Barnaby Rudge is the first of Dickens' books to be a real novel. It's wildly uneven in quality, but it's a complete novel, conceived and executed as such. It's meant to cohere: everything is in its place.
There are things about it which are downright bad. The supposed resolutions of the plot are mechanical and silly: the King pardons Barnaby, Dolly Varden renounces coquetry, and Mrs Varden (least convincingly of all) surrenders her "uncertain temper." None of this particularly makes sense, but Dickens at least knows it all has to happen. There is none of that rambling off the tracks of the plot which makes the earlier novels such odd junk-drawers, jumbled troves of jewels and plastic cereal-box prizes. The result is an orderly drawer with everything in its place. It's been achieved mostly by throwing out the jewels: but if Dickens hadn't learned to do it, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend could never have happened.
The first time I read Barnaby Rudge it made almost no impression on me. I simply did not want to hear one of its messages -- that street rioters are mostly knaves leavened with a few fools. This time, I am haunted by the image of Barnaby borne along by the mob, turned into a leader (and marked for execution) by his extraordinary innocence. It hits close to home, nowadays.
The first time I read Barnaby, also, I had never had a corvid as a hearth companion -- as Dickens had. I was slower to credit how close these relationships can be, than I should have been. Dickens had a couple of pet ravens: Grip is a portrait from life.
Dickens' mythopoeic gifts never fail him. The image of the Fool and the Raven in the foam of the mob is indelible. Grip's meaningless slogans, picked up anywhere, taught to him for any reason or no reason, travel along with Barnaby and inspire him. The extremely slow John Willet likewise picks up a slogan for his son Joe's military career, and the loss of his arm in the British defense of Savannah (Georgia):
'It's been took off!'
'By George!' said the Black Lion, striking the table with his hand, 'he's got it!'
'Yes, sir,' said Mr Willet, with the look of a man who felt that he had earned a compliment, and deserved it. 'That's where it is. It's been took off.'
'Tell him where it was done,' said the Black Lion to Joe.
'At the defence of the Savannah, father.'
'At the defence of the Salwanners,' repeated Mr Willet, softly; again looking round the table.
'In America, where the war is,' said Joe.
'In America, where the war is,' repeated Mr Willet. 'It was took off in the defence of the Salwanners in America where the war is.' Continuing to repeat these words to himself in a low tone of voice (the same information had been conveyed to him in the same terms, at least fifty times before), Mr Willet arose from table, walked round to Joe, felt his empty sleeve all the way up, from the cuff, to where the stump of his arm remained; shook his hand; lighted his pipe at the fire, took a long whiff, walked to the door, turned round once when he had reached it, wiped his left eye with the back of his forefinger, and said, in a faltering voice: 'My son's arm-- was took off--at the defence of the--Salwanners--in America--where the war is'--with which words he withdrew, and returned no more that night.
I regret, this time around, that by the time Dickens was finishing Barnaby he was anxious to be done with it and go on to other things: I feel (as an at least occasionally bitter old man) that the story of Geoffrey Hareton, if Dickens had turned his full attention on it, could have been made something more than sketch; and I wish he could have thought of something better to do with him than pack him off to a monastery. I suppose in Dickens view it would have been unseemly to leave him walking about on English soil, after committing (technically) murder. But Dickens' inability to scrape up a penny's worth of religious awareness renders Hareton's ending even more perfunctory than the bright "pack them off to Australia!" finishes of Copperfield's lost lambs. Once cloistered in a monastery ("known throughout Europe for the rigour and severity of its discipline") he is officially no longer a person of interest: all good English protestants know that being in a monastery is essentially being dead, and that there can be nothing more to say of him.
But mind, Barnaby Rudge was born into a literary world we can hardly imagine nowadays, before the flowering of the English novel that was marked (and largely formed by) Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Sir Walter Scott was the man to beat, and I would say that Boz beat him, even with this novel. If you haven't read Barnaby Rudge, don't bother, unless you've already read the standards: David Copperfield, Our Mutual Friend, Little Dorrit, Bleak House, Great Expectations. But if you have read those, and are curious to see where they came from, give it a go. Slow John Willet and Grip the Raven are worth the price of admission.