Dickens on crowd pullers


The rise of demagogues like Farage and Trump has greatly discomforted people like me who are scared of demagogues and the forces that empower them – or, perhaps I should say, the forces that unleash them.  People who succumb to seduction that contains its own contradictions and evidences its own falsity are at best gullible – which means ‘ready to be gulled’ or, if you prefer, conned.

The phenomenon is critically analysed by Charles Dickens in his novel Barnaby Rudge, A Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty.  The second part of the book is largely taken up by accounts of what are known as the Gordon Riots in London in 1780.

An unbalanced Scottish lord named Lord George Gordon claimed to belong to ‘the party of the people’.  He whipped up mass hysteria in the London mob against Catholics.  The problem was not just antagonism between sects, although that had been explosive enough under both the Tudors and the Stuarts.  Many of the London poor resented Irish immigrants.  Why?  Not because they were Catholic, but because they accepted lower wages and put the locals out of work.  Or so it was felt or alleged.  Some things don’t change.

The mind and character of Gordon and his abettors are looked at in detail by Dickens, as is the terrifying progress of the riots.  They were as bad as any experienced in Paris in and after 1789, with the exception of the September Massacres. The violence was not limited to action against Catholics. These riots conditioned the English against popular intervention, and they stalled the movement for reform for about two generations.  

The hero of the novel is an idiot.  He is therefore inherently gullible.  Although there is not an ounce of evil in Barnaby, he is gulled into taking part in the carnage at London. Barnaby gets apprehended and he is convicted.  There is only one penalty.  Is it right that an idiot should hang for taking part in a riot?

It is hard to dissect what moves people to follow demagogues like Gordon or Farage or Trump.  It is hard enough to see what might go through the mind of you or me – to attempt to guess what may have gone through tens of millions of minds is absurd.  It doesn’t help much to talk about elites or insiders or the better educated or the well off.  But here is a description of the Tory squire in Georgian England given by Dickens in full flight.

Now, this gentleman had various endearing appellations among his intimate friends.  By some he was called ‘country gentlemen of the true school’, by some ‘a fine old country gentlemen’, by some ‘a sporting gentleman’, by some ‘a thorough–bred gentleman,’ by some ‘a genuine John Bull’; but they all agreed in one respect, and that was, that it was a pity there were not more like him, and that because there were not, the country was going to rack and ruin every day.  He was in the commission of the peace, and could write his name almost legibly; but his greatest qualifications were, that he was more severe with poachers, was a better shot, a harder rider, had better horses, kept better dogs, and could eat more solid food, drink more strong wine, go to bed every night more drunk and get up every morning more sober, than any man in the county.  In knowledge of horse flesh, he was almost equal to a farrier, in stable learning he surpassed his own head groom, and in gluttony not a pig on his estate was a match for him.  He had no seat in Parliament himself, but he was extremely patriotic, and usually drove his voters up to the poll with his own hands.  He was warmly attached to church and state, and never appointed to the living in his gift any but a three-bottle man and a first-rate fox-hunter.  He mistrusted the honesty of all poor people who could read and write, and had a secret jealousy of his own wife (a young lady whom he had married for what his friends called ‘the good old English reason’, that her father’s property joined his own) for possessing those accomplishments in a greater degree than himself.  In short, Barnaby being an idiot, and Grip [a pet raven] a creature of mere brute instinct, it would be very hard to say what this gentleman was.

An agent of Lord Gordon, Gashford, puts a charm on Barnaby to get him to join the movement.  His widowed mother is horrified.  When she tries to restrain Barnaby, we get this:

‘Leave the young man to his choice; he’s old enough to make it, and snap your apron-strings.  He knows, without your telling, whether he wears the sign of a loyal Englishman or not’.

There’s that rotten notion of patriotism again. (Since Trump refused both military service and the payment of tax, it would be impossible, even by his mad standards, for him to claim that he was a patriot.)

Then comes a passage that brings us straight to the USA in December 2016 with Trump’s denial of the intervention in the election of his friend and admirer Vladimir Putin.  (It would be idle for Trump to deny, again even by his own mad standards, the lethal intervention of the FBI.)

‘My good woman’, said Gashford, ‘how can you!  –Dear me!  – What do you mean by tempting, and by danger?  Do you think his lordship is a roaring lion, going about and seeking whom he may devour?  God bless me!’

‘No, no, my Lord, forgive me,’ implored the widow, lying both her hands upon his breast, and scarcely knowing what she said, or did, in the earnestness of her supplication, ‘but there are reasons why you should hear my earnest, mother’s prayer, and leave my son with me.  Oh do.  He is not in his right senses, he is not, indeed.’

‘It is a bad sign of the wickedness of these times’ said Lord George, evading her touch and colouring deeply, ‘that those who cling to the truth and support the right cause, are set down as mad.  Have you the heart to say this of your own son, unnatural mother!’

‘I am astonished at you!’  said Gashford, with a kind of meek severity.  ‘This is a very sad picture of female depravity.’

‘He has surely no appearance,’ said Lord George, glancing at Barnaby, and whispering in his secretary’s ear, ‘of being deranged?  And even if he had, we must not construe any trifling peculiarity into madness.  Which of us’ – and here he turned red again – ‘would be safe if that were made the law!

Dickens leaves us in no doubt about his view of the mob in action, ‘composed for the most part of the very scum and refuse of London’, just as Carlyle leaves us in no doubt about the September Massacres in Paris.  Dickens says:

A mob is usually a creature of very mysterious existence, particularly in a large city.  Where it comes from, or whither it goes, few men can tell.  Assembling and dispersing with equal suddenness, it is as difficult to follow to its various sources as the sea itself; nor does the parallel stop here, for the ocean is not more fickle and uncertain, more terrible when roused, more unreasonable, or more cruel.

And members of the mob tend to lock themselves in.  ‘Indeed, the sense of having gone too far to be forgiven, held the timid together no less than the bold.’  And the ultimate analogy is again made:

The more the fire crackled and raged, the wilder and more cruel the men grew; as though moving in that element, they became fiends, and change their earthly nature for the qualities that give delight in hell.

It is not hard to see the affinity between Dickens and Carlyle, but then comes the banality of the retribution.

Two cripples – both mere boys – one with a leg of wood, one who dragged his twisted limbs along by the help of a crutch, were hanged in this same Bloomsbury Square.  As the cart was about to glide from under them, it was observed that they stood with their faces from, not to, the house they had assisted to despoil; and their misery was protracted that this omission might be remedied.  Another boy was hanged in Bow Street; other young lads in various quarters of the town.  For wretched women, too, were put to death.  In a word, those who suffered as rioters were, for the most part, the weakest, meanest, and most miserable among them.  It was a most exquisite satire upon the false religious cry which had led to so much misery, that some of these people owned themselves to be Catholics, and begged to be attended by their own priests.

The irony was that those who witnessed the executions were as unattractive as those who had taken part in the riots.  Dickens had been against capital punishment, and he was certainly against public executions.  In 1860, he described the spectators coming from the execution of a murderer as ‘such a tide of ruffians as never could have flowed from any point but the Gallows.  Without any figure of speech, it turned one white and sick to behold them.’  After another hanging, Dickens regarded the conduct of the people as so ‘indescribably frightful, that I felt for some time afterwards almost as if I were living in a city of devils.’  That was the analogy that he made in Barnaby Rudge.

In his enlightening book Carlyle and Dickens, Michael Goldberg says:

Lord George, the mad visionary, and Gashford, the cunning mercenary, provide the spark which ignites the incendiary mob.  Barnaby, the imbecile, is an implicit comment on Gordon, the political fool, and Dickens originally planned to have the riot led by three escaped lunatics from Bedlam.  Thus the Gordon riots are seen as an ‘explosion of madness and nothing more’…

There was of course a good deal more involved in the events we know as the French Revolution and the analogy with the US today has ended by now on other grounds.  Trump may well be a political fool, but Farage is not.  And in a representative democracy, the mob finds expression in the ballot box rather than behind the barricades – although the French from time to time like to take to the streets for old times’ sake.

Whether you now see other analogies in the novel will depend on how you read it, and how you see the world now.  If Dickens had sought to characterise people like Malcolm Roberts or Rod Culleton in this novel, I dare say some of us may have thought that he had taken his penchant for caricature and coincidence right over the top.

Someone – I forget who – said that we go to great writers for the truth, and for my part, I think we get a fair bit of it in Barnaby Rudge.

And what of Lord Gordon?  He beat the rap for the riots in a trial presided over by the great Lord Mansfield. Mansfield’s house was burned down in the riots.   The mob was incensed against him because they thought he had given too fair a trial to a priest charged with celebrating mass.  He had directed the jury that they ‘must not infer that he is a priest because he said mass, and that he said mass because he was a priest.’   Lord George would also get a fair trial.

They conducted trials more expeditiously then, and no judge has ever been more expeditious than Mansfield.  The charge was high treason, the most serious in the book.  The penalty was death.  More than thirty witnesses were called.  Erskine made what was called ‘a very long speech’ for the defence.  The court convened at eight on Monday morning.  The jury retired at quarter to five on Tuesday morning.  They gave their verdict half an hour later.  As I said, they were more expeditious then.  At the end of the first week, we would still be listening to the opening.

Before Gordon died, the man who had instigated what we would call a pogrom against Catholics converted to Judaism.  It might make you feel for the members of the synagogue who had to live with that conversion.  But he was later convicted of defaming Marie Antoinette, and he died of typhoid fever in Newgate prison.

Lord George had befriended a con man named Cagliostro (who did a nice line in ‘an elixir of immortal youth’). This crook got tied up in the infamous Diamond Necklace Affair in France and he made an enemy of Marie Antoinette.  Lord Gordon had been appalled by the inequality he saw in France and he charged the French queen with persecuting his mate.  He was then charged with libelling her and British judges.  Erskine was not available, and Lord George conducted his own defence.  He did so with what one commentator called ‘a display of disarming ineptitude.’  When the Attorney spoke of a ‘wise and illustrious princess’, Lord George said in a stage-whisper fashion: ‘Everybody knows she is a very convenient lady.’  That might fairly be described as a high risk gambit.

His lordship was nothing if not different.  Horace Walpole said of the family: ‘They were, and are, all mad.’  A fellow MP said: ‘The noble lord has got a twist in his head, a certain whirligig which runs away with him if anything relative to religion is mentioned.’  Well, his lordship was not alone there, and it could be very dangerous to say that such a whirligig might be evidence of insanity.

Except for the disease that killed him, Lord George lived in comfort at Newgate.  He regularly gave dinners, and he gave balls once a fortnight.  After about 1791, the balls always ended with the Marseillaise.  Lord George had been circumcised and he allowed his hair to grow.  He was well liked at Newgate, even loved, but Lord George Gordon may be the only orthodox Jew in all history to have annoyed other cellmates in his slammer by the playing of the bagpipes.

Lord George passed away on 1 November 1793 after giving a final, faltering rendition of the revolutionary refrain so often described by Carlyle, ça ira.  The romance of the Scots for the French was very strong back then – and it may come back as the English turn their backs on the Continent.

One thought on “Dickens on crowd pullers

  1. Farage and Tump, demagogues?
    I don’t think so.
    Perhaps just people of courage standing up for common sense.
    To claim they just advocate or cash in in populist ideals is folly.
    That’s why they were voted in.
    Simply a backlash against the bullshit people have been hearing for decades….and no longer prepared to tolerate.
    Not populist. Not simplistic.
    Just good old common sense.
    I am more confident in our future prospects now than i was a short time ago.

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