A Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty is the Dickens novel I read in September and one of his two historical novels. It is about anti-Catholic Gordon Riots that took place in London in 1780. It also contains a murder, a Romeo and Juliet kind of romance, the titular Barnaby, a simple man and his pet raven, Grip. I enjoyed it very much and can heartily recommend it. The rest of the review is under the cut, as it contains spoilers.
The novel plays in the countryside around London and in London itself. It tells the story of the Catholic Haredale family, who live at the Warren manor house near the Maypole Inn. Reuben Haredale was murdered around 20 years before the story begins. He left behind a daughter, Emma, who remains at the family manor with her uncle Geoffrey. Emma is in love with Edward Chester, who is a Protestant and whose father Sir John Chester (M.P.) is Geoffrey Haredale’s mortal enemy. Both Sir John and Mr. Haredale are against the union of their children and conspire to separate the two. Edward leaves for the West Indies to earn his fortune.
Regarding the murder Reuben Haredale, it seems that his gardener, who disappeared at the time, was the murderer. He appeared to have murdered both Reuben and his steward, Barnaby Rudge senior. Mary Rudge, his wife, was pregnant at the time and gave birth to the simple-minded Barnaby Rudge junior (the shock of the murder was believed to have affected the child in her womb). Barnaby is good at simple tasks on the farm and very good with animals. He has a loquacious raven as a companion, Grip.
At the Maypole Inn, the innkeeper Old John Willet treats his son Joe like a child, so that Joe rebels and runs away to join the army. He is in love with Dolly Varden, the daughter of the locksmith Gabriel Varden, who lives in London. She is a bit of a flirt and doesn’t seem to care about Joe. She is also a friend of Emma Haredale’s and often stays with her in the country. At the Maypole Inn there’s also a rough and rude servant, Hugh, who cares for the horses and does odd jobs. He also is very good with animals.
Mary Rudge gets an annuity from the Haredales, but she gives it up and flees with Barnaby first to London and then to another part of the country, in order to hide from a mysterious stranger. But this proves futile, because a crony of the stranger finds them, and they are forced to return to London. On the way, they are overtaken by a lot of future rioters, led by Lord George Gordon, the head of the Protestant Association, who is violently opposed against some new rights given to Catholics. Gordon had stopped off on his way to London at the Maypole Inn where Hugh met and accompanied him and became a leader of the rioters. He is the one who also involved the simple Barnaby, who was deluded into thinking that he was being a soldier and a hero and would be making his mother proud.
Hugh used the riots to kidnap Emma Haredale (at the instigation of Sir John, who took the riots as an opportunity to harm his enemy Geoffrey). The Warren is burnt down, and Emma is kept captive together with Dolly, who was with her at the time of the abduction. They are rescued by Joe and Ned who both return in the nick of time from their foreign travels. The riots are put down (but there was much loss of life and property damage). The leaders of the riot (though not Lord Gordon) are put on trial and sentenced to death (including the mysterious stranger and Hugh, who turns out to be an illegitimate son of Sir John’s), but Barnaby is pardoned because he didn’t know what he was doing. There’s a happy end for the young couples, Joe and Dolly, and Edward and Emma. Also for Barnaby and his mother, who live with Joe at the Inn. Sir John and Geoffrey Haredale have it out in a duel. Sir John is killed, and Geoffrey flees to the continent where he enters a monastery.
I’d never heard of the Gordon Riots, so that was interesting. The plot (as usual) is convoluted and there are a lot more characters connected with the main families in the story (the Rudges, the Willets, the Vardens, the Chesters and the Haredales). We are told how they all experience and are embroiled with the riots. Some awful scenes take place in London during these riots, and they seem to have been based on historical accounts. Interestingly, Lord Gordon later converted to Judaism. Very odd in one who was such a fanatical Protestant. I found the characters all very well done and I especially liked Barnaby and his raven. Fun fact: Edgar Allan Poe was inspired to write his famous poem “The Raven” by this novel (according to Wikipedia). Here’s a quote about Grip:
Grip was by no means an idle or unprofitable member of the humble household. Partly by dint of Barnaby’s tuition, and partly by pursuing a species of self-instruction common to his tribe, and exerting his powers of observation to the utmost, he had acquired a degree of sagacity which rendered him famous for miles round. His conversational powers and surprising performances were the universal theme: and as many persons came to see the wonderful raven, and none left his exertions unrewarded ̶ when he condescended to exhibit, which was not always, for genius is capricious ̶ his earnings formed an important item in the common stock.
Charles Dicken, Barnaby Rudge, p. 179
There’s a murder mystery, diverse romances, historical mayhem, humour, social criticism ̶ what’s not to love? This one ranks high on my list of favourite Dickens novels:
- David Copperfield
- Bleak House
- Barnaby Rudge
- Our Mutual Friend
- Little Dorrit
- Nicholas Nickleby
- Hard Times
- Martin Chuzzlewit
- Pickwick Papers
- Dombey and Son