Wherein we glance back at the first week of the #DickensClub Reading of The Pickwick Papers (week nine of the Dickens Chronological Reading Club 2022-23); With General Memoranda, a summary of reading and discussion, and a look ahead to week two.
“In short, the Dickens novel was popular, not because it was an unreal world, but because it was a real world; a world in which the soul could live. The modern ‘shocker’ at its very best is an interlude in life. But in the days when Dickens’s work was coming out in serial, people talked about it as if real life were itself the interlude between one issue of ‘Pickwick’ and another.”
~G.K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens, The Last of the Great Men
Friends, what are we making of Pickwick so far? Judging by the comments, we have a wealth of things to discuss already, and we’ve only just begun!
If you’re counting, this coming week will be week 10 of the #DickensClub as a whole (and Day 63), and Week 2 of The Pickwick Papers (our second read). My introduction to The Pickwick Papers can be found here. Please feel free to comment below this post for the second 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 the joyously Dickensian account, the Dickens Fellowship for retweeting these and keeping us all in sync, and to The Circumlocution Office for providing such an online resource for us!
A very warm welcome to our newest members, Priscilla T. and Kendall M.! Thank you so much for joining us! And for any newer members or 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.
Week One Pickwick Summary (Chapters 1-8)
This week, we met the Pickwickians: Mr. Samuel Pickwick, Nathaniel Winkle, Augustus Snodgrass, and Tracy Tupman. We were privileged to glimpse the transactions of a meeting of May 1827 of that glorious Club, wherein the Corresponding Society was instituted, its members “requested to forward, from time to time, authenticated accounts of their journeys and investigations, of their observations of character and manners, and of the whole of their adventures, together with all tales and papers to which local scenery or associations may give rise, to the Pickwick Club, stationed in London.”
From their first adventure with the cab driver who called the noble members “informers!” ~ due to Mr. Pickwick’s notation of various bits of interest on the journey ~ they were assisted by the charismatic Mr. Jingle who shows up on the scene and afterwards entertains the Pickwickians with his many conquests and adventures ~ only to create new ones for them. In wearing Mr. Winkle’s suit (with the Pickwickian emblem) to a ball, unknown to that unfortunate gentleman, Mr. Jingle provokes a duel with Dr. Slammer, who calls Mr. Winkle out, to the distress of that amiable sportsman, whose friend, Mr. Snodgrass, innocently evades every attempt of Winkle’s to appeal to go and get help. The situation is resolved when Dr. Slammer realizes that Winkle is not the one he had challenged at the ball, and all ends harmoniously….
Until more adventures ensue as the Pickwickians get in the way of a military demonstration; how could they resist the experience of the “grand review” which “was to take place upon the Lines”? Thankfully, the near-disaster brings them into contact with the kindly Wardles and the unforgettable “fat boy.”
In the midst of it all, they hear “The Stroller’s Tale,” and the clergyman’s story of “The Convict’s Return.”
They have an adventurous journey on the way to Manor Farm at Dingley Dell to visit their new friends, the Wardles. And there, Mr. Winkle’s reputation as sportsman is further damaged when, in his attempt to shoot a rook, he instead wounds his friend Tupman.
“Mr. Tupman had saved the lives of innumerable unoffending birds by receiving a portion of the charge in his left arm.”
This accident, however, allows for greater attentions from Rachael Wardle, the spinster aunt, by whom the romantic Mr. Tupman is smitten, and so it is not entirely a misfire. But their wooing is discovered by the fat boy, whose relaying of this shocking news to old Mrs. Wardle is overheard by the cunning Mr. Jingle. Mr. Jingle, attracted by the spinster aunt’s money, has designs of his own, and plants the seed of doubt about Mr. Tupman’s sincerity in Rachael Wardle’s mind…
Notes, Quotes, and for Further Reference…
One of our new members, Steve, is “looking forward to ‘a wery, wery good time'” and has offered to post some photos of London which will be familiar to us in our reading! (Yes, please!) Another new member, Priscilla, has shared some absolutely dynamite quotes, and we both loved the hat chase scene!
Dana has been thoroughly enjoying Simon Prebble’s marvelous reading of Pickwick ~ a must-listen, if you love audiobooks! Boze is awaiting a physical copy of Pickwick (go, USPS!) and mentioned how “haunting” it was to visit the room where Mary Hogarth died in Dickens’ home in Doughty Street.
Chris posted Peter Ackroyd’s introductions to both Sketches and Pickwick for further reference/interest. Kendall, a new member, was thinking back to the question asked in last week’s intro, about whether Dickens (due to the enormity of his workload and personal time commitments) ever slept, recalling this same question during his classes, and he shared with us a fascinating article on the subject:
Darkness and Light, Tragedy and Comedy, “Irony of Circumstance”
I’ve been looking at the many references to light, and the sun, particularly at chapter openings, and am noting how many references there are to light, breadth, expansiveness in relation to our fearless leader, Mr. Pickwick:
“Interesting that both of the first 2 chapters start out with the image of light/the rising sun. (And how, during Winkle’s near-duel, he notices the sun going down, and considers that he himself is about to go down with it…) But the light references are mostly related to Pickwick himself. Similarly, this wonderful passage, as Pickwick, arriving in Rochester with his friends and Jingle, descends into a drink-heavy stupor: ‘Like a gas lamp in the street, with the wind in the pipe, he had exhibited for a moment an unnatural brilliancy: then sunk so low as to be scarcely discernible: after a short interval he had burst out again, to enlighten for a moment, then flickered with an uncertain, staggering sort of light, and then gone out altogether.'”
Lenny has been looking at Pickwick, thus far, as “an extension of the SKETCHES,” especially with that light-dark “juxtaposition” ~ “light being something like pure comedy and the dark represented by something we could call pure tragedy.”
He relates some of the near-misses (re: near-tragedies) to the tragi-comedy of Chaplin, specifically, The Gold Rush. His comments are in “gallery mode”; click to see each enlarged:
I agreed that it seems we, along with the Pickwickians, are getting an education by such interpolations as “The Stroller’s Tale,” and that it is “a great example of where the comedy turns to tragedy/education for the Pickwickians…perhaps one of the first real moments of expanding their view of the world, at least in this adventure. It will be interesting to discover/rediscover how their ‘education’ (again, another sort of Pilgrim’s Progress?) …well, progresses, and concludes.”
Lenny elaborates on the parallels to this type of comedy/tragedy in The Gold Rush, specifically on “the shoe/shoe string/spaghetti episode: the Tramp and his friend are starving, literally, and they decide to eat their shoes”:
“This is, at first, truly comic, the audience laughs, but then the laughter begins to quiet as the realization that the moment is really awful: they are eating shoes, the Tramp trying to make the best of it, but his friend is really suffering through the entire ordeal. We only have to look at his facial expressions to sense the agony he’s feeling! And they are freezing in their little cabin, to boot. At some point in this sketch harsh reality begins to seep in. Tragedy is just around the corner. Possible cannibalism is next! The chances are they will die either of starvation or hypothermia.”
The Pickwickians, like Chaplin, Lenny notes, have both the “subtle” and “not so subtle” moments of comedy-tragedy; he uses the example of “the fat boy,” and how we laugh with him, but that we also feel sorry for him and wonder if he has a genuine disorder that causes such moments of humor for those of us who observe his unique ability to fall asleep anywhere. Then, Lenny writes, “Tupman is shot, coaches and carriages are continually overturning and crashing, horses threaten to break loose or maim. At the outset this is comic stuff, but how many coaches need to crash before tragedy rears its ugly head?”
Then Lenny, in trying to classify the many types of comedy we’re encountering here ~ “comedy of incident, comedy inherent in dialogue, comedy in Boz’s description of dress, even a slice of Romantic Comedy” ~ focuses in on what he calls the “irony of circumstance,” particularly noting the near-shot to Winkle whom Dr. Slammer has called out to a duel, thinking him the “Stranger” of the ballroom. But, “it is Tupman,” writes Lenny, “who, ultimately is responsible for the clothing that the Stranger wears at the dance. In effect, he has ‘appropriated’ Mr. Winkle’s uniform for the Stranger and in some way is liable for the huge mistaken events that have taken place. His good friend is nearly shot by the impetuous Slammer! How might Tupman ‘pay’ for his mistake?”
But Chris and I both hadn’t thought of the ironic sort of comeuppance that follows, as Lenny writes about in the other mishap (Winkle trying to shoot the rook, and instead shooting his friend):
“Here’s the deal: Because of Tupman, Winkle is almost shot by Slammer. Winkle, is obviously confused and angered (briefly) by Tupman’s ‘use’ of his clothes at the dance, and shoots Tupman! Ok, its an accidental shooting, but the ‘irony of circumstance’ really shows Winkle getting ‘even’ by maiming Tupman. Tupman, then, becomes the victim, but also the apparent ‘winner’ by engaging the sympathies and caring of the lovely Miss Rachel…. Comic Irony of Circumstance? Double irony? Triple irony?”
Classifying Pickwick; “Minor” Characters; Things to Look Out For
Meanwhile, Chris has been reading a lot of criticism on Pickwick. Here’s her comment in “gallery mode”; click each to see enlarged:
I agreed about the “host of minor characters”:
I found the passage I was looking for:
“There is one instance, and I think only one, of an exception to this generalization; there is one figure in our popular literature which would really be recognized by the populace. Ordinary men would understand you if you referred currently to Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would no doubt be justified in rearing his head to the stars, remembering that Sherlock Holmes is the only really familiar figure in modern fiction. But let him droop that head again with a gentle sadness, remembering that if Sherlock Holmes is the only familiar figure in modern fiction, Sherlock Holmes is also the only familiar figure in the Sherlock Holmes tales. Not many people could say offhand what was the name of the owner of Silver Blaze, or whether Mrs. Watson was dark or fair. But if Dickens had written the Sherlock Holmes stories, every character in them would have been equally arresting and memorable. A Sherlock Holmes would have cooked the dinner for Sherlock Holmes; a Sherlock Holmes would have driven his cab. If Dickens brought in a man merely to carry a letter, he had time for a touch or two, and made him a giant. Dickens not only conquered the world, he conquered it with minor characters.”
~G.K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens, The Last of the Great Men
More Echoes of the Sketches in Pickwick; the “Mock Battle”
Then, Chris beautifully summarizes some areas where we see direct parallels between the Sketches and Pickwick:
“I notice how closely in style it follows in terms of topics and general action, yet how it builds upon it in terms of extended story, descriptive passages and character development. With a little more room to maneuver Boz can let his imagination and his language flow. We still have the mixture of light and dark episodes with the aptly-termed Interpolated Tales (The Stroller’s Tale, The Convict’s Return) momentarily interrupting the flow of the general action. Some similarities: The altercation with the cabman echos ‘Seven Dials’, ‘Omnibuses’, & ‘The Last Cab-driver, and the First Omnibus Cad’; Mr Jingle is one of Boz’s ‘Shabby-genteel People’; the duel between Dr Slammer and Mr Winkle is reminiscent of ‘The Great Winglebury Duel’; ‘The Stroller’s Tale’ is ‘The Drunkard’s Death’ revisited while ‘The Convict’s Return’ is another take on ‘A Visit to Newgate’, ‘Criminal Courts’, ‘Meditations of Monmouth Street’, & ‘The Black Veil’.”
She also gives a definition of what this mysterious “in the Pickwickian sense” refers to, when deflecting accusations of giving offense, such as in using the word “humbug,” and comparing it to our own use of “political correctness.”
Then, both Chris and Lenny allude to the “mock battle” (Chris) that the Pickwickians end up in the middle of. “It’s all so sanitized,” writes Chris, “as opposed to actual war. Yet how easy it is for civilians to get caught in the middle as Messrs Pickwick & Winkle & Snodgrass do.” Lenny agrees: it “actually exists as a metaphor for what tragically happens during a war–with the myriad of collateral damages wrecked on the populous of the country being invaded. Oh God, how that is so true, tragically, in Ukraine today.” It is a comic incident, but, as Lenny had commented above in the Chaplin comparisons, could easily have turned to tragedy.
A “Unifying Theme,” Old Mrs. Wardle, and the Right Sort of Merriment
Dickens alludes to Mr. Pickwick’s expansive and “comprehensive mind” with a twinkle in the eye, but the immortal Mr. Pickwick really does point us in the right direction when it comes to close observation of the too-often unobserved and unnoticed ~ observations of which Dickens himself was the master.
Chris gives us her favorite quote, suggesting it as a “unifying theme” of Pickwick:
And then, I can’t help but end with Chris’ delightful comparison of Old Mrs. Wardle to her own mother, and the “right sort of merriment” ~ in the truest “Pickwickian sense”:
A Look-ahead to Week Two of The Pickwick Papers
This week is a longer one, since we had an uneven number of installments for our six-week schedule. We’ll be reading Chapters 9-20 (which constituted the serial numbers IV-VII, published in June, July, August, and September of 1836).
You can read the text in full at The 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.