Charles Dickens famously wrote his books as serials – weekly or monthly installments, sometimes paid by the word. What I hadn’t realized is that two of those books, including Barnaby Rudge, were published in his own magazine. Perhaps it’s the coincidence of these things – the need to fill pages, and the lack of an outside editor, that cause this novel to ramble over quite so many pages without reaching much of a destination. It’s also been suggested that this was intended as his first book, so perhaps he just hadn’t developed his plotting skills very far, and didn’t revise the story when he had.
Barnaby Rudge is about 700 pages long. Many of those pages are filled with excellent prose. There’s also far, far too much of it. The novel starts out to be a Wilkie Collins style mystery, but Dickens quickly forgets what he’s about, and gets caught up in telling the story of London’s anti-Catholic riots of 1780. Or, just as likely, he set out to tell a story set in the riots, and wrapped a flimsy envelope of mystery around it. Either way, the result is unsatisfying.
While the prose is good, the characters as clever and humorous as Dickens’ usual, the net is a long, dragging trudge with no clear destination in mind. Dickens wraps up the main character threads in the final chapters, but forgets most of the mystery entirely, or ties it off with peripheral characters who don’t pay off the long wait. I’m a fan of Dickens, but this is among his least successful books that I’ve read.