My interactions with Charles Dickens’ work to this point have been limited to an occasional re-reading of A Christmas Carol, and having been assigned to read A Tale of Two Cities in high school. But, having been inspired by The Cultivated Mind to give Dickens a reconsideration, I decided to dig deeper. I picked up Barnaby Rudgeon the recommendation of a friend.
I enjoyed the book a great deal, and I am sure that I will be returning to Dickens again soon. Something that I had not appreciated about the serial novel genre was that each chapter (installment) needs to stand on its own, in the sense of being a satisfying literary experience. A modern novel might devote a few sentences to the description of an inn, for the sake of getting on with the story. Dickens has to entertain his readers for a week with that story, and therefore has to put a good deal more work into the description. (An idea: reading a Dickens novel at a rate of one chapter per week, as the original readers would have done.)
So, two odd observations from Wikipedia, and two from my own thoughts.
Wikipedia: Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities are apparently Dickens’ only works of historical fiction, and both happen to deal with riotous or revolutionary events. Also, Barnaby Rudge is not considered to be one of his better novels, and so is not widely read. (Fortunately I consulted Wikipedia only after having read the book; otherwise I might not have started it!)
My first observation is that Dickens blends seamlessly what ought to be a major psychological, sociological, philosophical, and theological conundrum: namely that individuals are responsible for their actions, and that at the same time they are molded by their societies and the individual circumstances of their lives. One of the antagonists (Hugh) has been dealt a poor hand in life, his mother having been executed for attempted robbery when he was a child. He becomes little better than an animal, but Dickens doesn’t for a moment suggest that he is not a responsible person, or that because he is an object of pity, that he should not also be an object of justice. Perhaps this appears to be a major synthesis only because I am a twenty first century reader, but there you go.
The second is an appreciation of a theme that I have previously only encountered in Jane Austen (especially in Pride and Prejudice), which is that there is a point at which silliness becomes negligence, and therefore a point at which frivolity acquires a moral dimension. The first act of the book introduces the cast of characters in a way that would not be inappropriate for a light comedy. In the second act, these foibles become fault lines in the characters. Perhaps the theme jumps out at me because of the streak of dyspeptic intellectualism in my character that makes me enjoy the writings of people like Neil Postman and Theodore Dalrymple. Still, the book I’m currently reading is a biographer of Bonhoeffer, which portrays him as an exceptionally prescient opponent of Nationalist Socialism in a society that was simply not prepared to grapple with the seriously of the situation. So, I don’t believe it boils down to a matter of personal taste in the end.