Wherein we are introduced to the first of Dickens’ serial novels, The Posthumous Papers of The Pickwick Club; with a glance at the context of Dickens’ life at the time, and the illustrations; and a consideration of whether or not Pickwick is a great novel; Finally, we have an overview of the whole of the reading schedule from 1 March through 11 April; with a look ahead to the coming week–AND SOME fOOD FOR THOUGHT.
“The first ray of light which illumines the gloom, and converts into a dazzling brilliancy that obscurity in which the earlier history of the public career of the immortal Pickwick would appear to be involved, is derived from the perusal of the following entry in the Transactions of the Pickwick Club…”
Friends, during these dark times ~ perhaps most especially now ~ we could use a little Pickwickian light. And we are really in for a treat ~ a joyous, randomly rambling journey with some very lovable companions, notably the immortal Mr. Samuel Pickwick himself, his friends Nathaniel Winkle, Augustus Snodgrass, Tracy Tupman, and Mr. Pickwick’s most loyal and lovable manservant, Sam Weller, one of the greatest literary creations of all time.
Please feel free to comment below this post for the first week’s chapters, or to use the hashtag #DickensClub if you’re commenting on twitter.
No matter where you’re at in the reading process, a huge “thank you” for reading along with us! Always and forever, a heartfelt thanks to our dear Dickens Fellowship for retweeting these and for keeping us all in sync, and to The Circumlocution Office (on twitter also!) for providing such an online resource for us. And today, a very heartfelt thank you to a favorite Dickens scholar, Dr. Christian Lehmann, who has been sharing wonderful YouTube videos on each installment of David Copperfield (which I am looking forward to using in our discussions when we get there) and whose presentation for the Santa Cruz Pickwick Club (below) has helped me immensely in pulling this intro together!
A very hearty and warm welcome to our newest member, Steven R., who discovered us on twitter, and is likewise needing a little Pickwickian light! And for any more recent members or for those who might be interested in joining: the schedule is in my intro post here. If you have been reading along with us but are not yet on the Member List, I would love to add you! Please feel free to message me here on the site, or on twitter.
A “Ray of Light”: Journeying with Boz, Phiz, and Pickwick
“‘Pickwick,’ I have said, is a romance of adventure, and Samuel Pickwick is the romantic adventurer. So much is indeed obvious. But the strange and stirring discovery which Dickens made was this–that having chosen a fat old man of the middle classes as a good thing of which to make a butt, he found that a fat old man of the middle classes is the very best thing of which to make a romantic adventurer. ‘Pickwick’ is supremely original in that it is the adventures of an old man. It is a fairy tale in which the victor is not the youngest of the three brothers, but one of the oldest of their uncles.”
~G.K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens, The Last of the Great Men (69)
Dickens was still making a name for himself ~ mostly under the pen name, Boz ~ at the time when the publishers Chapman and Hall proposed that he write a longer work to accompany Robert Seymour’s illustrations. (Note that, originally, the main attraction was the illustrations.) Dr. Christian Lehmann says in the video shared below that the text is supposed to have been “a narrative that gets you from picture to picture.” Peter Ackroyd writes that Chapman and Hall looked to “repeat the success” they had had the previous year in their Squib Annual of Poetry, Politics, and Personalities, “which was more or less a vehicle for the cartoons of Robert Seymour.” Seymour wanted a writer to portray the adventures and misadventures of a certain “Nimrod Club” of unsporty sportsmen; Dickens, who had had a different notion and was not much interested in the idea proposed to him, ultimately kept the proposed theme alive in only one of the characters, Mr. Winkle, the “sportsman” who can as little ride a horse or shoot a rifle as he can play a less dangerous sport.
Dickens had to work quickly. Peter Ackroyd writes: “He could not have worked so quickly if it had not been for his journalistic experience, however, and indeed there was a sense in which he saw The Pickwick Papers as a continuation in a higher key of his skills as a story-teller and sketch-writer” (Ackroyd 179).
Sadly, Seymour committed suicide after only the second installment. (The announcement of his suicide can be read here.) Dickens had some difficulties in finding another illustrator, mostly due to his dissatisfaction with Robert W. Buss’ illustrations for the third installment. Even Thackeray had a go! Claire Tomalin writes, “William Makepeace Thackeray, who had skill and ambitions as an illustrator, came to see Dickens with his sketchbook and offered to take on the task, but he was turned down, and the commission went to Hablot K. Browne, a young artist and neighbor, with his studio in Furnival’s Inn” (Tomalin 67). Browne, who took the published nickname “Phiz,” became a close collaborator with Dickens, and would produce some of the most iconic Dickensian illustrations. The dynamic duo of Boz and Phiz would be one of the great literary collaborations, and, as Dr. Christian says, their collaboration would contribute both ways, as they “both challenge each other to get better at their individual craft.” Dr. Christian’s passage on the illustrations is fantastic; borrowing from that, I’ll just share samples of the three illustrators ~ the final two are of the same scene, as Dickens had asked Phiz to redo it after Buss’ attempt. (This is in “gallery” mode ~ click on each for a larger view):
To see in full the absolutely wonderful introduction to the first 19 chapters of Pickwick by Dr. Christian (if you’re familiar enough with Pickwick already not to mind possible spoilers ~ otherwise, you could save it until the end of week two), with marvelous insights and a special focus on the history of the illustrations, I’d highly recommend this video from The Dickens Project/The Santa Cruz Pickwick Club. The group goes into discussion mode partway through, and I kept finding myself wanting to chime in, only to remember that it was a recording!
And what is Dickens’ “Pickwick Club,” anyway?
I doubt I’m the first to come to real Dickens-love because of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women early on. (The March sisters, along with our member, Lenny, were the biggest influences, along with my family’s life-long love of A Christmas Carol.)
Remember Chapter Ten…?
“…as secret societies were the fashion, it was thought proper to have one, and as all of the girls admired Dickens, they called themselves the Pickwick Club. With a few interruptions, they had kept this up for a year, and met every Saturday evening in the big garret, on which occasions the ceremonies were as follows: Three chairs were arranged in a row before a table on which was a lamp, also four white badges, with a big ‘P.C.’ in different colors on each, and the weekly newspaper called, The Pickwick Portfolio, to which all contributed something, while Jo, who reveled in pens and ink, was the editor. At seven o’clock, the four members ascended to the clubroom, tied their badges round their heads, and took their seats with great solemnity. Meg, as the eldest, was Samuel Pickwick, Jo, being of a literary turn, Augustus Snodgrass, Beth, because she was round and rosy, Tracy Tupman, and Amy, who was always trying to do what she couldn’t, was Nathaniel Winkle” (Alcott, Part 1, Chapter 10).
Dickens’ own “Club,” rather than the Seymour-conceived “Nimrod Club,” is an adventurous little band of men whose mission is to make observations about people and places on their travels, and to write about various bits of scientific and natural interest. And they get into all sorts of scrapes in doing so.
Right alongside the Pickwickians, we meet characters like the con man Mr. Jingle and the warmhearted Wardles; enjoy the companionable, dozy humor of the fat boy and provide some interesting study for the unnamed “scientific gentleman”; we experience the great (ahem) “poet,” Mrs. Leo Hunter (Another dig at Leigh Hunt?), and her “Ode to an Expiring Frog.” With our Pickwickians, we survive trials: we manage to give a late-night scare to a house-full of ladies in our attempt to quixotically thwart a scoundrel’s plans; we venture into the wrong room in a maze-like hotel ~ in our stocking-cap, no less ~ to the detriment of our dignity; we submit to a court trial ~ because of a comical misunderstanding ~ for a “breach of promise” of marriage. The list goes on…
Many passages in the adventures of Mr. Pickwick can, to some degree, stand alone; it is not a typical novel in the sense of a concisely-plotted three-act structure, whose defined but limited subplots only connect to a larger story. Yet, in some strange way, things do connect, and characters that one thinks one has seen the last of, suddenly reappear and have a part to play.
Pickwick in Context
The Pickwick Papers, Dickens’ first novel, was published in installments from March 1836 to November 1837 by Chapman and Hall. Though not immediately a household word in its first few installments, the introduction of Sam Weller in the fourth number was largely responsible for its increasing popularity, and its readership skyrocketed over the ensuing months. Dr. Christian says that June of 1836 (the number when Sam makes his appearance) was “the most significant month in Charles Dickens’ life.” According to the Charles Dickens Page, its first number sold 500 copies, and it’s last installment sold 40,000. John Forster has it: “Of part one, the binder prepared four hundred; and of part fifteen, his order was for more than forty thousand” (Forster 129). Dr. Christian clarifies: of those in the original printing (1000) of the first installment, 400 were sold, and hence the decrease to 500 after the first installment. But with the introduction of Sam in Number IV, the numbers just kept increasing.
Without question, “Pickwick” and “Dickens” did become household words. Dr. Christian compares it to Game of Thrones in trying to give us the sense in which Pickwick became the topic of public and private conversation. Or as Claire Tomalin puts it in Dickens: A Life, “The names of his characters passed into the language…The voice of Dickens, offering fun and jokes, then switching to pathos, with a good peppering of indignation, seemed like the voice of a friend” (Tomalin xliii). And later, she writes, on Pickwick: “It was as though he [Dickens] was able to feed his story directly into the bloodstream of the nation, giving injections of laughter, pathos and melodrama, and making his readers feel he was a personal friend to each of them. Dickens knew he had triumphed, and this sense of a personal link between himself and his public became the most essential element in his development as a writer” (Tomalin 68-69). One of the epigraphs to her biography is the quote from George Gissing, almost thirty years after Dickens’ death:
“I suppose that for at least five-and-twenty years of his life, there was not an English-speaking household in the world…where his name was not as familiar as that of any personal acquaintance, and where an allusion to characters of his creating could fail to be understood.”
And it really started with Pickwick.
Dickens’ life during these nearly-two years was extraordinarily busy, and 1836 was to prove a turning point. He was married to Catherine Hogarth a mere three days after Pickwick‘s first installment was published. Late that same month, as we’ve discussed, the illustrator Robert Seymour committed suicide. The following January (1837), Dickens was simultaneously beginning the serial publication of Oliver Twist for Bentley’s Miscellany, while continuing the last half of Pickwick.
Amongst other things, Dickens’ first child was born on 6 January, 1837, and Catherine suffered from postpartum depression after; he saw his sister through an illness; he helped teach Catherine’s brother the immensely difficult shorthand that he had taught himself. Also around this time, Dickens was writing the libretto for the comic opera, The Village Coquettes, which was performed in December of 1836 ~ a venture which Dickens long after wanted to disown ~ and he composed a theatrical piece on one of our most recently-read Sketches, “The Great Winglebury Duel.” Dr. Christian mentions that during this period he was still very much involved in his journalism. (Did the man ever sleep?!)
Tomalin writes that, by the close of 1836, “Dickens was now committed to the following projects:
“…he had to continue Pickwick in monthly installments for another year; he had to provide a few more pieces for the Sketches; both his farce and his opera were being published and needed seeing through the press; he had promised a children’s book, ‘Solomon Bell the Raree Showman’, by Christmas; he had to start preparing for his editorship of Bentley’s Miscellany, which began in January and for which he must commission articles and also contribute a sixteen-page piece of his own every month; Chapman & Hall were hoping for a sequel to Pickwick; Macrone still wanted ‘Gabriel Vardon’ [Barnaby Rudge]; and Bentley was expecting two novels” (Tomalin 70).
Then, just before the one-year anniversary of the first number of Pickwick making its appearance, and just as the twelfth number was being celebrated, Dickens suffered one of the most significant losses of his life. John Forster writes:
“His wife’s next younger sister, Mary [Hogarth], who lived with them, and by sweetness of nature even more than by graces of person had made herself the ideal of his [Dickens’] life, died with a terrible suddenness that for the time completely bore him down. His grief and suffering were intense, and affected him, as will be seen, through many after-years. The publication of Pickwick was interrupted for two months, the effort of writing it not being possible to him” (Forster 120).
Mary Hogarth was only seventeen when she died. In Bentley’s, the notice went up (due to the break in Oliver Twist), according to Claire Tomalin, “that he was mourning the sudden death of a ‘dear young relative to whom he was most affectionately attached and whose society has been for long the chief solace of his labours'” (Tomalin 79).
Though Dickens’ knowledge of Mary was brief in terms of length of time, the impact of it was to last, and Dickens was never again to cancel any planned numbers of his serial installments. Dickens held Mary in his arms at the end, and “before he laid her body down he was able to remove a ring from her finger and put it on one of his own, and there it stayed for the rest of his life” (Tomalin 79). And it has often been noted that we would see something of Mary’s likeness in all of Dickens’ young women who are innocent and good and faithful, from Little Nell to Little Dorrit. (Something to note as we progress in his later novels.)
Is Pickwick a Great Novel?
Here’s another question to consider in our progression through Pickwick. In Charles Dickens, the Last of the Great Men, G.K. Chesterton, who had such a gift for looking at literature and the world at unlikely angles, argues that The Pickwick Papers is neither a good nor a bad novel, “for it is not a novel at all.”
It is worth quoting him at length again here:
“In one sense, indeed, it is something nobler than a novel, for no novel with a plot and a proper termination could emit that sense of everlasting youth—a sense of the gods gone wandering in England. This is not a novel, for all novels have an end; and ‘Pickwick,’ properly speaking, has no end—he is equal unto the angels. […] Even as a boy I believed there were some more pages that were torn out of my copy, and I am looking for them still” (Chesterton 59).
Even at the novel’s conclusion, Chesterton writes, we feel that Pickwick ~ the man, and the book ~ can’t possibly end.
“We know he broke out, that he took again the road of the high adventures; we know that if we take it ourselves in any acre of England, we may come suddenly upon him in a lane” (Chesterton 59).
It has been argued that Dickens creates a kind of English Don Quixote in the immortal Mr. Pickwick ~ and one not without his very own faithful Sancho Panza in the equally immortal Sam Weller. And we have John Forster backing up the idea:
“Sam Weller and Mr. Pickwick are the Sancho and the Quixote of Londoners, and as little likely to pass away as the old city itself” (Forster 132).
I particularly love Dr. Christian’s comparison of Pickwickian adventures to those of Chaplin or Keaton. Might that be our closest modern parallel? After all, surely Chaplin’s Little Tramp is immortal ~ his profile, features, and silhouette as instantly recognizable as those of Pickwick himself.
Will the Tramp’s adventures ever end? I’d rather not live in a world where such a tragic event could occur.
Whether or not we can classify Pickwick as a “novel,” can we call it Dickens’ greatest work, or one of the “greats”? Or is it something more comparable to his Sketches, a part of something like Dickensian “juvenilia”? (Though I think our appreciation for these works has grown by leaps and bounds during our Club’s reading of it ~ just look at the rich commentary!) This is really the kind of question that defies any objective answer, and, if it is addressed at all, should really have its own separate post(s), and I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts in either direction as we move forward.
But just for an overall sense of the possible divergence of opinion, I’ll just mention a few notable examples.
Those who are better-versed in Dickens biography and criticism will hopefully correct or add to my thoughts here, and it is something I would love to discuss with our group: Do we have a dualistic mentality about the different periods of Dickens’ writing career? Almost a Sketch/Pickwickian period, versus Late/Dark Dickens? This is putting it too simplistically, but I do wonder if we sometimes compartmentalize the periods of his work, with its height usually being considered Bleak House. Of course, we all have our personal preferences. (Note for later discussion: I would love to see how one like Oliver Twist fits in here, because even though it overlapped with Pickwick, I can hardly think of a novel more different in tone from its predecessor ~ and perhaps this is one of the reasons why Oliver is my least favorite of his novels, and one which I’d like to appreciate more.) Perhaps we might consider the difference between Pickwick and Oliver as Dickens trying what many film actors do: to show his versatility ~ just as he did in the Sketches. As though Dickens were daring someone to ask, “Could the author of ‘Making a Night of It’ be the same one who wrote ‘The Drunkard’s Death’?”
George Bernard Shaw commented that Dickens “gave us no vitally happy heroes and heroines after Pickwick,” but adds: “begun, like Don Quixote, as a contemptible butt.” What do we think of this? Perhaps there is an argument there, if only because the Pickwickian universe is simply happier and more vital than most of life itself, and Mr. Pickwick himself is “equal unto the angels.”
And that brings me back to Chesterton again: he was in love with the joyous optimism of Pickwick, and seemed to prefer it to his later works, although he did consider ~ almost with a hint of regret ~ that at Bleak House Dickens was at the height of his powers. The anecdote about Chesterton’s humorous response to the question of the book he would take with him to the proverbial desert island ~ his immediate, witty answer being “Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding” ~ apparently had a real answer to follow, which is less well-known, and the answer was The Pickwick Papers. Peter Ackroyd seems to have an affinity with his sensibility, and believed Chesterton was one of the greatest commentators on Dickens’ works.
Another of my favorite Dickens scholars, Dr. Pete Orford, tweeted about Pickwick as Dickens’ best work, and I wholeheartedly hope he wasn’t joking! (And the idea that Dr. Pete, that wonderfully whimsical supporter and mimic of the Goblin of Avignon ~ more on this when we get to Pictures from Italy ~ has a “nemesis” was equally delightful…)
John Forster, on the other hand, believed Pickwick to be inferior to Dickens’ later writing: “I do not, for reasons to be hereafter stated, think the Pickwick Papers comparable to the later books” (Forster 131).
Yet Forster describes so well the spirit that attracted so many to it, and to its author:
“Genial and irrepressible enjoyment, affectionate heartiness of tone, unrestrained exuberance of mirth […] its wonderful freshness and its unflagging animal spirits” (Forster 130). And over and above all, “Its pre-eminent achievement is of course Sam Weller” (Forster 131).
Do I keep putting Sam in bold? You’ll have to hold me back from mentioning him this week, as he won’t show up until early in our reading of next week. I’m afraid I’m a bit like Mr. Dick is with Charles I in David Copperfield… obsessed! (I cheered at Dr. Christian’s question, arguably the most important question today: “Is anybody in love with Sam Weller?” ~ and his obvious enthusiasm. Perhaps equally important: “Is anybody NOT in love with Sam Weller?”)
Pickwickian Reading Schedule
Our time is constrained by the overall schedule of massive reads within the two year time-frame. In many ways, Sketches was to be among the “slowest” and most drawn-out of them ~ yet even there we often had more to talk about than we had time for!
Some of us might want to go at it more quickly, especially if this is our main read, and just to get into the flow of the work, and get swept up in the narrative itself, without too many interruptions for analysis. But for those of us who are either, 1.) reading multiple books at once, or 2.) want to take a deep dive into themes, structure, the context of Dickens’ life at the time, etc, the timing might well feel constrained. I think we’re up for it! But let’s keep in touch on how the pacing feels.
I’ve organized the weekly divisions by some natural breaks ~ primarily based on the way the installments were published ~ but this will amount to reading the equivalent of several publication “numbers” or “installments” each week. (Thanks to our member Chris M. for her input on my drafted schedule!)
|Week One: 1-7 Mar||1-8||Chapters 1-8 constitute the first three monthly “numbers” published in March, April, and May of 1836.|
|Week Two: 8-14 Mar||9-20||This is a longer segment, since we have an unequal number of “numbers” published for our 6-week reading format. These chapters constituted the serial numbers IV-VII, published in June, July, August, and September of 1836. NOTE: ENTER SAM WELLER IN #4!|
|Week Three: 15-21 Mar||21-29||Chapters 21-29 constitute numbers VIII-X, published October, November, and December of 1836.|
|Week Four: 22-28 Mar||30-37||These chapters constitute the numbers XI-XIII which were published in January, February, and March of 1837.|
|Week Five: 29 Mar – 4 Apr||38-46||These chapters were published in the serial numbers XIV-XVI (April, June, and July of 1837).|
|Week Six: 5-11 Apr||47-57||The chapters of our final week were published in numbers XVII-XX (August, September, and October of 1837).|
A Look-ahead to Week One of The Pickwick Papers:
This week, we read the content of the first three published serial “numbers” of Pickwick, Numbers I-III, or Chapters 1-8.
If you’re an audiophile, I would highly recommend the narration of the unabridged The Pickwick Papers read by Simon Prebble, one of our greatest audiobook readers. (Note: Mr. Prebble has read such works as Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell ~ and brilliantly. Perhaps it was due to his reading of both that I came to realize that Clarke’s humor is even more akin to early-Dickens than to, say, Jane Austen.)
You can read the text in full at our dear Circumlocution Office if you prefer the online format or don’t have a copy. There are also a number of places (including Gutenberg) where it can be downloaded for free.
For those who would like an enjoyable adaptation of Pickwick to supplement the reading, our dear member Boze put me onto the 1985 miniseries, which is, for now, available on Prime with a BritBox (I almost wrote: BritBoz!) subscription. Though the overall quality of these BBC miniseries has greatly increased over the years, one can’t hope for better, I think, than Phil Daniels’ Sam Weller, nor Patrick Malahide’s Mr. Jingle.
Food For Thought…
Dr. Christian calls Pickwick an “appetitive” novel. A novel, as he says, “obsessed with consumption” ~ of all kinds of things: information, experiences…”brandy”! What do we think?
More themes/motifs to possibly consider, from his presentation: light/shadow, the “sounds” of characters’ speech (e.g. Jingle); attention to detail/the importance of things many consider unimportant. (The “Theory of Tittlebats”…?)
I am so looking forward to reading your comments. Though we always could use the reminder, I feel as though we need now it more than ever:
“There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast.”
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.
Alcott, L. (1868). Part 1, Chapter 10: The P.C. and P.O.. Little Women (Lit2Go Edition). https://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/36/little-women/417/part-1-chapter-10-the-pc-and-po/
Chesterton, G.K. Charles Dickens, The Last of the Great Men. New York: The Readers Club, 1942.
Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens, Vol. I. London: Forgotten Books, 2015.
Lehmann, Dr. Christian. “Santa Cruz Pickwick Club meeting 10/25/20.” YouTube: The Dickens Project, posted 26 Jan 2022.
Tomalin, Claire. Charles Dickens: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2011.