Review: Barnaby Rudge

Ah, Barnaby Rudge. I didn’t really like Barnaby Rudge.

It’s Dickens’ fifth novel, a relatively early effort by his prolific standards. It’s also one of only two historical novels written by him (the other is A Tale of Two Cities). It tells the tale of the Gordon Riots: several days of anti-Catholic chaos and violence in the streets of London in 1780, stirred up by a Lord George Gordon in the wake of anti-discrimination laws passed in 1778 restoring certain civil rights to Catholics. Our Hero, sort of, is the titular Barnaby, a young man with learning disabilities (although of course Dickens phrases it rather differently), who gets caught up in the riots.

There’s also a semi-Gothic plot with feuding fathers and estranged lovers and ‘orrible murder in the dark, but Dickens isn’t very good at Gothic, he tends too much towards ideals of order and justice and things being tied up neatly, so it’s all a bit half-hearted.

It’s probably telling that the only reason most people know about the Gordon Riots nowadays is through Dickens (I mean, try searching “Gordon riots”; Google immediately suggests you search “Gordon riots Dickens” instead): it’s not something that’s remained in the popular memory, possibly because anti-discrimination laws are not a thing we associate with the late eighteenth century. And so Barnaby Rudge feels, at least to this modern reader, a bit…irrelevant? It is so specific as a novel, so interested in this particular moment in history, that it’s hard to engage meaningfully. There are, of course, parallels to be made with prominent modern-day demagogues fanning the flames of Islamophobia and general racism, but they are not parallels that feel all that pressing.

Perhaps that’s because of the overheated tone of the novel as a whole: there’s like a million chapters describing the riots themselves, and it’s all very fire and brimstone, people drinking boiling spirits in their sectarian frenzy, running through flames so they can destroy prisons, that kind of thing. It doesn’t quite work – it’s so hyperbolic that we don’t feel the shock of it as I think Dickens means us to.

There’s also a relatively small cast of characters, compared to what we usually get from Dickens, and I think that too reduces our stake in the society the novel depicts. A couple of love affairs, some petty revenge, a mysterious stranger who turns out to be a common criminal – none of it seems to matter against this vast Miltonic background of hellfire and mob rule. I didn’t find myself caring about anyone in the way I’ve cared about Lizzie Hexam or poor Wal’r or even Esther Summerson. Apart from Grip, the raven. Or, perhaps, briefly, Barnaby, who nevertheless isn’t allowed to do anything in his own story. It’s not about him, because he doesn’t change – he’s just the object of people’s pity, including the reader’s.

Doubtless I’m missing something: I read this at the back end of 2018, when plenty of Other Shit was going on. Still, I don’t think I’m going to be tempted to re-visit Barnaby Rudge.

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