A Review of Barnaby Rudge, by Charles Dickens

I have always been a big fan of Charles Dickens.  He is a master story-teller, certainly one of the best ever.  Books like A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield have provided reading pleasure to millions over the past 150+ years and have rightly placed Dickens near the top of the Western Canon.

Having not read many of Dickens’ less well known works, I picked up a copy of Barnaby Rudge – A  Tale of the Riots of 80 and spent the last week reading it.  Barnaby Rudge is a melodrama centered around the 1780 anti-popery riots that terrorized London Catholics.  It is one of only two historical novels written by Dickens (the other, of course, being A Tale of Two Cities).  It was written in 1841.

The anti-popery riots, flamed by anti-Catholic rhetoric due to some bills in Parliament meant to give Catholics some relief from official discrimination, resulted in the burning of many Catholic churches and homes of Catholic citizens (in fact, stretched to burning of homes of people not sufficiently anti-Catholic).  The rioters even sacked and burned Newgate, freeing London’s hardened criminals.  Around 500 people were killed, and 21 of the main instigates were executed for treason.

As can be expected from Dickens, the descriptions of the mood of the citizenry leading up the riots, as well as the forming and execution of the riots, both from the perspective of the rioters and well as the victims, is unsurpassed in the intensity and effectiveness of placing the reader as a direct observer of the action.  It presents a picture of a sordid London, bereft of moral bearings or effective leadership.  The descriptions of religious certitude gone astray, justifying acts of outrageous cruelty and immorality, certainly has relevance in today’s world.

Critically, I would say the book is much longer than it needs to be.  Dickens’ other long novels seem tighter.  It takes a while for the action to pull the reader in, and also the conclusion stretches out longer than I found necessary.  Part of this feeling of unnecessary length, and in my opinion, what leads to this not being in the upper tier of Dickens’ work, is the lack of any real sympathetic characters.  While Gabriel Varden (the “Locksmith of London”), Joe Willet and Barnaby Rudge eventually can be called sympathetic, they just do not connect with the reader like Oliver Twist, David Copperfield or Nicholas Nickleby do.  They are too flawed, and presented initially as anything but eventual hero’s to allow one to emotionally connect and root for them.  If the protagonists are not ultimately sympathetic enough, the book is full of other characters that are downright evil, or at least frustratingly bad.

The result is a book where the sheer power of Dickens’ storytelling reels the reader in, never boring you, keeping you turning the page to see what happens next.  Yet, the  book does not fully pull one in, it keeps you at a distance, lacking a deep enough emotional connection which prevents greatness.

One thing that I love about Dickens is his ability to start a chapter with an extremely broad and deep statement of wisdom, preparing the readers mind for details in the story that proves the point of his thinking.  Here are some examples from Barnaby Rudge:

Misfortunes, saith the adage, never come singly.  There is little doubt that troubles are exceedingly gregarious in their nature, and flying in flocks, are apt to perch capriciously…


To surround anything, however monstrous or ridiculous, with an air of mystery, is to invest it with a secret charm, and power of attraction which to the crowd is irresistible.  False priests, false prophets, false doctors, false patriots, false prodigies of every kind, veiling their proceedings in mystery, have always addressed themselves at an immense advantage to the popular credulity, and have been, perhaps, more indebted to that resource in gaining and keeping for a time the upper hand of truth and Common Sense, than to any half dozen items in the whole catalogue of imposture.  Curiosity is, and has been from the creation of the world, a master passion.  To awaken it, to gratify it by slight degrees, and yet leave something always in suspense, is to establish the surest hold that can be had, in wrong, on the unthinking portion of mankind.


In the exhaustless catalogue of Heaven’s mercies to mankind, the power we have of finding some germs of comfort in the hardest trials must ever occupy the foremost place; not only because in this source of consolation there is something, we have reason to believe, of the divine spirit; something of that goodness which detects amidst our own evil doings, a redeeming quality; something which, even in our fallen nature, we possess in common with the angels; which had its being in the old time when they trod the earth, and lingers on it yet, in pity.


But recollect from this time that all good things perverted to evil purposes, are worse than those which are naturally bad….When relegion goes wrong, she is very wrong….

Of course, what makes Dickens great is his incredible descriptive powers, allowing him to place the reader mentally into the setting he paints.  For example, his description of a storm is a lesson in conveying setting and mood:

A keen north wind arose as it grew dark, and night came on with black and dismal looks.  A bitter storm of sleet, sharp, dense and icy-cold, swept the wet streets, and rattled on the trembling windows.  Sign-boards, shaken past endurance in their creaking frames, fell crashing on the pavement; old tottering chimneys reeled and staggered in the blast; and many a steeple rocked again that night, as though the earth were troubled.

In summary, this is not Dickens’ best work by any means.  However the story is a good one, and the writing top notch.  It is certainly worth reading if you have read Dickens’ more important works.

As for the book itself, my copy is from Heritage Press (HP), the one time George Macy ‘second label’ if you will, little sister to the fabulous Limited Editions Club classic editions that Macy put out for much of the twentieth century.    HP books, which can be found in most decent used book stores (as most are 20-80 years old at this point), are by far the best $5-30 books on the planet in terms of quality of the binding, paper, illustrations, design, etc., far exceeding what is mass produced today.

The design principle for HP around Barnaby Rudge in centered on readability. Baskerville type is used towards that end.  The book was printed in Cedar Grove, N.J. by the Rae Publishing Company.  My copy is from 1969.  The paper was produced at the Ticonderoga Mill in upstate New York.  The book was bound by the Tapley-Rutter bindery in Moonachie, N.J.  The cover uses heavy boards covered with a tough linen with the design stamped in scarlet and gold.  Illustrations are by John Dougherty, commissioned by HP specifically for this edition.  His work for this book includes 82 drawings, one to start each chapter, along with eight full page  lithographs in two colors.

Below are some pictures of the book to give you a visual.

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Heritage Press: Barnaby Rudge Cover
Barnaby Rudge Title Page
Barnaby Rudge Sample Page, note nice block illustration (begins each chapter)
Barnaby Rudge, one of eight full page lithographs
Barnaby Rudge Sandglass (HP’s letter introducing the book)


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