From The Record, September 22, 2017 —Stephen Sheeran
Jerry: Boy, he’s a real bounder, isn’t he?
Elaine: Yes. He’s one of those bounders…
—Seinfeld “The Soup”
In that memorable episode of Seinfeld, Jerry and Elaine simultaneously discover the phenomenological essence of bounderhood. New Yorkers born and bred, they have finally encountered a genuine English bounder in the form of Elaine’s latest boyfriend. In a second-hand bookstore I recently stumbled across a copy of Charles Dickens’ classic Barnaby Rudge, and I must say that in the reading of it similar moments of cultural a-ha! reactions are common. Any of you who hark back to your brief Dickens encounters at school will remember that in his works bounders abound, and there are cads, knaves, scoundrels, rascals, popinjays, blighters, waifs, orphans, and paupers by the dozen.
In these days when viewers anxiously wait for the latest episode of Billionaires, Twin Peaks, or Peaky Blinders, it is hard to credit that for the mid-nineteenth century audience the latest episode of a Dickens novel (most of which were conceived as serial publications) filled the same exciting gap. Famously, fans were said to have lined the docks in New York and Boston waiting for the episode of The Old Curiosity Shop that would reveal the fate of Little Nell.
Barnaby Rudge (NB full title Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty) was Dickens’ 5th major publication and it appeared in 1841. It was an historical novel focusing on the events surrounding the Gordon Riots which had occurred 60 years previously. The causes of these riots were complex, but a central issue was a proposed legislation to eliminate long-standing discriminatory laws against Catholics—laws that impeded education, service in the military, and other basic rights. This proposed legislation led to fear and hate-mongering, especially on the part of Lord George Gordon, head of the Protestant Association, who spread the view that relaxing these anti-Catholic laws would pave the way to political and military weakness. At the head of an unruly mob, he presented a petition to parliament. This served as a flashpoint for widespread discontent amongst the poor, the oppressed, and the chronically malcontent. Lords were roughed up, Catholic churches and houses were burned, and prisons were stormed and prisoners set free. At this point England was in the midst of several foreign conflicts, not the least of which was the American Revolution, and the riots threatened the country’s internal stability. The rioters and ringleaders were dealt with harshly.
These real-life events provide the backdrop for the novel, and Dickens gives his readers their money’s worth when it comes to characters and plotting. We are introduced (on a dark a stormy night) to the denizens of the aged Maypole Pub, some 12 miles away from London: John Willet (blighter), the pub owner, who sorely oppresses his handsome and kindly son, Joe. We meet Edward Chester, the honest and well-intentioned son (paradoxically) of the villainous (scoundrel) Sir John Chester, Esquire, M.P. We are also introduced to a mystery, involving the murder some 21 years ago of Rueben Haredale at a nearby manor. We are soon introduced to the title character, Barnaby Rudge, a young man who is mentally deficient—an innocent, an idiot, a mooncalf—but doted upon by his mother, Mary Rudge. Barnaby is very strong, gifted with a wonderful imagination, but he is easily distracted, and all too easily drawn by sinister characters into the political turmoil of London and the riots.
One of Dickens’ great strengths is that he is able to introduce a huge cast of characters all with deftly drawn backgrounds and generate plots which see their interests overlap, converge, and collide. We meet the sinister Hugh, a hostler at the Maypole Inn, who, as a child, saw his mother hung for a minor theft. He will soon become involved with a hangman, Ned Dennis, and they will both become deeply implicated in the mayhem. We meet Simon Tappertit, an unstable apprentice to a locksmith, who sneaks out at night to preside over the secret society of ’Prentice Knights aka United Bulldogs, a group that will contribute enthusiastically to the impending chaos. Most importantly we meet Lord George Gordon, and his evil and obsequious and conniving secretary, Mr Gashford, and his able servant John Grueby.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Barnaby Rudge is that it depicts perfectly the growth and explosion of a mass movement. Lord George Gordon is firmly convinced that he is acting out of noble principles and has the best interests of his country at heart. He has an almost mystical conviction of his own rightness and is very much an unconscious narcissist. He keeps seeking the approval of his underlings and at the same time feeding off their faith in him. His convoluted speeches, though frequently incomprehensible, tap into the discontent of his listeners. His calls for “No Popery” send them into transports of elation.
Dickens evokes perfectly the organic quality of mob behaviour. When the hapless Mr. Haredale (a Catholic) is confronted by a hostile crown the moment is well rendered: “They were not silent, however, though inactive. At first some indistinct mutterings arose among them, which were followed by a hiss or two, and these swelled by degrees into a perfect storm. Then one voice said, ‘Down with the Papists!’ and there was a pretty general cheer, but nothing more. After a lull of a few moments, one man cried out, ‘Stone him;’ another, ‘Duck him;’ another, in a stentorian voice, ‘No Popery!’ This favourite cry the rest re-echoed, and the mob, which might have been two hundred strong, joined in a general shout.”
It is uncanny that Dickens should be able to depict in such stark, real terms the nature of mob behaviour. The fact that we have witnessed this identical behaviour in political rallies south of the border over the past two years is an unfortunate testimony to his enduring relevance.
Barnaby Rudge can be ordered by interlibrary loan through the Lennoxville Library and it is also available online via Project Gutenberg in a version that includes all the original illustrations.