Dickens's Favorite Son

January 18, 2021

Phyllis Orrick, a former journalist and retired research editor at UC Berkeley returns to discuss a novel "built around a character who represents the purest version of the ideal of the boy-child/son Dickens so often alludes to with obvious affection throughout his works," Barnaby Rudge.



Hello again, I am Phyllis Orrick and I couldn’t help sharing another Dickens favorite of mine for the 2020 Pandemic Dickens to Go created by the Dickens Project at UC Santa Cruz. This time, I would like to talk about Barnaby Rudge, the character, who, I believe, Dickens felt very fondly about, contrary to his assertions about Barnaby’s lack of a “soul” or human agency.

I understand that Barnaby Rudge, the novel, was the subject of the 2019 Dickens Universe. Sadly, I was not able to attend because, well, I didn’t discover the Dickens Project until after it had taken place.

Among Dickens’s novels, Barnaby Rudge is considered an anomaly of sorts because it is one of two “historical” novels he wrote (the other being A Tale of Two Cities). 

I would posit that it stands out for another reason, a more compelling one, to my mind: it is built around a character who represents the purest version of the ideal of the boy-child/son that Dickens so often alludes to with obvious affection throughout his works, the young Weller in The Pickwick Papers, being but one example, though that portrayal and others throughout his work do not rise to the level of complexity and significance that Dickens confers on Barnaby Rudge, who, in the end, Dickens presents as the ultimate innocent.

Much is made in the novel and in analyses of it of Barnaby’s idiocy, lack of “wit,” and less-than-human status, and Dickens lets drop observations early on that appear to endorse this view of Barnaby. The first time Dickens presents Barnaby, he is looking on the stricken form of Ned Chester, who has been wounded by Barnaby’s father (unbeknownst to all involved). The locksmith Varden, on his way home to London, comes across the scene and gets the information out of Barnaby as best he can about what has happened. 

Dickens opines about Barnaby: “But the absence of the soul is far more terrible in a living man than in a dead one, and in this unfortunate being its noblest powers were wanting.” (Ch 23 p. 29 Library edition). Making him less than human in a profound way.

However, in the paragraphs that come before, Dickens seems to imply that Barnaby is not “wanting” in some powers. Varden asks Barnaby if Barnaby knows him, and Barnaby nods, albeit “a score of times” and “with a fantastic exaggeration that would have kept his head in motion for an hour, but that the locksmith held up his finger, and fixing his eye sternly upon him caused him to desist…”

Young Chester observes that his attacker resembled the stranger who had been at the Maypole earlier (Barnaby’s father).

Varden exclaims “‘What dark history is this!’” At which moment “a hoarse voice” cries out. 

“The speaker—who made the locksmith start, as if he had seen some supernatural agent—was a large raven.” Barnaby’s pet raven, Grip, who is Barnaby’s adjunct intelligence.

Grip “had perched upon the top of the arm-chair, unseen by [Varden] and Edward, and listened with a polite attention and a most extraordinary appearance of comprehending every word, to all they had said up to this point; turning his head from one to another, as if his office were to judge between them, and it were of the very last importance that he should not lose a word.

“‘Look at him!’ Said Varden, divided between admiration of the bird and a kind of fear of him. ‘Was there ever such a knowing imp as that! Oh he’s a dreadful fellow!’

“The raven, with his head very much on one side, and his bright eye shining like a diamond, preserved a thoughtful silence for a few seconds, and then replied in a voice so hoarse and distant, that it seemed to come through his thick feathers rather than out of his mouth.

“‘Halloa, halloa halloa! What’s the matter here! Keep up your spirits. Never say die. Bow wow wow. I’m a devil,  I’m a devil, I’m a devil. Hurrah!’ — And then, as if exalting in his infernal character, he began to whistle.

‘“I more than half believe he speaks the truth. Upon my word I do,’ said Varden. ‘Do you see how he looks at me, as if he knew what I was saying?’

“To which the bird, balancing himself on tiptoe, as it were, and moving his body up and down in a sort of grave dance, rejoined, ‘I’m a devil, I’m a devil, I’m a devil,’ and flapped his wings as if he were bursting with laughter. Barnaby clapped his hands, and fairly rolled on the ground in an ecstasy of delight.

“‘Strange companions, Sir,’ said the locksmith, ‘The bird has all the wit.’”

Whereupon young Chester holds out a finger to Grip with goes after it “with his iron bill.”

Varden tells Barnaby to “‘call him down,’ which implicitly gives Barnaby more “wit” than the raven, but Barnaby won’t accept his superiority to the bird. 

“‘He calls me, and makes me go where he will. He goes on before, and I follow. He’s the master, and I’m the man. Is that the truth, Grip?’

“The raven gave a short, comfortable, confidential kind of croak;—a most expressive croak, which seemed to say ‘You needn’t let these fellows into our secrets. We understand each other. It’s all right.’”

“On second thoughts, the bird appeared disposed to come of himself. After a short survey of the ground, and a few sidelong looks at the ceiling and at everybody present in turn, he fluttered to the floor, and went to Barnaby—not in a hop, or walk or run, but in a pace like that of a very particular gentleman with exceedingly tight boots on trying to walk fast over loose pebbles. Then, stepping into his extended hand, and condescending to be held out at arm’s length, he gave vent to a succession of sounds, not unlike the drawing of some eight or ten dozen of long corks and again asserted his brimstone birth and parentage with great distinctness.

“The locksmith shook his head—perhaps in some doubt of the creature’s being really nothing but a bird—perhaps in pity for Barnaby, who by this time had him in his arms, and was rolling about with him on the ground.”

The affinity between Barnaby and Grip that Dickens portrays so sympathetically and in such appreciative detail derives from Dickens’s own appreciation for ravens, as he explains in the second preface to the novel, which he added on top of the first one.

“The raven in this story is a compound of two great originals,” Dickens explains, “of whom I have been, at different times, the proud possessor. The first was in the bloom of his youth, when he was discovered in a modest retirement in London by a friend of mine, and given to me. He had from the first, as Sir Hugh Evans says of Anne Page, ‘good gifts,’ which he improved by study and attention in a most exemplary manner. He slept in a stable—generally on horseback—and so terrified a Newfoundland dog by his preternatural sagacity, that he has been known, by the mere superiority of his genius, to walk off unmolested with the dog’s dinner before his face. He was rapidly gaining in acquirements and virtues when, in an evil hour, his stable was newly painted. He observed the workmen closely, saw that they were careful of the paint, and immediately burned to possess it. On their going to dinner, he ate up all they had left behind, consisting of a pound or two of white lead; and this youthful indiscretion terminated in death.

“While I was yet inconsolable for his loss, another friend of mine in Yorkshire discovered an older and more gifted raven at a village public-house, which he prevailed upon the landlord to part with for a consideration, and sent up to me. The first act of this Sage was to administer to the effects of his predecessor by disinterring all the cheese and halfpence he had buried in the garden—a work of immense labor and research, to which he devoted all the energies of his mind. When he had achieved this task, he applied himself to the acquisitions of stable language in which he soon became such an adept that he would perch outside my window, and drive imaginary horses with great skill, all day. ...he had not the least respect, I am sorry to say, for me in return, or for anybody but the cook...’”

Dickens’s affection and anthropomorphism of his ravens shows that he has much more sympathy and understanding of Barnaby’s attachment to Grip and suggests that Dickens may feel Barnaby is not “wanting” as much as the characters Dickens has created think Barnaby is. This wouldn’t be the first or last time that, over the course of a book, Dickens’s attitude toward a character changes while the attitudes of his creations remain constant.

The five-year gap that Dickens inserts in the story comes to an end for each set of characters.

“For Barnaby himself, the time which had flown by, had passed him like the wind. The daily suns of years had shed no brighter gleam of reason on his mind; no dawn had broken on his long, dark night.” He had, however, the wit to learn how to plait the straw that earned them the pittance needed to keep them fed and, while doing the work, would listen to stories his mother would repeat over and over “to keep him in her sight…. The tale of yesterday was new upon the morrow; but he liked them at the moment; and when the humour held him, would remain patiently within doors, hearing her stories like a little child, and working cheerfully from sunrise until it was too dark to see.”

But he would also at times resume his wandering, with Grip and the neighbors’ dogs.

The language Dickens uses to describe Barnaby’s rambles belies the dark interpretation of Barnaby’s mental state Dickens offers in the opening of the chapter. Again, it feels as if he is talking to some unseen audience in one instance and letting himself fully indulge in the joys of Barnaby's way of living in the other.

“Their pleasures and excursions were simple enough. A crust of bread and scrap of meat, with water from the brook or spring, sufficed for their repast. Barnaby’s enjoyments were, to walk, and run, and leap, till he was tired; then to lie down in the long grass, or by the growing corn, or in the shade of some tall tree, looking upward at the light clouds as they floated over the blue surface of the sky, and listening to the lark as she poured out her brilliant song. There were wild-flowers to pluck—the bright red poppy, the gentle harebell, the cowslip, and the rose. There were birds to watch; fish; ants; worms; hares or rabbits, as they darted across the distant pathway in the wood and so were gone: millions of living things to have an interest in, and lie in wait for, and clap hands and shout in memory of, when they had disappeared. In default of these, or when they wearied, there was the merry sunlight to hunt out, as it crept in aslant through leaves and boughs of trees, and hid far down—-deep, deep, in hollow places—like a silver pool, where nodding branches seemed to bathe and sport; sweet scents of summer air breathing over fields of beans or clover; the perfume of wet leaves or moss; the life of waving trees, and shadow always changing. When these or any of them tired, or in excess of pleasing tempted him to shut his eyes, there was slumber in the midst of all these soft delights, with gentle wind murmuring like music in ears, and everything around melting into one delicious dream.”

And that is my appreciation of Barnaby Rudge. Thank you for listening. 


Phyllis Orrick got her BA in a self-defined degree in Philosophy and Literary Criticism at Yale. After a short stint in politics and working on Capitol Hill, she began a 20-year career writing long-form features and editing weekly alternative papers in Baltimore, Washington, New York, and San Francisco. After moving to the Bay Area in the mid-90s, she went to work at the University of California, Berkeley (now retired) as an editor and researcher and website designer for research units in transportation engineering and city planning. She is at work on a long writing project weaving in passages and concepts from Charles Dickens’s novels, Flaubert (Bouvard et Pecuchet and Sentimental Education), other Victorian writing including the Brontes and Harriet Martineau, and Anglo-Irish and Irish novelists and poets from the 19th century to the present, among them Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Ciaran Carson, Joan Trodden  Keefe and Máirtín Ó Cadhain; with some contributions from mid-century Holocaust literature and intellectuals and critics like F.W. Dupee, Tom Flanagan, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, Christina Stead, and Stella Gibbons. On Twitter @orrickle.


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