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.

Affectionately,

Melissa

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,

Melissa

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.’”
“…”
“Sir?”
“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,

Melissa

A detour to the literary dark side

Dear Charlie,

I’ve returned from the sunny climes of California to snowy (but very pretty) Calgary, and began reading Barnaby Rudge today. Between that and the end of The Old Curiosity Shop I took a brief stopover in the twentieth century and read The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. When I found it in a used book store a month or so ago I was intrigued by the quotation on the back cover:

Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim.

What’s not to like?

The book itself is gripping: the sixteen year old (and ritually sadistic) Frank prepares for the return home of his escaped and insane brother, and it certainly was a change of pace from the journey you and I have been taking. I quite enjoyed the read. But it was the reviewers’ comments at the front of the book that were most interesting, running the gamut from “…an outstandingly good read” (The Financial Times) to “one of the most disagreeable pieces of reading that has come my way in quite a while….” (Sunday Telegraph). Most reviewers decried the violence and gore, and maybe when the book was published in 1984 it stood out, particularly for its depiction of animal cruelty. Or maybe it really is that horrific and I should be disturbed that I wasn’t more disturbed…

Maybe they were so offended because it’s the book’s hero (or antihero) who’s perpetrating the violence, because as you and I know, literary baddies like Sykes and Quilp are excellent literary forerunners of Frank, themselves kicking dogs and demonstrating their unpleasant control of those weaker than themselves. Or maybe I’m more desensitized than I realize, and after having read American Psycho (waaay more disturbing than Banks), read and watched Dexter Morgan chop up other serial killers, and even gleefully stabbed some perfectly innocent redcoats myself in Assassin’s Creed III this weekend, the mental imagery of mice being stuffed into shuttlecocks and sent catapulting to their doom seems more blackly humorous than downright loathsome.

I hope that after that confession you and I can still be friends. I promise I’m quite a nice person. And anyway, with Sykes, Squeers, Ralph Nickleby, and Quilp under your belt, and prison riots ahead, I get the feeling that you’re no stranger to getting in touch with the darker side of yourself.

Let’s explore Barnaby’s world, shall we?

Yours nocturnally,

Melissa

A quick note

Dear Charlie,

I was strolling along the intricate byways and alleys of the internet today and stumbled across a fantastic collection of photos of London during your time. I thought you might like to reminisce a little. I especially like the Punch and Judy show, since Nell and her grandfather spent some time in the company of two performers of that entertainment, and the old coach inn, where I can imagine Mr. Pickwick found the inimitable Sam Weller.

Anyway, I won’t stay to chat. Just thought you might like them.

Yours affectionately,

Melissa