A Review of Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens
When I saw that The Complete Works of Charles Dickens was available on Kindle for less that £2.00 I downloaded it and was then left with the decision as to which of his novels I should try first. I went for Barnaby Rudge as I liked the name. Simple as that. I knew nothing about the book, not even, as it transpired, the length of it. That's one of the negative points of reading a book on Kindle - particularly when it is part of a collection. It was only after reading it for a month or so that I decided to check out the length in paperback - 744 pages. For one who had decided to regularly read and post reviews I guess a novel of such length was not a good choice. But by that time, it was too late to stop reading, not least because I was absolutely in love with the book.
So where to begin? Barnaby Rudge was apparently scheduled to be Dickens' first published novel but due to various issues including a change of publisher it was originally published in weekly installments from February 1841 to November 1841 in a magazine he edited called Master Humphrey's Clock. By all accounts it is not renowned as being one of his best and there have only been two attempts to dramatise it - once in a 1915 silent movie and again in an early 1960's TV serialisation. To be honest, had I known of these facts before, I would still have chosen it to be the first of his novels I would read all the way through. I do love an underdog!
For me, the novel felt like I was engaged in three different art forms. The first third is like wandering around an art gallery, taking in the scenes, observing a time where the world was slower, less intense. The second is like watching an action film - fast paced, frantic, disturbing and entirely enthralling. The final third is akin to watching a series of vignettes on stage - the resolution of each of the many plot strands. This one man audience applauded and left the theatre sighing and fulfilled.
The central theme of the novel is how people cope when faced with emotional conflict - whether that be thwarted love, a lusting for a higher station in life, a desire for money or a desire for power. The first third of the novel sets up the conflicts and the central third imposes the incredible anarchy initiated (somewhat unknowingly it must be said) by Lord Gordon's attempts to rail against the Papist Act of 1778. Each of the main characters are caught up in the riots and each is changed by the way they decide to react to them. As you would expect, there are heroes and villains, deceit, wonder and disaster. The description of the riots is absolutely stunning and I could not help but think of the riots in London last year. Over 200 years separates each event yet Charles Dickens' account far exceeds anything I read in any newspaper a year ago. I was moved, appalled and entirely dumbstruck by the connection. I defy anyone not to react in a similar way.
The structure of Barnaby Rudge reminded me of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1862) - the extensive scenes depicting the Battle of Waterloo substituting the Gordon Riots; and the character of Miggs was very redolent of Miss Clack in The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins. Other than A Tale of Two Cities, Barnaby Rudge was the only novel Charles Dickens wrote that wasn't set in the 19th Century and there is a feeling of nostalgia in it that perhaps is hard to feel about his 19th Century novels. I have recently begun reading Nicholas Nickleby so I can certainly attest to the fact that his anger against the education system, capitalism and greed is certainly not depicted with any form of sentiment!
So overall, having read Barnaby Rudge, I am full of awe, admiration, joy and humility. William Blake is my ultimate literary hero - Charles Dickens, even after having just read one of his novels (a largely forgotten one at that) is already running him a close second.