Barnaby Rudge is one of the less read novels in the Dickens canon. Written in the early years of Dickens’ career (1840-41, just after Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop), it betrays the signs of having been written too fast and with money too much in mind. The principal characters are insipid, the plot is unnecessarily bulked out, and the writing style is over-garrulous.
Yet this is Dickens we are talking about, the great imaginative genius of the English 19th century, and the novel works more than well enough. Barnaby Rudge is set in the years of the American Revolution, culminating in the “No Popery” riots of the summer of 1780.
Barnaby Rudge thus neatly bookends Dickens’ other historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities, also a story of revolutionary violence. But while Two Cities was published in 1859, at a time when the English could complacently contrast their own mid-Victorian prosperity and stability with the turbulent history of France, Barnaby Rudge was composed in the Hungry Forties, when the English novel-reading public might well have wondered if they too were not living with dynamite beneath their feet.
The No Popery riots were incited by a half-crazy Scottish nobleman, Lord George Gordon. In the late 1770s, the British government proposed relaxing anti-Catholic punitive legislation. Among other things, those laws (theoretically) banned Catholics from the army – an exclusion that seemed increasingly untenable as the American war consumed money and men.
One might have imagined that the liberal-minded Dickens, retelling these events more than half a century later – and indeed more than a decade after full Catholic Emancipation had been accomplished by a Conservative ministry – would have been led to his theme by some sympathy for an oppressed religious minority. Wrong! Dickens takes pains to stress in his preface,
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.
Nor are these words some politic concession to the prejudices of his readership. Nowhere in Barnaby Rudge does Dickens show any sympathy for – or even any interest in – Catholicism or Catholics. The old religion is depicted as a decayed survival of a more antique England, of scant intrinsic interest to modern people. Religious difference divides one pair of young lovers, but when they are at last united, Dickens forgets even to ask how their religious difference will be managed.
The issue that fascinates Dickens in Barnaby Rudge is not the religious prejudices that enflamed the London mob, but the mob itself.
Perhaps “fascinates” is the wrong word. “Arrests” or “absorbs” might be better, for Dickens regards mob violence with fear and revulsion, untinged with any of the prurient delight we find in for example his contemporary Thomas Carlyle. Dickens’ liberalism was in its way a very conservative liberalism, anxious against uproar and convulsion. Every one of the rioters is presented in a luridly negative light, as either wantonly destructive, or peevishly envious, or manipulatively vindictive, or vain and frivolous, or all of the above.
Barnaby Rudge, the title character, is a good natured, mentally impaired boy who gets caught up in the riots. He keeps a raven named Grip as a pet, and Dickens deploys the bird to ironic effect in a scene where Rudge shows off the bird’s ability to speak:
‘I’m a devil, I’m a Polly, I’m a kettle, I’m a Protestant, No Popery!’ Having learnt this latter sentiment from the gentry among whom he had lived of late, he delivered it with uncommon emphasis.
‘Well said, Grip!’ cried his master, as he fed him with the daintiest bits. ‘Well said, old boy!’
‘Never say die, bow wow wow, keep up your spirits, Grip Grip Grip, Holloa! We’ll all have tea, I’m a Protestant kettle, No Popery!’ cried the raven.
‘Gordon for ever, Grip!’ cried Barnaby.
The raven, placing his head upon the ground, looked at his master sideways, as though he would have said, ‘Say that again!’ Perfectly understanding his desire, Barnaby repeated the phrase a great many times. The bird listened with profound attention; sometimes repeating the popular cry in a low voice, as if to compare the two, and try if it would at all help him to this new accomplishment; sometimes flapping his wings, or barking; and sometimes in a kind of desperation drawing a multitude of corks, with extraordinary viciousness.
The book’s admirable characters, by contrast, absolutely refuse to countenance the violence in any way. One of those admirable characters is a locksmith, Gabriel Varden. Varden’s former apprentice, Simon Tappertit, becomes a leader of the mob, and he summons a great crowd to Varden’s house to terrify the locksmith into opening up the gates of Newgate prison.
[S]ome one at the window cried: ‘He has a grey head. He is an old man: Don’t hurt him!’ The locksmith turned, with a start, towards the place from which the words had come ….
‘Pay no respect to my grey hair, young man,’ he said, answering the voice and not any one he saw. ‘I don’t ask it. My heart is green enough to scorn and despise every man among you, band of robbers that you are!’
This incautious speech by no means tended to appease the ferocity of the crowd. They cried again to have him brought out; and it would have gone hard with the honest locksmith, but that Hugh reminded them, in answer, that they wanted his services, and must have them.
‘So, tell him what we want,’ he said to Simon Tappertit, ‘and quickly. And open your ears, master, if you would ever use them after to-night.’
Gabriel folded his arms, which were now at liberty, and eyed his old ‘prentice in silence.
‘Lookye, Varden,’ said Sim, ‘we’re bound for Newgate.’
‘I know you are,’ returned the locksmith. ‘You never said a truer word than that.’
‘To burn it down, I mean,’ said Simon, ‘and force the gates, and set the prisoners at liberty. You helped to make the lock of the great door.’
‘I did,’ said the locksmith. ‘You owe me no thanks for thatÑas you’ll find before long.’
‘Maybe,’ returned his journeyman, ‘but you must show us how to force it.’
‘Yes; for you know, and I don’t. You must come along with us, and pick it with your own hands.’
‘When I do,’ said the locksmith quietly, ‘my hands shall drop off at the wrists, and you shall wear them, Simon Tappertit, on your shoulders for epaulettes.’
Law and authority seldom show well in the novels of Dickens, and that is true in Barnaby Rudge as well. But this time Dickens excoriates authority for acting too slowly and too timidly to suppress the riots. He condemns the absence of an effective police force for the capital. Here is a description of a Catholic merchant come to beg the Lord Mayor of the city of London for protection:
‘Now, you hear this, my lord?’Ñsaid the old gentleman, calling up the stairs, to where the skirt of a dressing-gown fluttered on the landing-place. ‘Here is a gentleman here, whose house was actually burnt down last night.’
‘Dear me, dear me,’ replied a testy voice, ‘I am very sorry for it, but what am I to do? I can’t build it up again. The chief magistrate of the city can’t go and be a rebuilding of people’s houses, my good sir. Stuff and nonsense!’
‘But the chief magistrate of the city can prevent people’s houses from having any need to be rebuilt, if the chief magistrate’s a man, and not a dummyÑcan’t he, my lord?’ cried the old gentleman in a choleric manner.
‘You are disrespectable, sir,’ said the Lord MayorÑ’leastways, disrespectful I mean.’
‘Disrespectful, my lord!’ returned the old gentleman. ‘I was respectful five times yesterday. I can’t be respectful for ever. Men can’t stand on being respectful when their houses are going to be burnt over their heads, with them in ’em. What am I to do, my lord? Am I to have any protection!’
‘I told you yesterday, sir,’ said the Lord Mayor, ‘that you might have an alderman in your house, if you could get one to come.’
‘What the devil’s the good of an alderman?’ returned the choleric old gentleman.
‘ÑTo awe the crowd, sir,’ said the Lord Mayor.
‘Oh Lord ha’ mercy!’ whimpered the old gentleman, as he wiped his forehead in a state of ludicrous distress, ‘to think of sending an alderman to awe a crowd! Why, my lord, if they were even so many babies, fed on mother’s milk, what do you think they’d care for an alderman! Will you come?’
‘I!’ said the Lord Mayor, most emphatically: ‘Certainly not.’
‘Then what,’ returned the old gentleman, ‘what am I to do? Am I a citizen of England? Am I to have the benefit of the laws? Am I to have any return for the King’s taxes?’
‘I don’t know, I am sure,’ said the Lord Mayor; ‘what a pity it is you’re a Catholic! Why couldn’t you be a Protestant, and then you wouldn’t have got yourself into such a mess? I’m sure I don’t know what’s to be done.ÑThere are great people at the bottom of these riots.ÑOh dear me, what a thing it is to be a public character!Ñ You must look in again in the course of the day.ÑWould a javelin- man do?ÑOr there’s Philips the constable,Ñhe’s disengaged,Ñhe’s not very old for a man at his time of life, except in his legs, and if you put him up at a window he’d look quite young by candle- light, and might frighten ’em very much.ÑOh dear!Ñwell!Ñwe’ll see about it.’
When the soldiers finally are called out to quell the riots, Dickens’ sympathies are plainly with them – even when they shoot to kill. The outrages of the mob are depicted vividly and memorably; the work of the military is summarized in business-like sentences:
The strong military force disposed in every advantageous quarter, and stationed at every commanding point, held the scattered fragments of the mob in check; the search after rioters was prosecuted with unrelenting vigour; and if there were any among them so desperate and reckless as to be inclined, after the terrible scenes they had beheld, to venture forth again, they were so daunted by these resolute measures, that they quickly shrunk into their hiding-places, and had no thought but for their safety.
Unlike 19th century conservatives, Dickens did not believe that the mass of the people were inherently bestial. He blames the bestiality of the mob on the injustices of the society that produced the mob: The most depraved of the mob leaders is the illiterate orphaned child of a woman hanged for a petty theft. Indeed (in a rather heavy-handed touch) that thuggish brute turns out to be the illegitimate son of the novel’s most haughty gentleman – who is also the story’s most conscienceless villain.
But if Dickens is willing to explain ignorance and bestiality, he is unwilling to condone or deny them. The mob is not misunderstood. It threatens the good as well as the bad in society, and Dickens wants no part of it. Dickens was a liberal and a reformer, but his zeal for social change was also a zeal to preserve social order. A very Victorian kind of liberalism – and very different from the liberalism of the 20th century, which so often made a naive romance of the insurrectionary movements that Dickens so intensely feared and so memorably condemned.