[I am reading this 1841 novel eight chapters at a time, writing about what I read in each section before reading further. So far I have read the first eight chapters. Spoiler alert: If you read this running commentary, you will find out everything that happens in the book as I read it.]
10 August 2022
Chapters 1-8 (of 82)
This novel might start in the smugly comfortable world of the ‘Maypole’, a big, rambling country inn, but we’re not as deep in the countryside as we might think. This is Chigwell, in fact, and by the end of the third chapter three people have set off separately for London, the first of them on foot. The last leaves in his cart and, even before he reaches the outskirts, we get a sense of ‘the great city,’ with its ‘deep dull light, that told of labyrinths of public ways and shops, and swarms of busy people.’ This is a filthy March night in 1775, over 60 years before the writing of the novel and five years before ‘the “No Popery” riots of Seventeen Hundred and Eighty’ which Dickens’s preface tells us will be its main subject.
There had been no obvious connection among the three men who had visited the Maypole but, for a brief moment next day, they are all in different rooms in the same house in Clerkenwell. Not only that. It’s the house of a widow whose husband was killed in a murderous incident in a house near the inn 22 years earlier, recounted for us earlier by one of the Maypole regulars. She has an apparently simple-minded son, Barnaby, born that same night. Not only that…
…because, by the time we’re only four or five chapters into the novel, a lot of connections have been established. Dickens seems to have made the narrative deliberately convoluted, and at the same time as keeping hold of who is linked to whom, the reader is bound to have suspicions about how much of what is being suggested is actually true. Mrs Rudge, the widow, has a secret, but is Varden right to suspect her of some unspoken crime? Why, as soon as he learnt how the man who had left on foot was connected to the house where the murders took place, had an apparent stranger pursued him and, it seems, tried to kill him? And if Barnaby is as simple-minded as he seems, why is Varden reluctant ever to talk about private matters in his presence?
But to start again at the beginning. The slow-witted, opinionated landlord of the Maypole and the slow, pipe-smoking regulars are a kind of ramshackle chorus to the main action. Dickens names them as familiar figures, whereas the two other people in the main room, who in the next chapters prove to be far more important in the novel, are described as though by a stranger. These two are not part of the inn’s cosy world, and as for the older, rougher-looking one who really is a stranger to all of them—the other is a young gentleman they all know—there’s nothing at all cosy about him. He ‘sat apart from the regular frequenters of the house, and wearing a hat flapped over his face, which was still further shaded by the hand on which his forehead rested, looked unsociable enough…’
…but, after the young gentleman has left for London—his horse is lame, so he will have to walk the ten miles or so—it’s the stranger who gets the locals to tell him about the big house nearby and the young woman he saw leaving when he passed it earlier. It gives one of them the chance to tell a story he’s been polishing to a shine for over twenty years—the stranger finds the embellishments endlessly tiresome—of an unsolved double murder there. Coincidentally, the teller realises it was 22 years ago to the day that the owner of the house, who had only recently returned to live there with his tiny daughter, was murdered and his strongbox, ‘supposed to contain a large sum of money,’ left empty. The gardener and steward were suspected of the crime, but only one of them was ever found, months later. This was the steward, a Mr Rudge, only recognisable by his clothes and discovered in a stretch of water with a huge stab wound to the chest. The young woman the stranger had seen earlier in the day is the daughter, who has been raised in the house by her uncle. The young man, we come to realise later, had come to the village to see her, and had now followed her to wherever she has gone in London.
The stranger isn’t impressed. ‘Is that all?’ is not the response the teller had expected, and soon this man has also decided to leave for London, on horseback. When he goes, the narrative follows him for a while as he unaccountably rides his hired horse dangerously fast down dark, rutted, lanes. But not before he has left everyone, including the reader, with a very low opinion of him. He is surly, suspicious of everyone, and secretive. And he’s nasty, as proved when he is about to leave. Joe Willet, the son of the landlord and the only man at the Maypole to have any independence of spirit, gets the horse ready. The stranger doesn’t like it when Joe remonstrates with him for the way he has been clearly mistreating the horse—‘You have sharp eyes and a sharp tongue, I find’—then ‘struck him roughly on the head with the butt end of his whip, and galloped away.’
Riding much too fast, he runs into a tradesman’s cart. This is how we are introduced to the stout, stalwart old locksmith Gabriel Varden, whom Dickens seems to present as the archetypal English yeoman, ready to defend himself against the rider’s attempts to bully him. But, afterwards, he easily succumbs to the temptation to take a detour to the Maypole despite having promised his wife he wouldn’t. Which is where he hears about the stranger’s boorishness, both from the regulars and from Joe, who seems to mean it when he says he’d like to meet the man again so he could pay him back for the blow to the head. In fact, Varden’s detour allows Dickens to give a little nudge to what is clearly going to be another plot thread. Joe, apparently for the first time in his twenty years, tells his father to stop treating him like a child. But the landlord is lumpishly slow and immovable, and Joe lets him know that he’s ready to leave the place and seek a more adult life elsewhere. We see what his father can’t—that he means it.
Varden, after dispensing well-meaning advice to them that they both ignore, leaves to make his dozing, dream-filled way to Clerkenwell. Dickens takes the narrative with him and this, towards the end of Chapter 3, is where the plot begins to thicken. As he nears his home, a hectic young man in his early twenties is crying out about a violent attack he’s witnessed. An injured man is lying in the road, having been run at by a man on horseback and stabbed. Luckily, the injury isn’t life-threatening, and Varden presses the bizarrely attired Barnaby to help him carry the injured man to what turns out to be the house of his mother, Mrs Rudge.
At breakfast next morning Varden, his story full of eyebrow-raising and hints, tells his highly marriageable daughter Dolly about his further adventures after the incident. He had gone on to the masked ball where the young man must have been heading. He’s Edward Chester, because at the ball was Emma, the woman seen leaving the Warren earlier. He explains how the young woman had been affected when he had told her of the attack—she had fainted—and when she came to he reassured her that Edward was in no danger. We know that the stranger had found out about the romantic attachment during the telling of the story at the Maypole, and we are forced to wonder whether this was at least part of the motive….
But it isn’t the only thing Varden tells her over breakfast. During a largely comic scene in which we have been watching the preposterous, preening—and very small—apprentice Sim Tappertit making absurd eyes at Dolly, Varden describes Joe Willet’s apparent determination to leave the Maypole to seek his own way. She tries to hide her spluttering reaction by blaming that the tea is too hot, but the apprentice can see how disturbed she is by the prospect. The scene ends with ‘Mr Tappertit’, as Dickens always calls him, leaving the breakfast room fuming. He is only capable of doing one thing that day, he tells himself: ‘I’ll grind up all the tools. Grinding will suit my present humour well. Joe!’ It’s another romantic plot that Dickens has set running.
Varden visits Edward that evening, and the connections start to become a little clearer. Something shared by Mrs Rudge and Barnaby is a half-perceptible air of terror. We can understand it in her, she having witnessed the terrible events of 22 years before. Barnaby, born that night with a birthmark like a blood-smear on his wrist, seems to bear other scars. He had been terrified of what he calls ‘steel, steel’ and the sight of blood after the previous night’s attack, and had been reluctant to even touch the injured man, never mind carry him, until Varden insisted. As for the man, whom Varden had never seen but whose name, Edward Chester, he knows when Mrs Rudge tells him, we realise he is the young gentleman who had decided to walk to London from the Maypole. And the man who had done it, they realise, is the offensive stranger who had run into Varden’s cart.
A strange incident leads us to speculate on other connections. Varden is in an inside room downstairs with Mrs Rudge, who is a well-respected 40-something widow. Suddenly, there is a violent knocking at the front door. She goes to see who it, insisting that Varden stays where he is. He is mystified, especially when he hears the raised voice of a man, and something like a cry from her. She looks shaken when the man has gone, she having deliberately prevented Varden from chasing after him. Not only that, but she is so disturbed by what has happened that the fearfulness that had always somehow been under the surface in her expression is now plainly visible to Varden. No doubt before his marriage, she and Varden had been ‘sweethearts’, and this mystery makes him very uncomfortable. He wonders what on earth in her past she is wanting to hide, especially when she insists that he keeps the whole incident a secret. He fears he will never be able to see her in the same light again.
Upstairs, in the room where Edward is recovering, there are more connections to be made. Varden insists that they speak quietly when Barnaby and his raven are in the room, not only because he would be upset, but because he seems often to understand what is going on much more than he lets on. Varden tells Edward about Emma, and it’s almost an afterthought when the young man mentions the commotion downstairs. They talk, as discreetly as ever, and when Edward says he thinks he recognised the voice downstairs, it confirms a glimpse Varden had caught of the man’s appearance. It was the man who had attacked Edward, and who had been so insolent to Varden on the road. Mrs Rudge is also in the room by now, and she is visibly relieved when Varden covers for her. But he is very uneasy, feeling somehow implicated in something underhand.
Meanwhile, that raven. He’s more of a familiar than a pet, which fits with the sense that Dickens has been creating that Barnaby isn’t quite of this world. There’s that story about the birthmark, the sense of terror at his core that connects him—definitely not in natural way—to the terror of the night when he was born, his perception of every moving thing in the world as a living spirit…. And then—I ‘m surprised I haven’t mentioned it so far—there’s his bizarre dress code, that the raven fits in with very well. Barnaby and the raven seem to have entered from some other kind of story. He’s Puck, somehow parachuted into an ostensibly naturalistic fiction. ‘I’m the devil!’ cries the Raven, among other things, and he throws the other characters somewhat off-balance. Varden is convinced he has more ‘wit’ than Barnaby.
Another chapter, another scene. And it really is a scene, as Varden returns home late. ‘Mrs Varden,’ Chapter 7 opens, ‘was a lady of what is commonly called an uncertain temper—a phrase which being interpreted signifies a temper tolerably certain to make everybody more or less uncomfortable.’ Their housekeeper Miggs is just as bad, and the next four pages consist of one long comic riff on the torture they constantly subject him to. It’s an exhausting mixture of passive-aggressive and plain nasty….
For instance, having just been accused, bizarrely, of wanting her dead, he’s lost for words: ‘Poor Gabriel twisted his wig about in silence for a long time, and then said mildly, “Has Dolly gone to bed?”
“Your master speaks to you,” said Mrs Varden, looking sternly over her shoulder at Miss Miggs in waiting.
“No, my dear, I spoke to you,” suggested the locksmith.
“Did you hear me, Miggs?” cried the obdurate lady, stamping her foot upon the ground. “You are beginning to despise me now, are you? But this is example!”
At this cruel rebuke, Miggs, whose tears were always ready … fell a crying violently….’
There’s no alliance between Mrs Varden and Miggs beyond the torture they inflict on ‘poor Gabriel.’ Neither seems capable of any connection otherwise.
After they have finally left him in peace, he dozes before the fire for a while, which leads to the chapter’s short coda. Having been kept waiting by the row, and Varden’s dozing relief—‘What the devil business has he to stop up so late!’—Tappertit leaves. To cover his tracks, he needs to lock up after himself, and uses the ‘one good that has ever come to me, out of this cursed old rusty mechanical trade….’ It’s the key we know he’s forged, and his impatience to get out in the middle of the night sets up the next chapter…
…in which we see Tappertit in all his absurd pomp. In the damp, ratty cellar of a wine merchant—Tappertit seems to regard it as an exclusive club—we see what he’s up to. He has created, from no doubt imaginary precedents, a guild he has named the ‘Prentice Knights.’ We wonder, briefly, if this is going to offer us a serious look at the formation of the early ‘combinations’ of workers seeking employment rights—which had become enough of a concern, ten or so years after these scenes, for them to be banned by for an Act of Parliament to have been passed effectively banning their activities. But Tappertit’s vision takes the form of a Masonic-style cadre, with him at the head of it, a position confirmed by a set of absurd rituals. Not only that. The code he has come up with is based entirely on giving his young acolytes—and there are plenty of them—a platform to air their juvenile grievances.
The induction of a new member is presented as farcical, as much through Tappertit’s belief in his absurd rituals as the pettiness of the complaints against his master that the new ‘knight’ brings. Tappertit is presented with a long thigh-bone and, ‘receiving it as a sceptre and staff of authority, cocked his three-cornered hat fiercely on the top of his head, and mounted a large table, whereon a chair of state, cheerfully ornamented with a couple of skulls, was placed ready for his reception.’ The new member’s chief concern seems to be about how his boss won’t let him near his daughter, which leads Tappertit to condemn the man first on this count, and then on three others. ‘Denounce him,’ he says, and the assembled company relishes the ‘vengeance, complete and terrible’ that their constitution demands.
It’s knockabout fun, until it takes on a no less absurd but slightly more sinister turn when Tappertit offers up a grievance of his own. He checks that the new man agrees that a rival in love is eligible for their opprobrium, and acts immediately. He posts ‘a notice, proscribing one Joseph Willet (commonly known as Joe) of Chigwell; forbidding all ‘Prentice Knights to succour, comfort, or hold communion with him; and requiring them, on pain of excommunication, to molest, hurt, wrong, annoy, and pick quarrels with the said Joseph.’ OK…. And at the end, as Tappertit leaves the cellar, the blind employee of the firm who is able to offer them access to it, makes his farewells. ‘“Good night, noble captain,” whispered the blind man as he held it open for his passage out; “Farewell, brave general. Bye, bye, illustrious commander. Good luck go with you for a—conceited, bragging, empty-headed, duck-legged idiot.”’ You bet.