The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 7. Barnaby Rudge
Barnaby Rudge, independently of its internal and detailed attractions, has a special interest for the student as a whole book. It may seem strange that Dickens had not, like almost all his contemporaries and immediate predecessors in novelwriting, attempted the historical novel, which, in the hands of its creator Scott, had shown itself to be a royal road to praise and profit. The reasons why he had not are speculative, and, though more than one could easily be alleged, there is no room here for mere speculation. The fact that he attempted it now is a fact, and to be registered with the companion fact that, except in A Tale of Two Cities, he never attempted it again. And these two facts, taken with the character of the particular books, suggest that, in the kind, as a kind, he did not feel himself at home. It is certain that the historical events and personages in Barnaby Rudge are not the main source or cause of the interest, though they are, with a skill which the author did not often show elsewhere, constantly made the occasion of it. That the actual Gordon riots, though described with splendid vigour and with a careful attention to documentary detail which sometimes suggests Macaulay and sometimes Carlyle, were somewhat exaggerated in presentation was to be expected, and matters but little, especially as the tale is most powerfully told. But, once more, the chief attraction of the book is in the comic or heroi-comic accessories. Barnaby is, of course, Smike endowed with some more heroic qualities; and Hugh stands to Barnaby, with a melodramatic addition, very much as Barnaby does to Smike. Gashford rings up once more the unwelcome eidolon of the stage villain, and lord George is ineffective, while the tragedy part connected with Barnaby’s father and the Haredales were much better away. But the Vardens and Sim Tappertit and Miggs and old John Willet (a little overdone perhaps) are of the best Dickens quality. Even Dennis, who stands to Squeers very much as Hugh to Smike and sometimes shivers on the brink of caricature, can be accepted as a whole. The blot on the book is Sir John Chester, who is not only, once more, “of the boards,” merely, but, also, is an abiding proof of the author’s weakness in historical psychology. Lord Chesterfield had some real, and more assumed, foibles, common in his time, and he was a man of no high passions and few great actions. But he was a man (as even Horace Walpole, who hated him, admits) of singular weight and wits; not a few of his letters show real good nature and good feeling under fashionable disguises; he might have been a great statesman, and he was quite a human being. His double, here, is little better than a puppet, and a puppet “made up” wrong.
The great attractions, however, and the smaller defects of the book in detail, subordinate themselves, in a general view of Dickens, to the question of the total result. Was this substitution of the more ambitious and unified style an improvement on the rambling chronicle of humour and incident, comic mainly, sometimes serious, which had formed the staple of his earlier books? Opinions will, of course, differ, but that of the present writer inclines to the negative answer. There is, certainly, no falling off in it as regards power; on the contrary, there are variations and additions in this respect. But, on analysing the satisfaction derived from it, one finds that the sources of this satisfaction fall apart from each other almost as much as in the more disconnected chronicles of the earlier books. There is still no “total impression,” but a succession of situations, incidents, utterances, which excite amusement, suspense, pity, terror and other kinds or phases of interest. To so remarkable an extent is this the case that, in almost all Dickens’s books, if you take the appearances of one character and put them together in what the eighteenth century would have called a “history,” with as little inclusion of their companions and surroundings as possible (the thing has once or twice been tried by injudicious meddlers), a great deal of the interest is lost. The successive situations form, as it were, separate tableaux, to which all the persons and circumstances contained in them are necessary, but which refuse to combine in any strict sense, preferring merely to follow one another.
Almost immediately after the completion of Master Humphrey’s Clock (or, rather, of the two novels for which it had long been nothing but a mechanical sort of cover, or even label), Dickens undertook, in the spring of 1842, his journey to America —the first of a series of longer or shorter visits to foreign countries which became frequent and exercised a great influence, both direct and indirect, on his work. This particular voyage produced American Notes as an immediate, and Martin Chuzzlewit as a not long delayed, consequence.