“Barnaby Rudge”, written by Dickens in 1841, depicts riots in London in 1780 that echo eerily the storming of the US Capitol in January 2021.
I recently read Barnaby Rudge, the fifth novel by Charles Dickens and one of his most overlooked. The book’s relevance to today’s politics astonished me.
Barnaby Rudge – mob violence 1780-2021
The key to the relevance of Barnaby Rudge lies in its full title. I’d never realised until researching this post that it was: Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty. The riots referred to are the Gordon Riots of 1780. In response to a proposed new law reducing discrimination against Catholics, Lord George Gordon inflamed protestors by predicting dire consequences if the law were passed. These included that British Catholics, if allowed into the army, would join Catholics overseas to attack England. Gordon urged the mob to take matters into their own hands.
What followed was uncannily similar to events in Washington D.C. on 6 January 2021.
The Gordon Riots
The main events of the 1780 riots were as follows:
- on 2 June a crowd estimated at 40-60,000 marched on the Houses of Parliament to protest against the new law. Many carried banners supporting their cause and wore emblems (a blue cockade, or badge) of their allegiance. They tried without success to fight their way inside, but attacked members of the House of Lords. They overwhelmed local police. Eventually armed soldiers arrived and dispersed the crowd.
- over the following days, rioters attacked the Catholic chapels of foreign embassies and the homes of rich Catholics and other wealthy citizens, looting widely. They burned many buildings, including prisons.
- on 7 June, rioters tried to storm the Bank of England. This time, army units arrived in force. They shot dead hundreds, and wounded many more. The riots died down.
Historians disagree on the extent to which the riots were mainly anti-Catholic. A lot else was going on. Many people in London were poor, and could not vote. The American War of Independence, and concurrent wars against France and Spain, fuelled an economic crisis.
Dickens describes the rioters as “sprinkled doubtless here and there with honest zealots, but composed for the most of the very scum and refuse of London, whose growth was fostered by bad criminal laws, bad prison regulations, and the worst conceivable police.”
Barnaby Rudge: riots and conspiracy theories
Dickens repeatedly describes the riots in terms that sound contemporary, including the enduring powers of conspiracy theories:
- To surround anything, however monstrous or ridiculous, with an air of mystery, is to invest it with a secret charm, and power of attraction which to the crowd is irresistible.
- False priests, false prophets, false doctors, false patriots, false prodigies of every kind, veiling their proceedings in mystery, have always addressed themselves at an immense advantage to the popular credulity.
The key quote
In 1780, as at the Capitol in 2021, rumours of conspiracies turbocharged the protests. Dickens argues that few people would normally have been interested in the rioters’ cause. But talk of twin plots – by Protestants to strike against the government, and by Catholics “to degrade and enslave England [and] establish an inquisition in London”, swell the mob:
- If a man had stood on London Bridge, calling till he was hoarse, upon the passers-by, to join with Lord George Gordon, although for an object which no man understood… the probability is, that he might have influenced a score of people in a month. If all zealous Protestants had been publicly urged to join an association for the avowed purpose of singing a hymn or two occasionally, and hearing some indifferent speeches made, and ultimately of petitioning Parliament not to pass an act for abolishing the penal laws against Roman Catholic priests, the penalty of perpetual imprisonment denounced against those who educated children in that persuasion, and the disqualification of all members of the Romish church to inherit real property in the United Kingdom by right of purchase or descent — matters so far removed from the business and bosoms of the mass, might perhaps have called together a hundred people. But when vague rumours got abroad, that in this Protestant association a secret power was mustering against the government for undefined and mighty purposes; when the air was filled with whispers of a confederacy among the Popish powers to degrade and enslave England, establish an inquisition in London, and turn the pens of Smithfield market into stakes and cauldrons; when terrors and alarms which no man understood were perpetually broached, both in and out of Parliament, by one enthusiast who did not understand himself, and bygone bugbears which had lain quietly in their graves for centuries, were raised again to haunt the ignorant and credulous; when all this was done, as it were, in the dark, and secret invitations to join the Great Protestant Association in defence of religion, life, and liberty, were dropped in the public ways, thrust under the house-doors, tossed in at windows, and pressed into the hands of those who trod the streets by night; when they glared from every wall, and shone on every post and pillar, so that stocks and stones appeared infected with the common fear, urging all men to join together blindfold in resistance of they knew not what, they knew not why; — then the mania spread indeed, and the body, still increasing every day, grew forty thousand strong.
Gordon Riots? Meet the storming of the Capitol
Dickens describes how rioters attack members of parliament inside the building, as tumult grows:
- Thus the members were not only attacked in their passage through the streets, but were set upon within the very walls of Parliament; while the tumult, both within and without, was so great, that those who attempted to speak could scarcely hear their own voices: far less, consult upon the course it would be wise to take in such extremity, or animate each other to dignified and firm resistance.
He goes on to mock the rioters by having them recruit Barnaby Rudge himself, a man Dickens refers to as an “idiot” who we would today describe as mentally disabled or perhaps suffering from Down Syndrome, to their cause. They convince Barnaby, a sympathetic, gentle character endowed with great strength, that he will become rich and famous if he joins them. When one of Lord Gordon’s men says Barnaby does not understand what he is fighting for, both Gordon and Barnaby himself deny it – Barnaby at first addressing Grip, the raven that goes everywhere with him:
- ‘He’s a coward, Grip, a coward!’ cried Barnaby, putting the raven on the ground, and shouldering his staff. ‘Let them come! Gordon for ever! Let them come!’ ‘Ay!’ said Lord George, ‘let them! Let us see who will venture to attack a power like ours; the solemn league of a whole people. THIS a madman! You have said well, very well. I am proud to be the leader of such men as you.’
Dickens even has Grip the raven, who repeats simple phrases, take up the cause of the rioters:
- ‘A devil, a kettle, a Grip, a Polly, a Protestant, no Popery!’ cried the raven.
Dickens puts the same words into the mouths of Hugh, one of the leaders of the riot, and Dennis, a hangman who joins the rioters then switches sides:
- ‘No Popery, brother!’ cried the hangman. ‘No Property, brother!’ responded Hugh. ‘Popery, Popery,’ said the secretary with his usual mildness. ‘It’s all the same!’ cried Dennis. ‘It’s all right. Down with him, Muster Gashford. Down with everybody, down with everything!‘
Hugh, after drinking, makes clear that he is happy to perform any act:
- ‘Make anything you like of me!’ cried Hugh, flourishing the can he had emptied more than once. ‘Put me on any duty you please. I’m your man. I’ll do it. Here’s my captain — here’s my leader. Ha ha ha! Let him give me the word of command, and I’ll fight the whole Parliament House single-handed, or set a lighted torch to the King’s Throne itself!’
Does any of this sound awfully modern?
Barnaby Rudge: The Mob
Dickens loves to write spectacular scenes. Here are three, leading up to the peak of the disturbances.
As news of the riots spreads, Dickens observes that then, as now, we are all more interested in bad news than good.
- Rumours of the prevailing disturbances had, by this time, begun to be pretty generally circulated through the towns and villages round London, and the tidings were everywhere received with that appetite for the marvellous and love of the terrible which have probably been among the natural characteristics of mankind since the creation of the world.
Dickens describes the collapse of state power and its replacement by mob rule:
- The crowd was the law, and never was the law held in greater dread, or more implicitly obeyed.
Finally, he describes the scenes as London burns:
- The tumbling down of nodding walls and heavy blocks of wood, the hooting and the execrations of the crowd, the distant firing of other military detachments, the distracted looks and cries of those whose habitations were in danger, the hurrying to and fro of frightened people with their goods; the reflections in every quarter of the sky, of deep, red, soaring flames, as though the last day had come and the whole universe were burning; the dust, and smoke, and drift of fiery particles, scorching and kindling all it fell upon; the hot unwholesome vapour, the blight on everything; the stars, and moon, and very sky, obliterated; — made up such a sum of dreariness and ruin, that it seemed as if the face of Heaven were blotted out, and night, in its rest and quiet, and softened light, never could look upon the earth again.
The ringleaders’ regrets
A special fate awaits Dennis, the hangman, in Barnaby Rudge. Dennis is obsessed by death and power. When rioters storm Newgate Prison, he tries to prevent them freeing the prisoners on death row because he has a special interest in seeing them hanged. Later, he switches sides and denounces Hugh and other leading rioters in the belief that this betrayal, and the fact that he formerly worked as a hangman, will save his life. Dickens ridicules Dennis’s growing concern for his future:
- This gentleman’s stoicism was of that not uncommon kind, which enables a man to bear with exemplary fortitude the afflictions of his friends, but renders him, by way of counterpoise, rather selfish and sensitive in respect of any that happen to befall himself.
When Dennis hears he, too, will hang, he cannot believe it. Like many conspiracy theorists, he believes he, in turn, is the victim of a conspiracy to prevent a pardon:
- ‘They’ll hang me by a trick, and keep the pardon back. It’s a plot against me. I shall lose my life!’ And uttering another yell, [Dennis] fell in a fit upon the ground.
Barnaby Rudge: A Summary
All in all I found Barnaby Rudge a mixed bag. The first part of the book, set in 1775, stirs a rich stew of characters without ever quite coming to the boil. The second and final part jumps forward to 1780, when the riots sweep up many of those characters. The pacing is better and the events are more dramatic. I couldn’t wait to learn what happened to Barnaby himself and whether this tragic, well-meaning figure would be hanged, or saved.
Perhaps my greatest pleasure in reading the book was the sheer unexpectedness of the story. The title doesn’t give much away. I had a vague idea that the book was a bit dull. But once the second part began, it is a cracking – and startlingly contemporary – tale.
As so often, Dickens packs Barnaby Rudge with epigrams and wisecracks. Here are a few that caught my eye.
Barnaby Rudge on army recruitment
Dickens makes fun of how the army recruits people with empty promises:
- ‘Is he recruiting for a — for a fine regiment?’ said Joe, glancing at a little round mirror that hung in the bar. ‘I believe he is,’ replied the host. ‘It’s much the same thing, whatever regiment he’s recruiting for. I’m told there an’t a deal of difference between a fine man and another one, when they’re shot through and through.’
- Joe walked out, stopped at the door of the next room, and listened. The serjeant was describing a military life. It was all drinking, he said, except that there were frequent intervals of eating and love-making. A battle was the finest thing in the world — when your side won it — and Englishmen always did that.
Again, nothing much seems to have changed in the past two hundred and forty years.
Barnaby Rudge on marriage
- ‘Now, who would think,’ thought Varden, shrugging his shoulders and drawing his chair nearer to the fire, ‘that that woman could ever be pleasant and agreeable? And yet she can be. Well, well, all of us have our faults. I’ll not be hard upon hers. We have been man and wife too long for that.’
- With this lady (who assisted in the business) he lived in great domestic happiness, only chequered by those little storms which serve to clear the atmosphere of wedlock, and brighten its horizon.
Barnaby Rudge on money
When Barnaby tells his mother that he will become rich by joining the rioters, she cautions him:
- [Barnaby] ‘I would I knew where gold was buried. How hard I’d work to dig it up!’ ‘You do not know,’ said his mother, rising from her seat and laying her hand upon his shoulder, ‘what men have done to win it, and how they have found, too late, that it glitters brightest at a distance, and turns quite dim and dull when handled.’
Later, she muses:
- ‘Nothing bears so many stains of blood, as gold. Avoid it. None have such cause to hate its name as we have. Do not so much as think of it, dear love. It has brought such misery and suffering on your head and mine as few have known, and God grant few may have to undergo. I would rather we were dead and laid down in our graves, than you should ever come to love it.’
What to do next
I hope you enjoyed this review of Barnaby Rudge and will feel inspired to read it. I hope to review some more Dickens in due course. If you’d like more like this, try:
- Who is watching the watchers? An analysis of how the storming of the Capitol fits in with other recent coup plots
- Capitol Storming: events in Washington echo my thriller “Blood Summit” – what it says on the tin.
- If you fancy more reading ideas, you might like my review of “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies”, or my ravings about the excellence of Anthony Trollope.
- Finally, characters in Barnaby Rudge complain that the ease of printing paper handbills and distributing them under doors enables ideas to spread so fast that no-one can control them. This sounds a bit like the internet. See my review of the excellent The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr, about what computers are doing to our brains.