Thursday, 11 November 1999

Charles Dickens: Barnaby Rudge (1841)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 387

Barnaby Rudge was originally planned as Dickens' first novel. The success of The Pickwick Papers and his development of the serial publication of novels in his magazines - as opposed to the two or three volumes of contemporary practice - meant that writing a novel about the Gordon riots was delayed for some years. And yet Barnaby Rudge still reads like a very early work.

The influence of Scott - novels like The Heart of Midlothian - is fairly obvious, and this is one thing which marks out the novel as the work of a young writer. Later Dickens reads like no one but himself.

The character of Barnaby is a nice idea, imperfectly realised. A simpleton possessed of a benevolent, trusting attitude to the world around him, he is an easy prey for those who want to involve him in the riots as a sort of figurehead to hide the extent of their own involvement. The parallels with Lord George Gordon, whose naive extreme anti-Catholicism sparked off the riots, is a nice touch: the Gordon family at this time were famous for having less than common sense, even for madness. But Barnaby is not convincing; he is rather sentimentalised (to a modern reader, Dickens' greatest fault), and attempts to create humour through his character do not really come off.

Barnaby Rudge is interesting because we can see in it where Dickens started from, and because the riots themselves are a dramatic subject.

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