idiot.' 

That sudden flash of hatred tells us that Simon's fantasy games involve mixing with some really nasty elements and could easily run out of his control.

Chapter 9 introduces us to another part of Varden's establishment undreamt of by its master: the sanctity of Miss Miggs' chamber. Miggs in Chapter 7 had been hilarious, but (as is often the way with servants) we weren't really looking at her. Now we're confronted with the emptiness of her existence and with her obsessional nature; she's just as willing as Simon to stay up all night, but she lacks Simon's quality of harmlessness. By the end of this chapter, with Miggs acquiring a psychological hold on another member of the household, our idea of Gabriel's home has been thoroughly -- no, not transformed, but -- enlarged.  

With Chapter 10 the scene switches back to the Maypole. We supposed we had a good idea of the Maypole, but we're in for some surprises: this household, likewise, is about to be enlarged in our minds, both by its neglected state-room, the evidence of its former existence as a home; and by its teasing glimpse of Hugh, this "half-gypsy" servant (is that his status?) who says not a word but whom we can't stop wondering about. But the biggest introduction of this chapter, of course, is the visitor, whom Dickens treats unusually, withholding the usual moral signals for two or three pages while we try to figure him out for ourselves. This prepossessing gentleman, we begin to grasp, signifies something; he is not just a character. So the scope of the book enlarges again. Barnaby's enigmatic speeches to Mr Chester imply arrival at a deeper stratum. Mr Chester will be very active in the ensuing part of the novel (that is, up to the five year gap): he is on-stage in ten of the next 22 chapters and only just off-stage, or a palpable influence, in several of the others. (Whereas, in the second half of the novel, we see him in Chapters 40 and 43 but he's mainly just sitting back and watching the work go on...)


If I'd continued with that chapter-by-chapter commentary, Chapter 11 would have shown us the still-silent Hugh magnificently asleep on a bench, this "animal", as John Willet argues. How far the novel succeeds in distancing itself from Willet's cod-psychology is rather a question.

The effective mobilization of Hugh and other such sleeping forces avoids the normal channels of public discourse, which wouldn't have worked.

But when vague rumours got abroad, that in this Protestant association a secret power was mustering against the government for undefined and mighty purposes; when the air was filled with whispers of a confederacy among the Popish powers to degrade and enslave England, establish an inquisition in London, and turn the pens of Smithfield market into stakes and cauldrons; when terrors and alarms which no man understood were perpetually broached, both in and out of Parliament, by one enthusiast who did not understand himself, and bygone bugbears which had lain quietly in their graves for centuries, were raised again to haunt the ignorant and credulous; when all this was done, as it were, in the dark, and secret invitations to join the Great Protestant Association in defence of religion, life, and liberty, were dropped in the public ways, thrust under the house-doors, tossed in at windows, and pressed into the hands of those who trod the streets by night; when they glared from every wall, and shone on every post and pillar, so that stocks and stones appeared infected with the common fear, urging all men to join together blindfold in resistance of they knew not what, they knew not why;—then the mania spread indeed, and the body, still increasing every day, grew forty thousand strong.

(Chapter 37)

The build-up to the riots is brilliantly handled. The new settings are introduced to us by the Scott method of drawing a newcomer into them. Thus Hugh's successive encounters with Gashford, Dennis, the Boot, Simon...  Dickens constantly deploys the image of an individual engulfed by a crowd: the lonely Haredale hemmed in at the River Stairs, Barnaby being whirled into the Gordon demonstration, Varden being strong-armed towards Newgate.

The next phase, from Gashford's and Dennis' point of view, is about transforming these crowds into "business". The crowd swells and disperses, buildings begin to be sacked, the word "fire" begins to be heard.

When Dickens set out to write about the Gordon Riots, he set himself the challenging task of bringing to life and making sense of a large action featuring masses of people and many simultaneous actions.  One interesting precursor was Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, which in its portrayal of the whole of London in crisis is often remarkably like Barnaby Rudge, but is not very fully novelistic. For a real novel on such themes the only predecessor was Scott. [I'm uneasily aware of, but haven't read, Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris, translated into English in 1833, and Ainsworth's novels, beginning with Rookwood, published in 1834. The latter's Old St Pauls: A Tale of the Plague and the Fire was being serialized at exactly the same time as Barnaby Rudge.]

Scott's large actions are usually recounted in only a couple of pages. Even so, Scott often handles action clumsily. Sometimes Dickens has the same clumsiness, as in the desperate scrabble to avoid anticlimax at the end of that gigantic suspended sentence during the destruction of the Warren (I'm only quoting the final part):

......  : all this taking place taking place -- not among pitying looks and friendly murmurs of compassion, but brutal shouts and exultations, which seemed to make the very rats who stood by the old house too long, creatures with some claim upon the pity and regard of those its roof had sheltered: -- combined to form a scene never to be forgotten by those who saw it and were not actors in the work, so long as life endured. 

(Chapter 55)

And Dickens does sound rather like Scott when he remarks parenthetically on what "often" happens during national convulsions:

On that same night -- events so crowd upon each other in convulsed and distracted times, that more than the stirring incidents of a whole life often become compressed into the compass of four-and-twenty hours -- on that same night, Mr Haredale....etc

(Chapter 61)

Nor is the comparison wholly in his favour. Both authors switch in and out of historical mode during their narratives (A Legend of Montrose supplies some good examples of Scott's practice). But Dickens is far less easy with the historical mode than Scott, and the wrench of switching to and from history is greater. Despite the painstaking accuracy of his historical passages in Barnaby Rudge -- pains such as Scott never took -- there is something constrained about their solemn generalizations, heavy judgments and absence of humour. It is not exactly insincere, but it doesn't sound like Dickens speaking from the heart. Scott plays fast and loose with history, but he absorbed it so profoundly that you can't draw a clear line between Scott the historian and Scott the novelist, they are congruent with each other.

For these and other reasons, there's something not totally satisfactory about the social panorama of these two hundred pages -- compared with the social panorama of Bleak House, for instance. But still, they are very extraordinary pages.

The door sank down again: it settled deeper in the cinders—tottered—yielded—was down!
As they shouted again, they fell back, for a moment, and left a clear space about the fire that lay between them and the jail entry. Hugh leapt upon the blazing heap, and scattering a train of sparks into the air, and making the dark lobby glitter with those that hung upon his dress, dashed into the jail.
The hangman followed. And then so many rushed upon their track, that the fire got trodden down and thinly strewn about the street; but there was no need of it now, for, inside and out, the prison was in flames.

(end of Chapter 64)

In these nameless crowds the usual loquacious and intensely individual Dickens characters are silenced. Dickens works with a different team here. The text proliferates with London locations. The priest, the vintner, the scout, the two sons of the condemned man -- and the "worthies" in the foreground -- Hugh, Dennis, Gashford -- are in many ways un-Dickensian. Hugh is a great creation but he's manifested through actions rather than words: no reader remembers his words, which are not many and are very plain. In such glimpses as this entry to Newgate he is simply a hero, a superhuman. He throws the stone at Haredale, and we hear of him "striking at the soldiers", but on the whole he is notably lacking in deceit, hypocrisy, or malignity. Such personal motives as Hugh has, other than a desire for drink, sleep, riot, and Dolly's kisses, arise mostly from loyal attachment: not just to his dog but to Chester, Barnaby, John Willet (whom he protects from injury), his crony Dennis, and even Tappertit (though he can't help laughing at this). We expect him at some point to expose the condescending Simon for the pitiful absurdity he is, or to turn furiously on the cool Sir John who uses him as a tool, or to resent Dolly's coldness. But none of these hypothetical plot-developments occur: Hugh apparently doesn't experience resentment. "But it's done, and you're here, and it will soon be all over with you and me; and I'd as soon die as live, or live as die. Why should I trouble myself to have revenge on you?" So even the traitor Dennis is treated rather temperately by this ferocious giant, this horseman of the apocalypse. man who wielded an axe in his right hand, and bestrode a brewer’s horse of great size and strength, caparisoned with fetters taken out of Newgate, which clanked and jingled as he went...

That's Hugh outside the vintner's, on Holborn Hill; the last and most phantasmagoric of the four destructive set-pieces around which Dickens structures his account of the Riots (i.e. The Maypole, The Warren, Newgate and here). These rhetorical exclamation-marks are often quoted, though for me the most effective moments are more concise: Varden smashing the red-brick dwelling-house with the yellow roof; Gashford on the roof looking for redness in the sky; Willet jeering at the three cronies as they set off to walk into London;  the venison pasty in Dennis' hat; The Boot surprised, and the scout creeping round the ditches all night; Haredale being asked to leave the hotel at Charing Cross; the chain across the road at Poultry, and the firing; Barnaby sinking the horse's furniture in a pool of stagnant water; Dennis' new buckles and farmer's gloves.

But to re-unite all these scraps into wholeness we need to contemplate the transformed space that Dickens realizes in these pages. The rioters pass the days in makeshift shacks in the Green Lanes, at the Boot, in Fleet Market or the hut near Finchley. Wretched as these encampments are, they breathe an air of both freedom and power. The mob can coalesce out of nothing, they own the streets and have the city as their playground. London's built environment, in contrast, becomes a dystopic labyrinth of sites for desecration and destruction, claustrophobia and captivity.

It's perhaps easiest to see when it finally is over, when Edward fells Gashford, and "cheerful light, and beaming faces came pouring in" (Chapter 71), and when everyone heads without delay for the Black Lion in Clerkenwell. In that moment, Dickensian normality resumes. The houses, and even the inns, have once more become homes.

Dennis the Hangman

[Image source: . From the 1960 BBC dramatization. Dennis was played by Esmond Knight.]

John Forster's chapter on  BR  (Life of Dickens, I.14) has been highly influential. [And see also the subsequent two chapters on Dickens' trip to Scotland during the composition of BR.] - It's all on Gutenberg.

G.K. Chesterton's brief introduction to BR is typically thought-provoking. His emphasis is on BR's deployment, in the absence of comic intention, of the picturesque (including the grotesque). - Also on Gutenberg.

James R. Kincaid, "Barnaby Rudge: Laughter and Structure", from his 1971 book Dickens and the Rhetoric of Laughter.

Brilliant essay showing how laughter in BR edges us into being complicit in the repressions that produce the riots, and how often the comedy reaches a pitch of discomfort that stops the laughter on our lips (especially acute, I thought, on Miss Miggs and Simon Tappertit).

Peter Ackroyd: "London's burning".

Chatty article with some illuminating information, for example about Dickens' own troubles with his father at the time of writing BR.

Carolyn Williams, "Stupidity and Stupefaction: 'Barnaby Rudge' and the Mute Figure of Melodrama", Dickens Studies Annual, 2015

Another excellent essay, discussing that five-year gap along with much else: Williams sees it as illustrating the incessant undercover historical process that issues in the Riots. She connects Barnaby's (and Grip's) non-intentional speech with the mute figures of melodrama, notes the instrumentality of stupidity in historical process, and the appropriateness of stupefaction in response (referencing Keston Sutherland's 2011 book Stupefaction: A Radical Anatomy of Phantoms).

Jason Finch (Åbo Akademi), "The Limits of London in Barnaby Rudge" (not sure of the date, but recent).

Intriguing brief essay about the topography of BR, calling attention to its repeated journeyings between central London and Chigwell, and its obsession with the limits of the great city. (These limits of London also play a crucial role in The Old Curiosity Shop, Chapter XV. Perhaps the idea came from Ainsworth's Rookwood, which lovingly traces Dick Turpin's route out of London at the beginning of his epic ride to York (Book IV, Chapter IV)).

Blog post by Gerry on re-reading BR:

Informative and fun. For example, I learnt that the 22-year-old William Blake was swept up by the mob and was in the forefront of the assault on Newgate.

My post about Sir Walter Scott's presence / absence in Barnaby Rudge:

The mob set forth
[Image source: . From the 1960 BBC dramatization. Barnaby: John Wood. Hugh: Neil McCarthy.]


Dickens had kept two ravens himself, so he had some first hand knowledge. Neither lived very long, and I imagine he wasn't particularly good at looking after them. They are demanding, attention-seeking birds; they mustn't be caged and aren't recommended for casual pet-owners (in the US you need a special permit).

In Barnaby Rudge, Dickens accurately describes the raven's propensity to peck and claw people, also its loud mimicry of non-vocal noises (drawing corks, in Grip's case). One owner on YouTube describes living with a raven as like living with a narcissist or sociopath. The birds give the impression of having their own agenda, knowing more than they let on, and taking a somewhat caustic view of human behaviour: just like Grip.

Ravens usually live 10-15 years but can live up to 30 years in captivity... respectable, but not the stupendous age suggested by Dickens.

Ravens can "talk"; and in a deep human voice, which is very impressive. But they apparently can't acquire a broad vocabulary like budgerigars or mynah birds. (No raven on YouTube has more than a couple of phrases, it seems.) When they talk, they reproduce a specific human voice. Dickens never suggests that Grip speaks in Barnaby's voice, nor do his phrases ("I'm a devil!" "Polly put the kettle on") particularly suggest Barnaby. Dickens is perhaps suggesting that Grip, like Dickens' own ravens, had a history before he came to his current owner. The only vocabulary he learns during the novel's action ("No Popery") would have been declaimed by many voices. His adoption of that contentious slogan suggests general devilry, as well as satire.

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