BooksCharles DickensEnglandLiterature

June 12, 2014

Barnaby Rudge

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I loved this book. Loved it. If you’re an old English major whose read some Dickens, can keep David and Oliver separate, can knit a pattern of names in the fog of Chancery, and are looking for a Dickens that’s completely new to you, read Barnaby Rudge. Or make it your first Dickens. I was so caught up in the characters that halfway through I had to read the synopsis in my Oxford Companion to Dickens because I didn’t think I could continue living unless I could be re-assured that Barnaby and his pet raven Grip would be alive and okay in the end.

I need to clarify the word okay. Barnaby Rudge is what the characters in the book call “a sort of natural.” He’d be on anti-psychotic medication today and we’d all be poorer for it. Here’s Barnaby on the subject of clothes drying on the line:

“. . . do you mark how they whisper in each other’s ears; then dance and leap, to make believe they are in sport? Do you see how they stop for a minute, when they think there is no one looking, and mutter among themselves again; and how they roll and gambol delighted with the mischief they’ve been plotting?”

When it is pointed out that “they are only clothes, “ Barnaby says:

“Clothes! Why how much better to be silly than as wise as you! You don’t see shadowy people there, like those that live in sleep—not you. Nor eyes in knotted panes of glass, nor swift ghosts when it blows hard. . .not you! I lead a merrier life than you with all your cleverness.”

Barnaby’s companion in life—other than his mother who watches over him with great compassion and understanding—is his raven Grip. I worried about this bird for 700 pages. Everywhere Barnaby showed up I needed to know if Grip was with him and Dickens never left me worrying for long.

Grip has quite a vocabulary: “I’m a devil, Never say die, Polly put the kettle on.”

After a day of rambling over the countryside, Barnaby tells his mother that when the wind rolls Grip over in the dust, he “turns manfully to bite it.  .  . and has quarreled with every bowing twig.”

“The raven, in his little basket at his master’s back, hearing frequent mention of his name in a tone of exultation, expressed his sympathy by.  .  . running over his various phrases of speech with such rapidity, and in so many varieties of hoarseness, that they sounded like the murmurs of a crowd of people.”

“He takes such care of me besides!” said Barnaby.  .  . “He watches all the time I sleep, and when I shut my eyes. . He keeps his eye on me the while.  .  .”

The raven crowed again in a rapturous manner which plainly said, “Those are certainly some of my characteristics, and I glory in them.”

Dickens describes Grip as being “alive to everything his master was unconscious of,” a notion that made me put down the book and burst into tears.

Barnaby is the titular character. I read somewhere that Dickens almost called the book Gabriel Varden so I want you to remember Gabriel for later. But first his wife Mrs. Varden, who reminded me of my own mother.  She is definitely “a type.”  Here’s a little exchange of the Vardens:

“Well, well,” said the locksmith. “That’s settled then.”

“Oh yes,” rejoined his wife. “Quite.  .  . I shall not contradict you. I know my duty. I need know it, I’m sure. I’m often obliged to bear it in mind, when my inclination perhaps would be for the moment to forget it.  .  .” And so, with a might show of humility and forgiveness, she folded her hands, and looked round again, with a smile which plainly said, “If you desire to see the first and foremost among female martyrs, here she is, on view.”

I don’t know who’s in charge of these things but here’s a scene that was replicated 150 years later between my mother and me:

“Dolly had thrown herself upon the sofa.  .  . with her face buried in her hands was crying. . .

At first sight of this phenomenon.  .  . Mrs. Varden expressed her belief that never was any woman so beset as she; that her life was a continued scene of trial; that whenever she was disposed to be well and cheerful, so sure were the people around her to throw.  .  . a damp upon her spirits;, and that as she had enjoyed herself that day, and Heaven knew it was very seldom that she did enjoy herself, so she was now to pay the penalty. . . poor Dolly grew none the better for these restoratives.  .  . though Dolly was in a swoon, it was rendered clear to the meanest capacity, that Mrs. Varden was the sufferer.” (Italics mine)

Barnaby Rudge is actually an historical novel, recounting some unpleasantness called The Gordon Riots that took place in London between the times of the American and French Revolutions. Again, I don’t know who’s in charge of these things, but the riots took place in 1780 during the same first week of June that I read the book in 2014.  It was a movement that got out of hand after a protestant named George Gordon started a petition to repeal an earlier law that had lifted restrictions on people of the Catholic faith. Dickens begins the build-up:

“If a man had stood on London Bridge, calling till he was hoarse, upon passers-by, to join with Lord George Gordon, although for an object which no man understood.  .  . and which in that very incident had a charm of its own, the probability is that he might have influenced a score of people in a month. If all zealous Protestants had been publicly urged to join an association for the avowed purpose of singing a hymn or two occasionally, and hearing some indifferent speeches made, and ultimately petitioning Parliament not to pass an act abolishing penal laws against Catholics.  .  . matters so far removed from the business and bosom of the mass, might perhaps have called together a few hundred people. But when vague rumors got abroad that.  .  . a secret power was mustering against the government for undefined and mighty purposes; then the air was filled with whispers of a confederacy among the Popish powers to degrade and enslave England, establish an inquisition in London, turn the pens of Smithfield Market into stakes and cauldrons.  .  . and by-gone bugbears which had lain quietly in their graves centuries, were raised again to haunt the ignorant and credulous.  .  . then the mania spread indeed.  .  . and grew forty thousand strong.”

Much like what goes on today between political parties and with just as much grasp of reality, people turned their insides out in the form of screaming against Popish plots, and the fire was lit. Dickens description of the massing on London is truly exciting, and with the help of a little map in the Oxford World’s Classics edition, easy to visualize. When it was over in the space of about a week, 200 (historians put it at 850) people were dead, and 72 private homes and four prisons plus numerous businesses had been burned. A distillery was burnt with the loss of 120,000 gallons of alcohol with rioters dying from alcohol poisoning.

In the first half of the book we meet Barnaby and Grip, the Vardens, other families, the usual collection of Dickensian odious characters, and those in charge of comic relief. In some cases the odious characters are also the comic ones. Also in the first half of the book, a mystery is presented. The flowing of the mystery and all its tributaries sweeps Barnaby (and Grip) into the formation of the mob. Barnaby thinks the riots are great fun. He mimics the slogans– Grip learns them, too—and carries a flag. He inadvertently becomes a hero for the Protestant side, is arrested and sentenced to hang.

While Barnaby waited to be hung along with the coward/bully hangman Ned Dennis (a historical figure) and the truly creepy, ugly, and probably stinking Hugh, I read the story’s synopsis to calm myself, and the three of them had this exchange:

“Dennis. . trembled so that all his joints and limbs seemed racked by spasms. Turning from this wretched spectacle, he (Hugh) called to Barnaby, who stood apart.

“What cheer, Barnaby? Don’t be downcast, lad. Leave that to him.”

“Bless you,” cried Barnaby. “I’m not frightened, Hugh. I’m quite happy. I wouldn’t desire to live now, if they’d let me. Look at me. Am I afraid to die? “

Hugh gazed for a moment at his face, on which there was a strange unearthly smile: and at his eye, which sparkled brightly. . .”

This was another point at which I burst into tears, even though I had just re-assured myself that Barnaby would be pardoned. He is indeed pardoned at the 11th hour, thanks to the efforts of Gabriel Varden. Besides being a lovely, likeable man, and the ethical anchor of the book, Gabriel acquits himself admirably in the riots. He faces down Hugh and Dennis while being held at gunpoint, refusing to submit to their demand that he open the lock of Newgate Prison –the lock he had made. Barnaby and Gabriel both exhibit fearlessness, the difference being that Gabriel does so in full consciousness of what it means to die.

Gabriel loves Barnaby. He thinks of him as a son. He moves heaven and earth to secure his pardon. He even steps aside and lets the novel be named Barnaby Rudge instead of Gabriel Varden.

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