If you are new to Charles Dickens, this is not the book to start with! I found this to be the ‘darkest’ Dickens I’ve read. I also wasn’t always sure that this novel was ‘working’. Dickens mixes a mystery (who killed Emma Haredale’s father and the gardener Rudge, Barnaby’s father?) and an exploration of the dangers of the mob in the Lord George Gordon riots of 1780 (these really occurred and Dickens account follows the actual course of events quite closely). The title character, who is mentally impaired, gets caught up in these riots despite his mother’s efforts, and is imprisoned and sentenced to the gibbet.
The account of the riots, instigated as a result of newly granted rights for Catholics in England, chronicle what can happen when rhetoric gets out of hand and fuels the discontents of a mob. Not only were many homes and chapels burned, but many of the rioters themselves died, not only at the hands of soldiers but even from fire and alcoholic poisoning. The novel is a warning of the dangers of incendiary rhetoric.
Of course, we have the delightful mix of Dickens characters and secondary plots around quarrels, romances and the like. We have salt-of-the-earth Gabriel Varden, his shrewish wife and maid, their spoiled daughter Dolly, the slow and steady innkeeper John Willet and his son Joe who shakes off the father’s control to go to be a soldier. There is the abandoned figure of Hugh, the threatening centaur, who like Samson lives by his appetites. There is the stalwart Haredale and his rival in love Chester. And there is the ridiculous Simon Tappertit, Varden’s apprentice and self-styled revolutionary.
So I would conclude, Dickens fans will enjoy this book but this is not the book that will result in one becoming a fan of Dickens. I would encourage beginning instead with Great Expectations, The Pickwick Papers, or Nicholas Nickleby.