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,


One comment on “What’s in a name?

  1. Blair says:

    What’s the historical context for these riots? Seems topical what with all the social uprisings/disturbances of late (Arab Spring, Occupy movement, etc).

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