I will lead in with what everyone notes about Barnaby Rudge: it is probably Dickens’ least popular novel. The introduction by John Bowen the Penguin Classic edition that I read gave some explanations for this and the one that made the most sense to me was that Dickens’ prior phenomenal success with The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicolas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop got in the way of his fifth novel. Had it been his debut, Dickens would probably have been pleased with the results, but while it sold well, but couldn't touch the run-away popularity of his previous works, in particular, The Old Curiosity Shop. Furthermore, Barnaby Rudge was inspired by the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott and I also agree with other readers that the adherence to a standard historical romance sort of cramped Dickens’ style.
While Barnaby Rudge might not make the tippy-top of my list of favorite Dickens’ oeuvres, I enjoyed the novel more than I initially anticipated and I learned a lot since I knew nothing of the historical events depicted. Also, for the fans, it has plenty of typical Dickens flourishes such as out-sized characters, comedic relief, amazing coincidences and biting social commentary.
The book opens in 1775 cozily enough with a ghost story told in the Maypole Inn in Chigwell, about 20 miles outside of London. The story is about an infamous murder that took place at the nearby Haredale estate some 15 years earlier. The estate is now run by the murdered man's brother, Catholic Gregory Hardale. Haredale is also responsible for his orphaned niece, Emma. At the Maypole, the reader is introduced to the blowhard inn-proprietor John Willet and his much put-upon son Joe. Later, we meet the true-hearted locksmith Mr. Varden and his shrewish wife and beautiful daughter (loved by Joe Willet) as well as the smooth and wily Mr. Chester and his noble son Edmund (who loves Emma Hardale). The titular character, Barnaby, is a young man we would probably term developmentally disabled now. He lives in London with his widowed mother but spends lots of time at Chigwell as well.
Once everyone is established, the story then jumps five years later to the events leading up to the Gordon Riots which were violent, anti-Catholic demonstrations that took place in London. Dickens being Dickens, he naturally manages to involve every character in the riots in some manner and tie up all the disparate narrative strands neatly by the end.
I think this is possible the most violent Dickens I have ever read. Even more so that A Tale of Two Cities. My favorite character was Hugh, who is actually one of the villains of the book. I found him to be frighteningly realistic and also terribly pathetic.
Also, for a nice note of trivia, Barnaby has a pet raven named Grip who often steals the show in the novel. Allegedly Grip inspired Edgar Allen Poe years later when he penned his possibly most famous poem The Raven.
This book is my first completed book for the The Back to the Classics Challenge 2019 run by Karen at Books and Chocolate for the 19th Century Classic category.