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NA416612 - DICKENS, C.: Pickwick Papers (The) (Abridged)

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

The Pickwick Papers


The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837) was Dickens’ first fiction and, after a slow start, established him as a popular and successful novelist. It was originally issued in twenty monthly episodes and consists of a loosely-connected series of adventures based on the activities of the Corresponding Society of the Club: Mr. Samuel Pickwick, the leader of this group, is a retired businessman of benevolent soul and enquiring mind; his three followers are Mr. Tracey Tupman (much given to romantic infatuation), Mr. Augustus Snodgrass (something of a poet) and Mr. Nathaniel Winkle (a would-be sportsman). The opening chapter chronicles the acceptance of Mr. Pickwick’s proposal that he and his friends should form a Corresponding Society which will ‘forward, from time to time, authenticated accounts of their journeys and investigations’. Upon this simple conceit the novel is founded.


The Pickwick Papers have long been loved for their broad and generous comic vision. The events range from the farcical to the sentimental but also include a variety of sharply observed, mildly satirical scenes and characters: Dickens is genially scathing about (for example) the legal system — see Mrs. Bardell’s breach of promise action — and surprisingly passionate in his strictures on the debtors’ prisons of the day — see Mr. Pickwick’s sojourn in the Fleet. Folly and self-deception are mocked, but Dickens avoids the more uncompromising satire of his 18th century predecessors, although the episodic structure and broad comedy often recall writers like Fielding.  And the essential tone of the novel is benign: marriage, home and family lie at the end of the narrative for almost everyone, it seems.


Mr. Pickwick, it is true, remains single (but then his role is essentially

avuncular), and so does Mr. Tupman (whose romantic ardor is in any case more suited to the ideal than the real). The scenes at Dingley Dell — famously, the Christmas episode — express most fully the novel’s moral and emotional core.


Modern listeners will also enjoy the picture of an England which even for Dickens was already passing: by setting his novel in 1827, ten years before its composition, he seems to be intent on capturing the pre-Reform Bill, pre-railway world of corrupt elections and cumbersome stage-coach travel.


The latter is especially significant: Pickwick and his companions, traveling by coach, must perforce stop at intervals for refreshment and accommodation  so that the whole bustling world of the road, its towns and taverns, comes to life on these pages. This is above all the world of Sam Weller, perhaps the finest comic creation in the novel: Sam, whose introduction is artfully delayed, becomes his innocent master Pickwick’s indispensable guide through the perils of life. Weller belongs to an old tradition of the servant who is wiser than his master — an obvious 20th century example would be Jeeves — and he perfectly expresses in his own nature the mixture of exuberant high spirits, worldly wisdom and human decency which the novel as a whole articulates.

Charles Dickens was born in 1812 in Portsmouth. His father was imprisoned for debt and the twelve-year old Charles sent to work in a blacking-factory; these experiences influenced (for example) David Copperfield and Little Dorrit. Having learnt shorthand, he became a Parliamentary reporter and began to submit magazine pieces. In 1837 The Pickwick Papers brought Dickens fame, and the rest of his literary career was almost uninterruptedly successful. His personal life was less happy: eventually he separated from his wife, Catherine, partly as a result of his growing intimacy with Ellen Ternan, the actress, and he died relatively young in 1870, his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished.


Notes by Perry Keenlyside


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