63 pages 2 hours read

Charles Dickens

Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1841

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Summary and Study Guide


Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of ’Eighty (1841), is the fifth novel and first historical novel published by the English Victorian novelist Charles Dickens. Originally published serially in Dickens’s weekly newspaper, Master Humphrey’s Clock, throughout 1841, Barnaby Rudge was written after Dickens’s rise to fame in England yet is one of his least popular novels. The novel is set during the time of the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780 and, in traditional Dickensian fashion, follows a cast of mismatched characters as they tackle the social, moral, and religious issues of their time. Addressing issues surrounding family structures, the impacts of hatred, and perceptions of intellectual disability, Barnaby Rudge tells the story of what happens when intolerance, corruption, and impulse are put before acceptance, equity, and reason.

This study guide uses the Project Gutenberg illustrated eBook edition of the text.

Content Warning: This text features discussions of ableism, religious intolerance and bigotry, alcohol addiction, sexual assault, enslavement, sexism, suicide, and emotional abuse.

Plot Summary

Both the novel and its titular character travel back and forth between London and the nearby village of Chigwell between 1775 and 1780. Barnaby Rudge begins on March 19th, 1775, at the Maypole Inn in Chigwell, where the landlord, Old John Willet, and his friends are discussing the murder of Rueben Haredale, the owner of a nearby estate, which occurred exactly 22 years ago that day. A stranger at the bar listens to their story, but rides off to London shortly after, where he searches for Mary Rudge, the adoring mother of a local man, Barnaby Rudge, and demands money from her. Barnaby is kind and exuberant and, for better or for worse, is a well-known character among those of London and Chigwell due to his eccentric dress, him having an unspecified intellectual disability, and the raven, Grip, that he often carries on his shoulder.

Gabriel Varden, the locksmith and a regular patron of the Maypole, runs into this stranger on his way home to London and later comes across Barnaby standing beside Edward Chester, a man who has been robbed and stabbed by the same stranger. Gabriel informs the woman Edward has been courting, Emma Haredale, of his circumstances after bringing him to the Rudges’ house. Many of the characters who have been introduced so far, as well as Dolly—Gabriel’s daughter—and Joe Willet—the man she is in love with—have been conspiring to support the forbidden relationship of Edward Chester and Emma Haredale. Edward’s father, John Chester, and Emma’s uncle, Geoffrey Haredale (the brother of the murdered Rueben Haredale), were once schoolfellows but are now enemies with differing religious beliefs, and they try to end any correspondence between Edward and Emma.

Dolly Varden is charged with carrying a letter from Edward to her good friend Emma, detailing his father’s attempts at separating them. She carries Emma’s response back to the Maypole, but on the way, she is accosted and nearly assaulted by Hugh, the Maypole’s hostler, before Joe hears her cries and intervenes. When Joe tries to confess his love to Dolly, she coldly rejects him as he has wounded her pride. He runs away from his abusive father at the Maypole to join the militia. Hugh takes Emma’s letter and gives it to John Chester, with whom he is conspiring. Chester tells Emma that his son does not love her, causing Emma to end her relationship with Edward and Edward to leave his father and England. Meanwhile, the stranger continues to harass Mary Rudge so—against the wishes of her friends Haredale and Gabriel—she and Barnaby leave London.

The story skips forward five years to March 19th, 1780, when three horsemen ride past the Maypole and ask to spend the night. The leader of these men is a fictionalization of the historical figure Lord George Gordon, the leader of the Protestant Association of England, which is protesting against recent laws that limit discrimination against Catholics. Gordon, along with his treacherous secretary, Gashford, and his honest servant, John Grueby, are heading to London to speak to Parliament to propose anti-Catholic laws. They believe over 40,000 men will be joining them. Mary and Barnaby, having been found and further harassed by an associate of the stranger, also head to London and pass Lord George’s supporters. Barnaby is persuaded by the protestors that he can earn glory and money for his mother if he joins their cause, especially once he sees his old friend, Hugh from the Maypole, is one of the leaders. Barnaby separates from his mother and joins Hugh along with other volatile leaders of the cause.

Though the protestors swarm the Houses of Parliament, the bill they proposed is easily dismissed, which leads to rioting in the streets. Hugh further convinces Barnaby to be part of the rioting and he becomes known as one of the ringleaders of the insurgence. Over the next several days, many rioters and soldiers are killed, several homes of local Catholics—including the Haredales’—are destroyed, and several prisons are burnt down. While ransacking Chigwell, Hugh and his associates abduct Dolly and Emma. When Haredale goes to the ruins of his estate to look for them, he finds the stranger who has been harassing the other characters: Barnaby Rudge Sr., the man who killed Haredale’s brother.

Barnaby Rudge Jr. is captured and meets the father he never knew was alive in Newgate Prison, but both escape once the rioters burn down the prison and release its inmates. Both Barnaby Rudges are recaptured, along with Hugh and the others who kidnapped Emma and Dolly. They are sentenced to be hanged. Gabriel, Haredale, and others who had also been taken hostage by the rioters are saved by Edward and Joe, who have both recently returned to England.

Hugh and Barnaby Rudge Sr. are hanged, but Barnaby is saved by his friends, who have proven his intellectual disability and convinced even the prime minister that Barnaby was misguided by the rioters and would never have acted the way he did without their persuasion. Haredale kills Chester in a duel after telling him he knows Chester conspired with Gashford to burn down his house. Gordon dies in Newgate Prison after being excommunicated from the church. Dolly and Joe, and Edward and Emma, are united, and all those who deserve a happy ending are granted one.

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