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The Weal of Fortune X

Roman à Clef:

Lord George Gordon


Barnaby Rudge; Grip [raven];

Dolly Vardon; Lord George Gordon.


Barnaby Rudge

         In 1841, at age 29, with 4 highly successful novels under his belt, Charles Dickens was on a roll. The incredible run from Pickwick, Twist, Nickleby, to The Old Curiosity Shop which sold more than 100, 000 copies, came to an abrupt halt with Barnaby Rudge, which sold 30, 000 copies. Revues of the novel in its day ranged from unenthusiastic to sarcastic – one simply calling it Barnaby Rubbish. That disfavour persists to this day, with Rudge being Dickens' least loved and least read novel.


 In a curious twist of fate, Dickens' 5th book could've been his first, since the author had signed a contract in 1836 to write Rudge, then called Gabriel Vardon – The Locksmith of London, for Bentley's Miscellany. Luckily for Bentley, Dickens, and us, he didn't. Not until 5 years later did he undertake Rudge seriously, in weekly installments for Master Humphrey's Clock. Like The Old Curiosity Shop, the novel which preceded it, Rudge begins with a framing story - old cronies sitting around the fireside of The Maypole Inn, recounting to a stranger the story of 2 unsolved murders. Unlike the Curiosity Shop, however, Rudge is not a fairy-tale for adults but rather a historical novel in the manner of Sir Walter Scott, centred around the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780.


 Scott's great skill, which Dickens admired, was to mix the conventions of melodrama, romance, and adventure, with historical fact and well-known figures from history. For Scott, story and plot become yoked to a time, a place, and a set of people whose understanding of who and where they are is transformed and rearranged, from what they thought they were into what the passage of time makes of them. Time in a Scott novel is the ultimate arbiter of narrative and moral reason. The fortunes and fates experienced by Scott's historical characters are “the thing in itself”, turning them into who they are. In Barnaby Rudge, Dickens takes up Scott's great epic historical model, but he battles against and out-rightly rebels against Scott's mode. Instead of the wheels of the narrative being driven with the energy given to character and event as in Dickens' previous novels, the author in Rudge ignores what his own plot tells him and locks his characters into little more than who he wants them to be, as if his intent were to turn this novel into a polemic on deadlock. By rejecting experience as the tool of change, Dickens divides the book's theme from its machinery. This machinery clunks along counter-clockwise to the unfolding of Time. The result is static.


 Some conflicts, of course, do seem unresolvable. Some conflicts become so entangled that there seems no solution but to cut the Gordian Knot. But because Dickens seems to want to make unresolvable conflict itself the theme of Rudge, he leaves crucial aspects of his plot unexplored and ignores the cogent turning points of his story. This irreconcilable theme hinges on the antagonism between the uncivilized man, Hugh “the centaur”, and his father John Chester, the civilized man. Through Gabriel Vardon's reversal of Barnaby's sentence, however, the narrative tells us what Dickens doesn't care to consider – namely, that contradictions and conflicts are resolvable. Fighting what his own plot tells him, Dickens throws away his own tale – or unresolvably chases it – with the portentous rote of the talking crow Grip, the blithe idiocy of Rudge himself, and the petrified fear of a middle-class Victorian terrified of revolution.


 In the end, it isn't that a terror of mob rule is so irrational a response, or that the author chose to dwell on the human interest story of fathers and sons instead of lessons learned from history, that makes Barnaby Rudge an unfortunate novel. Rather, it's Rudge's failure to move, and so its failure to be moving, that has the novel spinning its wheels. Simply put, the plot of Rudge is awful. Almost ironically, the novel's most involving parts are the riot scenes that so terrified Dickens. The rest of the novel ticks along like dull clockwork, the rusty key broken off in the lock, the time never really changing. And this is truly unfortunate because the Gordon Riots were a telling and potentially crucial chapter in British history. The religious aspect of the riots was really little more than a framing device, with the real concerns of the rioters being economic and political. Unemployment was high, wages were low - if one was paid at all - and the propertied classes controlled elections. The American Revolutionary War had isolated Britain from Europe, and many rioters were protesting the war's mismanagement and its continuation, while others simply supported American independence. Charles Dickens, rather than touch on any of these issues which directly concerned the public weal, chose instead to eliminate all trace of them from the plot of Barnaby Rudge


 Modern criticism, with its modern cynicism veiled as naturalism, often accuses Dickens' plots of emphasizing absurdity, imposing artificial contrivances, and manipulating implausible characters. This kind of displacement, between conventional narrative time and literary archetype and myth, lends itself naturally to the separation of theme and plot. From this vantage, nothing in literature is literal, and all so-called reality, as counter-balance, becomes meta-fiction. Time is a jumbled ball of the accidental, there is no intent, no underlying meaning. Yet, when in a novel by Dickens the accidental happens, the author is charged with contrivance. Barnaby Rudge shows the weakness of both these arguments. In the plotting of Dickens' most successful works, the narrative is infused with instability, an intense sense of inconsistency and chance. Expectations are overturned and the reader is granted a new awareness of time which is both surprising and understood immediately as though it were already known. Where there is piety in Dickens' plotting – as with his happy endings - the author fails, whereas where he succeeds is with peripety. Barnaby Rudge struggles to involve the reader because it struggles against evolving, beginning as it were with its end and going on to compass a standstill.


 Nowhere else is Dickens' almost congenital conviction to the plight of the underdog more apparent than in Barnaby Rudge. A lifelong antagonist and visceral critic of Roman Catholicism, Dickens nevertheless sides with the Catholics as soon as they are ruthlessly threatened by the Protestants. The anti-Catholic riots of 1780 are largely forgotten now, but they were the largest, deadliest, and most protracted urban riots in British history. By depicting riots only two generations old at the time of writing, Dickens was also alluding to riots which followed the introduction of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, the Chartist riots of 1839, and of course the French Revolution of 1778, later the backdrop for A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens' own sympathies were for the most part on the side of the rioters, but the very idea of revolution and the inevitable chaos devolving from it was anathema to a middle-class Victorian like Dickens. This conflict - between progressive gradualist reform on one hand, and the violent overturning of one-sided rule on the other – is one which Dickens never resolved. And it returned in various guise in all of his subsequent works.


 Barnaby Rudge first appeared in Master Humphrey's Clock. The face of that timepiece is represented here on The Weal of Fortune card, along with a circular distribution of its periodical editions, suggesting the passage of Time. The Maypole Inn, where the tale is introduced, references the Maypole ritual of May Day celebrations. The folk practice was outlawed in England by the Protestants, briefly reinstated by the Catholic Queen Mary, and then banned by her successor, Queen Elizabeth I - who adored the tradition - at the behest of her privy council. Rudge's Sir John Chester caricatures the real-life 18th Century statesman and wit, the Earl of Chesterfield. That Chester is a devoted student of the Chesterfield's Letters To His Son is something of a circular joke. Dickens, in turn, wrote much of Rudge lying on a chesterfield due to a painful fistula. Dickens also managed something of an inside joke, by naming the family mansion of the Catholic Haredales "The Warren" and then burning it down – a clear reference to the dreaded Warren's Blacking Factory Dickens laboured at as a boy.


 The Gordon Riots which provide the backdrop for Barnaby Rudge were named after Lord George Gordon, featured in the novel and here on the Weal card, who headed a mob of some 60, 000 people. At the front rank of that mob, setting free prisoners from the infamous Southwark prison the Clink, was the poet William Blake. Edgar Allen Poe, who had met with Dickens in America while an as yet unknown author, wrote a review of Rudge for a Philidelphia periodical. In it, he griped about the missed opportunity of not making more of Barnaby Rudge's pet raven, Grip. The literary Grip was based on a real pet raven Dickens owned named Grip which, when it died just as Rudge was being written, the author had stuffed. These Grips in turn inspired Poe's most famous poem, The Raven. Another of Barnaby Rudge's literary inspirations is Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky's The Idiot.


 Perhaps Barnaby Rudge's most broad and unexpected influence came about through the fashion sensation caused by its female character, Dolly Varden. The term Dolly Varden in dress came to mean a brightly patterned polonaised overskirt made of chintz and a flat straw hat bestrewn with flowers and ribbons, and for a time it became all the rage. The fad inspired many popular songs, a musical entertainment called The Dolly Varden Polka, a Dolly Varden cake which incorporates the torso of a doll, and a species of fish known as the Dolly Varden trout.


Notes for General Circulation : 


  • The 10th card of the Major Arcana is the first card in the renewed decimal cycle; as such, it represents change, regeneration, and cyclical action. The number itself is made up of one and nothing. The Roman numeral X may suggest the multiplication or times sign, the mark on a treasure map, the mark on a ballot, how one signs their name if unable to write, the symbol indicating error as on a test, a crossroads, or Christ and His cross. 

  • Barnaby Rudge, the novel's namesake, has fallen to the ground, as though his hopes have been dashed. His simpleminded nature indicates his inability to learn from his experiences. His hat is festooned with the colourful plumes of a peacock, in stark contrast to the black profile of his pet raven Grip. The former suggests humanity's adorning itself with vainglorious symbols of fancy, while the latter implies the tamed black animal that relinquishes the freedom of flight.

  • As Barnaby is on the ground, Lord Gordon holds a half-circle hat, has one foot on a book, and points toward the ground. Dolly Vardon is in the centre of the card, on the ascendant, in her hand a key indicating her father's vocation, her importance, and Barnaby's freeing from prison.

  • Soldiers in King George's army on the left side of the Weal card shoot indiscriminately into the crowd of May Pole revellers on the right side of the card.

  • The material plane of the card is seemingly chaotic while, behind everything, Time proceeds mechanically.

  • The traditional divinatory meaning of the Weal card suggests a period of instability, uncertainty, and impermanence. On a superficial level, this suggests the vicissitudes of fashion.

  • As the eye of a storm is still, so the hub of Master Humphrey's Clock - about which the tale of Barnaby Rudge revolves - is obscured by the half-shut eye of Dolly Vardon. Directly above this, on Barnaby's over-turned basket crowning Dolly, is the stark white eye of Grip. Together, these images may suggest the lunar-mercurial aspects at work in the card, calling on a balanced centre of gravity if man is to remain on course. 

  • The word weal means happiness, prosperity, the assessment of the quality of life and general well-being of individuals and societies as a whole. A weal is also a raised mark on the body, caused by a blow, as from a rod or a whip.




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