“I am ruminating,” said Mr. Pickwick, “on the strange mutability of human affairs.”
“Ah! I see—in at the palace door one day, out at the window the next. Philosopher, sir?”
“An observer of human nature, sir,” said Mr. Pickwick.
“Ah, so am I. Most people are when they’ve little to do and less to get.” (Ch. 2, p. 34.)
[Note: I read The Pickwick Papers from June 24, 2012 – July 11, 2012. I waited to post my review of it until now because “Sophie” from A Reasonable Quantity of Butter and I have decided to read through the novels of Charles Dickens in chronological order and to blog about them together. You can read her review “The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club”.]
The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (also known simply as The Pickwick Papers) is the first novel of Charles Dickens. Like many of his novels, it was published as a monthly serial — running from April 1836 to November 1837. The story purports to be gathered (by “Boz”) from the papers of the Pickwick Club — a club founded by the “immortal Pickwick”.
Some of the humor of the story comes from the seriousness with which these papers and the “unwearied researches” of Samuel Pickwick are viewed. The club, “deeply sensible of the advantages which must accrue to the cause of science from the production” of Mr. Pickwick’s paper entitled ‘Speculations on the Source of the Hampstead Ponds, with Some Observations on the Theory of Tittlebats’, decide to extend his travels (“consequently enlarging his sphere of observation”). So they send him and three other club members — Mr. Tupman, Mr. Winkle, and Mr. Snodgrass — off with this view, “to the advancement of knowledge and the diffusion of learning.”
The four travel here and there, faithfully recording all that happens to them.
The story is somewhat desultory, and could have benefitted from a stronger storyline. Charles Dickens himself later said, “It was observed, in the preface to the original edition, that they [The Pickwick Papers] were designed for the introduction of diverting characters and incidents; that no ingenuity of plot was attempted or even at that time considered very feasible by the author in connexion with the desultory mode of publication adopted; and that the machinery of the club, proving cumbrous in the management, was gradually abandoned as the work progressed. Although on one of these points, experience and study has taught me something, and I could perhaps wish now that these chapters were strung together on a stronger thread of general interest, still, what they are they were designed to be.” (Preface to the First Cheap Edition, 1847, p. ix). I think, however, that the story grows stronger as the book progresses.
Dickens’s summary of his intent in writing the book, summarizes what it is: “The Author’s object in this work was to place before the reader a constant succession of characters and incidents; to paint them in as vivid colours as he could command; and to render them, at the same time, life-like and amusing.” (Preface to the First Edition, 1837, p. vii). That is just what the Pickwick papers are — a collection of vivid characters and varied incidents. Mr. Pickwick himself leads the story, as an “observer of human nature”.
Since there really is no story line to The Pickwick Papers, besides Mr. Pickwick traveling here and there and the court case against him (an action is taken against him for breach of promise of marriage), I won’t try to detail one, but will just write about characters and incidents that interested me.
My favorite characters were Mr. Jingle and Sam Weller. Sam Weller (that is Weller spelled with a “We”) understandably was and continues to be one of the most popular characters in The Pickwick Papers. He has a distinctive, amusing style of speech. Like Mr. Pickwick, he is something of a philosopher.
“When I wos first pitched neck and crop into the world to play at leap-frog with its troubles,” replied Sam. “I wos a carrier’s boy at startin’; then a vagginer’s, then a helper, then a boots. Now I’m a gen’lm’n’s servant. I shall be a gen’lm’n myself one of these days, perhaps, with a pipe in my mouth, and a summer-house in the back-garden. Who knows? I shouldn’t be surprised for one.”
“You are quite a philosopher, Sam,” said Mr. Pickwick.
“It runs in the family, I b’lieve, sir,” replied Mr. Weller. “My father’s wery much in that line now. If my mother-in-law blows him up, he whistles. She flies in a passion and breaks his pipe; he steps out and gets another. Then she screams wery loud, and falls into ’sterics; and he smokes wery comfortably till she comes to agin. That’s philosophy, sir, an’t it?” (Ch. 16, pp. 241-242.)
“That’s the pint, sir,” interposed Sam; “out vith it, as the father said to the child wen he swallowed a farden.” (Ch. 12, p. 185.)
“Raly, gentlemen,” said Sam, “I’m not wery much in the habit o’ singin’ without the instrument; but anythin’ for a quiet life, as the man said wen he took the sitivation at the lighthouse.” (Ch. 42, p. 662.)
“Yes, sir,” rejoined Mr. Weller. “Wotever is, is right, as the young nobleman sweetly remarked wen they put him down in the pension list ’cos his mother’s uncle’s vife’s grandfather vunce lit the king’s pipe vith a portable tinder-box.” (Ch. 51, p. 772.)
I did find it disappointing that Sam waited so long to get married. Loyalty to Mr. Pickwick is all well and good, but I think that his loyalty to the girl he wanted to marry should have been greater. And I don’t see why Mr. Pickwick couldn’t have had Mary (the object of Sam’s affections) as his housekeeper to begin with, instead of hiring another woman and waiting a couple of years for her to die, before hiring Mary.
Dickens used the character Sam Weller (along with that individual’s father and Mr. Pickwick) again in his serial, Master Humphrey’s Clock, which I intend to read sometime soon.
Mr. Jingle is an entertaining scamp — causing Mr. Pickwick some trouble, but always collected and serene through it all. Like Sam Weller, he has a very distinctive and amusing style of speech. He is fond of telling anecdotes from his life (at least, he claims that they happened to him).
“Ah! You should keep dogs—fine animals—sagacious creatures—dog of my own once—pointer—surprising instinct—out shooting one day—entering enclosure—whistled—dog stopped—whistled again—Ponto—no go; stood still—called him—‘Ponto, Ponto’—wouldn’t move—dog transfixed—staring at a board—looked up, saw an inscription—‘Gamekeeper has orders to shoot all dogs found in this enclosure’—wouldn’t pass it—wonderful dog—valuable dog, that—very.” (Ch. 2, p. 34)
“Conquests! Thousands. Don Bolaro Fizzgig—grandee—only daughter—Donna Christina—splendid creature—loved me to distraction—jealous father—high-souled daughter—handsome Englishman—Donna Christina in despair—prussic acid—stomach-pump in my portmanteau—operation performed—old Bolaro in ecstasies—consent to our union—join hands and floods of tears—romantic story—very.” (Ch. 2, p. 35.)
What happened to the lady?
“Dead, sir—dead …. Never recovered the stomach-pump—undermined constitution—fell a victim.”
And her father?
“Remorse and misery …. Sudden disappearance—talk of the whole city—search made everywhere—without success—public fountain in the great square suddenly ceased playing—weeks elapsed—still a stoppage—workmen employed to clean it—water drawn off—father-in-law discovered sticking head first in the main pipe, with a full confession in his right boot—took him out, and the fountain played away again as well as ever.”
Would you like to note down that little story?
“Certainly, sir, certainly—fifty more if you like to hear ’em—strange life, mine—rather curious history—not extraordinary, but singular.” (Ch. 2, p. 35.)
I also enjoyed the characters Arabella Allan, “a young lady with black eyes, and arch smile, and a pair of remarkably nice boots with fur round the tops” (Ch. 28, pp.423-424), and Mr. Perker, the attorney who helps Mr. Pickwick through his court case and in other matters.
He was a little high-dried man, with a dark squeezed-up face, and small restless black eyes that kept winking and twinkling on each side of his little inquisitive nose, as if they were playing a perpetual game of peep-bo with that feature. He was dressed all in black, with boots as shiny as his eyes, a low white neckcloth, and a clean shirt with a frill to it. A gold watch-chain and seals depended from his fob. He carried his black kid gloves in his hands, not on them, and, as he spoke, thrust his wrists beneath his coat-tails, with the air of a man who was in the habit of propounding some regular posers. (Ch. 10, pp. 152-153.)
Sam Weller’s evidence for Mr. Pickwick in the case of ‘Bardell against Pickwick’ (Ch. 34, pp. 529-533) was a highlight of that “memorable trial”. Afterwards, Mr. Pickwick travels to Bath with his friends, on which journey he meets Mr. Dowler, who is very proud of his wife. He tells the Pickwickians:
“I courted her under singular circumstances. I won her through a rash vow. Thus. I saw her; I loved her; I proposed; she refused me. ‘You love another?’ ‘Spare my blushes.’ ‘I know him.’ ‘You do.’ ‘Very good; if he remains here, I’ll skin him.’ … I wrote him a note, I said it was a painful thing. And so it was. … I said I had pledged my word as a gentleman to skin him. My character was at stake. I had no alternative. As an officer in his Majesty’s service, I was bound to skin him. I regretted the necessity, but it must be done. He was open to conviction. He saw that the rules of the service were imperative. He fled. I married her. Here’s the coach.” (Ch. 35, p. 539.)
There were several things about the book that I did not like, or found deficient. For one, Charles Dickens considered drunkenness to be hilarious. I do not find it as funny, so the many descriptions of people drinking to excess and their subsequent behaviour failed to amuse me.
Charles Dickens had a flair for description. While his descriptions can be quite amusing, he sometimes overdoes it. So many of the rooms in the book are lengthily described as dirty, that it can be quite tiresome. On the other hand, it really was ingenious of him to find that many different ways to describe dirt and filth. Still, his descriptions are part of the charm of all of his novels. Take for example, his description of one lady’s flower garden: “There was a bower at the further end, with honeysuckle, jessamine, and creeping plants—one of those sweet retreats which humane men erect for the accommodation of spiders.” (Ch. 8, p. 124.)
Throughout the book, Mr. Pickwick collects stories told to him by various sources. These stories are clearly all written by the same pen. I just recently read The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, in which I was impressed by how the author managed to make each person’s viewpoint (the story is told by several people) sound unique. Charles Dickens is not as good at this. This does not affect the interest of the stories themselves, however. The story that I found most interesting was “A Madman’s Manuscript” (Ch. 11, pp. 169-178) — a manuscript that a clergyman gives to Mr. Pickwick.
Altogether, I don’t think that The Pickwick Papers is Dickens’s greatest work, but it was mildly amusing — though far too long for the subject matter. I will probably never read it again, but I’m glad to have read it once.
All of the page numbers given are from The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens (New York: A Signet Classic from New American Library, 1964).
The illustrations of individual characters are by Joseph Clayton Clarke (1856 – 1937), or “Kyd”. “The Sagacious Dog” is by Robert Seymour. The other illustrations are by Hablot Knight Browne, or “Phiz”. They can be found on David Perdue’s Charles Dickens Page.