As I mentioned in my previous post, I am on a quest to read every single Charles Dickens’ novel. The Pickwick Papers, also called The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club: Containing a Faithful Record of the Perambulations, Perils, Travels, Adventures and Sporting Transactions of the Corresponding Members, was on the bottom of my list, I think because it’s hard to say what the story is and because I had never seen a movie adaptation of this particular book. But I had read G.K. Chesterton write about it in almost reverential terms. My cousin and fellow blogger, Andrea Lundgren, read it and strongly recommended it. And another fellow blogger, January’s Dream, when she saw an image of my bookshelf that contained the book, also highly recommended it.
So I determined to read it during the holidays and enjoyed the book beyond all my expectations. There is a glow of human warmth stronger than in any other book he wrote. In later books, he took on social injustice and you can see the seeds of what was to come in The Pickwick Papers, but the book is primarily about his completely lovable, if occasionally ridiculous, characters: especially Mr. Samuel Pickwick.
There is no central plot. The story meanders delightfully as many characters disappear and reappear with a few continuous threaders weaving in and out. The one thing that remains is Mr. Pickwick. He is the middle-aged founder of The Pickwick Club, and travels with his three friends: Mr. Snodgrass, Mr. Tupman and Mr. Winkle. He is also joined by Sam Weller, his irrepressible, worldly-wise servant. Mr. Pickwick proposes to the club that he go out and experience things and that he and his friends write any adventures down. However, as the book progresses this device of the Pickwickians writing things down for the club is abandoned. There is no longer any excuse for Mr. Pickwick’s adventures other than the joy we experience in accompanying him.
The Pickwick Papers is Charles Dickens first novel, serialized in 1836-37 and published in 1837. The book made his reputation, though it took ten chapters before sales really took off when Dickens introduced Sam Weller. I seem to recall reading somewhere (I wish I could remember where) that Sam was one of the first characters to really resonate with working people. Most characters in novels tended to be more upper-crust, but Sam first worked at an inn (cleaning boots) and then becomes Mr. Pickwick’s personal servant and his unflappability, touching loyalty, street-smarts and great aplomb really resonated.
Once Sam shows up, Pickwick’s three friends – Tupman, Winkle and Snodgrass – recede into the background, but that does not hurt the book. However, as much as I like Sam, the character I really warmed to the most was Mr. Pickwick. He is the light around which all his friends revolve; he is their sage. At times self-important, benevolent, humorous, stubborn, ridiculous, gallant, self-serious, duty-bound, compassionate and at the end, even a little poignant, Mr. Pickwick is almost a contradiction, but somehow it all works. He is naive and open for life experiences.
As I said, the book is really about the characters rather than the plot, so it’s difficult to summarize. Mr. Pickwick and his friends get into all sorts of trouble. Everyone except Mr. Pickwick fall in love at one point or another. Mr. Pickwick always seems to be dealing with the trouble his friends get into while Sam has to deal with Mr. Pickwick’s troubles. He goes to debtor’s prison, chases an eloping couple to London, mediates between friends, goes ice-skating, and meets an incredible assemblage of people.
There is the con-artist Mr. Jingle, who always speaks in a rushed series of half sentences. There is Mr. Wardle the ultimate man of hospitality, who lives with his mother and two daughters. There is the fat boy (he has no name), who works for Mr. Wardle and falls asleep at random times, like on the back of a coach or while knocking on the door. There is Mrs. Bardell, Mr. Pickwick’s landlady, who believes that he has proposed to her when he was really only contemplating out loud about hiring Sam. She sues him for a breach of promise (at that time you could sue people for refusing to marry you after they have proposed) and he goes to a debtor’s prison rather than pay her.
The book is littered with short stories that different characters tell to Mr. Pickwick and those can be a bit tedious at times. There is one story, about a misanthropic sexton (gravedigger, looks after churchyard) who is digging when he encounters a goblin that pulls him down as a punishment for his ways that calls to mind very strongly Dickens’ later book, The Christmas Carol. You can also see the beginnings of the concerns that will greatly occupy Dickens in later books. Pickwick’s time in The Fleet (a prison) and Dickens descriptions of various people wronged, people who have spent years in debtors’ prison, reminded me very much of Little Dorrit, about Amy Dorrit,who was raised in prison because her father was imprisoned there for over twenty years.
G.K. Chesterton has noted that The Pickwick Papers is the least sentimental of all of Dickens’ novels. However, there are poignant moments. One is the description of the starving poor in The Fleet, who cannot afford food for themselves (some prisoners provide their own) and are taken care of, piteously, by the government. There is also the brief scene when Sam goes to comfort his father after he has lost a wife he didn’t exactly enjoy having. But what stood out to me was the end, when Mr. Pickwick’s friends are getting married. Even Sam has fallen in love and Mr. Pickwick is looking forward, sadly, to the time he will be alone. But in the end, Sam refuses to desert him and he remains ever the friend and light of his circle. You could scarcely find a book more glowing with friendship, companionship and loyalty and I completely fell in love.