History, villains and feels

Dear Charlie,

I stayed up far too late on Sunday finishing A Tale of Two Cities. It’s an excellent story that moves at one hell of a clip, especially for you, and ends with a fantastically emotional wallop.


Travel Advisory: Avoid France when they’re chopping people’s heads off.

I can see why people compare this so favorably when set beside Barnaby Rudge, your only other historical work. The historical backdrop is arguably more dramatic, the cast is smaller, and the action is much more focused and tightly controlled for maximum impact. But I have to say that I think Barnaby Rudge has the advantage when it comes to the incorporation of historical fact into the narrative.

Maybe it’s because you had more pages to play with, or maybe it’s because I knew so little about the Gordon Riots that featured in Rudge, and so much more about the French Revolution, but the way you describe the unfolding of events in your earlier work is so seamless that I came away with a real grasp of the riots as a historical event, as well as a satisfying story. With A Tale of Two Cities, I feel that if I didn’t know anything about the French Revolution, I wouldn’t have gained that same level of historical knowledge.

Of course, the French Revolution lasted a lot longer, and you were probably banking on your audience already having a fairly intimate knowledge of the Revolution’s major developments, so you could focus less on the history and more on the plot. And speaking of plot, having your entire cast stuck in the middle of Paris during one of its most violent and dangerous periods was utterly nerve-wracking and really claustrophobic, and I very nearly yelled at the book during Darnay’s second arrest.

Thinking back to your History of England, it’s really interesting to me that you can be such an accomplished writer of historical fiction, and such a crap historian.

But to get back to the story.


Madame Defarge was not the only angry woman.

I don’t know why I’m so hung up on your villains, Charlie, but I really dig Madame Defarge. For so much of the book she’s just sitting there, all quiet and observant and knit-y, content to let her husband run the show. But as soon as the violence and beheading starts, boy does she ever get her groove on! I love the way that she quickly becomes the central villain of the piece (if you don’t count Madame Guillotine herself). You may not have granted her any of your heroines’ angelic feminine virtues, but once I found out where her anger was coming from I began to really sympathize with her. Mostly, I really like that she’s a) female and b) not another evil-for-the-sake-of-it character like Rigaud. Here’s a woman who has some serious issues, and a horrific past that she’s been stewing over for years, waiting for her moment for revenge. So even though I was cheering for good ol’ British Bulldog Miss Pross in their final showdown, I was kind of sad that Madame Defarge had revenge snatched from her. (But seriously. Best. Catfight. Evar.)

Which brings us to Sydney Carton.

I mean, I figured out what he was planning. I could see it coming, and I didn’t even  want to stop it, necessarily, but damn, Charlie! Just… argh…

I can’t talk about him coherently because I still have too many feels.


Too. Many. Feels.

And so I try to leave the French Revolution behind. Rather than leaping straight into another novel, I thought I’d cleanse my palate by reading a volume of your “Miscellaneous Papers” instead.

Affectionately yours,


Leaving Barnaby

Dear Charlie,

My adventures with Barnaby Rudge have, sadly, come to an end. You had me worried there for a second! After what happened to poor old Nell, I was convinced that all three of our convicted rioters were done for. I rather suspect that after the anguish you suffered over offing Nell, you would have found it too difficult to do away with yet another main character (and I use ‘main’ with some reserve), but I, for one, was heartily glad to see him on the arm of Mr. Varden; one of the many happy threads tied up neatly at the end.

The Burning and Plundering of Newgate & Setting the Felons at Liberty by the Mob. © London Metropolitan Archives

But to return to the riots for a moment. The burning of Newgate prison and the freeing of the prisoners is a scene that will stay with me for a long time, I think. Not only are your descriptions so wonderfully evocative in themselves, but knowing that they’re based on real events makes them absolutely chilling. I was particularly horrified by your account of the people burned and /or asphyxiated by the pools of burning alcohol.

I can’t help but draw comparisons with both the recent protests in London and Occupy movements, and after seeing what an angry mob was capable of in 1780 with little provocation, I’m not as surprised by the chaos of the former as I am by the civility and order of the latter. And I’m not the only one to draw parallels.

And when the riots end, your characters jump straight back to center stage, and the many separate plots slowly start to contract. Reading about the prisoners’ experience the night before their hanging, I was struck by the similarity with Fagin’s fateful last night. The same bells tolling the hours, the same inexorable progress of time, the same feeling of claustrophobia – clearly this was something that preyed on you. But here you take us beyond the walls of the prison to the construction of the scaffold itself and the passing of time from the crowd’s point of view. Sure, they may not be looting and burning, but the mob assembled to watch men hang isn’t far removed.

But enough doom and gloom. The young people are happily united, their parents comfortably settled, and the ne’er do wells (who haven’t died horrible deaths) are dealt with by Fate in hilariously appropriate ways.

And now, since it’s December, I’m going to jump ahead just a little so I can read your Christmas books and two volumes of Christmas stories while it’s actually Christmas time, because if I had to read them in March I’d yell out a resounding ‘bah, humbug’ and bring the whole project to a screeching halt.

Thanks for the riots, Charlie.



Quoth the raven, “No Popery!”

Dear Charlie,

Today I experienced one of those strange art-meets-life moments, when I stumbled across the Atlas Obscura and discovered that a) Barnaby’s pet raven, Grip, was a real bird, b) he was your pet (or pets, since it turns out you had more than one raven named Grip), and c) he still exists! If you’re ever in the neighborhood of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Rare Book Department, you should pop in and get reacquainted. The world is full of amazing things, isn’t it? How he got there must be a story in its own right.

I can’t quite believe he’s real…

This makes me wonder if there are other authors’ pets who have been incorporated into literature and/or stuffed for posterity. If so, they should all be in the same museum. Now that would be an interesting place to visit…

Anyway, can’t stay to chat.



The riots are here!

Dear Charlie,

I have fallen behind on my reading this week, Charlie dearest, but don’t think it’s because Barnaby Rudge has become boring. Quite the contrary – we’ve finally arrived at the riots of ‘eighty! Mobs have formed, Parliament has been swarmed, Catholic churches have been ransacked, and the streets are not quite safe to walk at night! It’s all very exciting, especially since the characters you’ve been painstakingly fleshing out for the past volume are now in the thick of the action in their own ways. I still have more than 300 pages to go, but I’m still a few days ahead of schedule, and if the action keeps up at this pace, I’ll be finished in no time.

I had to admit a complete ignorance of the riots in question, and discovered that they are also known as the No Popery Riots and the Gordon Riots, named after their leader, Lord George Gordon. If you didn’t know he was a real person, people might think you’d stretched the bounds of credulity in creating such an eccentric character and adding him to your plot. And it’s a great plot! I’m happy to learn that your research for the book was both meticulous and exhaustive, and yet the story never comes across as a lecture or encyclopedia entry – your characters weave themselves in and around events so naturally that it’s easy to get caught up in the narrative.

And yes, before you argue, I know that Wikipedia isn’t the most reliable of historical sources, but as a crash course in the causes and course of the Gordon Riots it serves its purpose. In a nutshell, then, I learn that George’s Protestant Association was trying to have the Papists Act of 1778 (which loosened some of the former restrictions on Catholics) repealed. What I find most interesting is that one of the reasons the government had originally put forward the Act was as a means to enable Catholics to join the military, which at that time was stretched pretty thinly because of, among other things, the American War of Independence. (I’m paraphrasing here, forgive me.) This is why I love history – all these little-known connections between historical happenings. I find this especially coincidental, Charlie, since as well as reading your complete works I’m also playing too much Assassin’s Creed III, where I am fighting for the cause of the rebels in the above mentioned War (and yes, this probably does have more than a little to do with the fact that I’m not as far into Barnaby Rudge as I might be – now it’s research…really).

I’m impressed, Charlie; you even put blue cockades on your character’s hats.

This week, then, I will try to spend less time in Boston and more time in Britain, and find out how the  riots progress and how our characters will fare, especially poor Barnaby. There’s still lots of history to come, and many mysteries still in need of unraveling. But I shall remain,

Yours affectionately,


What’s in a name?

Dear Charlie,

I had an interesting experience this week. When I returned home after my vacation, several people asked me what book of yours I was reading now, and those same several people gave me several blank looks when I replied “Barnaby Rudge.” When I followed it up with, “it’s about prison riots!” the looks didn’t change much. And before I became the owner of your complete works, I would have felt the same way. It is one of your more neglected works, and hasn’t been adapted since the 1960s.

Barnaby Rudge and his pet raven, Grip (now you know where Poe got his raven)

And this is odd, because so far (albeit I’m only 3/4 of the way through the first volume, and I’ve only just reached the chapter that begins in 1780) I have to say it feels much less episodic than Pickwick and even Nicholas Nickleby; there’s a sense of a grand narrative and the building up of events that I haven’t seen from you to date. There are mysterious events and mysterious strangers, a diverse set of characters, and I really want to find out what happens to all of them. Unless you completely crash and burn over the course of the second volume, I’m not sure why this is so overlooked.

But I have a theory. Actually, I have two theories.

The first has to be the title of the book itself. Since the bit about riots is often dropped, you’re left to draw your audience with a name that sounds more like it should belong to a self-satisfied civil servant or pompous lawyer. “Rudge” isn’t the most inspiring of surnames, you have to admit. I imagine someone trying to pitch it to a studio executive:

“So, I have two possibilities for you, sir. Both based on books by Charles Dickens. So, cost-wise, no royalties right off the bat.”
“I’m listening.”
“Alright, the first is about his young man trying to provide for his family. So he becomes a teacher, but it doesn’t end well. And then he goes off and joins up with some actors. And comes back. Oh, and he has a mean uncle. And a sister.”
“Mmm… what else do you have?”
“The second is a historical piece set during prison riots in the 1780s.”
“Prison riots sound much more exciting. What are the books called?”
“Well, sir, the first is called ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ and the second is called ‘Barnaby Rudge.’”
“Tell me more about the young man providing for his family.”

So, there’s a painting of Dolly Varden and no painting of Barnaby… coincidence?

The second theory is that, unlike Oliver, Nicholas or Mr. Pickwick, we don’t see much of your titular hero, at least I haven’t so far, and when we do see him he’s running errands for or accompanying someone else, making it difficult to identify with or sympathize with him. It’d be like changing the title of “Nicholas Nickleby” to “Smike” instead.  I’ve seen more of Simon Tappertit, the cocky apprentice, than I have of poor Barnaby. As a reader of these first 330 pages, my sympathies have to lie primarily with your unrequited couples – Edward Chester and Emma Haredale, and Dolly Varden and Joe Willet (and even then their respective fathers all seem to have far more to do with the way the plot’s been shaping up than they have). Right now, even The Maypole seems to have more character!

This perhaps sounds more negative than it is. I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing where the five years you’ve skipped over have left our cast of characters, particularly Barnaby, and how these prison riots you’ve promised us will feature. Right now I share Peter Ackroyd’s feelings that this book is unjustly overlooked, and can’t wait to see how your plot unfolds.

Until then, I remain

Yours affectionately,