The Causes of the Gordon Riots of 1780 : A Close Reading of Contemporary Accounts and Dickens's Barnaby Rudge

ECU Author/Contributor (non-ECU co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Katharine Marie Faron (Creator)
East Carolina University (ECU )
Web Site:
Richard C. 1956- Taylor

Abstract: Contemporary accounts of the Gordon Riots of 1780 are studied closely in order to ultimately determine how Dickens's use of these accounts in Barnaby Rudge reveals his view of the cause of the riots. Newspapers political magazines diaries and letters are examined to discover the contemporary views of who was responsible for causing the Gordon Riots. The same historical documents are again considered to compare and contrast details of the riots. The accounts are then discussed to compare various popular descriptions of Gordon within the historical documents to determine the opinions of contemporary authors regarding Gordon and the degree of his role in the riots.  The choices Dickens made as a writer of his historical novel Barnaby Rudge are then considered. Dickens's inclusions and exclusions of details from the riot proceedings as described in the contemporary documents are first examined. It is considered how Dickens used various contemporary documents to describe the Papists Act of 1778 the gathering of the rioters in St. George's fields the state and behavior of the crowd of petitioners upon their arrival at the Houses of Parliament the bad treatment of the members of the Houses of Parliament descriptions of the discussions in the Parliament the destruction of various Roman Chapels the number of rioters captured during the burning of the chapels the burning of the prison Newgate the attack upon a house of a distiller on Holborn Hill the actions of the militia the self-destruction of the mob through liquor and the behavior of the hangman Edward Dennis during his imprisonment and execution. Dickens's inclusion and exclusion of the descriptions of Lord Gordon in the historical documents are then outlined. The aspects of Lord Gordon that are considered are the eccentricity of Gordon's character and Dickens's own portrayal of Gordon as a madman the issue of whether Gordon was manipulated by foreign enemies the degree to which Gordon may have contributed to the cause of the riots and Gordon's charitable actions in prison. The comparisons carried out between the contemporary documents reveal the manner in which each author portrays their view of what caused the Gordon Riots and whether or not Lord Gordon should be held solely accountable. The subsequent comparisons made between those historical documents and Dickens's use of those sources within his novel Barnaby Rudge reveal that Dickens believed that class differences rather than religious intolerance caused the riots. The comparisons also demonstrate that Dickens viewed Gordon as a madman who others manipulated into providing an atmosphere conducive to rioting. Consideration of Dickens's use of the contemporary sources also shows how Dickens crafted fictional additions to those accounts to strengthen his theme of insanity within Barnaby Rudge consequently furthering his argument that social issues rather than religious ones caused the riots. In general the argument is made that there is a need within academic scholarship for more close comparisons of historical texts when considering how authors used such texts as sources for historical novels. 

Additional Information

Date: 2012
Literature, British & Irish
Gordon Riots, 1780, in literature
Gordon, George, Lord, 1752-1793
Dickens, Charles, 1812-1870. Barnaby Rudge

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