Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens
I’ve read this one twice before and always like it more than it deserves. It’s one of two historical novels by Dickens, a distinction many readers don’t make because all his novels have historical settings for us now. But A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Barnaby Rudge were both set before Dickens’ own time and dealt with a similar subject, mob rule: Barnaby Rudge with the No Popery riots of 1780 and A Tale of Two Cities with the French Revolution.
I say I like Barnaby Rudge “more than it deserves” because while the novel has a complex plot that’s not nearly as episodic as his previous novel (The Old Curiosity Shop, reviewed here in April of this year) it’s not as well-developed as later novels (Bleak House in particular). What’s brilliant about the novel is how Dickens follows the rioters, generally disaffected members of society who are ready enough to believe that they are “held back” because Catholics are doing the 18th century equivalent of “taking all the jobs”. Barnaby, raised by his mother and befriended by a talking raven, is described as an “idiot” and is clearly (if not consistently, especially if you consider his speech) somewhat simple. He’s been described by critics as derived from Wordsworth’s “Idiot Boy”, a child of nature who doesn’t understand the wicked world of men. His mother knows that his father killed a man just at the time of his birth and attributes Barnaby’s affliction to that event. She dedicates her life to his welfare.
But Barnaby is drawn into the riots on the side of Gordon’s No Popery bunch, not understanding the issues at all, but seeing himself as brave and true and fighting for a good cause. Dickens makes that believable as he makes the rioting and the violence believable. Clearly he understood crowd psychology and the manipulation of ideas. George Gordon might have come up with the ideas that spawned the riots, but it was his cohorts who used those ideas and used him to appeal to the disaffected.
There's the usual complement of interesting characters, among them a hangman who takes pride in his noble profession, the backbone of the English legal system in his view, and thinks he does the job so expertly that those who are hanged are grateful to him, but who joins the rioters, is caught himself and dragged kicking and screaming to be hanged, not at all grateful to the new hangman. There are a couple of pairs of star-crossed lovers who get together in the end as well as parents and children who are estranged and reunited. Some unrequited lovers and unforgiving parents and children too.