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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Barnaby Rudge (Oxford World's Classics) » User review

Dickens blends his inimitible fiction with history in his least-read novel

  • Jul 10, 2011
Rating:
+4
In a move some critics have identified as a self-conscious and flattering imitation of Sir Walter Scott's British historical novels, Dickens combines his fully-developed fictional skills with the historical record of the Anti-Catholic riots of 1780 to create Barnaby Rudge.  Perhaps because the ficitonalized events are little-remembered outside of England, many readers have mistakenly by-passed this well-written dramatic novel.

The novel starts with a fictional back story five years before the 1780 riots, and doesn't actually pick up the historical thread until nearly halfway through the book.  And interestingly, while it does have some of Dickens' deft comedy touches, the fictional back story is almost Gothic in its mingling of ill-fated feuding families and dark portents of potential trouble to come.  It feels more of a piece with an extended and more fully developed Poe story, or of the mysteries of Dickens' contemporary and great friend Wilkie Collins.  

The historical events, while little-known outside the UK today, are fascinating in Dickens' hands.  Writing 50 years after the fact, he read extensively in the contemporary journalistic and official records as well as histories of the time.  In response to the 1778 Relief Act passed to end legal and economic discrimination against Catholics, MP Lord George Gordon assembled a loose coalition of xenophobic Protestants, working-class agitators, and an unaffiliated criminal class in protest. For a week in June 1780, Gordon's control over the coalition crumbled as the mob burned prisons, Catholic churches, and Catholic-owned property in and around central London.   Dickens ignores the political aspects of the uprising (such as Chartism, poverty, and protests against the other major event in English political life at the time--the war against the rebels in North America seeking their independence) and focuses on the anger and destruction of the mob, its historical leaders, and his fictional characters as he interweaves the accounts as only Dickens could.

From the beginning Barnaby Rudge did not sell well.  Interestingly, it was originally conceived as a three-volume novel, not as a repackaged serial publication like all of Dicken's other novels, but after sitting on the shelf for five years after the original contract was signed, it followed "The Old Curiousity Shop" in the Master Humphrey's Clock weekly serial (sales dropped 50% during its run!).   Another interesting note is that Dickens' working title for the the novel was "Gabriel Vardon" after his most heroic fictional character; Barnaby Rudge is an appealing but more tragic figure--the orphaned and mentally-retarded son of a murdered father; Barnaby is heroic only by accident, and tragic in his innocent and trusting nature, and makes a most unlikely hero to carry the title.

While the introductory notes to the Oxford World's Classics edition that I read suggests that the poor sales of the new novel were due to the reader's confrontation with difficult historical events that were still within the living memory of many readers, it is unfortunate that they and subsequent generations of readers have not paid more attention to this minor classic.  It feels more of a piece with Edwin Drood and the later novels, and is well-worthy of being read alongside Dickens' better-known works.

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About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #38
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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Grade 7-12-Dicken's tale of private lives and public events takes place in the unrest of the 1780's London. This BBC production includes a full cast, music, and sound effects.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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ISBN-10: 0192840568
ISBN-13: 978-0192840561
Author: Clive Hurst
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA

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