Sunday, March 18, 2012

Barnaby Rudge

I've now finished Barnaby Rudge, my first celebration of Charles Dickens' bicentenary year.  I see that the paperback version runs to 730 pages - I was reading it on Kindle, and must admit there were times when it seemed just a little long.

I'd never read this particular Dickens title before, so I was pleasantly surprised, considering that somewhere along the line I'd gained the impression that it was one of his lesser books.  The first half is lighter in tone, the second, which takes place five years later, is considerably darker.  The book is well-known for being about the Gordon riots of 1780, but the riots don't come into it (and nor does Gordon) until the second half where they take up a great deal of the space, and involve most of the characters from the first half in some way or other.  (And some other new characters, including Gordon himself.)

The first half of the book is a delight, inhabited by a world of typical Dickens characters, and full of his wonderful humour and insight into human beings.  There's a reasonably substantial plot and mystery which connect most of the people in some way or other, and some of the aspects of these aren't resolved or clarified until late in the book.  The Gordon riots aren't perhaps integral to the book as a whole, even though they form a substantial portion of it.  Nevertheless Dickens writes with considerable knowledge of the events, and there a numerous anecdotes that date from the writings of the time that he includes in his story, and he manages to plunge his main characters into the events with a reasonable ease, though there are a substantial number of coincidental meetings in this half.

The story was originally named after Gabriel Varden, the locksmith (his daughter is Dolly Varden, after whom a place in Wellington used to be named; I think it now has had its original Maori name restored to it).   However, at some point the book was named after another character, Barnaby Rudge.   Barnaby is one of Dickens' sentimental characters; he's regarded as an 'idiot', 'stupid', 'lacking in sense' by different characters, and is something of a free spirit, not bound by the norms of ordinary society.  However, Dickens sometimes allows him to reflect on things in a way that isn't consistent with his behaviour or his dialogue in other places, and this makes him less than believable.  Barnaby is an interesting creation, but the book could possibly have existed without him; he vanishes from the pages for a huge chunk of it, and though he's involved in the riots, it's as an disinterested party.  And he's let off being hanged without any real explanation at all.  He has a pet raven called Grip.  Grip sometimes seems more interesting than Barnaby.

Dickens' sentimentality is evident in several other places, for instance in the later scenes between the young lovers, Joe and Dolly - the authorial interruptions in this section make the reader a little queasy.  And he dwells on some characters at length when describing their inner feelings - particularly Barnaby's mother (a woman with a dark secret, the sort of dark secret that can never be revealed until the very end), and the murderer (who happens to be Barnaby's father, it turns out).  Dickens seems to have been reading Crime and Punishment when it comes to describing the murderer - he's one of those characters who dwells and dwells on his crime but can never bring himself to repentance, though there's no good reason given why he shouldn't.  (In fact, Barnaby Rudge was written more than a decade before Dostoevesky's book.)

But these flaws aside, there are some wonderful things in this book, and it's certainly no lightweight in the Dickens canon.   The plot isn't up to much, but with Dickens, do we really care too much about the plot?   Apart from the wide range of characters, there are the superb descriptions of the riots themselves.  These are described in considerable detail, and make for grim reading at times.  How much of it stems from Dickens himself and how much of it is material he culled together from other sources is hard to tell.  Whatever the case, he writes with a journalistic verve in these sections.

However, any Dickens book ultimately stands or falls because of the characters (in fact, few of them actually fall at all), and Dickens provides us with plenty of wonderful characters here, even if they're not as well-known as characters from his other books.  John Willet, the innkeeper at the Maypole, is an extraordinary creation: a man so full of his own wisdom that he can barely hear anyone else's, and a man who takes an inordinate amount of time to say or think anything.  His charming son, Joe, is one of Dickens' stock heroes, but actually makes a much more interesting son to his father than he does a hero.  In fact he vanishes from a great chunk of the book, along with his counterpart hero, Edward Chester.

Gabriel Varden is a Dickens saint, and consequently never a terribly interesting character because he isn't true in the way the 'unsaintly' characters are.  (Most authors have difficulty creating a saintly character).  However, he is more interesting in the first half of the book than the second, where the characters get rather swamped by the riots.  His wife, on the other hand, and her appalling servant, Miggs, are two full-in-your-face characters.  We never quite believe it when Mrs Varden becomes good after the riots and after Varden has proved a hero, but Dickens doesn't make the same mistake with Miggs.  Miggs gets worse, if anything, and any possible sympathy we might ever have had with her is soundly trounced by the time the book ends.

The nastier characters are a mixed bunch: Hugh is the bastard son of Lord John Chester, we eventually discover.  Hugh is a wild, violent gypsy of a man (he has gypsy blood) and he goes from being a shadowy, disturbing background character to being a man eminently suited for battle - except that he chooses the wrong side to fight for, and the wrong cause.  His offsider in the second half of the book is Dennis (that's his surname), who's one of the London hangmen, and who delights in the idea of 'working off' people.  He comes to meet the noose himself, and turns into the most frantic coward at the idea.  Since he's actually a character who contributes nothing to the structure of the book, but merely appears out of nowhere and takes up the room that 'belongs' to him somehow, he's quite some creation for all that.

Simon Tappertit, who begins as Gabriel Varden's apprentice and goes onto become the leader of an ill-fated gang of insurrectionist apprentices, is an odd creation.  Full of his own self in the first half, and convinced he will marry his boss's daughter (while Miggs is convinced he's in love with her), he seems to be coming into his own in the second half, except that Dickens has decided that his villainy should be 'rewarded', and Simon meets a disastrous end, not dying, but losing the legs he so admires (his own legs, that is!)

Perhaps the most villainous character is John Chester.  When we first meet him, he seems to be the good character to Geoffrey Haredale's 'bad' character.  However, Dickens has crafted Chester in such away that we soon discover his true nature, and reverse our original opinions of him and Haredale.  (Haredale is the brother of the man who was murdered years before the story begins.)  Chester is self-admiring, and aims always to look his best, but far more than this is his way of twisting the minds of lesser men to his own ends, and doing it all with a smile on his face and fulsome words on his tongue.  He meets his end via Haredale's sword, but somehow this is an anticlimax: a much more remarkable end seems to be looming for him throughout the book.

Finally, there is Lord George Gordon.  How much of the character here is Dickens' creation, and how much is true to history, is hard to tell.  Dickens presents him as a man capable of rabble-rousing, but unwilling to lead the rabble once they're roused.  He will hive off into a corner until the trouble is over.   He appears as a weak man, boosted by the supposed admiration of yet another baddie, Gashford (a man connected in the book's history with both Haredale and Chester).   He is shown to be someone who seems to believe in his cause, and yet isn't willing to be responsible for what his cause brings about.  And in a couple of scenes he seems happy to set men at odds without any sense of the consequences for those concerned.   He's a minor character in the book, but an influential one.

Well, that was an interesting read...now onto something a little shorter!
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