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A Dickens of a Riot

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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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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 as was inflicted on Paris during the whole of the French Revolution. The riots started in response to the government’s decision to enact a very limited relaxation of the civil disabilities suffered by Catholics. Under the leadership of Lord George Gordon, the Protestant Association of London mounted a campaign for repeal of this relaxation and on 2 June a crowd of around 50,000 people marched on Parliament. Historical accounts of what happened next vary, but the general consensus is that Gordon quickly lost control of the mob he had roused as violence spread outwards from Parliament into the streets of London. All over the city the houses of Catholics were razed to the ground and individual householders were forced to write ‘No Popery’ on their walls in order to protect their property. In one part of London the priceless library of Lord Mansfield was destroyed; elsewhere a distillery was plundered until the streets ran with gin. Most famously the rioters burned down the door of Newgate prison and set all the prisoners free. Today historians tend to characterize the riots as an expression of anger against power, rather than merely the result of religious tensions. Whatever the motivation, the result was that hundreds of people were killed in the worst outbreak of public disorder since the Civil War. Barnaby Rudge follows a loosely interconnected group of characters through London’s streets in the years leading up to the riots, and, in its gripping final section, in and out of the riots themselves. It opens with a group of drinkers at the Maypole tavern reminiscing about an old and unsolved murder at a nearby house, the Warren. On early inspection all this looks straightforwardly Dickensian. The Maypole is a proper Merrie England pub, with a roaring fire, a portly barman and a crowd of stock regulars; and the murder is related as a grisly tale designed to make both drinkers and reader pull a little closer to the fire. But this convivial scene is interrupted by the arrival of a menacing stranger, whose presence induces gut-churning fear in several of the novel’s central characters. Terror and disruption follow the stranger out of the pub and into the hearts of several of the families connected to the Warren and the Maypole, as private dramas weave in and out of an increasingly volatile public story. In a large and untidy novel, certain individuals and pairings stand out. The barman of the Maypole, John Willet, is tyrannizing his son Joe; his sometime customer, Sir John Chester, is an equally bad parent to his son, Edward. At the Warren the Catholic Mr Haredale is doing his best to protect his niece Emma from the house’s murderous history, as well as from the anti-Catholic feeling menacing their fra-gile peace. Across London the locksmith Gabriel Varden is the only truly cheerful character in the novel, even though his querulous wife and her maidservant Miggs (one of the novel’s richest and most appalling characters) do their best to dampen his enjoyment of life. Varden’s apprentice Sam Tappertit, meanwhile, has joined an underground society of ‘Prentice Knights’ who are busily plotting the overthrow of their masters, while his daughter Dolly is a good-hearted coquette merrily engaged in breaking the hearts of both Sam Tappertit and Joe Willet. Moving between these families is Barnaby Rudge himself, a mentally impaired young man based on Wordsworth’s ‘Idiot Boy’, who becomes embroiled in the riots and whose mother has more reason than most to fear the appearance of the menacing stranger at the Maypole. Barnaby is accompanied everywhere he goes by his pet raven Grip, whom Dickens modelled on his own childhood pet and who plays a small but pivotal role in his master’s fate. In the final third of the novel new characters join the cast, some macabrely funny, some downright sinister. Lord George Gordon appears as a naïve religious enthusiast who is entirely at the mercy of his sinister secretary Gashford, while the Maypole’s ostler Hugh takes centre stage as the ringleader of the riots. Hugh’s vices, however, have nothing on those of the Newgate hangman Mr Dennis, whose pride in his profession comes back to haunt him in the final pages. The other character to loom large in Barnaby Rudge is London itself – not the London of Great Expectations or Oliver Twist but rather the London of the late eighteenth century. Dickens builds a vision of the that city from his own childhood memories, and from his intimate knowledge of the old quarters and wynds he walked night after night. No one captures better than Dickens the way different worlds co-exist in London. The prosperous Clerkenwell street on which Gabriel Varden lives, for example, is just a few minutes’ walk from the mouldy cellar to which Sam Tappertit escapes to plan the downfall of all apprentice-masters. The streets are lawless places at night, and an ominous sense of danger abroad tracks all who venture from their own houses after dark. Dickens takes a great deal of trouble to remind his readers that the London of the 1770s bled in and out of the countryside much more fluidly than does their own city.
Six-and-sixty years ago, a very large part of what is London now had no existence . . . nature was not so far removed, or hard to get at, as in these days; and although there were busy trades in Clerkenwell . . . it was a purer place, with farm-houses nearer to it than many modern Londoners would readily believe, and lovers’ walks at no great distance, which turned into squalid courts, long before the lovers of this age were born.
This conjured London of old comes to life most vividly when the action moves to Newgate prison. Anyone who thinks that Barnaby Rudge is rubbish should take another look at Dickens’s description of the storming of Newgate, which is both violent and compelling:
And now the strokes began to fall like hail upon the gate, and on the strong building; for those who could not reach the door, spent their fierce rage on anything – even on the great blocks of stone, which shivered their weapons into fragments, and made their hands and arms to tingle as if the walls were active in their stout resistance, and dealt them back their blows. The clash of iron ringing upon iron, mingled with the deafening tumult and sounded high above it, as the great sledge-hammers rattled on the nailed and plated door; the sparks flew off in showers; men worked in gangs, and at short intervals relieved each other, that all their strength might be devoted to the work.
I can’t think of another description like this, in which the mob also becomes a character, a single entity with its own humanity comprised of a mass of individuals working as one. Literary critics have speculated about where Dickens’s sympathies lie in Barnaby Rudge. Some argue that the novel’s ending celebrates the restoration of law and order, others that the Newgate scenes reveal Dickens’s detest-ation of the Georgian ‘Bloody Code’ that his own age had inherited. Whatever his politics, it is clear that he enjoyed recreating the destruction of Newgate a great deal. Writing to his friend John Forster of his progress he reported rather gleefully: ‘I have let all the prisoners out of Newgate, burnt down Lord Mansfield’s, and played the very devil . . . I feel quite smoky when I am at work.’ The combined result of all this is that you feel, when you’re reading Barnaby Rudge, as if you’d been picked up and dropped in the middle of a country waiting to explode. Just as town and country shift seamlessly in and out of each other, so the different strands of the plot come together during the summer nights of the riots to pull you from one drama to another. Dickens was a reporter before he was a novelist and he knew just where to train his eye. He also understood exactly how to pace the action. Writing to John Landseer, he explained that his method in writing about the riots was to ‘go on to the end headlong, pell mell, or they lose their effect’. Headlong, pell mell, is about right. In his second historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens would perfect this way of recreating history, and there’s no doubt that he takes some time to get into his stride in Barnaby Rudge. Once he gets there, though, the effect is electrifying, as is the experience of walking through the crowd in his shadow. There’s no denying then that there are quite a few things wrong with Barnaby Rudge. It doesn’t have the clarity of vision of Dickens’s later novels, or the iconic characters of his most famous works. Yet it makes a world and it puts you there, and it holds you in its grasp. It’s a rough diamond of a book, in which you can see Dickens trying out lots of the techniques he would perfect as his career progressed. But it is not simply an overlong historical experiment or an easily dismissed apprentice work. In every page Dickens reminds us that power corrupts those who hold it as well as those who are oppressed. In the process he creates a vivid account of what happens when fathers and sons, husbands and wives and friends of different political opinions forget to treat each other with understanding and respect. And in the end it is affection, civility and friendship that triumph. What, really, could be more Christmassy than that?

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 60 © Daisy Hay 2018


About the contributor

Daisy Hay is currently working on a book about a group of writers who walked the dangerous streets of the London described in Barnaby Rudge. She is the author of Young Romantics and Mr and Mrs Disraeli.

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