Chances are you’ve never heard of this book. I hadn’t either, until I was browsing the Dickens section of my local library and ran across a volume I’d never seen before. Curious, I decided to see if it was up to the standards of his other work. And I am happy to report that yes, it is. It makes me wonder how many other “undiscovered classics” are lurking out there in the jungle of obscurity.
The plot of “Barnaby Rudge” hinges on the English anti-Catholic revolts of 1780, although the story actually begins several years earlier. It revolves around three primary characters: the eponymous Barnaby (a kind, albeit slow-witted, young man), Joe Willet (the romantic, idealistic son of an innkeeper) and Edward Chester (a bold young nobleman, and the son of a decadent London politician). Their lives, and the lives of those they both love and hate, are woven together into a single tapestry of mystery, romance, and danger.
The story opens at the Maypole Inn, on the twenty-second anniversary of a violent murder at the lordly Haredale estate. A mysterious dark rider prowls the countryside, seemingly linked to the victims in some strange way. But young Edward Chester isn’t afraid of any specters – he has vowed to see his love Emma Haredale, niece of the murdered man, regardless of the cost. Assisting him in his efforts is Joe Willet, the son of the Maypole’s owner, who bears a secret affection for the beautiful Dolly Varden, daughter of a London locksmith.
Unfortunately, fate deals the four lovers some cruel blows.
As Mr. Haredale (Emma’s father) and Lord Chester (Edward’s father) scheme to separate their two children, Joe and Dolly must contend with the sinister attentions of the servant Hugh, who is somehow connected to the grim horseman traveling throughout the countryside. To make matters worse, anti-Catholic feeling in England is reaching a fever pitch…and an explosive conflict appears imminent. All of these conflicts somehow touch the lives of Barnaby Rudge, a simple-minded young man, and his careworn-yet-loving mother. And the roles they play in the climax of the story are anything but predictable.
The magic of Dickens lies in his ability to craft characters that are both realistic and archetypal – individuals with recognizably human characteristics, who still manage to embody certain distinctive concepts. For example, the two romances in the story both parallel and contrast one another: both involve noble young men pursuing virtuous young women despite obstacles, yet the relationship between Joe and Dolly is much more emotional than the love story between Edward and Emma. This is entirely intentional: Edward and Emma are represented as pragmatic and level-headed, while Joe and Dolly fulfill the roles of the story’s everyman and everywoman. All of Dickens’ characters, however, are vivid and relatable.
As is the case in all his books, the villains are especially memorable. The revelation of the dark rider’s identity is a chilling twist that lingers long in the mind, leading to some particularly interesting situations toward the end of the novel. Lord Chester is perfectly portrayed as a cunning puppet-master grown fat (literally and figuratively) on the misery of others. It’s a solid cast of characters that rivals that of “Oliver Twist” or “Great Expectations” for its sheer breadth and depth.
Interestingly, the story doesn’t focus much on the roots of the Catholic/Protestant struggle. This book isn’t about ideas so much as it is about people and their motivations. (Dickens does a masterful job of dealing with more abstract-issue conflicts in “Hard Times” and “The Old Curiosity Shop.”) I would’ve liked to hear a little more about the moral dilemmas faced by leaders on both sides of the issue, but that isn’t the point of the book…thus it’s not a particularly disappointing exclusion.
If you like Dickens’ books, you shouldn’t miss “Barnaby Rudge.” Most fans of English literature have probably enjoyed “A Tale of Two Cities” “Oliver Twist” “Great Expectations” or”David Copperfield,” but a huge chunk of Dickens’ work has slipped under the literary radar. It’s not exactly short at 750 pages, but that’s pretty standard for a Dickens work of this complexity. “Barnaby Rudge,” like many of the author’s other little-known works, is a sweeping, dramatic read that most classics fans should enjoy.
An exciting, epic masterpiece from one of England’s greatest writers.