A critical review of a book which I have read
Just as he uses the French Revolution as the catalyst to resolve the relationships and destinies of his characters in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, Charles Dickens uses the Gordon Riots to the same effect in Barnaby Rudge, his other historical novel.
Inspired by the eccentric peer, Lord Gordon, the London mob carried out a reign of terror in 1780 against Roman Catholics, involving murder, looting, arson, and acts of sedition including storming several prisons such as the Fleet and releasing the prisoners. Gordon escaped the consequences, due to lack of evidence, but other ringleaders were executed in public once the military had crushed the riots.
The riots occupy much of the story, and are brilliantly described. Hatred of the Papacy was the moral peg on which to hang the violence, and it presented the mob with specific targets, Roman catholic churches, RC houses and their families. A mob out of control and guided by ringleaders will find the lowest common denominator of behavior. It is formed out of a depressed working class which has an inbuilt hatred of the ‘Establishment’ and, individually, old scores to settle against oppressive employers. It’s real motivation is looting, revenge, and the exercise of power. For a time the mob succeeded by instilling fear into the respectable population at large. Many house-holders put notices in their windows declaring their Protestantism. Dickens captures and coveys this sense of fear which dominated London and it’s suburbs for some weeks. This is the most successful aspect of the novel. The climax is the detailed account of the storming, burning and liberation of the Fleet prison.
All the same, there is a certain weakness in the plotting, and this is the weakness of many of Dickens’ novels. Ever the sentimentalist, Dickens sees to it that all the characters, good and bad, get their just deserts. Life isn’t like that, and the plaintive Old Testament cry, ‘Why do the ungodly prosper ?’ is much nearer the mark. Yet Barnaby escapes the gallows on grounds of idiocy, even though he had joined the rioters for gain, albeit to help his mother. So he is a ‘goodie’; others are Geoffrey Haredale, a Roman Catholic whose house was burnt down, and Gabriel Varden, the locksmith who braved the mob in refusing to open the Fleet door lock. Anyway, his pretty daughter Dolly is needed for a happy marriage to Edward Chester. And the ‘baddies’? We have Hugh, he savage ostler, Simon Tappertit and Dennis the hangman. All get hanged. And the smooth villain, Sir John Chester, a secret fomenter of the Gordon Riots; Haredale kills his in a duel. Stewart Rudge, Barnaby’s father, had murdered Heredale’s brother years previously, but nemesis catches up with him and he also gets hanged. Even Miggs, the smarmy but treacherous maid gets sacked. So everything turns out well ! All this merely underlines the fact that Dickens, by far the most popular Victorian novelist, knew his readership. What did they want ? Exaggerated sketches of low-life characters, who would make them laugh by their grotesque misuse of English. The good and bad characters already mentioned. A love interest, with a happy ending, after the young lady has been exposed to many perils. An exciting plot, with vivid descriptions. A well-executed denouement, in which justice is seen to be done all round. And perhaps an eccentric such as Barnaby Rudge, with his talking raven. Even the raven survives the ups and downs of the riots.
The novel has all this. It is a masterpiece of popular fiction, but it is still second-rate.
Most Victorian novelists are too long and ‘wordy’ for modern tastes. Trollope suffers from the same verbal diarrhoea, but his denouements grow convincingly out of his characters rather than being imposed on them.
Dickens’ few middle or upper class characters are thin and boring. We know that Haredale is bluff, rough but honest, whereas Chester is smooth, but treacherous. Nothing more. The characters representing the various layers of the working class are far more rounded, but their comic use of English is very suspect. Working class English cannot have changed so dramatically even in one and a half centuries. Then as now, they abused the language, but wordiness, long and involved sentences, and delay in coming to the point were never features of their conversation, especially in London. Shakespeare understood this. Dickens did not.