Dickens’s Darkest Novel, “Barnaby Rudge”

Dickens’s dark historical novel, Barnaby Rudge, is not necessarily for Dickens fans.  It is not that Dickens isn’t  dark:  there are some very dark scenes in Our Mutual Friend, which begins with a man and his daughter rowing on the Thames in search of a corpse.  Dickens’ wit and humor usually offset the darkness, but the dark iniquity is almost unremitting in Barnaby Rudge

In this tense, fast-paced novel, anti-Catholic feeling culminates in the Gordon Riots of 1780, the result of a movement led by the Scottish aristocrat, George Gordon. On a nine-day spree from June 2-10, rioters terrorized London, looting, committing murders and arson.  Terrified Londoners posted NO POPERY signs on their doors to avert the looters.

In an ingenious, if slightly rambling buildup, Dickens subtly sets up the religious conflict by depicting its role in a forbidden love affair.  Religion is an obstacle between two young lovers, Emma Haredale, a Catholic, and Edward Chester, a Protestant, who want to marry.  Emma’s uncle, Sir Geoffrey Haredale, and Edward’s manipulative father, Sir John Chesterly, veto the relationship – Sir John, who needs his son to marry money so he himself can live comfortably, uses the religion card to persuade Sir Geoffrey to help squelch the affair.  The two men are enemies – but Sir Geoffrey is spellbound – as is everyone else – by Sir John’s arguments.

We hoped for a bright note when, on the opening pages, we visited the Maypole, a seemingly jolly Dickensian inn located 12 miles from London.  The innkeeper, John Willett, “a burly, large-headed man with a fat face,” and his son, Joe, “a broad-shouldered strapping young man of twenty,” are humorous, kindly folk, who wish the two thwarted lovers well – Emma is their neighbor.  And Joe has encountered obstacles in romance himself:  he is in love with a locksmith’s daughter, the alluring Dolly, who is beautiful and flirtatious, but not ready to settle down.  Even the Maypole is not a haven for rural wits or starstruck lovers;  it attracts a menacing stranger, who turns out to be a highwayman and murderer.  

What, you may ask, of the titular character, Barnaby Rudd, who is the idiot son of Mary Rudd?  For the first third of the novel, he is a minor character. He lives a carefree life, partly because he forgets everything that happens, and he wins everyone’s affections with his sweetness and generosity.  He has a pet talking crow named Grip, and takes the neighbors’ dogs for long runs in the woods.  But Mary, terrified when her husband, a murderer, tracks her down and shakes her down for money, moves twice to get away and to protect Barnaby.

But no mother can protect her son forever. The second time they run away from Mary’s husband, she and Barnaby travel to London during the riots.   And poor Barnaby is victimized by the mob: as a joke he is  lured by Hugh, one of the working-class leaders, to join them.  Barnaby fights by Hugh’s side and fantasizes  that he is a hero fighting injustice.  To do him justice, Hugh does take care of Barnaby. But Barnaby wants to talk to his mother and can’t quite understand why she isn’t there.  It is a heartbreaking situation. 

It is so suspenseful and edgy that I felt as overwhelmed as I did reading  the Russian writer Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. These two books are not otherwise comparable, but both depict the depths of human suffering.   Because I love the character Barnaby, and hoped he would get out alive -though it seemed unlikely at one point – I read to the end.  

Dickens will break your heart, but this is an underrated novel.

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