By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

11. Barnaby Rudge, by Charles Dickens, pp. 415-440

Barnaby Rudge (Penguin Classics)Chapters 45-47
Barnaby and his mother have found "a small English country town" where they have been "living in a quiet poverty which knew no change, no pleasures, and few cares but that of struggling on from day to day in one great toil for bread." The hut in which they live is near the high road, but in a secluded area where few people came. Mrs. Rudge eagerly reads whatever newspapers she finds and listens to whatever talk about the outside world, but always with "the keenest anxiety and dread."
 Grip the raven is actually a source of income for them: People are amazed by his vocal tricks, and reward them with money. But Barnaby is restless and conscious of their poverty, though his mother warns him that gold "has brought such misery and suffering on your head and mine as few have known."

Then one day a man arrives at their hut, and Mrs. Rudge sees that he's blind. The reader knows that the odds of Dickens putting more than one ragged blind man in his novel are slim, and guesses that the man is Stagg, which means that his lodger, the sinister stranger, must be somewhere nearby. But Mrs. Rudge doesn't suspect anything at first, and offers him hospitality. He takes a few pence from his purse and sends Barnaby to buy some bread for him to take on his journey, but when Barnaby is gone, his manner changes, and he introduces himself as Stagg, and informs her, "A friend of mine who has desired the honour of meeting with you any time these five years past, has commissioned me to call upon you. I would be glad to whisper that gentleman's name in your ear." She realizes who the "friend" is, but allows him to tell her the name, after which "she paced up and down the room like one distracted."
"If you are very poor now, it's your own choice," he tells her. "You have friends who, in case of need are always ready to help you. My friend is in a more destitute and desolate situation than most men, and, you and he being linked together in a common cause, he naturally looks to you to assist him." He demands twenty pounds from her: "You, who can give up an annuity, can get that sum for him." He gives her twenty minutes to decide what to do, then sits down with his legs across the threshold to make sure no one enters or leaves without his knowledge.

Barnaby returns with the bread, and Stagg, who has bought along a jug of whiskey, gives some to him. Barnaby's eyes water and he coughs, but he says he likes it. And Stagg plays on Barnaby's desire to end their poverty, telling him that there are "A hundred ways" to get rich, but "not in solitary places like those you pass your time in, but in crowds, and where there's noise and rattle." Barnaby says that he and Grip like places like that.

Mrs. Rudge, overhearing this seduction of Barnaby, asks if she can talk to Stagg away from his hearing, and she asks if Stagg's "friend" has left London for good. Stagg says yes, "The truth is, widow, that hismaking a longer stay there might have had disagreeable consequences." She gives him six guineas, the savings, she says, of five years, and tells him that if he wants more -- which he does -- he will have to give her time to write for it. Stagg agrees to a week, and that he will meet her at the corner of the lane where they live "this day week at sunset." And he cautions her to think about Barnaby. She points him in the direction of the road, and he leaves.

When she returns to the hut, she tells Barnaby that he mustn't go out that night -- "There are ghosts and dreams abroad" -- and that they will leave tomorrow and go to London, to "lose ourselves in that wide place -- there would be some trace of us in any other town -- then travel on again, and find some new abode." The next morning they leave, though Barnaby sheds tears when he realizes he will have to leave behind the neighborhood dogs who have been his only friends there.

She has kept back a guinea from their savings. "Moreover they had Grip, in company; and when they must otherwise have changed the guinea, it was but to make him exhibit outside an alehouse door, or in a village street, or in the grounds or gardens of a mansion of the better sort, and scores who would have given nothing in charity, were ready to bargain for more amusement from the talking bird." One day they reach an estate where they decide to try to exhibit Grip, but the owner denounces them as "vagrants and vagabonds" and threatens to have them arrested. When Grip pipes up, the man's curiosity is piqued. "'Take the vermin out, scoundrel,' said the gentleman, 'and let me see him.'" He then orders them to accompany him to the house.

On the way, he terrifies Barnaby by his "proud and course manner," and when he threatens to horsewhip him for not answering a question, Mrs. Rudge tells him "that her son was of weak mind." He refuses to believe it, "not a bit of it. It's an excuse not to work. There's nothing like flogging to cure that disorder. I'd make a difference in him in ten minutes, I'll be bound." She protests that she's telling the truth, and he retorts, "Then why don't you shut him up? we pay enough for county institutions, damn 'em. But thou'd rather drag him about to excite charity -- of course. Ay, I know thee."
Now, this gentleman had various endearing appellations among his intimate friends. By some he was called "a country gentleman of the true school," by some "a fine old country gentleman," by some "a sporting gentleman," by some "a thorough-bred Englishman," by some "a genuine John Bull"; but they all agreed in one respect, and that was, that it was a pity there were not more like him, and that because there were not, the country was going to rack and ruin every day.... He mistrusted the honesty of all poor people who could read and write, and had a secret jealousy of his own wife (a young lady whom he had married for what his friends called "the good old English reason," that her father's property adjoined his own) for possessing those accomplishments in a greater degree than himself. In short, Barnaby being an idiot, and Grip a creature of mere brute instinct, it would be very hard to say what this gentleman was.
It's a fine characterization of a type that unfortunately hasn't vanished from the scene but appears to have moved to America and joined some current political movements.
In the house, we meet his wife, "a lady much younger than himself, who had the appearance of being in delicate health, and not too happy." But Grip amuses her with his performance and "so delighted her husband that he burst into a roar of laughter, and demanded his price." When they refuse to sell the raven, the man is outraged: "These peole, who go tramping about the county a-pilfering and vagabondising on all hands, prefer to keep a bird, when a landed proprietor and a justice asks his price!" He orders them out, threatening to turn the dogs on them, and they hurry away.

"When they had nearly reached the lodge, another servant, emerging from the shrubbery, feigned to be very active in ordering them off, but this man put a crown into the widow's hand, and whispering that his lady sent it, thrust them gently from the gate." Mrs. Rudge is surprised when that stop at an alehouse later on the way to hear the man praised. And then Dickens indulges in some awkwardly conventional foreshadowing: "She little thought then, that a circumstance so slight would ever influence their future fortunes; but time and experience enlightened her in this respect."

As they near London, Barnaby asks his mother if they will see the blind man there: "I wish that we may meet with him again. What was it that he said of crowds? That gold was to be found where people crowded, and not among the trees and in such quiet places." She is disturbed when he returns to the point again and again, "that the blind man's visit, and indeed his words, had taken strong possession of his mind."

On Friday, June 2, 1780, they reach London and stand alone at the foot of Westminster Bridge. (A note points out that Dickens had put Stagg's arrival at Mrs. Rudge's hut in June earlier, an obvious inconsistency.)

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