Dickens Champions: Manchester review Barnaby Rudge
10 September 2012 / 0 Comments
Our Dickens Champions, Manchester Dickens Reading Group, have been reading Barnaby Rudge - here's how the group got on with it:
Historical realism and Gothic melodrama
Well it's a long book! But I, along with others in another reading group, recently read The Whisperers by Orlando Figes, a 665 page story of Stalin's Terror (a history not a novel), which I thought superb.
Here is another marathon. The blurb in my edition refers to "dramatic descriptions of public violence and private horror, strange secrets and ghostly doublings...a powerful blend of historical realism and Gothic melodrama" and so it is.
As in most of Dickens' novels there are, for modern readers, too many characters and rather a lot of plots and sub-plots. The length of the book was probably governed by the author's need to produce 82 weekly instalments; the 19th century soap opera. Imagine attempting to read a novel of the last 12 months of Coronation Street or Eastenders!
Having studied history at school I have always enjoyed historical novels and in my teens read many by Walter Scott which I found intriguing. I still think that Scott is easier to read than Dickens but I believe Barnaby Rudge is a good novel, though not so good as his other historical novel, Tale of Two Cities which I place towards the best of his works.
I thought the characters and conflicts in the earlier part of the book were interesting, dramatic yet convincing, but the nearer we get to the Gordon Riots the more complicated things become. The descriptions are good but effusive.
Some others in the group found it rather devoid of action at the beginning of the novel, but more interesting when the riots and prison fire were vividly described. We spent some time comparing the riot descriptions with the more contemporary riots of 2011. We found a lot of similarities.
I award the book 4 stars out of 5, more than I give to David Copperfield.
Voting at our meeting produced the following statistics:
- Of our 18 members, 11 attended, 1 apologised and 6 were lost by the wayside.
- Of the 11 faithful, only 5 had finished the book by the time of the meeting!
- Star awards varied from 1 to 4 (out of 5), with an average of 2.
The chief complaint was undue length, though a few thought it improved on second reading!
I was fascinated by the politics
Anne, who couldn't attend the discussion, sent some very positive thoughts:
I would certainly award the book 4/5 - I enjoyed it many times more than either David Copperfield or Old Curiosity Shop (in fact my heart was sinking at reading another like them so this was a wonderful change). I enjoyed the whodunit early chapters, especially the descriptions of different cameo scenes - in the Maypole; corridors, windows and slow decay at The Warren Hall; domestics with the Vardens (locksmith family) , the ghastly John Chester preening himself at breakfast...Grip and Barnaby...Very funny and engaging. And the descriptions of the rioting were fabulous. I was fascinated by the politics - to my shame I had never heard of the Gordon Riots, certainly not written about by someone only 50 years later.
Barnaby (with Grip as his alter self) IS the main character in my eyes, strange, quirky, a brilliant personification of Dickens understanding of irony - hope that doesn't sound too pompous.
What a relief that the 'good' ISN'T illustrated by beautiful but drippy damsels.
An unexpected delightful surprise for me and spurs me onto tackling more Dickens!
Who is the hero
General discussion at our meeting centred on who is the hero? Not poor Barnaby, perhaps there isn't one, or is it Grip? There was agreement around the author's sympathetic approach to what is now called disability, including some for Hugh (a sinister character who lived at the Maypole Inn) and also appreciation of the humour. We felt the book's noticeable omission of a child character was a benefit (there can be too much of pathetic Little Nell types in other novels). Many of the characters seemed hard to differentiate, with their role in the narrative unclear for a long time.
Overall we felt there is a moral merit in the discipline of reading Dickens today, however long. We discussed the likelihood in the Victorian Age of reading aloud to the family in evenings, before the advent of electric light, radio and television. In the new age of computers, music and many other distractions. Who would suggest in 2012 attempting to occupy family members in reading aloud before the non-existent fireplace?
Our next book is Hard Times, thankfully a much shorter read.
Geoffrey and Jane - on behalf of the Manchester reads Dickens group
Watch out for our Dickens Champions' blog posts as they read and review their way through Dickens during 2012.
Reading Dickens in your reading group or book club? Get in touch or post a comment to let us know how you're getting on.