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Social and Antisocial Contracts: Voices and Locations of Tradition and Dissent in Barnaby Rudge

Tom Prasch

When, in Barnaby Rudge (1841), Sim Tappertit, the voice of the rebellious ‘Prentice Knights, inducts a new member into their secret society, he does so in the name of the “Constitution (which was kept in a strong box somewhere, but where exactly he could not find out).” That hidden document, Tappertit was assured, proved that “the ‘prentices had, in times gone by, had frequent holidays of right, broken people’s heads by scores, defied their masters, nay, even achieved some glorious murders in the streets, which privileges had gradually been wrested from them,” a loss the secret society aimed to redress.@ The allusion signals one of the underpinning principles of the novel’s structure (as well as Tappertit’s misunderstanding of that principle) in the foundation of the social order on social contract, an understanding of the connection between the social order and ordered government worked out in Britain over the course of the seventeenth century.
The centrality of constitutional principles underpins the riot scene at the novel’s climax as well: although Dickens’s own interest in the scene (and for that matter ours as readers) is above all else in the depiction of the mob itself, that amorphous being with its own mind, its own organic structure, it must be remembered that the ostensible intent that brought the mob together in the Gordon Riots was an essentially constitutional one: the presentation of a petition to Parliament. The same principle, for readers of Dickens’s own time, would indelibly connect the historical recapitulation of past mob action in Barnaby Rudge to contemporary Chartist gatherings, and a range of critics of Dickens’s novel from Patrick Brantlinger and Steven Marcus forward have (quite rightly) insisted on reading fears about Chartist assemblies onto the book’s depiction of the Gordon Riots.@ If, in the novel, the purpose of that petition being presented remained restricted in terms, only demanding the repeal of Catholic emancipation, Chartism couched its own more broadly radical claims in constitutional terms, demanding, in essence, in the People’s Charter, the full codification—American style, as it were—of British constitutional principles.
Chartists of Dickens’s day thus regularly insisted on the constitutionality of their claims. Radical Chartist George Harney spoke, for example, of “the constitutional right … with the arms of freemen to defend the laws and constitutional privileges their ancestors bequeathed them,” as far as “the sacred right of insurrection.”@ Strikingly like Sim’s ‘Prentice Knights, who conceive their own claims as a recapitulation of lost rights, so too does Chartism hearken to assertions of lost privilege (that famous “Norman Yoke,” among other things@) and to past radical movements, notably the Model Army’s Levellers, who had demanded comprehensive male suffrage during the English Civil War.@ Indeed, the constitutional undercurrents of Dickens’s novel constantly point back—as so much literature of the Victorian era does—to the seventeenth century and the decades of turmoil that, in that Whiggish view of history first formulated in the Victorian era, bequeathed Dickens’s Britain an unparalleled and near perfect balanced constitutional system.@
The theoretical foundations for that system came through the development of theories of social contract, notably charting a course from the darkly skeptical (“nasty, brutish and short” and all that) Interregnum-penned Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes@ to the more benevolently conceived Lockean Two Treatises (right of revolution and all)@ taken, by Dickens’s time, as the ideological expression of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89. Lockean principles provided the basis for radical Whig opposition throughout the eighteenth century, from the “Wilkes and Liberty” crowds in London in 1768@ to the American colonists’ rebellion in 1776 (and, not coincidentally, it is in that war that young Joe Willet loses his arm, as England loses its colonies).
Significantly, given the anti-Catholic focus of the Gordon Riots that provide the climax of Barnaby Rudge, the evolution of social-contract theory (and for that matter of a range of more radical revolutionary agendas, from Levellers to Diggers) was inextricably intertwined as well with Reformation theology, from Ulrich Zwingli’s encoding of the right to rebel in his 67 Articles of 1523@ and the demands of the Twelve Articles of the German Peasant Revolution of 1525@ forward. In Britain in the seventeenth century, Milton justified both free speech and regicide first of all in Biblical terms,@ Hobbes framed his vision of a state as a “Christian Commonwealth,”@ Gerrard Winstanley rejected private property based on scriptural authority,@ and Locke insisted on the biblical foundations of his understanding of natural rights.@ Wilkes, in the time of Dickens’s novel, campaigned for religious toleration,@ and William Blake found in the decade following his own way to explore seventeenth-century radical legacies@; in Dickens’s own time, Chartist sympathizers like Joseph Stephens and Richard Oastler would continue to insist that the Bible was the basis for all truth as they pushed their political agenda.@
Nowhere in Barnaby Rudge does Dickens explicitly allude to any of this history (although, as Myron Magnet notes, he does mention Thomas Hobbes—just long enough to disagree with him—in the opening chapter of Martin Chuzzlewitt@). But references like Sim Tappertit’s to the hidden “constitution,” in the context of a moment of open rebellion like the Gordon Riots, would lead any good Victorian toward the seventeenth-century sources of constitutional understanding, and thus toward social-contract theory. Dickens’s tactic in the novel is to relocate the debate about social contract from the realm of political theory to that of lived practice, a procedure made clear in the careful architecture of the book, its counterposing of sites associated with an established social order (if one threatened, above all else by change over time) with contrasting sites of discontent.
In Dickens’s novel, three sites of traditional (if now flawed) social order, the landed estate of the Warrens, the idyllic pub the Maypole, and the idealized artisanal shop of the Golden Key, are juxtaposed with three sites of disorder and disturbance, Chester’s credit-based chambers, the disorderly tavern Boot, and Sim’s underground Barbican. In the voices associated with sites of tradition, Dickens poses a subtle argument that the true social contract resides in unstated relationships of family tie and community bond (while acknowledging that the failure of such bonds to accommodate changing times tended to undermine them over time). A pattern or secrets—secret societies and hidden alliances, developed in the sites of disorder but increasingly uncontained in them--threatened the secure pattern of orderliness upon which a functional social contract depends.
In the Gordon Riots at the novel’s climax, the voice of a triumphant disorder is embodied in the mob. Even then, social contract holds sway for a time, as Dickens notes: “Hot and drunken though they were, they had not yet broken all bounds and set all law and government at defiance. Something of their habitual deference to the authority erected by society for its own preservation yet remained among them” (387). Such deference holds as long as those voices remain individual; when the crowd becomes an organism in its own right independent of its members, its voice—“some singing; some shouting in triumph; some quarrelling” (386)—a distillation of discontents with established society, the mob is then transformed into a “contagion” (403) that attacks the public order (playing, too, into organic metaphors long associated with social-contract theories of the state; the notion of the body politic, for example). These patterns become clearer if we review in more detail the parallel realms of traditional order and incipient disorder that Dickens sets up in the novel: in the Warrens, the Maypole, and the Golden Key, the traditional order of family, community, and economy; in Chester’s mansion, the Boot, and Sim’s underground their negative mirrors.
The decay of traditional forms of order is clearest in the landed realm. The Warrens presents the portrait of a traditional landed estate, albeit one now, Barnaby Rudge makes clear, in significant decline, most directly because it is significantly less landed: “fifteen or twenty years ago [it] stood in a park five times as broad, which with other and richer property has bit by bit changed hands and dwindled away” (6). The results were clear:“It would have been difficult to imagine a bright fire blazing in the dull and darkened rooms … It seemed a place where such things had been, but could be no more—the very ghost of a house” (101-102). The displacement of landed elites by new commercialism and the decline of traditional landed estates are encapsulated here. And the killing twenty years ago at the mansion of a master by his servant underlines the overturning of the old order.
Against this bleak house can be balanced Chester’s chambers: cheerfully bright, richly appointed, but essentially hollow, built on credit alone. As John Chester confesses: “That fortune is among the things that have been. It is gone … and has been gone … about eighteen or nineteen years. I came to these chambers … and commenced to live upon an inconsiderable annuity and my past reputation” (118). In this realm of appearance and façade, traditional obligations are reversed. Of his son, Chester confesses: “I have always looked forward to his marrying well, for a genteel provision for myself in the autumn of life” (94). Hugh’s mother, in turn, makes her dying wish “that the boy might live and grow, in utter ignorance of his father” (579). Against the appearance of wealth, the complete inversion of traditional family order provides the true foundation.
Significantly more vital than the Warrens, the second locus of traditional order is the Maypole, represented as an idyllic sanctuary. Its founding myths root the place not just in any past but a very specific one: legends connecting the site to Henry VIII and Elizabeth, and thus to the foundation and consolidation of an English Reformation and the modern English state. Dickens limns with clear sympathy the cozy communality of the setting, while also insisting that the coziness is limited and defined by lines of authority (that Elizabethan founding myth, after all, is not just that the queen slept there, although she did, but that she boxed the ears of an unruly page; as Myron Magnet notes, the Maypole’s founding myth is about “about social order”). But here, too, the test of time strains existing relations, most evidently in the tensions between father and son: in John Willett’s refusal to grant his son the autonomy and selfhood the son’s age deserves (with the tragic consequences following from the son’s entailed rebellion).
The Boot is the Maypole’s negation, beginning with its very location: not on a main road, but “a lone house of public entertainment, situated in the fields at the back of the Foundling Hospital; a very solitary spot…. The tavern stood at some distance from any high road, and was approachable only by a dark and narrow lane” (291). Its denizens are correspondingly different as well; Hugh recognizes among its patrons “almost every face that had caught his attention in the crowd” (291), that is, all the conspirators in the coming riot. In the bar’s corners plots were hatched, and once the riots began it served as “head-quarters of the rioters” (396). The place is darker, the drinking deeper, than at the Maypole.
The Golden Key, Dickens’s third locus of traditional order, enshrines a traditional artisanal labor and set of master/apprentice labor relations. These are the very sort of labor relations the coming of industrialism would largely supplant by Dickens own time, although there is no evidence of that yet in the appearance of things: “there was not a neater, more scrupulously tidy, or more punctiliously ordered house, in Clerkenwell, in London, in all England. There were not cleaner windows, or whiter floors, or brighter stoves … there was not more rubbing, scrubbing, burnishing and polishing, in the whole street put together” (31) The work itself seems equally idyllic: “For the workshop of the Golden Key, there issued forth a tinkling sound, so merry and good-humoured, that it suggested the idea of some one working blithely, and made quite pleasant music” (307). But, again, appearances cover darker elements that tend to undermine the stability of such order: the master is less in control of the shop than it would appear, given his own inability to exercise strong authority, a social-climbing and nagging wife (who would, incidentally, donate to Gordon’s Protestant Association), a fully rebellious apprentice with a forged key and designs on the master’s daughter, and a discontented servant.
Sim, Gabriel’s rebellious servant, sits enthroned in the inversion of that space, the Barbican, another hidden locale: “From the main street he had entered, itself little better than an alley, a low-browed doorway led into a blind court, or yard, profoundly dark, unpaved, and reeking with stagnant odors” (60). Literally underground, and strewn with catacombed bones, the vault that contains Sim’s makeshift throne contrasts sharply with the lit and aired terrain of his master. In his slimy basement, Sim can rule as “captain” and administer his secret oaths.
What all the negative spaces feature, most sharply differentiating them from the loci of traditional order, is hiddenness, secrecy. The obsession with secrets goes to the heart of Dickens’s concern, with the historical Gordon riots, with the Chartists and trade unionists of his own day (who Dickens, like many other contemporary commentators, condemns for their secretiveness and conspiracies, linked to tendencies toward violence and crime). In contrast, what shapes a stable social order is its transparency, the mark of a secured social contract there in its visibility (like, to keep the Reformation theology in the mix here, the visible church). If secrets are the enemy of order, however, it rapidly becomes apparent that the problems of the traditional order are not just in the sites of obvious discontent—among Sim’s rebel ‘Prentice Knights and other such obvious disorderlies—because secrets are everywhere.
The most central secret of all, of course, the mainspring of the plot, is the fraternal murder that marks the title character, a secret kept by his mother, shared to a degree with Gabriel: “I have told a lie to-night, for your sake, Mary…. I hope I may have done no harm, or led to none” (53). But other secrets abound: the romance conducted in secret between Edward Chester and Emma, thwarted in secret as well (Haredale seems to recognize the complications of that sort of complicity: “I curse the compact… It was made in an evil hour. I have bound myself to a lie”; 226); Sim’s midnight escapades as “Captain” are a secret, though one Miggs comes to share and use for her own ends; when Dolly is attacked by Hugh, she keeps his identity secret; the regulars at the Maypole keep mum about the reappearance of the “ghost” at the Warrens; Gabriel knows the secret of Haredale’s vigil in Mrs. Rudge’s lodgings; Dennis and Hugh plot their attack on the Warrens in secret.
I could go on, but the point should be clear: if secrecy is the source of order’s undermining, that traditional order is already in serious trouble by the time the riots start. And secrets have a place in the shaping of that rioting, too: “but when vague rumours got abroad, that in this Protestant association a secret power was mustering against the government for undefined and mighty purposes; when the air was filled with whispers of a confederacy among the Popish powers to degrade and enslave England, establish an inquisition in London, and turn the pens of Smithfield market into stakes and cauldrons; when terrors and alarms … were perpetually broached, both in and out of Parliament … and bygone bugbears which had lain quietly in their graves for centuries, were raised again to haunt the ignoble and incredulous; when all this was done, as it were, in the dark, and secret invitations to join the Great Protestant Association in defence of religion, life and liberty, were dropped in public ways, thrust under house-doors, and pressed into the hands of those who trod the streets by night … then the mania spread indeed” (277-78). And in Dickens’s novel, this mania takes a special form: the mob.
Dickens’s mob is not a collection of individuals but an organism unto itself, acting independently of those within it, as the first action of the mob, the stoning of Haredale, suggests: “’Who did that? Show me the man who hit me.’ Not a soul moved” (331). No one soul threw the stone. As the mob began to descend of Westminster, “the general arrangement was, except to the few chiefs and leaders, as unintelligible as the plan of a great battle to the meanest soldier in the field. It was not without method, however” (371). The mob’s character is fluid: “it is as difficult to follow to its various sources as the sea itself” (396). And it functions as contagion: “In a word, a moral plague ran through the city. … the contagion spread like a dread fever: an infectious madness” (403). Dickens envisions the mob as a great leveling force, operating beyond the realm of individual motivation.
But it is not senseless: its targets are clear. The sites of traditional authority come under attack: “the mob proclaimed their intention of seizing on the Bank, the Mint, the Arsenal of Woolwich, and the Royal Palaces” (514). The central prison of Newgate—like, later, the Bastille—falls as well. And so too, given the ordering of the novel, must its loci of authority be assaulted: the Warrens (burned to the ground, whereby “the exposure to the coarse, common gaze of every little nook which usages of home had made a sacred place” [423] ended all secrets of the place); the Maypole (“the sanctuary, the mystery, the hallowed ground: here it was, crammed with men, clubs, sticks, torches, pistols” [414], and finally its emblematic pole is sawn down); the Golden Key (its hanging sign “pulled down by the rioters, and roughly trampled underfoot” [604]). In such chaos, the social contract is broken entirely.
Dickens forcefully, if bluntly and rather hastily, re-establishes order at novel’s end, through the paired devices of purgation and amputation. Purgation, the appropriate solution to something like “moral contagion,” occurs by fire: “On this last night of the great riots—for the last night it was—the wretched victims of a senseless outcry, became themselves the dust and ashes of the flames they had kindled” (526). Like a patient whose fever breaks, London woke after fires to peace. Meanwhile an assortment of amputations restores order by cutting away offending parts: a few hangings kill off the most dangerous (Hugh, Dennis, Rudge senior; “two cripples, both mere boys;” “other young lads in various quarters of town”; “four wretched women” [597]); others lose only limbs (young Willett an arm, fighting another far-off rebellion; Sim Tappertit his precious legs).
The resolution never quite resolves, seeming rather too deus ex machina to set things truly at rest. Most fundamentally, it is really, finally, only the local problems of the novel that get truly resolved. The more fundamental problems, the ways in which changing times undermine conditions of landed estates or artisan craft shops, for example, no quick fire and a few executions could cure. The difficulty in Barnaby Rudge is that Dickens does far better at creating a problem than providing a solution. Insofar as social contract, in its classic Lockean sense, depends upon the transparency and order of a society rooted in landed estates, clear class lines, and a limited commercial urban sphere, it ill fits what Britain had, by Dickens’s time, become: the urban industrial complex that had supplanted traditional aristocratic power and undermined traditional artisanal craft alike. That fundamental problem of transfigurations wrought over the passage of time, no quick fire, no few executions and amputations, could quickly fix. Which is why, after all, in Dickens’s own time, in his own mind, the mob—Chartist now—remained a menace.
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