We’re nearly halfway through our Dickens readathon with Barnaby Rudge, a story of family secrets set amid the riots that nearly destroyed 18th-century London.
I don’t know if it’s because it’s January, or because Claire Tomalin’s biography says it is ‘the least popular of his books at the time, and has remained so’, or just because of its drudgy name, but I have to confess I was slightly dreading Barnaby Rudge. In fact, I was very pleasantly surprised. (I think).
The plus points are easy. The most thrilling, bloodthirsty descriptions of mob violence I’ve ever read, as mad raging crowds in the Gordon riots set fire to churches, storm Newgate prison and lie in depraved heaps drinking flaming liquor. The plausibility of weak men with grudges forming themselves into groups called things like ‘United Bulldogs’ and acting all macho as they smash things up. The baddies, of course: smooth-talking Sir John Chester, and animalistic Hugh, who is transformed by alcohol from a rugged beefcake (at which point Becky pointed out it was slightly wrong of me to be attracted to a 19th-century illustration) into a devilish beast. The last few chapters are a thrillride of shocking revelations, burnings, kidnappings, heaving bosoms, sizzling gypsies and sword fights.
But – the bad news it takes about 400 pages to get here. Not that much seems to happen before that. It’s a novel without a hero, not necessarily a problem, but I found the holy fool Barnaby Rudge too much of a cutout. And, we all agreed the depiction of young women was decidedly icky. Now on to my fellow Dickens fans’ views:
‘I don't understand why Barnaby Rudge is so unpopular; it's great! It starts slowly, I'll admit, but I really enjoyed Dickens's London of the 1780s, which is all lawlessness, muddy streets, villains crouching on corners and wigs being blown off. I think the best, most interesting character in this novel is THE MOB itself, with its complex motivations, and its unstoppable, destructive will. I love the build up of tension as the London riots gather momentum, and the climax is compelling. One thing really bugs me, though: even allowing for the fact he's a Victorian, the author's attitude towards young women is sometimes deeply unnerving. There is one uncomfortable chapter, in which our heroines are at the mercy of some potential rapists, where Dickens seems to be enjoying himself -ahem- a bit too much. It says a lot for the brilliance, humour and insightfulness of the rest of his story telling that I still love the book.’ Becky Stocks
‘Although this didn't have the immediate pace of the other Dickenses I've read, Barnaby Rudge is still full of such amazing characters. The consensus seemed to be in our group that even a weaker Dickens knocks the spots off particularly modern fiction, and with figures like wicked-but-possibly-handsome Hugh (have you ever seen someone swoon over a nineteenth-century line-drawing? I have, now), lovely Gabriel Varden (apparently the original main character in Dickens's early thoughts), dreadful small-man Simon Tappertit and the best villain I think I've ever read, Mr Chester. Father of Edward, our male love-interest, Mr Chester is utterly evil in the most friendly, smiling manner: a perfect sociopath, delighted to be fooling people with his welcoming face. His dialogue throughout is some of the best, most modern I've read in any fiction, and I urge you to read this book to acquaint yourself with him alone, even if it didn't (four hundred pages in) also contain wild rioting, burning lakes of alcohol and terrible bloodshed. Overall score: a surprising 6.2.’ Sam Binnie
Next time – Martin Chuzzlewit, where we look forward to discovering the drunkard Mrs Gamp.