Charles Dickens Challenge: Barnaby Rudge

Barnaby Rudge is probably one of Dickens' least well-known books, and one of his only two historical novels (the other being A Tale of Two Cities). Consequently, that made it a weirdly refreshing experience - I'd been getting a bit of fatigue with the Charles Dickens Challenge as I felt the books were becoming a bit formulaic, so it was nice to come to one with no prior knowledge of it whatsoever.

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Set amid the 1780 Gordon riots, which centred on the extension of certain rights to Catholics after centuries of their oppression, Barnaby Rudge is a novel of two halves. The first section focuses on the village of Chigwell, including Joe Willett (the son of the pub landlord who resents his father treating him like a child), villainous hostler Hugh, and the star-crossed lovers Emma Haredale and Edward Chester, whose families are sworn enemies. The titular Barnaby, who is described by other characters as an 'idiot' and is very attached to his pet raven Grip, also lives in the village with his widowed mother.

I have to admit that this section frustrated me quite a lot as there didn't seem to be an enormous amount happening - instead things moved quite slowly and there wasn't an awful amount going on, mainly because a lot of the focus was on recounting the history of the village and the events which led to the characters' current situation. That said, there is one particularly shocking incident which is dark even for Dickens, and which has a huge bearing on the rest of the action. However, in the second half of the book, the action shifts to London and the riots themselves, which Hugh and the unwitting Barnaby have been swept up in. Consequently, it feels like all the action is crammed into the last third of the novel and everything happens far too quickly - regular readers will know I bang on about this but I like my books to have a decent pace rather than feeling rushed.

The name of the book struck me as a bit odd, as Barnaby is very much a peripheral character especially in the first section - things happen to him rather than his driving the action. However, whilst in the case of Oliver Twist I lacked sympathy for the lead character, I was very much on Barnaby's side and desperately wanted him and his mother to have a happy ending. Once again though, many of my favourite characters were those in peripheral roles, particularly Grip the raven (supposedly the inspiration for Edgar Allen Poe's poem) and Mrs Miggs, housekeeper for the Varden family whose daughter Dolly is in love with Joe Willett. And Dickens keeps up his excellent line in villains, with Hugh's combination of brute force and a knack for cunning plans making him the most chilling antagonist so far.

Overall, whilst Barnaby Rudge was a bit of a slog at times, it was actually quite good to read something a bit different from Dickens and to learn more about this period of history. There were also plenty of the Dickens tropes we've come to know - innocent hero surrounded by conflict, villains trying to scupper everyone's happy ever after, and a big dose of social commentary on top. I certainly now feel refreshed and ready to tackle the next book, one of Dickens' more unusual novels - Martin Chuzzlewit.

What's the most surprising book you've read recently?

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