Top positive review
69 people found this helpful
Possibly Dickens's least-known work.
on 29 November 2003
"Barnaby Rudge" was the first commercial failure Dickens had. There were a number of reasons for this, mainly I suspect that it was published during a recession, but also because Dickens had by then made a big name for himself as an observer of his own times. That is very much the image he still has today, Dickens is synonymous with the mid-19th century, so going back to the end of the 18th century wasn't perhaps commercially a good move. These days "Barnaby Rudge" has become overshadowed completely by Dickens's other historical novel, "A Tale Of Two Cities", not helped by the fact that both books cover more or less the same themes: the horrors of mob rule, a city plunged into anarchy, the storming of a prison, and what happens when innocent people get dragged into a cause that is being manipulated by people with dubious axes to grind, plus of course the perennial theme of love triumphing in the face of evil.
Having said all that, "Barnaby Rudge" holds up strongly as a book in its own right. The anti-Catholic Gordon Riots are virtually unknown to us these days (I have to admit, somewhat shamefully, I had never heard of them before, it was quite an eye-opener to find that such a devestating thing had happened in London!), but its central core theme of people becoming divided and wrecking havoc and hatred on each other is as relevant now as ever. Barnaby himself is a mentally-handicapped young man, and it is heartbreaking to see him allowing himself to be adopted by the cause in the belief that he will make his mother proud of him. It is also a delightful portrait of someone totally pure at heart caught up in a cynical, hate-filled world. I don't mean that to sound as though Dickens is preaching, (which would be off-putting to anyone just wanting a good read) because he isn't, nowhere does he allow that to happen.
As you would expect with Dickens there is a whole cast of strong, eccentric characters: the vain, uptight spinster Miss Miggs who seems to delude herself that every man she meets is fatally smitten with her, the almost feral-like Hugh the ostler, Dennis the Hangman, enthusiastically keen to get a rope round everybody else's neck but not so keen to see it near his own, Gabriel Varden, the salt-of-the-earth locksmith and his insufferably neurotic wife, and the immensely slappable Sir John Chester. The younger characters pale by comparison, though I have a soft-spot for Joe Willett, bullied by his overbearing father so much he has to run away from home and join the army. The central star-crossed love-story between Edward Chester (Protestant) and Emma Haredale (Catholic) virtually makes no impact at all, simply because the characters are so two-dimensional, and Dolly Varden is just a daft young flirt who realises, too late, that she's let a good bloke out of her grasp. Also much of the stuff surrounding Barnaby's mysterious father really doesn't make much impact at all. Rudge Snr simply doesn't come alive as a character. He's spent so long in the shadows that he seems to have become one!
What makes this book worth reading are obviously the Riots themselves, and showing the devestation it has on the ordinary people caught up in it, and the comedy set around the 'Maypole Inn'. Most importantly though, the character of Barnaby himself, and his talking black crow, Grip. Here you get Dickens's love of humanity and his compassion worked to great effect.