I just finished Barnaby Rudge, apparently called Barnaby Rubbish by Victorian people because they disliked it so much. I get that it’s a really weird novel, but I don’t know if it deserves all the hate. It’s *way* better than Martin Chuzzlewit, for instance.
I especially liked the ending of this historical novel, which focuses on the raven, Grip. The narrator writes in the final paragraph: “as he was a mere infant for a raven, when Barnaby was grey, he was very probably on talking to the present time” (688). The suggestion, of course, is that the events of the past are not really past as the conclusion moves between biographical, historical, and ecological time.
But I also liked the crowd scenes and its somewhat contradictory reflection on the law. At the peak of the riots, “The crowd was the law, and never was the law held in greater dread, or more implicitly obeyed” (521). Such a sentence shows the power of the crowd: rebelling against the law, the crowd becomes a law onto itself. But it also raises questions about what the law is for. Is it supposed to be held in dread? It is supposed to be obeyed?
Mr. Dennis, the hangman, has the strangest relationship to the law. He happily joins the riot and works to free the prisoners of Newgate, but stops short of freeing those prisoners condemned to die. As they beg to be released, he tells them, “laws have been made a’ purpose for you; a parson’s kept a’ purpose for you; a constitootional officer’s appointed a’ purpose for you; carts is maintained a’ purpose for you–and yet you’re not contented” (543). His logic here is so familiar: think how much care the state shows you as it condemns you to death, how dare you desire to live? The phrase “laws have been made a’ purpose for you” is especially telling, suggesting that laws exist to produce criminals, for criminals. Contentment, here, means accepting a social order where you are doomed to die long before you commit a crime (Hugh’s fate seems to reinforce this point).
It has been such fun to read more fiction while on sabbatical. In addition to the regular nineteenth-century summer reading (i.e. Trollope), I’ve read Maeve Kelly’s Necessary Treasons, Muriel Spark’s The Finishing School, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and Dorothy Macardle’s The Uninvited. I’ve enjoyed them all (probably Kelly the most), but Macardle is really sticking with me. It’s a story of a perfect house by the sea in England that ends up being haunted by two women: Mary, a ‘perfect’ wife and mother, and Carmel, a young foreigner who had an affair with Mary’s artist husband. Over the course of the novel [SPOILER], we learn that Mary is the dangerous ghost precisely because she upholds the social order in a violently repressive way. Knowing that Mary is threatening rather than angelic frees her daughter. As the narrator declares in a heavy-handed statement, “You can be yourself now, not [imitate] Mary any more” (303). It’s lovely to refuse what the novel calls “dead virtue, dead standards, dead taste” and favor living women, with all their flaws (134).
But the thing that sticks with me is that the novel sets up this home as the perfect house for the two protagonists–as fated–only to question the idea of ownership and property. Looking for a place to escape London, the protagonists have a series of disappointments until they stumble upon Cliff End. The narrator “was seized by covetousness” and they quickly buy the house (8). Their overwhelming desire to live and work in this house is rewarded–the narrator’s writing, long somewhat dull criticism, takes a thrilling creative turn–even as the haunting begins. When the haunting begins, the idea of “covetousness” looks differently: instead of an expression of connection or fate, it is a violent desire for acquisition, “an intrusion” (87). The narrator realizes, “It was an intrusion; this house was old; long before we were born it had its occupants, living and dying here. We were aliens and trespassers in their hereditary home” (87). The novel does a remarkable job of both banishing the ghost and authorizing it, of representing haunting as a threat and an important, necessary reminder. Mary may be a danger, but haunting is not: it shows that the very feeling of belonging and desire can be one of erasure.