A Dickensian childhood
Charles Dickens was among the first authors I can remember reading. As a child I had an illustrated Jaico edition of Oliver Twist and a MacMillan edition of A Tale of Two Cities (both abridged). I also have some very vague memories of seeing a few episodes from the BBC adaptation of Great Expectations which was being broadcast on Doordarshan at nights on, I think, Wednesdays.
One of the first unabridged classics I read was also by Dickens - Great Expectations. Over a period of time, the rest would follow. I could not say, now, what it was that I liked so much about his work, or for that matter, of Brontë, Scott, Stevenson and Co. They wrote of a different time and place, indeed, of an environment so far removed from my middle-class life in Bombay that I might as well have been reading fantasy.
Maybe I just liked the classics back then because they were:
a) What I was exposed to.
b) My father and grandfathers, who I looked up to, said the classics were awesome, and so I convinced myself they must be.
Whatever the reasons, I did read a lot of Dickens over the years, aided by long school vacations, a general lack of ability at sport and what was then a decent attention span. I did read in isolation though; it was not until I was in my twenties that I encountered others of my age who did enjoy reading books of that length or from that time period. For most, the problem was easy enough to state – apart from the length and ‘seriousness’ of the subject matter, the language and scenes were too remote, too different from the world around, and the characters un-relatable.
I also began to expand my own reading to cover more modern authors across genres and more particularly, those that try to deal with the world as it is. Good literature is always fascinating, of course, and I like to think I enjoy it regardless of when or by whom it was written.
But since I’ve tried not to let outside opinions influence me too much when it comes to reading, I continued to keep a healthy dose of reading the classics alongside more recent works, and what never changes is the realisation that there is so much more to understand with subsequent readings than my younger self could process. Moreover, far from being fantasy, there is much in those two-hundred-year-old books that could be happening today.
Parents and Children
Barnaby Rudge, for instance, may have been published in 1841 and relate to events taking place some sixty years before that, but it might as well have been about what happened in India a hundred-and-fifty years later.
The cast of characters in Barnaby Rudge is much smaller than what is usual for a Dickens novel and this does mean that the writer’s control over them and the plot is tighter than is usual. The book itself can be divided into two phases, the first half dealing with themes of abandonment, parental neglect and loss, while the second half deals with religious bigotry, sectarian violence and the mayhem of mobs.
The events kick off in the Maypole, a popular tavern not far from London, where John Willett and his cronies discuss the murder of Reuben Haredale, who once lived at the ‘Warren’, the nearby stately house, and his steward, Barnaby Rudge.
|Barnaby and Grip|
The discussion then shifts to the unfortunate son of the steward, also named Barnaby, who is a ‘simpleton’, or ‘not quite right in the head’. Young Barnaby was born on the day of the double-murder, and now lives with his mother Mary, on a pension from the Haredale estate in London. We discover that Geoffrey Haredale, brother of the deceased Reuben, and Emma, his orphaned daughter, now occupy the Warren, and that the latter is on her way to London at that moment to attend a dance. One of the guests in the tavern perks up at this news and goes off after her, we discover that he is Edward Chester, the beloved of Emma. Shortly after, another of the guests makes off after Edward, and encounters along the way Gabriel Varden, master locksmith, with whom he has a brief altercation before hunting down Edward and nearly knifing him to death for his money.
|Barnaby and Mary Rudge with the fallen Edward Chester|
Edward is saved when the halfwit Barnaby and his raven Grip find and scare off the miscreant, and the incident is passed off as trivial. Gradually more relationships are revealed as more characters come to the fore.
Edward Chester’s father, John, is a portrait of genteel villainy, penniless but fashionable and determined his son should marry a richer woman than Emma Haredale, a calculating prejudice he hangs upon the shoulders of another – the fact that the Haredales are a Catholic family, while he is Protestant. This is a distaste shared by Geoffrey Haredale, who is an old and bitter rival of John Chester’s, and cannot countenance the thought of his son marrying his beloved niece, religious differences aside.
At the Maypole, we find that the stodgy inn-keeper is a tyrant to his son Joseph, and treats him so poorly that the lad seems to have less autonomy than the stable-boy, Hugh, who is known to be the son of a woman who was hanged shortly after his birth.
|Gabriel Varden (center) at home with his apprentice Simon and daughter Dolly.|
Back in London, the locksmith Varden is by contrast a doting parent to his daughter, the beautiful Dolly, and holds to his moderate views even under assault from his deeply devout wife and her even more devout maidservant, Miggs. But Varden’s apprentice, Simon Tappertit, is another matter altogether, a figure whose physical ridiculousness is contrasted sharply by his dark and violent thoughts, especially with respect to Joseph Willet, who is Dolly’s favourite among a score of suitors. (Incidentally, the character of Dolly Varden was quite iconic back in the day, having fashions named for her and even a particularly scrumptious sub-species of trout!)
Events play out over a relatively short period, and denouements happen. Joseph and Edward rebel against their respective fathers, and go off to make their own fortunes, but while Edward goes knowing Emma loves him truly, Joseph leaves with his proposal to Dolly rejected, a broken-hearted man. Barnaby Rudge and his mother too leave the protection of Geoffrey Haredale, as the man who attacked Edward becomes a menacing, evil presence in their lives, and thus ends the First Act.
|Dolly rejects Joseph Willet's proposal|
Mobs and mayhem
The Second Act finds us back at the Maypole, to find that not much has changed. Both the prodigal sons have not returned, and Emma and Dolly remain single, finding friendship in each other, while the Rudges have not been seen for five years. In the midst of this, Lord George Gordon, an eccentric man but brilliant orator, has begun to foment discontent in the country with his anti-Catholic rhetoric. He spends a night at the Maypole, where we find his secretary, Mister Gashford is the evil genius behind Gordon’s actions, a ruthless, conniving man who has his own agenda to pursue. Indeed, Dickens portrays Gordon as a well-meaning but deluded, easily-led fool, whose position and personal charisma is turned to evil purpose by Gashford.
|Lord Gordon rouses the mob.|
Gordon and Gashford rally many to their cause, preying on the popular superstitions and suspicions of England’s majority-Protestant population. With lies and insinuations, they convince the people that the Government is appeasing Catholics by withdrawing the most draconian provisions of the Popery Act of 1698. Spreading hate and bigotry across the country and especially among the unemployed and less-educated classes, Gordon brings forth a crowd of over forty thousand men and women to besiege Parliament.
The characters from the First Act return to the scene as well. Gashford has tapped into Simon Tappertit’s resentment against his master and his unrequited love for Dolly Varden to bring him and his fellow-apprentice-revolutionaries into the fold. John Chester, realising Hugh resents the Haredales, has pushed him towards Gordon’s mob as well. Along with them is Dennis the hangman. Just as the mob is marching on Parliament, Barnaby Rudge and his mother return to London and get caught up on the crowd, with simple-minded Barnaby quite taken with the idea of the riot and coming under Hugh’s wing. Meanwhile, Geoffrey Haredale stands tall and proud against the mob, defiant of their anti-Catholic spouting.
|The mob takes over London|
Some of Dickens’ finest writing can be found in his recreation of the scenes to follow. The destruction of Catholic Churches, the bringing down of businesses belonging to them, the burning of their houses and even of Protestants who dare to defy the rioters, the weakness of the authorities, their reluctance to bring out the army to control the mob, are not only depicted in all their chilling, frightening glory, but should bring back bitter memories for those who have lived through similar incidents themselves.
The climactic scenes rush in upon one another as Barnaby is arrested, the Maypole is looted and the Warren burned down. Emma and Dolly are captured by the rioters and imprisoned with a view to handing them over to the men who desire them – Mister Gashford and Simon.
|The abduction of Emma and Dolly.|
(L-R) Emma Haredale, Dennis the hangman, Dolly (fighting), Hugh the bastard and Simon Tappertit
In the end, the riots abate, and some form of justice is done. The worst of the perpetrators are caught or shot dead in the streets. The sagas of the named characters too draw to their inevitable conclusions – happiness for some, misery for others.
|Burning down Newgate prison|
After it was over, though, there were still scenes that stayed with me, and will for some time. The carnage after a vintner’s shop is set afire, when liquor flows in the streets and the people in the mob prefer to drink than run to safety and die drowned in the spirit as it flames up is horrific in its vividness. Barnaby Rudge’s distracted rants have their own beauty too, and in the midst of the darkness, and before the worst of the troubles, Miggs and Simon Tappertit afford a fair number of laughs.
Reflecting on a classic
For all that is good about it, though, Barnaby Rudge was not a commercial success by Dickens’ high standards. The reasons are not too hard to find, I suppose – there is no one single central character, and the first third of the book feels like a lot of events happen without any specific end point in sight. Moreover, the romance between Edward Chester and Emma Haredale is a mere prop, with the latter’s character barely explored at all. But more than that, I think the book held up too clear a mirror to society. It showed how easy it is for the unscrupulous to manipulate religious and social dogma to bring about violence, and the savagery that simmers under the surface of every man, ready to be ignited when the right spark is lit. That is not something a lot of people like to read about themselves, and it is no wonder that most of the rest of Dickens books sentimentalise or poke fun at society as a whole rather than hold it up to such stark scrutiny.
But the passage of time shows that little has changed. Demagogues still spew hatred, the rabble is still too-easily roused with stories of appeasement and discrimination, while the innocent often end up burning in the fires of rage, or being washed away in the deluge of blood that follows. In our country, it has happened too often, too recently and too easily for the message of Barnaby Rudge not to resonate strongly with this reader.
In an article I wrote for Readomania about the relevance of the classics I had spoken about how it was not just age or even narrative excellence that anointed a book or an author with that title – ‘Classic’. It was the universality and applicability of their themes beyond the time and setting of the books themselves. This is particularly true in case of Barnaby Rudge, and much as I may wish it were not so, the fact remains that we only live to repeat the mistakes we should know better than to make again.
Which ends up begging the question – is Barnaby Rudge truly the half-witted simpleton, or are we, close on two hundred years later, but fools in motely, ignoring the truth we should be able to see?