Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836 – 1837)
better known as The Pickwick Papers
Wordsworth Classics, 804pp
Okay, my first admission. This is the first Dickens novel that I have read. As a writer, approaching the age of thirty, this is disgraceful. By now I should have read them all. Dickens is one of those writers with whom I’ve had a bad relationship. As a teenager I started Bleak House and couldn’t get past the first few pages. I started Our Mutual Friend and read barely a chapter. I just didn’t get him. Whatever that meant. I didn’t like this style. I didn’t think he offered anything for me. Reluctantly I began The Pickwick Papers, without telling anyone I was, and suddenly found myself fifty pages in, laughing with it, enjoying it. Did I, after twelve years of trying to read Dickens, finally get what he was all about?
I read something interesting Maugham said about Dickens the other day. He is talking about Matthew Arnold’s insistence that for poetry to be truly excellent it must have a high seriousness, and he goes onto say that: “It is because this high seriousness is lacking in Dickens’s novels that, for all their great merits, they leave us faintly dissatisfied. When we read them now with the great French and Russian novels in mind, and not only theirs, but George Eliot’s, we are taken aback by their naïveté. In comparison with them, Dickens’s are scarcely adult… I find myself still immensely amused by Dickens’s humour, but his pathos leaves me cold. I am inclined to say that he had strong emotions, but no heart.” Maugham qualifies this with: “He had a generous heart, but it was an actor’s heart.” That is to say Dickens played to the crowd. This, as I read it, was where my problem with Dickens lay. I enjoy his humour, but his pathos is cold. He is good in scene setting, the theatricals of a novel, but the humanity seems engineered. It is as true in The Pickwick Papers as it is in Bleak House.
Only The Pickwick Papers has further faults. First some history. The Pickwick Papers was the first novel-length commission Dickens’s was given. It was published in 19 issues over 20 months. It had illustrations by Robert Seymour for the first two issues, but Seymour killed himself and was replaced by R.W. Buss for one issue, but the relationship did not work, and Buss was replaced by Hablot Knight Browne, better known as Phiz. Phiz became Dickens’s illustrator for the next 23 years. He chose the name Phiz over Nemo, his original choice, because it sounded better when paired with Boz, Dickens’s original nom de plume. The Pickwick Papers was not an immediate hit. It was only with the introduction of Samuel Weller as Mr Pickwick’s valet in chapter ten that the novel truly took off, and a publishing phenomenon was created, with Sam Weller joke books, theatrical performances and bootleg copies. It is true that the novel does transform with his appearance.
For the first hundred or so pages it is clear Dickens is uncertain where this work is going. It is filled with all sorts of asides, rambling stories, and a generally unfocussed attitude. It is full of jokes, many of which are still funny, and it reads like someone’s long winded tale. The appearance of Sam Weller, and his subsequent popularity, provides Dickens with focus, a narrative drive, but at the expense of Mr Pickwick who seems to become sidelined through the middle part of this novel. The readers wanted Sam Weller, so Dickens’s give them Sam Weller. Perhaps because he, as a character, as been much imitated, I found him less fresh than perhaps initial readers would have done. I admit to preferring the incompetent, but ever-so genial Mr Pickwick and the enthusiasm of his club, which is almost all but forgotten about until a few lines to tidy the novel off at the end. It is interesting to see, though, a character so overwhelm a narrative.
I feel another problem The Pickwick Papers suffers, especially in its middle, is the lack of a villain. Mr Jingle is a wonderful creation whom also becomes sidelined because of Sam Weller’s popularity, and his ending is nowhere near the joy it should be. It seemed to me that Dickens was lining us up for a conflict between these two men, Mr Pickwick and Mr Jingle, which would run through the whole novel, but it does not materialise.
Perhaps The Pickwick Papers failings are because Dickens as a novelist was finding his feet with this work. After some time writing sketches and short stories, a novel of such a length, and The Pickwick Papers is massive, written to such a tight schedule, it is only understandable that some elements would get away from him, but he came back with Oliver Twist, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about that novel. For the first time in my life I’m looking forward to reading a Dickens, so perhaps The Pickwick Papers isn’t all bad (it really isn’t). At times I thoroughly enjoyed this novel; it just needs some heavy editing. It’s also interesting to note that Dickens came back to these characters three years later with Mr Humphrey’s Clock.
For those looking to read this novel I would advise you choose an edition with the illustrations in. Phiz’s work is excellent. The Wordsworth Edition I chose had not included them, and though you can see them if you search around the Internet, it is better to have them in the text.