Barnaby Rudge defies Hollywood and shows that the Victorians were better than we are in at least on respect: they would read a longish novel centered on a “fool.” They might have used the term “idiot,” but they not only allowed him dignity, but would cheer for him too.
This first of Dickens’ two historical novels (with the better Tale of Two Cities) centers on the Gordon Riots in 1790 London. They have the relationship to Dickens that the First World War has to me: they were the distant memories of his great-grandsires.
The riots were a great spasm of traditional English anti-Catholicism, and Dickens has no sympathy for them. As his Child’s HIstory of England proves, he is conventionally Protestant, but no hater. Killing other Christians in the name of Christ is bizarre to him–as it should be to any Christian–and he gives it the literary thrashing it deserves. He shows how hypocrites, bigots, and small-minded men use religion and the important differences between creeds to enrich themselves.
I think, however, that the book is mostly about dealing with history. Some people bend with the will of Providence and become happy, while others try to twist history for their own benefit and are broken. Those in the book who sit around mourning changes are mistaken too–a good lesson for conservatives like me who do not like the present direction of our nation. The mistake of the “good man” who mourns history is not in his opinions–he is right to bemoan evil–but in his lack of faith in Divine Providence.
Dickens shows that Christ’s man can be a jolly man even in the middle of riots and loss.
Here are questions I had about the book as I read it:
Why is the book called Barnaby Rudge? Superficially he is not the “hero.” What do the characters who share the name tell us about the meaning of the book?
Place is important in the book, and London most of all. The Maypole Inn is another good example. You cannot read the book without wanting to go to it! It is Rivendell for the rest of us. How are places made and renewed in the novel?
Parents, good and bad, are central to the story, as are the relationships they have with their children. Some parents will not grow up, some merely grow old, and others grow to be great. What do we learn about good parenting and about being a dutiful child from Dickens?
The book assumes the truth of Christianity, but shows the Faith being warped by bad men for their own ends. Why could some believers avoid the pitfall of being so right that they become wrong?
The book’s good characters, male and female, find happiness in home. What is the image of home presented in the book? Is it perfectly Biblical? Where do bad assumptions intrude and limit the characters?
Reflect on the death penalty in light of Barnaby Rudge. Is it necessary or good in an affluent culture? Are their alternatives? Is there a Christian view?
The raven “Grip” is important to the story. He is so impressive that he inspired Poe to attempt to better Dickens’ use of a raven. Read Poe’s famous poem The Raven. How are the creative imaginations different in the two great men?
The book ends with two older men facing each other in a long-delayed battle. It makes me wonder whether Dickens is making use of the story of Cain. Does blood cry out from the earth when it is shed unjustly? Does history eventually make great crimes right? What does that say about Europe after the Holocaust, or Russia at the end of the Gulags, or America after slavery and abortion on demand?
Read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address in the light of Barnaby. What does the President think faces the America of his day? Is that what happens to the characters of Barnaby Rudge?
At the end of the book, the character Lord Gordon, mad and exploited, stuck with me. As a Christian, I dread the image of a decent man who is manipulated to do bad things for a good cause. It is so easy to do, but the command of the Savior to “love my enemies” should surely check abuse, riot, and the temptation to become a persecutor.
It should, but it often does not.
Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner.