Maybe that title is a little risky. I mean, a lot of people don’t like Victorian literature, and maybe a lot of people haven’t read any Dickens novels, or maybe they hate every Dickens they’ve ever read, which means that there simply can’t be any “best” Dickens novel. Be that as it may, I often champion lesser-known books by famous authors (one day I’ll do a blog on why C.S. Lewis’s last novel is better than anything he ever wrote before it), so today I’m going to go to bat for Dickens’s fifth novel, Barnaby Rudge.
Few people have read this novel, even among Victorianists. It actually seems to have been a bit of a flop from the get-go. Dickens had planned this novel at the outset of his career, back in 1836. If he’d gone ahead and written it, it would have been his first novel; instead, he completed The Pickwick Papers, and then went on to write Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and The Old Curiosity Shop first, and he didn’t get around to writing it until 1841. Incidentally, he actually wrote it concurrently with The Old Curiosity Shop as a serial novel, an incredible accomplishment. Perhaps this accounts for Rudge’s lack of popularity; The Old Curiosity Shop was extremely popular. Indeed, the first thing one reads about it in its Wikipedia entry is that New Yorkers stood on the docks of the city waiting for the final installment of the novel to be delivered by steamship. So it’s a real possibility that Barnaby Rudge was eclipsed by Dickens’s other, more popular creative work, its twin sibling, so to speak, from the moment of its birth.
And that’s unfortunate, because while The Old Curiosity Shop has not stood the test of time–most readers find it sentimental and melodramatic today–Barnaby Rudge is a novel for the present time. In fact, it’s been really interesting to read it as the January 6 hearings are taking place, because at the heart of the novel lies a riot, an insurrectionary movement perceived as so dangerous that it threatened the rule of order in England. In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the novel (2002), John Bowen begins by saying that “Barnaby Rudge is the most untimely of historical novels.” However, perhaps it isn’t the novel that has to find its time, but rather the time that must find its novel. In other words, I’d argue that Barnaby Rudge may not have been the novel for its time, but it is the novel for our time, a novel whose time has, after nearly two hundred years, finally arrived.
Throughout his career, Dickens wrote only two historical novels–this one and, of course, A Tale of Two Cities, another novel that has eclipsed it, perhaps only because it’s shorter and easier to put on a high school syllabus. But instead of pitting Dickens’s novels against each other, let me just explain why Barnaby Rudge is worth reading:
- As I’ve already indicated, it contains striking parallels with our own time. The central action of the novel (though not necessarily its focus) is the Gordon Riots, a period of anti-Catholic unrest in June of 1780, which resulted in anarchy in London for several days. Prisons were attacked and their prisoners released; stores, residences, foreign embassies and Catholic chapels demolished by frenzied mobs; and the army had to enter London to restore order. Trials and executions ensued. All this, mind you, a full nine years before the French tried the same thing–successfully–at the outset of the French Revolution.
- The eponymous hero of the novel, Barnaby Rudge, is seriously mentally challenged. His mind is disordered and his development delayed. Although 23 years old, he is “simple,” something that almost everyone around him both understands and accepts. I am not aware of any author trying this before Dickens: perhaps my readers can shed more light on the depiction of the intellectually disabled in a somewhat positive light. Dickens’s portrayal of Barnaby is much more sympathetic, on the whole, than one would expect of a Victorian writer, and making him the centerpiece of the novel is an act of creative genius.
- Barnaby has a pet raven named Grip (Dickens himself also had a pet raven named Grip) who so “gripped” the imagination of another writer across the pond that he wrote an entire poem about a raven. No kidding–quoth the Raven, nevermore.
- Dickens examines the origins of the riots a little, but what he excels at most is in demonstrating that the people who participate in riots have their own individual aims and desires, few of which have have much to do with the general cause at hand. This is important because when we look at history, we tend to forget this; Dickens makes it clear in this novel that historical movements are created from many disparate people pulling together into one action for a limited period of time.
- There are the usual loveable (or despised, depending on your view of Dickens’s work) plot points and characters: the thwarted lovers, the carping wife, the happy and bluff old father figure offset by several really rotten father figures, the sassy beauty, the wheedling servants. Dickens paints good portraits of them all.
- In addition, there are a surprising number of physically disabled people in the novel (two), a fact with which I could do all sorts of things in terms of theorizing about amputation and the body politic, but since I’m retired, and since someone else probably has done it or is doing it better than I care to at the present time, I’ll just leave it at that.
- There are all the usual themes about secrets: murders; survivals; illegitmacy; nature versus nurture; generational conflict. These are themes we see in other Dickens novels, and they’re all here, pretty much right on the surface. It’s as if Dickens wrote this as a blueprint for many of his other novels, which makes it all the more interesting for anyone who’s read them.
I could go on, but I want to end by emphasizing how reading this novel now, at this moment in U.S. history, has affected the way I’m watching the January 6 hearings. I think I understand better how small people can get caught up in large events, and how people who have nothing but a sort of odd charisma can get others behind them in such numbers that really frightening things can ensue.
Perhaps the best thing I can say about the novel is that in the world that Dickens creates, the story has a somewhat (but not totally) happy ending: people are punished, order is retored, and most of the good characters live somewhat happily ever after. Barnaby Rudge may not be a Bleak House, but I think it’s a better, more interesting novel than The Old Curiosity Shop. I predict that in about ten years’ time, we’ll see a brave soul who recognizes its value decide to stop working on endless re-makes of (something resembling) Jane Austen novels and try a film version of this novel, which would be a wonderful thing, in my opinion.
Finally, there are a couple of really good podcasts on the novel by Dominic Gerrard and guests. Look for Charles Dickens: A Brain on Fire on Apple podcasts. https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/charles-dickens-a-brain-on-fire/id1599241462