Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Barnaby Rudge at the riots - art improves natur' - that's my motto

About a third of Barnaby Rudge takes place in the midst of the London "Gordon riots" of 1780, a week of anti-Catholic frenzy and destruction. It's the best part of the novel - vivid, exciting, and so on. Let's just ignore that Dickens takes 400 pages or more to get there. We spend most of our time with three of the rioters - the almost tragic Hugh, Dennis the hangman, and our hero, the mentally challenged Barnaby Rudge, who is basically tricked into rioting.

That hangman is a strange figure. His neckwear is always compared to a rope. His profession is unknown to the other rioters, so much comedy is made from his ironic philosophizing:

"He heaved a deep sigh as he indulged in these reflections, and putting his fingers with an absent air on Hugh's throat, and particularly under his left ear, as if he were studying the anatomical development of that part of his frame, shook his head in a despondent manner and actually shed tears.

'You're a kind of artist, I suppose--eh!' said Mr Tappertit.

'Yes,' rejoined Dennis; 'yes--I may call myself a artist--a fancy workman--art improves natur'--that's my motto.'" (Ch. 39)

Besides being a distinct, lifelike individual, Dennis also then has an obvious symbolic function: death and the law, in the midst of the rioters. This is something new in Dickens, this layering of meaning, a modernist device that he had only introduced earlier that year in The Old Curiosity Shop, for example in the "industrial hell" section. To me, it looks like a big step forward, even if Dickens is still learning what to do with his new tools. Here the rioters have just sacked a Catholic church:

"Covered with soot, and dirt, and dust, and lime; their garments torn to rags; their hair hanging wildly about them; their hands and faces jagged and bleeding with the wounds of rusty nails; Barnaby, Hugh, and Dennis hurried on before them all, like hideous madmen. After them, the dense throng came fighting on: some singing; some shouting in triumph; some quarrelling among themselves; some menacing the spectators as they passed; some with great wooden fragments, on which they spent their rage as if they had been alive, rending them limb from limb, and hurling the scattered morsels high into the air; some in a drunken state, unconscious of the hurts they had received from falling bricks, and stones, and beams; one borne upon a shutter, in the very midst, covered with a dingy cloth, a senseless, ghastly heap." (Ch. 50)

The horrible parody of the Crucifixion is obvious here, I hope - "the wounds of rusty nails", the wooden fragments suggesting the crucifix, the body on the shutter, Christ taken down from the cross or possibly a hint of the sick man lowered through the roof to meet Jesus.

The whole novel is an intricate machine. Well-structured. A number of plots, including two romances, a primitive murder mystery, and political intrigue are strung together with skill. They all have to be handled in a way that they not only intersects with the historical event, the riots, but are resolved by them somehow. This complicated plot strains in places (the coincidental capture of the muderer in the middle of the riots, for example), but it's an impressive structure. The Old Curiosity Shop, which immediately preceded Barnaby Rudge, is a terrible mess, an improvised story that contains some marvelous imaginative flights. Barnaby Rudge sacrifices some of those creative peaks for a more coherent story.

Both of these novels were serialized in weekly rather than monthly installments, one right after the other. Dickens wrote himself ragged, and I don't believe he ever made that mistake again.

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