Background.

Barnaby Rudge
  • To surround anything, however monstrous or ridiculous, with an air of mystery, is to invest it with a secret charm, and power of attraction which to the crowd is irresistible” is a quotation from Barnaby Rudge (Chapter 37).

Context.

Quotation from the opening of Chapter 37 of Barnaby Rudge describing the atmosphere of a gathering crowd.

Dickens observed and commented on the behaviour of large crowds in his works. We can see this in some of his early writings, such as in Sketches by Boz and also in major works, particularly his two historical novels which both feature mass public uprisings (Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities).

Dickens was writing Barnaby Rudge around a time of civil unrest in the United Kingdom from the Chartist movement. In November 1839, nearly 10,000 Chartist sympathisers marched on the town of Newport, Monmouthshire.

The Rioters at Work.
Illustration by Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz) entitled The Rioters at Work, produced for a 1849 one-volume edition of the novel Barnaby Rudge.

The Gordon Riots.

Barnaby Rudge is set around a backdrop of the Gordon Riots, in late eighteenth century England, which saw several days of rioting motivated by anti-Catholic sentiment. They began with a large and orderly protest in London against the Papists Act of 1778, which was intended to reduce official discrimination against British Catholics enacted by the Popery Act 1698. Lord George Gordon, head of the Protestant Association, argued that the law would enable Catholics to join the British Army and become a dangerous threat. On 2 June 1780, Gordon led a march to hand in a petition to the Houses of Parliament but violence broke out, with the looting and burning of Catholic chapels in foreign embassies. The protest spread over subsequent days to widespread rioting, including the destruction of Newgate and Clink prisons and an attempt to storm the Bank of England. To-date it remains the most destructive civil disturbances in the history of London.The government eventually sent in the army, resulting in an estimated 300-700 deaths. The main violence lasted a week, ending on 9 June, 1780. George was charged with high treason but acquitted. In 1787 he was excommunicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury and later converted to Judaism. In 1788 he was imprisoned in Newgate, after being convicted for defamation, where he died five years later from a typhoid fever that swept through the prison

Source.

Taken from the following passage in Chapter 37 of Barnaby Rudge:

To surround anything, however monstrous or ridiculous, with an air of mystery, is to invest it with a secret charm, and power of attraction which to the crowd is irresistible. False priests, false prophets, false doctors, false patriots, false prodigies of every kind, veiling their proceedings in mystery, have always addressed themselves at an immense advantage to the popular credulity, and have been, perhaps, more indebted to that resource in gaining and keeping for a time the upper hand of Truth and Common Sense, than to any half-dozen items in the whole catalogue of imposture. Curiosity is, and has been from the creation of the world, a master-passion. To awaken it, to gratify it by slight degrees, and yet leave something always in suspense, is to establish the surest hold that can be had, in wrong, on the unthinking portion of mankind.

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To surround anything, however monstrous or ridiculous, with an air of mystery, is to invest it with a secret charm, and power of attraction which to the crowd is irresistible.
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