May 2, 2018

The Dickens Connection — Barnaby Rudge and Grip Come to the Friends of the Library Book Sale

By Stuart Mitchner

Looking ahead to this weekend’s Friends of the Princeton Public Library Book Sale, I’m finally reading the copy of Barnaby Rudge that was given to me by a British couple who inscribed it in memory of the evening we spent at the King’s Head (Dickens’s Maypole), the novel’s primary setting. If I hesitate to use “Dickensian” to describe this memorably thoughtful, kind, and caring couple, it’s because my understanding of the term conflicts with online definitions that stipulate “poor social conditions” and “comically repulsive characters.”

What made the couple in question “Dickensian” was the cheerful Christmas-morning-at-the-Cratchits’ warmth I felt during my week-long stay in their bucolic South Woodford bungalow. High tea with Ethel and Bertie would have charmed old Ebenezer on the spot, sparing him those guided tours with the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future.

“Dickensian,” however, reflects as complex a phenomenon as the fictional universe that inspired it; the same word can be used to depict both a cartoonish grotesque like Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop and a truehearted soul like Joe Gargary in Great Expectations; it also covers the compound of monster and benefactor embodied by Magwitch in the same novel. The bah-humbug excessiveness of Scrooge’s misanthropy is itself Dickensian, as is the colorful prose used to describe it.

Dickensian Extremes

So here’s Barnaby Rudge, this cherished gift that I’ve been meaning to read since I was in my late teens, and however many times I’ve expectantly opened my copy, I’ve never made it past the first chapter until now. I can’t explain why it’s taken me so long, given that the novel begins with an engaging example of colorful Dickensian prose describing an inn that has “more gable ends than a lazy man would care to count on a sunny day” and “huge zig-zag chimneys” from which “smoke could not choose but come out in more than naturally fantastic shapes.”

In fact, what drew me in and kept me reading this time are the Dickensian extremes with which the title character in Barnaby Rudge actually lives, sees, and responds to life. To the novelist, the “fantastic shapes” made by smoke rising from “zig-zag chimneys” are merely words; for Barnaby, imagination is experience. When he sees smoke “rolling up the chimney in a thick black cloud,” he expresses it aloud like a sports announcer performing a play-by-play
narration, doing all he can do to animate the thing seen, miming the movement, dancing with it: “Now, where do they go to, when they spring so fast up there? Why do they tread so closely on each other’s heels, and why are they always in a hurry … More of ’em! catching to each other’s skirts; and as fast as they go, others come! What a merry dance it is!”

It’s more of the same as he watches clothes blown about on a line: “Do you mark how they whisper in each other’s ears; then dance and leap, to make believe they are in sport? Do you see how they stop for a moment, when they think there is no one looking, and mutter among themselves again; and then how they roll and gambol, delighted with the mischief they’ve been plotting? Look at ’em now. See how they whirl and plunge. And now they stop again, and whisper, cautiously together.”

When someone tells him “they are only clothes fluttering in the wind,” Barnaby laughs, saying, “Why, how much better to be silly, than as wise as you! You don’t see shadowy people there, like those that live in sleep — not you. Nor eyes in the knotted panes of glass, nor swift ghosts when it blows hard, nor do you hear voices in the air, nor see men stalking in the sky — not you! I lead a merrier life than you, with all your cleverness. You’re the dull men. We’re the bright ones. Ha! ha! I’ll not change with you, clever as you are — not I!”

The rationale for Barnaby’s wildness is that he’s mad, “silly,” an “idiot,” when he’s actually more like a spark of creative fire brought to life, the author’s fancy at play in the narrative. Novelist George Gissing has noted how fond Dickens is of “characters hovering between eccentricity and madness,” but he knows Barnaby is something else. “Crazy, I call him,” Gissing writes, “an idiot he certainly is not. An idiot does not live a life of exalted imagination.” In the end, however, Gissing believes Barnaby Rudge, “good as it is,” would have been a better book if the idea of “an insane central figure” had been “discarded.”

It does seem odd (if not “silly”) that a period work subtitled A Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty bears the name of the fantastical character who actually takes up a relatively modest portion of the complex plot, as Dickens spirits him in and out of the novel’s 700 pages.

Here’s a portion of young Barnaby’s entrance in all its Dickensian glory: “His hair, of which he had a great profusion, was red, and hanging in disorder about his face and shoulders, gave to his restless looks an expression quite unearthly …. He had ornamented his hat with a cluster of peacock’s feathers, but they were limp and broken, and now trailed negligently down his back. Girt to his side was the steel hilt of an old sword without blade or scabbard; and some particoloured ends of ribands and poor glass toys completed the ornamental portion of his attire. The fluttered and confused disposition of all the motley scraps that formed his dress, bespoke, in a scarcely less degree than his eager and unsettled manner, the disorder of his mind, and by a grotesque contrast set off and heightened the more impressive wildness of his face.”

And then of course there’s Barnaby’s constant companion, Grip the raven.

Two Ravens

In his preface to Barnaby Rudge, Dickens talks about his two pet ravens, the first of which slept in the stable, where, thanks to “the mere superiority of his genius,” he was able to “walk off unmolested with the dog’s dinner,” only to meet an untimely end by consuming “a pound or two of white lead left by some painters.” The second raven “tore up and swallowed, in splinters, the greater part of a wooden staircase of six steps and a landing,” was eventually taken ill and “died before the kitchen fire” with “his eye to the last upon the meat as it roasted.”

When Dickens came to America in 1842, a year after the publication of Barnaby Rudge, he met a literary magpie named Edgar Allan Poe. Three years later, Poe published “The Raven,” which became one of the most famous poems in the English language. Writing in Graham’s Magazine around the time he met Dickens, Poe reviewed Barnaby Rudge at great length, devoting eight densely detailed paragraphs to outlining the convoluted plot before going on analyze Dickens’s strategy (“Every point is so arranged as to perplex the reader, and whet his desire for elucidation”).

Once Poe gets around to mentioning the raven, you can see his own bird of ill omen taking shape. While he finds Grip “intensely amusing,” he thinks the raven might have been more effectively tied to “the conception of the fantastic Barnaby”; in addition, “its croakings might have been prophetically heard in the course of the drama.” That’s Poe’s emphasis on the word “prophetically,” which suggests he’s already envisioning his Prophet of Nevermore (“Prophet! thing of evil! — prophet still, if bird or devil!). Dickens’s raven habitually chants “I’m a devil, I’m a devil, I’m a devil” and moves about at “a pace like that of a very particular gentleman with exceedingly tight boots on, trying to walk fast over loose pebbles.” Another passage that resonates in Poe takes place in a “chamber … dull, dark, and sombre; heavy with worm-eaten books; deadened and shut in by faded hangings, muffling every sound,” where the raven “hopped upon the table … with the air of some old necromancer” and “appeared to be profoundly studying a great folio volume that lay open on a desk,” looking ‘like the embodied spirit of evil biding his time of mischief.”

Rare William Morris

Of all Poe’s many contributions to the mystique of old books and thus secondhand book sales like the one approaching, the most familiar may be the reference to “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore” from “The Raven.” Add to that the hint of something Dickensian in the notion of a space called the Community Room being transformed more or less overnight to a market fair of secondhand books from a variety of periods and places, homes and habitats. One of this year’s rarest and most curious volumes is the 1893 Kelmscott Press edition of The Tale of King Florus and the Fair Jehane, translated by William Morris from the 13th century French. Hoping to search out some sort of Dickens-Morris connection online, I found that when Morris was courting the 17-year-old Jane Burden at Oxford, soon to become Jane Morris, he read aloud to her — from Barnaby Rudge.