Last year I decided that I felt like reading Dickens at Christmas. Resisting the temptation to turn to old and reliable fireside favourites, I alighted instead on Barnaby Rudge. It seemed a choice that would fulfil two purposes: quenching my thirst for some Dickensian delights while teaching me something of an episode about which I wanted to know more. Barnaby Rudge is a historical novel, one of only two such novels Dickens wrote. It was published in 1841 and was the work he planned the longest and most carefully. Yet it is rarely read today and wasn’t very popular when it was published either. One contemporary critic apparently dismissed it as ‘Barnaby Rubbish’.
It turns out that in many respects Barnaby Rudge isn’t very Christmassy. Nor, however, is it rubbish. In parts it is completely terrifying, and those who like their Dickens served with a slice of Pickwickesque jollity should probably look elsewhere. Its plot is uneven, its women are nonentities, and its central character can’t really carry the weight of the narrative. There’s an odd five-year gap in the middle of the story, and the main historical character, Lord George Gordon, is only introduced two-thirds of the way through. However, in spite of all this, my discovery of last Christmas is that it’s also amazing, unsettling and brilliant. If your test for festive reading is that a novel should grab you and not let you put it down; that it should allow you to ignore the crunch underfoot of wrapping paper and children’s toys; that it should pin you to your chair so that your movements are reduced to re-stocking the fire and the chocolate pile, then Barnaby Rudge is for you.
The novel’s full title is Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of ’Eighty. The ‘Riots of ’Eighty’ are better known today as the Gordon Riots of 1780, during which, according to the estimate of some historians, as much damage was done in London over five days
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