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Barnaby Rudge: The Phantom Menace of Dickens novels

First of all, fuck Barnaby Rudge. This book took me three years to read.

There is just paragraph. After paragraph. After paragraph of description. Especially when the 1780 riots finally start happening. If I were Dickens's editor I would've crossed out at least 100 pages with "Are you fucking kidding me?" written in giant red letters.


me to Dickens for 85% of this book

Dickens is good at plots that tightly revolve around a central cast of characters, but when he expands that to a broader message, it becomes pretty Not Good. In Barnaby Rudge, he spends page after page after page summarizing the Gordon Riots, and it's terrible. Here is one example of said terribleness (DO NOT READ THIS WHOLE QUOTE it is not worth it):


The City authorities, stimulated by these vigorous measures, held a Common Council; passed a vote thanking the military associations who had tendered their aid to the civil authorities; accepted it; and placed them under the direction of the two sheriffs. At the Queen's palace, a double guard, the yeomen on duty, the groom-porters, and all other attendants, were stationed in the passages and on the staircases at seven o'clock, with strict instructions to be watchful on their posts all night; and all the doors were locked. The gentlemen of the Temple, and the other Inns, mounted guard within their gates, and strengthened them with the great stones of the pavement, which they took up for the purpose. In Lincoln's Inn, they gave up the hall and commons to the Northumberland Militia, under the command of Lord Algernon Percy; in some few of the city wards, the burgesses turned out, and without making a very fierce show, looked brave enough. Some hundreds of stout gentlemen threw themselves, armed to the teeth, into the halls of the different companies, double-locked and bolted all the gates, and dared the rioters (among themselves) to come on at their peril. These arrangements being all made simultaneously, or nearly so, were completed by the time it got dark; and then the streets were comparatively clear, and were guarded at all the great corners and chief avenues by the troops: while parties of the officers rode up and down in all directions, ordering chance stragglers home, and admonishing the residents to keep within their houses, and, if any firing ensued, not to approach the windows. 

IT IS THE WORST. I'm not sure what made Dickens want to write about the Gordon Riots of 1780, but he should've been slapped real hard when he first came up with the idea. 

And now, some background.

Barnaby Rudge was written in 1841 and comes after The Old Curiosity Shop, which is also not Dickens's best, but I'd say it's worth reading. Barnaby Rudge is worth being tossed into a fire with flames so hot they would burn the sun. It's Dickens's fifth novel and still very Early Period, meaning it's scattershot and unfocused (but doesn't rely on the charm of its characters to carry it through, so it just falls on its face). His very next novel was A Christmas Carol, so thank God he worked that shit out. Because Barnaby Rudge is so very very bad.

The characters are:

Barnaby Rudge. A young man who's apparently simple-minded, but speaks in weirdly eloquent sentences a lot of the time. I'm not sure Dickens knew how to write this sort of thing.

Sir John Chester. An evil politician who everyone thinks is super-gentlemanly and polite, but is in fact ORCHESTRATING the Gordon Riots because he is pissed at Mr Haredale. Sir John is also the father of Edward Chester. 

Mr Haredale. Guardian of Emma Haredale. Catholic.

Edward Chester & Emma Haredale. They're pretty sure they want to get married. Their parents def don't want them to. Edward goes overseas and makes a lot of money in the West Indies, since that's what you did back then.

Dolly Varden. Daughter of Gabriel Varden the locksmith. So pretty. SUPER pretty. Dickens really wants you to know this. But also coquettish, which means she has to learn A Lesson. Dickens likes teaching ladies lessons.

Joe Willet. Son of an innkeeper, in love with Dolly Varden. She's too coquettish so he goes and fights in the Revolutionary War and loses an arm. All because of Dolly and her lady-ways. They get married in the end because it's a Dickens novel and everyone dies or gets married.

Hugh. Works at Joe Willet's inn. Becomes a leader of the riots. Secretly Sir John Chester's son. Has a REALLY REALLY creepy/rapey scene with Dolly that squicked me out a whole bunch.

That Mysterious Dude from the Beginning. Barnaby's father, who killed Mr Haredale's brother ages ago. Ugh. This book.

There're also some comic/terrible characters like Simon Tappertit, who's an apprentice of the locksmith, and Miggs, the locksmith's wife's maid. They both have pretty horrible lives after the riots are over, 'cause sure, why not.

For what the Gordon Riots were, please see this post based on a book I read in three days and highly recommend, unlike this book, which again, is terrible. As to the plot here...Dickens spends so much time summarizing the riots and trying to get everything to tie into his characters, it's just intensely boring. It feels like a history book, but way worse because there're also these fictional elements you're supposed to care about but don't because he spends too much time away from them for you to get invested.

THAT BEING SAID, I was really giggly when Joe and Dolly got together at the end. They're intensely cute. But you could read their whole storyline in about 30 pages, and this book is close to 400. But at the end of the day, I mean...it's still Dickens. You read it and are so extraordinarily bored and then there's suddenly a part where you go



Because Dickens can be The Best. But here he is not. Starting, weirdly enough, in the preface, where he hastens to distance himself from Catholics, even though this is 1841 and not 1780:

However imperfectly those disturbances are set forth in the following pages, they are impartially painted by one who has no sympathy with the Romish Church, though he acknowledges, as most men do, some esteemed friends among the followers of its creed.
You know, I make jokes about "damned papists" and that sort of thing, but I don't want to minimize how much Catholics in England SUFFERED from the 16th through the 19th centuries. And Dickens kind of points that out, but then he's a dick about it. But he also has phrases in this book like "drowsy little panes of glass," and describes John Willet as "a burly, large-headed man with a fat face," and check out this description of weather:

It was on one of those mornings, common in early spring, when the year, fickle and changeable in its youth like all other created things, is undecided whether to step backward into winter or forward into summer, and in its uncertainty inclines now to the one and now to the other, and now to both at once--wooing summer in the sunshine, and lingering still with winter in the shade.

Damnit, Dickens. How are you SO GREAT sometimes, but also the absolute worst. On a similar note, his observations about life that were obviously gleaned from the hours upon hours of solitary walking he did around London are SO SPOT-ON, and you read them and just go "Sir, you get it. Your brain is magnificent. But why did you misuse it for this novel, WHY." But check this out:

To pace the echoing stones from hour to hour, counting the dull chimes of the clocks; to watch the lights twinkling in chamber windows, to think what happy forgetfulness each house shuts in; that here are children coiled together in their beds, here youth, here age, here poverty, here wealth, all equal in their sleep, and all at rest; to have nothing in common with the slumbering world around, not even sleep, Heaven's gift to all its creatures, and be akin to nothing but despair; to feel, by the wretched contrast with everything on every hand, more utterly alone and cast away than in a trackless desert; this is a kind of suffering, on which the rivers of great cities close full many a time, and which the solitude in crowds alone awakens.
"To have nothing in common with the slumbering world around, not even sleep." Ahhhhhhh. It makes me love him even though I spent a ridiculous amount of time cursing this book and coming up with the infinitely clever alternate title Barnaby Trudge. 

It was such a misstep for Dickens, and I'm glad it didn't sink him early on. People were probably still weeping over Little Nell when it came out, so maybe that helped him along. But oh man, it's so bad. No one's heard of it because no one should have heard of it. I cannot tell you how little I'm looking forward to his one other historical novel, Tale of Two Cities. Yes, it's much later in his career, but I don't trust him at all with history now. He's so good at taking a group of people and illustrating larger truths about humanity, that when he's talking about humanity itself on this grand scale, he gets lost.

Barnaby Rudge: It's the Worst.

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