Few first novels have created as much popular excitement as The Pickwick Papers – a comic masterpiece that catapulted its twenty-four-year-old author to immediate fame. Readers were captivated by the adventures of the poet Snodgrass, the lover Tupman, the sportsman Winkle and, above all, by that quintessentially English Quixote, Mr Pickwick, and his cockney Sancho Panza, Sam Weller. From the hallowed turf of Dingley Dell Cricket Club to the unholy fracas of the Eatanswill election, via the Fleet debtor’s prison, characters and incidents sprang to life from Dickens’s pen, to form an enduringly popular work of ebullient humour and literary invention
Dicken’s first novel was published in 19 serial installments from March, 1836 through October, 1837. It was wildly popular, and in many ways transformed serial publishing in England from a type of fiction in which the picture plates took priority, to fiction where the narrative gained precedence.
The Pickwick Papers is, above all, good, clean fun. It is more or less plotless, a roaming, picaresque adventure story of the titular Pickwick and his friends, Nathanial Winkle, Tracy Tupman, and Augustus Snodgrass, and their exploits as they take a number of trips out of London into the countryside. Chapter 10 introduces Sam Weller – he of the reversed “w” and “v” (it’s wery, not very, and Veller, not Weller) – who ends up being much more than merely a manservant to Mr. Pickwick.
The Pickwick Papers is sort of like Victorian comfort food. One of my first experiences with Pickwick occurred through reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. The four March girls are, apparently, great fans of Dickens and the Pickwickians and there is a scene in Little Women that has each of the sisters playing one of the four primary characters, with Jo, of course, as Mr. Pickwick himself.
In The Pickwick Papers, Dickens either ignores many of the more serious aspects of his later works, or treats them lightheartedly. Mr. Pickwick spends time in a debtor’s prison, but the reader scarcely realizes that it is an unpleasant place, as he emerges more or less unscathed from his time there. The legal system, which is skewered and satirized in his later works, especially Bleak House is, in this book, shown to be ridiculous through the action at law brought against Pickwick by his landlady, who alleges a breach of promise of marriage. But again, this is a lighthearted treatment, without the scathing undercurrent of deep discontent and even anger that the later Dickens novels display.
I will probably do an entirely separate post on Dickens and the names of people and places in his books. Few writers in the history of literature have had such a facility with names, aside from – perhaps – J.K. Rowling, who obviously owes an enormous debt to Dickens. In The Pickwick Papers, we have Muggleton (which does beg the question of whether or not Ms. Rowling took this word from Mr. Dickens) and Eatanswill, both towns visited by Mr. Pickwick and friends. Alfred Jingle is, sort of, the villain of the piece: a duplicitous actor and teller of tales. There is a young man by the name of Mutanhed, who is deserving of the appellation as he is very much muttonheaded.
I do want to make a brief mention of the food and drink in this book. It is easy to want to party with the Pickwickians, as they seem to be continually eating and drinking. At some point this weekend, I’m planning on writing a follow-up post to this one that goes into more detail about this aspect of the book. Dickens is a descriptive writer, and his descriptions of the food and drink of the Victorian era are, to say the very least, appealing.
Reading The Pickwick Papers is fun. It is a relatively easy introduction to Dickens, although, because it is a bit meandering, I did find myself bogging down from time to time.