Friday, February 11, 2011

Dicken's book report: Barnaby Rudge and his times

One of my long-term goals has been to read the lesser-known works of fiction’s greatest authors, as well as the works of lesser-known great authors. This means all of Charles Dickens obscure novels, the lesser-known works of the Bronte sisters, Thomas Hardy and Emile Zola, as well as novels by John Galsworthy, Elizabeth Gaskell and others.
This has been a rewarding pursuit, especially the part about the obscure works of Charles Dickens. Most recently, I read his novel Barnaby Rudge, which tells the story of the hapless village idiot (Barnaby the junior) and as Dickens is wont to do, involves itself in various sub-plots and distractions along the way. It is set during the period of the 1780 Gordon Riots.
What? Who is this Gordon and what exactly was his beef? These questions made clear, just as reading Shirley and scratching my head at the Luddite Riots did, that there are serious gaps in my historical literacy. As such, I followed the book up by reading Roy Porter’s 1982 study titled, English Society in the Eighteenth Century. I’ll get to that book in a second, but first a little more about Barnaby Rudge and its historical context. 
 The 1780 Gordon Riots, or “No Popery” riots as they are sometimes called, were an anti-Catholic uprising in response to the Papist Act of 1778. This act did away with some, but not all, of the institutional discrimination against Catholics in Great Britain at the time. Led by Lord George Gordon, a complex individual to say the least, the riots lasted about a week and were ultimately quelled by the army, Britain having no organized police force at the time. About 300 people were killed, many more injured and about 30 rioters were ultimately executed.
At its height, the mob of rioters raged across London, burning down Catholic churches, pillaging and burning the homes of Catholic citizens and ultimately breeching several jails, allowing hundreds of prisoners to go free. Homes of some Protestant citizens were also looted and burned. Basically, according to the account that Dickens gives us in the novel, everything and everyone that laid in the path of the mob was vulnerable.
Barnaby Rudge was Dickens first attempt at historical fiction. His second attempt is much more famous, probably due to the period and place involved (The French Revolution) and also to the drama and suspense involved in the storyline. In all likelihood, the fame and literary success of The Tale of Two Cities is also in part due to its being a better, more mature work. Characters are more realistic, three-dimensional and compelling. Barnaby Rudge on the other hand, rivals Oliver Twist in the shallowness of character development.
Perhaps one of the most famous members of the novel’s cast is Grip, Barnaby’s pet raven. His insightful ramblings (“Polly put the kettle on and we’ll all have tea!”) and inopportune gyrations bring life to the character of Barnaby, adding humanity to the otherwise caricature of a half-wit. Interestingly, Grip is sometimes considered to be Edgar Allen Poe’s inspiration for the raven in his famous poem, proving that someone besides me has indeed read this somewhat obscure novel. 

The novel’s depiction of the behavior of the rioters (brutal and unforgiving) is vivid, but does not quite reach the heights of the sublime that Zola manages in Germinal. As mentioned above, as Dickens is wont to do, characters are painted with a broad brush. The good people in the novel (Catholic and Protestant alike) are so good you can all but see the halos around their heads, and are rather boring as a result. On the other hand, the bad people are bestial and animalistic in their monstrosity. For a change however, Dickens does present a sympathetic and somewhat complex female character in Barnaby’s mother. The decent attention she gets in her struggle through adversity almost makes up for the tittering and unsubstantial Dolly Varden, one of Dicken’s most famous vixens.
And that is Barnaby Rudge in a nutshell. Back to the real topic of this post, Roy Porter’s history of Georgian England. Let me make it clear here that I am no expert on British history, nor do I aspire to be one. I am just telling you about this book I just read as maybe one day you would like to read it too. 

Porter’s narrative is billed as a “social history,” and as such it is more accessible than political histories that dull the senses with unending sequences of dates and mundane information on undersecretaries, Bishops and Lord Lieutenants, although he gives us some of that as well, but just enough and no more. And as the eighteenth century was pretty much all about social structures and their evolution over time, it is just as well to start here. For while there were certainly important political events going on (the colonial revolt, also known as the American Revolution, for instance) what was really driving much of the change were the subtle social shifts, partially motivated by events external to Britain and partially driven by domestic happenings. Eventually, the evolving social order allowed the conditions for industrialization to coalesce and percolate. Domestic uprisings and revolts, such as the Gordon Riots, became increasingly more common as the century wore on, and increasingly the moneyed, the landed, the powerful fought back with long-term consequences that are well known by this point.
Basically, the same equation that we see all over the world is repeated here. When the poor live on very, very little and lead wretched and desperate lives while the rich are very, very rich and think nothing of excess (this is the epitome of George IV) something is bound to give. And ultimately, give it did, although it took close to another century to finally spill over.
Possibly the most interesting part of this history are those segments that focus primarily on the lives and habits of the common man. While we easily equate the Victorian era with prudish morality, I think we are less aware that the Georgian period was one of rather more open personal conduct between the sexes. To be sure, unmarried mothers were stigmatized and marginalized, but according to Porter, children born out of wedlock, especially amongst the “lower orders” were not particularly out of the norm.
The book attributes some of these social norms to a receding of overt church influence. And while the period between the Calvinists and the Evangelical movement wasn’t exactly akin to a frat party, it was more relaxed and free from church oversight as secularism spread. Porter quotes some random Lord on page 227, “Pleasure is now, and ought to be, your business.” Tell me Victoria would have condoned that.
Moreover, culture, once the exclusive fare of the church and high society, secularized as well. This was a good time for the theater, and also the birthplace and time of the modern novel. It was also the century where circulating libraries came into being, making the word written for pleasure available to hugely enlarged percentage of the population. And perhaps, most important to me, it was the century and environment that shaped people like Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and good old Charles Dickens.
So, if you go in for period fiction like I do, this is probably a pretty important book to read, or at least skim through.

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