_____Dickens originally committed to bringing out Barnaby Rudge in a three-volume edition, but "He needed a close relation with his reading public as a stimulus to his creative power, and this was not provided by the method of publishing a novel complete in three volumes.... [E]ventually it was decided that Barnaby Rudge should follow The Old Curiosity Shop in weekly serialization in Master Humphrey's Clock." The first installment appeared in February 1841 and ran through November. But Dickens found weekly serialization difficult in a historical novel with such complexity and decided that his next novel would be published monthly.
The novel sets up two opposing views of the past in its opening pages:
In the dreamy gables of the Maypole and its snug bar, the past is seen as a solace, a charm, and a burden. In contrast, in the neighbouring great house, the Warren, where a double murder has been committed, the past is a nightmare.For the character of Barnaby, Dickens drew on Walter Scott's The Heart of Midlothian and the madwoman Madge Wildfire, but also on Wordsworth: "Like Wordsworth's Idiot Boy, he has a devoted mother, distressed by cares that he is free from, and, like him too, he feels a 'glee' in the presence of Nature that the careworn cannot experience.... It would be a mistake to see Barnaby simply as another variant of the outraged innocent, like Nell and Smike. He is not only a victim of evil, but also a participator in it, though innocent because of his idiocy."
Although the focus of the novel is on the Gordon Riots of 1780, Dickens found parallels in the labor movement known as Chartism in his own day.
Chartism developed as a result of the disillusionment that befell the working classes after the Reform Act [of 1832], and it sought a political means for the remedy of social ills. The people's Charter was a demand for further constitutional reform, its principal point being universal manhood suffrage.... Above all, it was combined with agitation, with which Dickens must have had some sympathy, against the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. But he must have been alarmed by the extremist faction of Chartists, who advocated the use of "physical force" and imitated the gestures of the French Revolution.Although the historical distance sets Barnaby Rudge apart from the novels set in his own time, just as it does his other historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities, the novel nevertheless coheres with Dickens's view of social ills: "The fundamentally wrong condition of society, Dickens suggests, has created the wrong disposition of the people, which the cry of 'No Popery' resolves into savagery with an ease that is surprising only to the imperceptive.... [A]s a study of the human condition it is more complex and ambiguous than Bleak House though to some readers this complexity may seem to betray a confusion of ideas." For that matter, Dickens sometimes gets the history wrong: The Catholic Relief Act "was passed in 1778, though Dickens supposes that in 1780 the Protestant Association was petitioning Parliament, not to repeal it, but to refrain from passing it."
In his Preface, Dickens singles out two major themes of the novel: religious bigotry and capital punishment. The Gorden Riots, though "shameful," "teach a good lesson. That what we falsely call a religious cry is easily raised by men who have no religion, and who in their daily practice set at nought the commonest principles of right and wrong; that it is begotten of intolerance and persecution; that it is senseless, besotted, inveterate and unmerciful." And who are we in an age beset by fundamentalisms of all denominations to argue with that? As for the death penalty, Dickens has in mind particularly the expansion of it in the later eighteenth century to cover all sorts of petty crime, citing in particular that of a woman whose husband had been impressed into the navy, leaving her the sole support of two small children. She was hanged for stealing some cloth from a draper's shop.
The parish officers testified the truth of this story; but it seems, there had been a good deal of shop-lifting about Ludgate; an example was thought necessary; and this woman was hanged for the comfort and satisfaction of shopkeepers in Ludgate Street.
The novel begins in March 1775 at an inn called the Maypole on "the borders of Epping Forest, at a distance of about twelve miles from London." As Spence suggests in his introduction, this is the England of nostalgia, "an old building with more gable ends than a lazy man would care to count on a sunny day; huge zig-zag chimneys, out of which it seems as though even smoke could not choose but come in more than naturally fantastic shapes, imparted to it in its tortuous progress." The age of the Maypole is unknown, and is said to date to the reign of Henry VIII and that Queen Elizabeth had slept there. The exact age is unimportant, however: it was "perhaps as old as it claimed to be, and perhaps older." The point is that it has roots.
The landlord is John Willet, "a burly, large-headed man with a fat face, which betokened profound obstinacy and slowness of apprehension, combined with a very strong reliance upon his own merits ... one of the most dogged and positive fellows in existence -- always sure that what he thought or said or did was right, and ... that anybody who said or did or thought otherwise must be inevitably and of necessity wrong."
One of the guests in the room is a stranger "who sat apart from the regular frequenters of the house, and wearing a hat flipped over his face, which was still further shaded by the hand on which his forehead rested, looked unsociable enough." Another is "a young man of about eight-and-twenty" who seems preoccupied with something. Also there are a small man, whose name we find out later is Solomon Daisy, who is "the parish-clerk and bell-ringer of Chigwell, a village hard by," Tom Cobb, "the general chandler and post-office keeper," and Phil Parkes, a ranger.
The group is waited on by Joe Willet, the landlord's son, "a broad-shouldered strapping young fellow of twenty, whom it pleased his father still to consider a little boy, and to treat accordingly." When the stranger finally speaks to ask about a house "a mile or so from here," it is Joe who identifies it as the Warren. When the stranger asks who owns it, Joe glances at the preoccupied young man before identifying the owner as Geoffrey Haredale, "and a worthy gentleman too -- hem!" The cough is an attempt to warn the stranger not to pursue the subject, and when the stranger persists in asking about the young woman he saw getting into a carriage as he passed across the grounds of the Warren, Joe tries to distract him and change the subject, a sensitive one to the young man also seated in the room. But the stranger continues, and asks if the young woman is Haredale's daughter. Informed that Haredale is single, the stranger remarks, "Single men have had daughters before. Perhaps she may be his daughter, though he is not married." Joe warns the stranger again, but the man addresses himself directly to the young man who is obviously upset by his questions; the stranger asks why.
The young man doesn't answer but pays his bill and leaves, accompanied by Joe, who goes along to light his way. When Joe returns he says the young man is in love with Miss Haredale, who "has gone to a masquerade up in town, and he has set his heart upon seeing her!" But his father chides him for talking too much, and the others support him. Joe indignantly protests, "'if you mean to tell me that I'm never to open my lips --' 'Silence, sir!' roared his father. 'No, you never are. When your opinion's wanted, you give it.'" He turns to the stranger and tells him that Miss Haredale is Geoffrey Haredale's niece. The stranger asks if her father is alive, and Willet tells him, "he is not alive, and his is not dead -- ... Not dead in a common sort of way." The stranger demands to know what he means, and he turns to Solomon Daisy to tell the story.
Daisy begins to tell it but interrupts to ask what day it is. It's the nineteenth of March, and everyone agrees "that's very strange." Daisy goes on to say that Geoffrey Haredale's elder brother, Reuben, was the owner of the Warren twenty-two years ago. His wife had recently died and their daughter was "scarcely a year old." Reuben Haredale left the Warren for a while and went to London, but returned a few months later with his daughter, "two women servants, and his steward, and a gardener." The rest of the servants were expected the next day.
That night, Daisy says, he was supposed to go toll the bell at 12:30 to announce the death of a man. "It was just such a night as this; blowing a hurricane, raining heavily, and very dark." Daisy had the creeps, and remembered all the ghost stories he had heard. But at the moment he went to ring the bell, he heard another bell ring. He went home in a hurry after ringing his bell, and next day learned that Reuben Haredale had been found murdered, "and in his hand was a piece of the cord attached to an alarm-bell outside the roof, which hung in his room and had been cut asunder, no doubt by the murderer, when he seized it." A large amount of money was missing from a cash box, and both the steward and the gardener had disappeared. A body identified as that of the steward, Mr. Rudge, was found months later, "at the bottom of a piece of water in the grounds, with a deep gash in the breast where he had been stabbed with a knife." He was identified by his clothes, a watch, and a ring. It was assumed that he had been killed in his room, where there were traces of blood, by the gardener, who has never been found. The murder took place on March 19, 1753, and Daisy is convinced that "on the nineteenth of March in some year, sooner or later, that man will be discovered."