Charles Dickens was 24 when he was asked to contribute brief anecdotes to go along with some serial illustrations about a club of men falling into comic misadventures hunting and fishing. He didn’t know much about hunting and fishing, but he took up the idea of a men’s club. Before long the stories surpassed the illustrations in the public interest, and Dickens began asking the artists to come up with sketches for his own work. Thus The Pickwick Papers , Dickens’ first novel, was born.
Samuel Pickwick is a kindly older gentleman and the head of the club bearing his name. He decides he and three fellow club members will travel and report their findings and activities back to the club. The other Pickwickians are Nathaniel Winkle, Augustus Snodgrass, and Tracy Tupman. Part of the humor comes from the men’s circumstances not lining up with their reputations. Mr. Winkle is supposed to be a sportsman, yet botches any sportsman-like endeavors. Snodgrass is poet but never produces any verse. Tupman thinks himself something of a lady’s man, yet gets into all kinds of trouble in his romantic endeavors.
The men meet many good folks in their travels, and some of those people provide stories that make up some of the chapters. One story is spooky, another a suspenseful tale of revenge, another full of pathos involving a prodigal son.
And the men get themselves into various fixes. They find themselves right in the middle of opposing forces in a military demonstration. A fellow traveler who turns up in some of their locations cons them in various ways. A case of mistaken identity leads to the challenge of a duel. A widow misunderstands Mr. Pickwick and thinks he is proposing, and when he doesn’t follow through, she sues him for breach of promise.
A few chapters in, Mr. Pickwick finds a man named Sam Weller working at an inn and hires him as a manservant and assistant. Their relationship has been likened to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. I didn’t see much of Quixote in Pickwick, but Sam’s “street smarts” and worldly wise ways did seem quite similar to Sancho.
In one section of the book, Pickwick goes to prison rather than pay the damages in a lawsuit. Though there is humor here as well, there’s much more satire over the prison and legal systems, foreshadowing themes that will be developed more fully in Dickens’ future novels.
The comedy of errors is not my favorite humorous style, but I really enjoyed some of Dickens’ wry side comments:
‘Mr. Pickwick!’ exclaimed Mr. Magnus, lost in astonishment, ‘what is the meaning of this, Sir? What is the meaning of it, Sir?’ added Mr. Magnus, in a threatening, and a louder tone.
‘Sir,’ said Mr. Pickwick, somewhat indignant at the very sudden manner in which Mr. Peter Magnus had conjugated himself into the imperative mood, ‘I decline answering that question.’
Here Mr. Peter Magnus indulged in a prolonged sneer; and taking off his green spectacles—which he probably found superfluous in his fit of jealousy—rolled his little eyes about, in a manner frightful to behold.
[He saw] his venerated leader at some distance off, running after his own hat, which was gambolling playfully away in perspective. There are very few moments in a man’s existence when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat.
Mr. Pickwick gazed through his spectacles for an instant on the advancing mass, and then fairly turned his back and—we will not say fled; firstly, because it is an ignoble term, and, secondly, because Mr. Pickwick’s figure was by no means adapted for that mode of retreat.
Dickens’ warmth also manifests itself:
Christmas was close at hand, in all his bluff and hearty honesty; it was the season of hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness; the old year was preparing, like an ancient philosopher, to call his friends around him, and amidst the sound of feasting and revelry to pass gently and calmly away. Gay and merry was the time; and right gay and merry were at least four of the numerous hearts that were gladdened by its coming.
He saw that men who worked hard, and earned their scanty bread with lives of labour, were cheerful and happy; and that to the most ignorant, the sweet face of Nature was a never-failing source of cheerfulness and joy. He saw those who had been delicately nurtured, and tenderly brought up, cheerful under privations, and superior to suffering, that would have crushed many of a rougher grain, because they bore within their own bosoms the materials of happiness, contentment, and peace. He saw that women, the tenderest and most fragile of all God’s creatures, were the oftenest superior to sorrow, adversity, and distress; and he saw that it was because they bore, in their own hearts, an inexhaustible well-spring of affection and devotion.
“I’m afeered I’ve not done by you quite wot I ought to have done; you’re a wery kind-hearted man, and I might ha’ made your home more comfortabler. I begin to see now,” she says, “ven it’s too late, that if a married ‘ooman vishes to be religious, she should begin vith dischargin’ her dooties at home, and makin’ them as is about her cheerful and happy, and that vile she goes to church, or chapel, or wot not, at all proper times, she should be wery careful not to con-wert this sort o’ thing into a excuse for idleness or self-indulgence. I have done this,” she says, “and I’ve vasted time and substance on them as has done it more than me; but I hope ven I’m gone, Veller, that you’ll think on me as I wos afore I know’d them people, and as I raly wos by natur.”
I also enjoyed seeing in seed form what would become classic Dickens: memorable characters, highlighting of the needs for social justice and reform, sweet reunions, comedy and tragedy. He had also already developed a knack for setting up the ends of chapters to foster eagerness for the next.
I listened to the audiobook superbly narrated by Simon Prebble.
While Pickwick doesn’t surpass A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield as my favorite Dickens novels, I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. Mr. Pickwick, Sam, and some of the others will live on in my memory as some of Dickens’ most endearing characters.