Friday, January 31, 2014

Michael5000 vs. Dickens: "Barnaby Rudge"

2012 Assessment: I definitely haven't read it.

Current Reading: Eye-read in a cheapish ~100 year old edition.

Barnaby Rudge is ultimately a historical novel about the Gordon Riots of 1780. Writing 50 to 60 years after the fact, Dickens had access to people who remembered this period of London unrest first-hand. This immediacy, along with his overstated but basically sound analysis of mob behavior, makes the riot scenes the most vivid and interesting in the book. But there is, I’m afraid, not a lot of competition for this honor.

I am composing this writeup on with paper and pen, believe it or not, as I am away from the various machines for the nonce. That puts me in the unheard-of situation of not being able to instantly call up the chronology of Dickens’ novels. But, Barnaby Rudge pretty much has to be one of the first ones, one written while he was still learning his craft. It’s definitely by Charles Dickens – all of his signature characteristics are here. It’s just that Barnaby Rudge isn’t very, you know, good. Actually, it’s more what you might call “kinda bad.”

Any Dickens is going to have some aspects that seem like flaws to We Moderns, of course. They rely on Amazing Coincidence. They are sentimental. They have characters that are one-dimensional caricatures. The good guys are often too good to be true, and the bad guys are sometimes too bad to be true. In Barnaby Rudge, though, all of these flaws are turned up to – well, not up to “eleven,” really, not if you’ve read other Victorian authors. But up to six or seven, anyway, which is high enough to break the pain threshold for sensitive readers. The Amazing Coincidences are ludicrous, the sentimentality is maudlin, and the only characters who aren’t all virtue or all wickedness are a pair who are suffering from mental disabilities.

What is good in Dickens is his prose, his ability to analyze or lampoon the manners of his times, and his keen understanding of human behavior. The prose of Barnaby Rudge, though, is middlin’ to sometimes awful, with great walls of exposition where Dickens tells us what we could reasonably expect him to show us. The pacing is all wrong too, and we are marched through a not-especially-interesting 400 pages or so of character development before we really even know what the book is going to be about. There are some gothic touches – an unavenged murder! Perhaps a ghost! – that are periodically picked up, dusted off, and put back in storage, without ever becoming important or interesting. And where are the sharp, nuanced portrayals of behavior and society? In Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House, that’s where.

Plot: By extension from the logic of David Copperfield or Oliver Twist, you might expect this one to be the story of Barnaby Rudge. But he’s actually pretty far down the cast list, and it is one of the mysteries of the book for me why he gets title billing. He’s an unusual character for a Victorian to take on, a mentally retarded young man accompanied everywhere by his best friend, a trained raven. Dickens is not entirely up to the task of writing Barnaby, however, and the character's level of comprehension and his vocabulary is constantly shifting to fit the current needs of the story.

So anyway, plot: there’s this innkeeper who is stifling his son, who is in love with the daughter of the locksmith, whose wife’s petty, manipulative maid has a thing for his sullen apprentice; oh, and down the road there’s a manor house, the lord of which has a daughter who is in love with… oh, the hell with it. There are some 20 to 30 people, some of whom hate each other and others of whom love each other, and all of them will eventually get caught up in the Gordon Riots of 1780, and some Amazing Coincidences will occur.

..and when I have internet access again, I’ll find out whether Barnaby Rudge is generally considered lesser Dickens by other humans, or if I’m just a big grump this week.

INTERNET ACCESS AGAIN: Well! It turns out that this is the fifth novel that Dickens published. It was however the first he started, and he picked it up and put it down for a number of years, which may have something to do with the pacing problems. After a run of four hits, Barnaby Rudge was Dickens’ first flop, ultimately selling only a third as many copies as its immediate predecessor, The Old Curiosity Shop. "Barnaby Rudge met with little favour in its day,” says the Oxford Companion to Charles Dickens, “and (with notable exceptions) that judgment persists. Its modern bibliographer, Thomas Rice, calls it 'the least loved and the least read' of Dicken's books." A recent and fairly high-profile appraisal in the Guardian calls it “one of Dickens's most neglected, but most rewarding, novels,” which is clear additional evidence that it is generally considered a real dog.

Obviously, I feel like I got the answer right. You may praise me for my discernment, or damn me for my conventional tastes.

Prognosis: In reviewing Martin Chuzzlewit, I said that "Second-rank Dickens is better than the first rank of most authors." I'll stand by that. Third-rank Dickens might however be given a miss.

Current Dickens Score: I have now read 8/14.5 of the non-Christmassy Dickens novels.

Second Opinion: This guy is a little more sympathetic.

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