Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Dickens's Second-Best Historical Novel

Three years ago, after an interim of about twenty years, I reread Charles Dickens's second-best historical novel, Barnaby Rudge. OK, so he only wrote two pieces of historical fiction, and A Tale of Two Cities is exquisitely beautiful, so calling BR the second best doesn't really say much. But half of it is really, really good.

Like A Tale of Two Cities, the book tells the story of an interconnected group of characters who get caught up in mob riots in the 1780s in a major European capital, only this time it's London instead of Paris, and it's the Gordon Anti-Catholic Riots as opposed to the Jacobin Anti-Catholic (and Anti-Other Things) Riots. Also, like its more famous counterpart, Barnaby Rudge spends about half its pages establishing the domestic setting of the main characters before getting into the major historical events, and this first half is as joyful and funny as anything Dickens ever wrote. Sadly, the historical part gets dreary and probably is to blame for the novel's general neglect.

It amazes me how much power a simple list can wield. The master of the rhetorical list is surely Rabelais; his lists in Gargantua and Pantagruel go brazenly on and on until you have to laugh, and then get sick of laughing, and then start laughing all over again in spite of yourself. He lists, for instance, about two hundred games played by Gargantua. A few chapters later, some village cake-makers call visiting shepherds forty-three insulting names including “prattling gabblers, lickorous gluttons, freckled bittors, mangy rascals, . . . blockish grutnols, doddipol-joltheads, jobbernol goosecaps, foolish loggerheads, . . .woodcock slangams, ninny-hammer flycatchers, noddypeak simpletons, . . . and other suchlike defamatory epithets.” Dickens’s lists may not be as long (no one’s are), but where Rabelais’s lists satirize human pretensions and convey pure silliness, Dickens has a much greater range of expression that he accomplishes. Consider the joy in this description of the offerings of a happy village inn:
All bars are snug places, but the Maypole's was the very snuggest, cosiest, and completest bar, that ever the wit of man devised. Such amazing bottles in old oaken pigeon-holes; such gleaming tankards dangling from pegs at about the same inclination as thirsty men would hold them to their lips; such sturdy little Dutch kegs ranged in rows on shelves; so many lemons hanging in separate nets, and forming the fragrant grove already mentioned in this chronicle, suggestive, with goodly loaves of snowy sugar stowed away hard by, of punch, idealised beyond all mortal knowledge; such closets, such presses, such drawers full of pipes, such places for putting things away in hollow window-seats, all crammed to the throat with eatables, drinkables, or savoury condiments; lastly, and to crown all, as typical of the immense resources of the establishment, and its defiances to all visitors to cut and come again, such a stupendous cheese!
Who wouldn’t want to visit such a richly appointed establishment? The Maypole’s owner, John Willet, is one of Dickens’s most unjustly unfamiliar comic masterpieces. Poor John only wants a little peace and comfort and is never happier than when smoking a pipe with a group of compatriots from the town of Chigwell. He constantly amazes his neighbors (and readers) with how much he seems to say without speaking a word – sometimes even while sleeping!

But everything wonderful about this first part of the novel disappears when the riots start. John Willet and his funny friends disappear for several chapters, and the originally hilarious popinjay Sim Tappertit becomes a pale, ineffectual puppet leader of the masses once the protests begin. Where A Tale of Two Cities has the fascinating deFarges and their knitting companion, The Vengeance, to carry our interest through the Revolution, Barnaby has only the sad, predictable Lord George Gordon.

The first time I read the book, I thought Barnaby himself, described as “simple,” suffered mental retardation. But this last time he seemed more mad or addled. I don’t know what real-life model Dickens had in mind; he may just have had a romantic notion that developmentally disabled people can nevertheless be eloquent and even poetic (like, for instance, Smike from Nicholas Nickleby). But thinking of Barnaby as mad helped me understand why Dickens named the book after a character that has so little impact on the plot. The novel constantly explores issues of control: Can John Willet control his own peaceful environment? Can SimTappertit control his chapter of protesters? Can the mob control the laws of England? Can Gordon control the mob? The answer seems always to be “no.” In this context, Barnaby’s pitiable inability to control his own thoughts becomes symbolic of the theme. Maybe Dickens found that he himself lost control of his beautiful domestic comedy to the rioters that wreck a huge part of the second half of the book almost as badly as they do the Maypole.

No comments:

Post a Comment