Saturday, March 20, 2010

100-Page Check-In: Barnaby Rudge

After reading too many mediocre novels, I took a break from fiction for a few months to check out some other stuff (I highly recommend Craig Ferguson’s American on Purpose, by the way. Wow.), but I’m finally jumping back into it again. Starting with Charles Dickens was a risky move, but though essays like American Notes failed to grab me, I generally like his fiction. He rambles, but his wandering is always funny, descriptive, and entertaining, so I have a lot of patience with him. Rather than begin with something that I’ve read before – or even seen adapted for the screen – I picked Barnaby Rudge, which I knew nothing about.

My edition is from The Oxford Illustrated Dickens and I think I’ve now learned my lesson about reading the introductions to these volumes. Rather than tease you about what’s coming up, the Oxford intros tend to be full critiques with lots of spoilers. They’d make a lot better afterwords, so from now on I’ll put off reading them until I’ve finished the rest of the book. But in spite of my sort of knowing where the story is headed, I’m still very interested in getting there after reading the hundredth page.

There are a lot of characters to keep straight, but Dickens makes it pretty easy and he’s built a nice mystery to get us through the introductions. There’s a fabulous old mansion that’s been converted into a roadside inn and the book opens there with a couple of mysterious strangers who hurry away into the night. One is a handsome, well-dressed, young man; the other is a rough, dangerous scoundrel who prefers to keep his face hidden. As the young man rushes off to some romantic rendezvous, the inn’s patrons tell the other stranger a tale about another mansion nearby and the horrible murders that occurred there long ago. For some reason, this spurs the second stranger to action and he rushes off.

Love, violence, and mystery after the break.

On the way to London, the stranger meets Gabriel Varden, a jolly, but hardy locksmith who doesn’t seem to be as impressed or scared by the experience as the dark man thinks he should be. The two part company unscathed, but Varden soon discovers a couple of people in the road. One is Barnaby Rudge, the mentally handicapped son of Varden’s former flame; the other is the unconscious body of the young man from the inn. Barnaby has discovered the body, so Varden helps him get the young man to Barnaby’s home nearby.

It’s Dickens, so there are lots of coincidences that you’ll either groan at or relish depending on how you feel about that sort of thing. I love them; they’re one of my favorite things about Dickens’ stories. While visiting the young victim at the Rudge home later, Varden witnesses an unpleasant encounter between Barnaby’s mom and the dark stranger. Varden begins to suspect that the stranger is responsible for the young man’s injury. We also learn that Barnaby’s father was one of the victims of the murder related by the inn’s patrons earlier. Not only that, but the innkeeper’s son is in love with Varden’s daughter.

Complicating things further, the young man who was injured is the son of a wealthy aristocrat. His father is a well-spoken gentleman whose politeness hides a nefarious personality. The girl whom the young man was riding off to meet is the niece of a gruff, harsh-looking, but good-hearted man who now owns the mansion in which Barnaby’s father died. The only thing these two guardians agree on is that they don’t want their wards seeing each other.

Finally – so far – we have the story of Varden’s wicked apprentice who’s not only got nasty plans for Varden’s daughter, but is also the head of a secret society of disgruntled apprentices. The Oxford Introduction assures us that these guys will cause much trouble in the future as some of the men responsible for the historical Gordon Riots in 1780. It should be interesting to see how Dickens weaves these rogues – motivated as they are by frustration over their lack of social standing – into what’s essentially a religious uprising.

I’m also very curious to find out the details behind the death of Barnaby’s father, which of the already-introduced characters have anything to do with it, and how that ties into the Riots as well. Ostensibly, Barnaby Rudge is an historical novel about an event I don’t care anything about, but the mystery angle and the great characters have sucked me right in.

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