Re-reading Dickens: The Pickwick Papers

Pickwick addresses the Club

I’ve embarked on a project that should keep me occupied for a while.  It’s my own celebration of this year’s Dickens biennial.  I’ve started reading Peter Ackroyd’s biography, with the intention of breaking off at each point in the narrative where Dickens writes a novel – and reading (or re-reading) it.  I’ve just finished The Pickwick Papers which I first read as a teenager (though I think I can’t have finished it – the last third of the book seemed unfamiliar).  I probably gained a great deal more from reading Pickwick in my sixties – the contrasts between youth and age, and Pickwick’s determination to get out more now that he ‘s retired, are instantly recognisable.

The book was not conceived of as a homogeneous novel, its genesis being an idea for a series of engravings featuring Cockney sporting life, to be published in monthly instalments.  The accompanying text was envisaged as secondary to the images, the work of caricaturist Robert Seymour.  The proposal  was turned down by several writers before the publishers finally asked 24-year-old Charles Dickens to provide the text. Dickens accepted, but insisted that the text should be preeminent, with the engravings complementing the story.

Seymour,an established artist who had recently hit a lean patch, was not impressed with the direction in which Dickens was steering the project, nor with his boldness in suggesting changes to his illustrations. After completing the engravings for the first monthly part, Seymour, who had a history of mental health problems, committed suicide, leaving only three illustrations for the next issue.  Dickens announced his death in a perface to the second edition.

The original 1836 cover, designed by Robert Seymour

As Seymour’s replacement, the publishers hired 20-year-old Hablot Knight Browne – and a lasting relationship was fortuitously born. Browne took the nickname ‘Phiz’ to complement Dickens’ pseudonymn ‘Boz’, and went on to illustrate Dickens’ work for the next 23 years. Dickens now took an active role in reshaping the project:  the format was changed, increasing the ratio of text to illustrations , and, crucially, Dickens abandoned the original concept of the ‘sporting club’, which had been Seymour’s idea.

Reading Ackroyd’s biography, you get a powerful sense of Dickens’ soaring confidence, and how hard he drove himself at this time.  It was only three years since his  first story had been published in the London periodical, Monthly Magazine. A year later, in 1834, he had started work as a political journalist, reporting on parliamentary debates and travelling across Britain to cover election campaigns for the Morning Chronicle.  He was also writing sketches for several periodicals, some of which were collected in Sketches by Boz,  published in 1836.

Even while he was embarked on The Pickwick Papers, Dickens accepted the job as editor of Bentley’s Miscellany which involved reading around 80 manuscripts a month for possible publication in the magazine, as well as proof-reading, revising and cutting articles. To top it all, Dickens contributed an article himself every month, called The Mudfrog Papers. The second of these articles introduced the character of Oliver Twist, and soon the conception of narrating the progress of the deprived and abused child had fired his imagination, with Oliver being spun off into a separate monthly serial from February 1837.  He was writing the opening chapters, filled with suffering and abandonment, just as he was also writing some of the most comic passages in The Pickwick Papers concerning  the misadventures of Bob Sawyer and the skating party at Dingley Dell.

One of the things that immediately strikes the reader of The Pickwick Papers, is the manner in which a cohesive novel gradually emerges out of a series of sketches. There’s a real sense of Dickens’ growing confidence in his material after the first three of four instalments.  In fact, John Butt and Kathleen Tillotson, in Dickens at Work, stated that Pickwick was ‘unique among his novels’, in being a response to an external demand, instead of ‘gradually taking shape in his mind’.  The first section of the book seems less of a novel and more a series of comic episodes.

The initial four or five parts made little impact until suddenly Dickens began to shape the work into a coherent whole.  The subsequent parts grew increasingly more popular until, according to Dickens’ friend and biographer John Forster, ‘people at this time talked of nothing else … every class, the high equally with the low, were attracted to it’.  In particular, with the introduction of Sam Weller in chapter ten, the book became a publishing phenomenon, with bootleg copies, theatrical performances, Sam Weller joke books, and the print run shooting up from an initial 1000 copies to 40,000 copies. Pickwick had made Dickens a celebrity.

Evidence of this comes from one of Dickens’ first biographers, cited by Ackroyd, who, at the time of the novel’s appearance, had visited a locksmith in Liverpool:  ‘I found him reading Pickwick … to an audience of twenty persons, literally, men, women and children’.  They had hired the book from a local circulating library for twopence a day because they could not afford a shilling for the monthly number.  Ackroyd adds:

This was the audience which Charles Dickens had found – not only the judges and the doctors, but the labouring poor.  By some miracle of genius he had found a voice which penetrated the hearts of the high as well as of the low.  Truly he had created a national audience.

Dickens felt proud of his creation, too, writing to his publishers in November 1836, seven months after the appearance of the first number:

If I were to live a hundred years and write three novels in each, I should never be so proud of any of them as I am of Pickwick, feeling as I do, that it has made its own way, and hoping, as I must own I do hope, that long after my hand is withered as the pen it held, Pickwick will be found on many a dusty shelf with many a better work.

Dickens biographer, John Forster later wrote that Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller are ‘the Don Quixote and Sancho Panza of Londoners’. Dickens had read and loved Cervantes’ canonical work, but if he envisaged parallels, they took a while developing: Weller doesn’t make his appearance until chapter ten.  Nevertheless, you can see the similarities. Pickwick is a quixotic hero, steadfast in the pursuit of justice, and capable of enduring hardships and practical jokes. He has a bumbling and bulky appearance, and though he might appear ridiculous, he attracts love and respect despite the laughter.  And there are similarities between the passages that evoke the mornings of each man’s setting forth on his adventures.


That punctual servant of all work, the sun, had just risen, and begun to strike a light on the morning of the thirteenth of May, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-seven, when Mr. Samuel Pickwick burst like another sun from his slumbers, threw open his chamber window, and looked out upon the world beneath.  Goswell Street was at his feet, Goswell Street was on his right hand – as far as the eye could reach, Goswell Street extended on his left; and the opposite side of Goswell Street was over the way.  ‘Such’, thought Mr. Pickwick, ‘are the narrow views of those philosophers who, content with examining the things that lie before them, look not to the truths which are hidden beyond.  As well might I be content to gaze on Goswell Street for ever, without one effort to penetrate to the hidden countries which on every side surround it.’  And having given vent to this beautiful reflection, Mr. Pickwick proceeded to put himself into his clothes, and his clothes into his portmanteau.

Don Quixote:

So, without giving notice of his intention to anyone, and without anybody seeing him, one morning before the dawning of the day (which was one of the hottest of the month of July) he donned his suit of armour, mounted Rocinante with his patched-up helmet on, braced his buckler, took his lance, and by the back door of the yard sallied forth upon the plain in the highest contentment and satisfaction at seeing with what ease he had made a beginning with his grand purpose.

As Pickwick unfolds, we begin to distinguish themes and tropes that characterise Dickens’ work.  Indeed, he tries out several ideas that reappear in later novels – the satirical savaging of lawyers and evangelical religion, the condemnation confining debtors in prison, and the celebration of Christmas, to give just a few examples.

And then there’s Dickens’ unparalleled ability to capture the voices of characters from all social strata.  One of my favourite examples is this passage, in which Dickens has just introduced the as-yet unnamed Jingle:

‘Heads, heads – take care of your heads!’ cried the loquacious stranger, as they came out under the low archway, which in those days formed the entrance to the coach-yard.  ‘Terrible place – dangerous work – other day – five children – mother – tall lady, eating sandwiches – forgot the arch – crash -knock -children look round – mother’s head off – sandwich in her hand – no mouth to put it in – head of a family off – shocking, shocking! Looking at Whitehall, sir? – fine place – little window – somebody else’s head off there, eh, sir? – he didn’t keep a sharp look-out enough either – eh, Sir, eh?’

‘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.

Sam Weller, too, has a distinctive Cockney voice that perfectly encapsulates his tough but sympathetic common-sense, his wit and scepticism born of hard experience. Baffling puns and similes frequent his speech.  This is the scene in which he appears for the first time – in the courtyard of the White Hart inn in Southwark:

 In the Borough especially, there still remain some half dozen old inns, which have preserved their external features unchanged, and which have escaped alike the rage for public improvement, and the encroachments of private speculation. Great, rambling, queer, old places they are, with galleries, and passages, and staircases, wide enough and antiquated enough to furnish materials for a hundred ghost stories, supposing we should ever be reduced to the lamentable necessity of inventing any, and that the world should exist long enough to exhaust the innumerable veracious legends connected with old London Bridge, and its adjacent neighbourhood on the Surrey side.

It was in the yard of one of these inns – of no less celebrated a one than the White Hart – that a man was busily employed in brushing the dirt off a pair of boots, early on the morning succeeding the events narrated in the last chapter. He was habited in a coarse-striped waistcoat, with black calico sleeves, and blue glass buttons; drab breeches and leggings. A bright red handkerchief was wound in a very loose and unstudied style round his neck, and an old white hat was carelessly thrown on one side of his head. There were two rows of boots before him, one cleaned and the other dirty, and at every addition he made to the clean row, he paused from his work, and contemplated its results with evident satisfaction.

The yard presented none of that bustle and activity which are the usual characteristics of a large coach inn. Three or four lumbering wagons, each with a pile of goods beneath its ample canopy, about the height of the second-floor window of an ordinary house, were stowed away beneath a lofty roof which extended over one end of the yard; and another, which was probably to commence its journey that morning, was drawn out into the open space. A double tier of bed-room galleries, with old clumsy balustrades, ran round two sides of the straggling area, and a double row of bells to correspond, sheltered from the weather by a little sloping roof, hung over the door leading to the bar and coffee-room. Two or three gigs and chaise-carts were wheeled up under different little sheds and pent-houses; and the occasional heavy tread of a cart-horse, or rattling of a chain at the further end of the yard, announced to anybody who cared about the matter, that the stable lay in that direction. When we add that a few boys in smock frocks were lying asleep on heavy packages, woolpacks, and other articles that were scattered about on heaps of straw, we have described as fully as need be the general appearance of the yard of the White Hart Inn, High Street, Borough, on the particular morning in question.

A passage that illustrates Sam Weller’s straightforwardness and refusal to be bowed by authority is this, from Pickwick’s trial for breach of promise:

Serjeant Buzfuz now rose with more importance than he had yet exhibited, if that were possible, and vociferated; ‘Call Samuel Weller.’

It was quite unnecessary to call Samuel Weller; for Samuel Weller stepped briskly into the box the instant his name was pronounced; and placing his hat on the floor, and his arms on the rail, took a bird’s-eye view of the Bar, and a comprehensive survey of the Bench, with a remarkably cheerful and lively aspect. ‘What’s your name, sir?’ inquired the judge.

‘Sam Weller, my Lord,’ replied that gentleman.

‘Do you spell it with a “V” or a “W”?’ inquired the judge.

‘That depends upon the taste and fancy of the speller, my Lord,’ replied Sam; ‘I never had occasion to spell it more than once or twice in my life, but I spells it with a “V.” ‘

Here a voice in the gallery exclaimed aloud, ‘Quite right too, Samivel, quite right.  Put it down a “we,” my Lord, put it down a “we.”‘ ‘Who is that, who dares address the court?’ said the little judge, looking up.  ‘Usher.’

‘Yes, my Lord.’

‘Bring that person here instantly.’

‘Yes, my Lord.’

But as the usher didn’t find the person, he didn’t bring him; and, after a great commotion, all the people who had got up to look for the culprit, sat down again.  The little judge turned to the witness as soon as his indignation would allow him to speak, and said –

‘Do you know who that was, sir?’

‘I rayther suspect it was my father, my lord,’ replied Sam.

‘Do you see him here now?’ said the judge.

‘No, I don’t, my Lord,’ replied Sam, staring right up into the lantern at the roof of the court.

‘If you could have pointed him out, I would have committed him instantly,’ said the judge. Sam bowed his acknowledgments and turned, with unimpaired cheerfulness of countenance, towards Serjeant Buzfuz.

‘Now, Mr. Weller,’ said Serjeant Buzfuz.

‘Now, sir,’ replied Sam.

‘I believe you are in the service of Mr. Pickwick, the defendant in this case?  Speak up, if you please, Mr. Weller.’

‘I mean to speak up, Sir,’ replied Sam; ‘I am in the service o’ that ‘ere gen’l’man, and a wery good service it is.’

‘Little to do, and plenty to get, I suppose?’ said Serjeant Buzfuz, with jocularity. ‘Oh, quite enough to get, Sir, as the soldier said ven they ordered him three hundred and fifty lashes,’ replied Sam.

‘You must not tell us what the soldier, or any other man, said, Sir,’ interposed the judge; ‘it’s not evidence.’

‘Wery good, my Lord,’ replied Sam.

‘Do you recollect anything particular happening on the morning when you were first engaged by the defendant; eh, Mr. Weller?’ said Serjeant Buzfuz.

‘Yes, I do, sir,’ replied Sam.

‘Have the goodness to tell the jury what it was.’

‘I had a reg’lar new fit out o’ clothes that mornin’, gen’l’men of the jury,’ said Sam, ‘and that was a wery partickler and uncommon circumstance vith me in those days.’

Hereupon there was a general laugh; and the little judge, looking with an angry countenance over his desk, said, ‘You had better be careful, Sir.’

‘So Mr. Pickwick said at the time, my Lord,’ replied Sam; ‘and I was wery careful o’ that ‘ere suit o’ clothes; wery careful indeed, my Lord.’

The judge looked sternly at Sam for full two minutes, but Sam’s features were so perfectly calm and serene that the judge said nothing, and motioned Serjeant Buzfuz to proceed.

The trial forms the centrepiece of Dickens’ savage portrayal lawyers in Pickwick. Dickens had worked as a clerk in the Inns of Court and had come away from the experience with little respect for the legal profession. In Pickwick, as in subsequent novels, he portrayed lawyers such as Buzfuz, and his employers Dodson and Fogg, as venal and frequently fraudulent supporters of the established order, masters of prevarication and double-dealing. Some of the most memorable scenes in Pickwick Papers take place in courtrooms and make fun of legal procedures.

The trial

In Little Dorrit some twenty years later, Dickens would focus his anger on the institutions of debtors’ prisons – in which those who owed money were imprisoned, unable to work, until they had repaid their debts. In that novel, the prison in was the Marshalsea where Dickens’ own father had been imprisoned.  In Pickwick, Mr. Pickwick is consigned to the Fleet debtor’s prison after his landlady, Mrs. Bardell, brings a breach of promise suit against him and wins.  The innocent Pickwick refuses to pay the damages, opting instead to imprisoned. Pickwick is appalled at conditions in the prison, where he remains for three months.

It’s at this point in the narrative that we begin to discern Pickwick’s growth as a human being.  In the introduction to the first edition in book form Dickens explained:

It has been observed of Mr. Pickwick, that there is a decided change in his character, as these pages proceed, and that he becomes more good and more sensible…in real life the peculiarities and oddities of a man who has anything whimsical about him, generally impress us first, and that it is not until we are better acquainted with him that we usually begin to look below these superficial traits, and to know the better part of him.

Pickwick, in his own words,  becomes more ‘sensible’ after he goes to debtor’s prison.  He gains a knowledge of the world that precludes the possibility of him continuing to be ‘whimsical’. During his time in prison, Pickwick’s surroundings lead him to such desperation that he proclaims, ‘My head aches with these scenes, and my heart too. Henceforth I will be a prisoner in my own room’.

These changes also reflect the growth of Dickens’ ability to reflect Pickwick’s interior thoughts.  In a scene near the end of the book, Pickwick travels to Birmingham to break the news of his friend Winkle’s marriage to Winkle’s father, whose approval the son has failed to seek.  Pickwick knows it’s going to be a difficult encounter, and he is stressed even more by the fact that the dissolute Bob Sawyer has tagged along.  Pickwick looks out the window of the carriage as they approach the town and observes:

The straggling cottages by the road-side, the dingy hue of every object visible, the murky atmosphere, the paths of cinders and brick-dust, the deep-red glow of furnace fires in the distance, the volumes of dense smoke issuing heavily forth from high toppling chimneys, blackening and obscuring everything around; the glare of distant lights, and ponderous waggons which toiled along the road, laden with clashing rods of iron, or piled with heavy good.

It’s an example of the vivid descriptive passages that make reading Dickens a great pleasure – and it also reflects the turmoil in Pickwick’s mind.

Dickens has a dig at evangelical religion in the novel, most notably in the character of the reverend Mr. Stiggins, a lazy  man who seems to have no interest in his duties. His red nose, the result of his excessive drinking, is deeply ironic, given that his church firmly advocates temperance.  Dickens, who was a religious man,  portrays Stiggins as lacking true spirituality. In this passage, Sam Weller’s father offers his commentary on the humbug (or, as he puts it, ‘gammon’) of  evangelicals such as Stiggins:

“The worst o’ these here shepherds is, my boy, that they reg’larly turns the heads of all the young ladies, about here. Lord bless their little hearts, they thinks its all right, and don’t know no better; but they’re the wictims o’ gammon, Samivel, they’re the wictims o’ gammon.’

“I s’pose they are,’ said Sam.

“Nothin’ else,’ said Mr. Weller, shaking his head gravely; “and wot aggrawates me, Samivel, is to see ’em a wastin’ all their time and labour in making clothes for copper-coloured people as don’t want ’em, and taking no notice of the flesh-coloured Christians as do. If I’d my vay, Samivel, I’d just stick some o’ these here lazy shepherds behind a heavy wheelbarrow, and run ’em up and down a fourteen-inch-wide plank all day. That ‘ud shake the nonsense out of ’em, if anythin’ vould.”

Mr Pickwick slides

In his biography, Ackroyd observes, ‘In view of the fact that Dickens can be said to have almost singlehandedly created the modern idea of Christmas, it is interesting to note that in fact during the first eight years of his life there was a white Christmas every year; so sometimes does reality actually exist before the idealised image’.  A Christmas Carol was, of course, the book that immortalised that idealised image, but the first of his many Christmastime scenes appears in Pickwick Papers, down in Dingley Dell:

Numerous indeed are the hearts to which Christmas brings a brief season of happiness and enjoyment.  How many families, whose members have been dispersed and scattered far and wide, in the restless struggles of life, are then reunited, and meet once again in that happy state of companionship and mutual goodwill, which is a source of such pure and unalloyed delight; and one so incompatible with the cares and sorrows of the world, that the religious belief of the most civilised nations, and the rude traditions of the roughest savages, alike number it among the first joys of a future condition of existence, provided for the blessed and happy!  How many old recollections, and how many dormant sympathies, does Christmas time awaken!

We write these words now, many miles distant from the spot at which, year after year, we met on that day, a merry and joyous circle. Many of the hearts that throbbed so gaily then, have ceased to beat; many of the looks that shone so brightly then, have ceased to glow; the hands we grasped, have grown cold; the eyes we sought, have hid their lustre in the grave; and yet the old house, the room, the merry voices and smiling faces, the jest, the laugh, the most minute and trivial circumstance connected with those happy meetings, crowd upon our mind at each recurrence of the season, as if the last assemblage had been but yesterday. Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days, that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth, and transport the sailor and the traveller thousands of miles away, back to his own fire-side and his quiet home!

Conviviality at Bob Sawyer’s

Which brings me to the subject of drink.  One of the things that struck me most forcibly on re-reading Pickwick was the copious consumption of alcohol that takes place in almost every chapter.  This is fairly typical:

This constant succession of glasses produced considerable effect upon Mr. Pickwick; his countenance beamed with the most sunny smiles, laughter played around his lips, and good-humoured merriment twinkled in his eye. Yielding by degrees to the influence of the exciting liquid, rendered more so by the heat, Mr. Pickwick expressed a strong desire to recollect a song which lie had heard in his infancy, and the attempt proving abortive, sought to stimulate his memory with more glasses of punch, which appeared to have quite a contrary effect; for, from forgetting the words of the song, he began to forget how to articulate any words at all; and finally, after rising to his legs to address the company in an eloquent speech, he fell into the barrow, and fast asleep, simultaneously.

Another character, Dickens tells us, was fond of hot punch (one of the favourite tipples in the book, along with shots of rum and brandy, each with additions of hot water, usually taken as a nightcap):

I venture to say he was  very fond of hot punch… He ordered another tumbler, and then another ― I am not quite
certain whether he didn’t order another after that […] he emptied the fourth tumbler of punch and ordered a fifth.

Throughout the Pickwickians’ stay in Dingley Dell during the Christmas holidays, Dickens consistently emphasises the convivial effects of
moderate alcohol consumption and shows it producing happiness and enjoyment to the drinkers:

‘let us drink their healths, and wish them prolonged life, and every blessing’ […] Pickwick proposed the old lady. Mr Snodgrass proposed Mr Wardle; Mr Wardle proposed Mr Snodgrass […] all was happiness and festivity’

Almost all friendships are sealed with alcoholic liquors, and Pickwick thinks that a ‘bottle of wine would at once have purchased the
utmost good-fellowship of a few choice spirits, without any more formal ceremony of introduction’.  On another ocassion, ‘the hot elder wine, well qualified with brandy and spice, go round, and round, and round again; and sound was the sleep and pleasant were the dreams that followed’.

Dickens is adept at incorporating sharp social commentary with his stories, and we can see it no less in Pickwick.  I’ve already noted his satirical portrayal of the legal profession, evangelist preachers, and debtors’ prisons, and in the celebrated chapters concerning the Eatanswill elections he takes on the unreformed political system:

We will frankly acknowledge that, up to the period of our being first immersed in the voluminous papers of the Pickwick Club, we had never heard of Eatanswill; we will with equal candour admit that we have in vain searched for proof of the actual existence of such a place at the present day. […]

It appears, then, that the Eatanswill people, like the people of many other small towns, considered themselves of the utmost and most mighty importance, and that every man in Eatanswill, conscious of the weight that attached to his example, felt himself bound to unite, heart and soul, with one of the two great parties that divided the town–the Blues and the Buffs. Now the Blues lost no opportunity of opposing the Buffs, and the Buffs lost no opportunity of opposing the Blues; and the consequence was, that whenever the Buffs and Blues met together at public meeting, town-hall, fair, or market, disputes and high words arose between them. With these dissensions it is almost superfluous to say that everything in Eatanswill was made a party question. If the Buffs proposed to new skylight the market-place, the Blues got up public meetings, and denounced the proceeding; if the Blues proposed the erection of an additional pump in the High Street, the Buffs rose as one man and stood aghast at the enormity. There were Blue shops and Buff shops, Blue inns and Buff inns–there was a Blue aisle and a Buff aisle in the very church itself.

Of course it was essentially and indispensably necessary that each of these powerful parties should have its chosen organ and representative: and, accordingly, there were two newspapers in the town–the Eatanswill Gazette and the Eatanswill Independent; the former advocating Blue principles, and the latter conducted on grounds decidedly Buff. Fine newspapers they were. Such leading articles, and such spirited attacks! – ‘Our worthless contemporary, the Gazette ‘ – ‘That disgraceful and dastardly journal, the Independent’ – ‘That false and scurrilous print, the Independent’ – ‘That vile and slanderous calumniator, the Gazette;’ these, and other spirit-stirring denunciations, were strewn plentifully over the columns of each, in every number, and excited feelings of the most intense delight and indignation in the bosoms of the townspeople. […]

Then Horatio Fizkin, Esquire, of Fizkin Lodge, near Eatanswill, presented himself for the purpose of addressing the electors; which he no sooner did, than the band employed by the Honourable Samuel Slumkey, commenced performing with a power to which their strength in the morning was a trifle; in return for which, the Buff crowd belaboured the heads and shoulders of the Blue crowd; on which the Blue crowd endeavoured to dispossess themselves of their very unpleasant neighbours the Buff crowd; and a scene of struggling, and pushing, and fighting, succeeded, to which we can no more do justice than the mayor could, although he issued imperative orders to twelve constables to seize the ringleaders, who might amount in number to two hundred and fifty, or thereabouts. […]

The speeches of the two candidates, though differing in every other respect, afforded a beautiful tribute to the merit and high worth of the electors of Eatanswill. Both expressed their opinion that a more independent, a more enlightened, a more public- spirited, a more noble-minded, a more disinterested set of men than those who had promised to vote for him, never existed on earth; each darkly hinted his suspicions that the electors in the opposite interest had certain swinish and besotted infirmities which rendered them unfit for the exercise of the important duties they were called upon to discharge. Fizkin expressed his readiness to do anything he was wanted: Slumkey, his determination to do nothing that was asked of him. Both said that the trade, the manufactures, the commerce, the prosperity of Eatanswill, would ever be dearer to their hearts than any earthly object; and each had it in his power to state, with the utmost confidence, that he was the man who would eventually be returned. […]

During the whole time of the polling, the town was in a perpetual fever of excitement. Everything was conducted on the most liberal and delightful scale. Excisable articles were remarkably cheap at all the public-houses; and spring vans paraded the streets for the accommodation of voters who were seized with any temporary dizziness in the head – an epidemic which prevailed among the electors, during the contest, to a most alarming extent, and under the influence of which they might frequently be seen lying on the pavements in a state of utter insensibility. A small body of electors remained unpolled on the very last day. They were calculating and reflecting persons, who had not yet been convinced by the arguments of either party, although they had frequent conferences with each. One hour before the close of the poll, Mr. Perker solicited the honour of a private interview with these intelligent, these noble, these patriotic men. it was granted. His arguments were brief but satisfactory. They went in a body to the poll; and when they returned, the Honourable Samuel Slumkey, of Slumkey Hall, was returned also.

Later on in the narrative there’s another fine piece of social commentary in the chapter describing the Muggleton cricket match:

Everybody whose genius has a topographical bent knows perfectly well that Muggleton is a corporate town, with a mayor, burgesses, and freemen; and anybody who has consulted the addresses of the mayor to the freemen, or the freemen to the mayor, or both to the corporation, or all three to Parliament, will learn from thence what they ought to have known before, that Muggleton is an ancient and loyal borough, mingling a zealous advocacy of Christian principles with a devoted attachment to commercial rights; in demonstration whereof, the mayor, corporation, and other inhabitants, have presented at divers times, no fewer than one thousand four hundred and twenty petitions against the continuance of negro slavery abroad, and an equal number against any interference with the factory system at home; sixty-eight in favour of the sale of livings in the Church, and eighty-six for abolishing Sunday trading in the street.

Dickens was acutely observant of social class distinctions, in Pickwick no less than his other novels. Just one example of this comes in the chapter when Pickwick and Sam Weller visist Bath.  Sam gets invited to a ‘soiree’ for servants of a certain stature in life. When the greengrocer arrives to serve the food at this gathering, the following interaction takes place. Mr. Tackle, one of servants in charge of the ‘swore’, as Sam calls it,

took the chair… The greengrocer put on a pair of wash-leather gloves to hand the plates with, and stationed himself behind Mr Tuckle’s chair.

“Harris,” said Mr. Tuckle, in a commanding tone.

“Sir,” said the greengrocer.

“Have you got your gloves on?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then take the kiver off.”

“Yes, sir.”

The greengrocer did as he was told, with a show of great humility, and obsequiously handed Mr. Tuckle the carving knife.

There’s very little that escapes Dickens notice.  Here he is in a laugh-out-loud passage that eviscerates the feeble attempts of amateur poets:

‘She dotes on poetry, sir. She adores it; I may say that her whole soul and mind are wound up, and entwined with it. She has produced some delightful pieces, herself, sir. You may have met with her ‘Ode to an Expiring Frog,’ sir.”

‘I don’t think I have,’ said Mr. Pickwick.

‘You astonish me, Sir,’ said Mr. Leo Hunter.  ‘It created an
immense sensation.  It was signed with an “L” and eight stars, and
appeared originally in a lady’s magazine.  It commenced–

Can I view thee panting, lying
On thy stomach, without sighing;
 Can I unmoved see thee dying
 On a log
 Expiring frog!

‘Beautiful!’ said Mr. Pickwick.

‘Fine,’ said Mr. Leo Hunter; ‘so simple.’

‘Very,’ said Mr. Pickwick.

A sense of goodwill, of jollity, and of joy pervades The Pickwick Papers.  There is no cynicism in Dickens’ portrayal of Pickwick as a benevolent man of simple manners and tastes, the best of men. I smiled often as I read, and sometimes laughed out loud.  Pickwick Papers is a happy book, and none the worse for that.

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3 thoughts on “Re-reading Dickens: The Pickwick Papers

  1. You know, I think it is quite common for people to laugh out loud while reading Pickwick. Eric Morecambe regarded it as the funniest book in the world, and he took it with him whenever he travelled, reading it in train carriages, and he still found it funny after many re-reads.

    You might be interested in my forthcoming novel Death and Mr Pickwick, which will be published by Jonathan Cape of the Random House Group on 21st May. My novel tells the backstory of Pickwick, and Robert Seymour is the main character. You can find out more at:

    I have also set up a facebook page for the novel, where I post bits and pieces of Pickwickiana on a daily basis:

    Incidentally, when I came to your website, I saw your recent post about Bob Dylan. A line from Dylan’s song Not Dark Yet is quoted at the start of Death and Mr Pickwick – a few years ago, I heard Dylan reading from The Pickwick Papers on his radio show, and I approached his management company for permission to use the lyric, and to my delight permission was granted! Indeed part of the novel is set in modern times, and I refer to various pop and rock songs to help give a sense of modernity, and one song is A Hard Rain’s A-gonna Fall.

    Best wishes

    Stephen Jarvis

    1. Thanks for taking the time to respond, Stephen. The book sounds fascinating – I shall certainly read it. Reading your intriguing account of how the ideas for your novel emerged, it seemed that you had ‘been down on the bottom of a world full of lies’!

      I heard all of the Theme Time Radio episodes, but I must admit that I have no recollection of Dylan reading from Pickwick. I’m trying to think what the context would have been.

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