Monday, June 2, 2008

Barnaby Rudge, Walter Scott, and the dull Dickens hero

Barnaby Rudge (1841) is Charles Dickens’ first historical novel. Walter Scott had published Waverley in 1814, not exactly inventing the historical novel, but sparking the craze for the genre. Dickens had apparently been thinking for years about a novel on the subject of the 1780 anti-Catholic “Gordon riots”.

This was not the first time that Dickens had been inspired by Scott, though. Unfortunately. A writer of enormous creativity and unrivalled skill at depicting original characters, Dickens had trouble with his young heroes and heroines. These characters are the greatest flaw in his early novels.

A typology of early Dickens protagonists: There’s the Mr. Pickwick clone, generous and jolly, perfect in The Pickwick Papers, but little more than plot mechanisms in later novels, copies of copies by The Old Curiosity Shop, when there are, for some reason, three of them (the old bachelor, a lawyer, and – another lawyer? – who knows). Barnaby Rudge at least does some interesting things with this type.

Then there’s the commonsense Cockney – Sam Weller in Pickwick. Sam could hardly be improved upon, but Kit in The Old Curiosity Shop is passable. If only Dickens had trusted himself to stick with this kind of hero.

The third type, the disaster, is the dashing young fellow and his dashing young love interest. Rose and the doctor in Oliver Twist are the nadir, refugees from a romance novel dragged in to fill a nonexistent gap. In a novel featuring Fagin and Mr. Bumble and the Artful Dodger, among others, our ten year-old hero Oliver is barely sufficiently interesting. These additional heroes are a waste of space.

Nicholas Nickleby (the character) is an improvement, just barely, Little Nell a regression, and Barnaby Rudge (the novel, not the character) a complete failure. Dickens for some reason decides he needs two of these truehearted pairs. One of the women, Dolly Varden, the coquette, at least has some personality. But the two men and the third woman* are nothing, purely generic. Dickens was obviously perfectly aware how boring they are, since he packs them away halfway through the book and spends the rest of his time with the interesting characters.

By generic, I mean the genre of the historical novel. Dickens just borrows these characters from Walter Scott. He didn’t know what to do, so he went to the most expert, most popular source. Why is this sort of noble and virtuous hero more interesting in Scott’s hands than in Dickens'? They somehow do not exist in Dickens’ world, richer than Scott’s in almost every other way. By Bleak House (1853), at least, and I presume by David Copperfield (1850), Dickens had worked out the problem. Esther Summerson, for example, is as virtuous as any Scott heroine, but also interesting, very much so.**

This is the core of what Barnaby Rudge does badly. I’ll spend at least some of this week on what it does well. As with The Old Curiosity Shop, this is Minor Dickens. As with that novel, minor is relative. There's a lot to like in Minor Dickens.

* Edward Chester, Emma Haredale, Joe Willet. In case anyone cares.

** Is it the switch to first person? We’ll soon see how or if Martin Chuzzlewit and Dombey and Son modify my thinking.


  1. Why is this sort of noble and virtuous hero more interesting in Scott’s hands than in Dickens? They somehow do not exist in Dickens’ world, richer than Scott’s in almost every other way.

    That's a very interesting question. I wonder if the answer lies in the historical richness of Scott's novels--the extraordinary particularity and detail of his contexts. (This same quality, of course, is what can kill the novels for some readers.) Jeanie Deans, for instance, is virtuous in a very historically specific way--also, she's heroically virtuous, going out and acting on her principles, not just sitting around being exemplary.

  2. This must be right. The Scott heroes may not be the most interesting characters in the history of the novel, but Jeanie Deans is alive in Scott's imaginative world. It's all made up, of course, but also logical in its own way.

    Dickens had to figure out how to create similar people who could breathe in his own world.