Barnaby Rudge is Charles Dickens’s first attempt at writing a historical novel, something he accomplished with greater success in A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Barnaby Rudge ambitiously treats such matters as parental relationships (especially father-son relationships) and complex political situations. All too often, however, critics have ignored it or else attempted to excuse it as a misguided attempt at historical drama in the style popularized by Sir Walter Scott. Other criticisms of the novel have included unsatisfactorily developed female characters (a common criticism of Dickens’s work) and the fact that so much of its purposes are enmeshed strongly with complex, contemporary political issues of Dickens’s time.
Dickens’s main subject in the novel is the Gordon Riots, which took place in the 1780’s. The riots were a misguided movement, largely motivated by religious bigotry with no particular social grievance, and were one of the last great shows of anti-Catholic sentiment in England. When Dickens was writing Barnaby Rudge, he was perhaps motivated in part by his own fears about the potentially revolutionary situation existing in England at the time, a result of a clash between Chartism and Unionism. The novel’s riots might be said to represent that most explosive of all political situations and the direst threat imaginable to Dickens and his middle-class audience: an alliance between the two political...
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