Thursday, January 13, 2011

Charles Dickens – ‘The Pickwick Papers’

I wish I wasn’t always so sceptical about Dickens. The more I read, the less justification there is for it. And sure, it’s a slow process – this is the first of his novels I’ve read during the run of this blog – but he never lets me down, though I always think he’s going to. Prior to this I found Barnaby Rudge surprisingly menacing, and Nicholas Nickleby surprisingly hilarious. Lo and behold, The Pickwick Papers is surprisingly Quixotic. There are flaws. The pacing early on is all over the place, and the plot, when there is one, is as light as can be. Only a handful of characters achieve any kind of presence, but when they do – first Alfred Jingle, and then Sam Weller – they are gripping and magical (see Sam’s way with a fable), and it is thrilling to feel the force of Dickens’ imagination as he conjures them up. Mr Pickwick himself is slightly more than a cipher, developing into a lovable, obstinate patrician by the end, but his companions in the Pickwick Club (a group of men who are interested in things generally, and who travel about writing them down) are as flat as pancakes. This is not necessarily a problem, as there are other strings to Pickwick’s bow. There is an elopement chase scene early on which temporarily reverses the novel’s desultoriness. There is bonhomie as only Dickens can write it, which is generally a good thing (though mixed with Christmas at the halfway mark it became much too sweet, and I put the novel down for several months as a result). Most surprising were the bold satirisation of the legal system and the fierce indictment of debtors’ prisons, strands later picked up as the central themes of Bleak House and Little Dorrit. So in this great comic novel, there are moments of real anger:
we still leave unblotted in the leaves of our statute book, for the reverence and admiration of succeeding ages, the just and wholesome law which declares that the sturdy felon shall be fed and clothed, and that the penniless debtor shall be left to die of starvation and nakedness. This is no fiction. (p. 565)
Scenes in town are noticeably more vivid than their rural counterparts, which is a disadvantage for a novelist writing in the picaresque tradition, but the contrast makes it obvious how alive Dickens feels London to be. Here he is on inns in the borough:
Great, rambling, queer, old places they are, with galleries, and passages, and stair-cases, wide enough and antiquated enough, to furnish materials for a hundred ghost stories, supposing we should ever be reduced to the lamentable necessity of inventing any. (p. 129)
It is a nice irony that the author of the most famous ghost story in English had, at this early point in his career, such a low opinion of the form. The criticism feels like knee-jerk snobbery, though; in the first half of the sentence, the marvel expressed at the character of ramshackle, densely populated urban areas is real.

The plot: Mr Pickwick’s landlady, Martha Bardell (her name a sound-a-like for Dickens’ first love, Maria Beadnell), takes it into her head that he has proposed marriage, which he hasn’t, and sues him for breach of promise. Pickwick loses the case, but refuses to pay the resulting fine or any costs. In due course, this lands him in the Fleet debtors’ prison. Eventually Bardell’s lawyers, Dodson and Fogg, have her incarcerated there too because of the non-payment of costs, for which she is ultimately responsible. Pickwick is prevailed on to pay up, at last, in return for a signed apology from Bardell, which is the closest he is going to get to clearing his name. Much of the novel has nothing to do with these events, but they do provide a loose framework for the passages on law and prison which draw on Dickens’ own journalism and childhood respectively. The lengthy stay in prison, especially, helps with the pacing, and somehow the second half of the book feels much more coherent than the first, though an account of its events wouldn’t suggest so. There are marriages at the end, and a spectacular drunken trip to Birmingham (pictured above) to inform the father of one of the bridegrooms after the fact. There is a further satire, of the medical profession, with a chemist who leaves prescriptions all around town with the wrong people just to get his name more widely known. There is the Eatanswill Gazette, proprietor Mr Pott, mortal enemy of Mr Slurk and his Independent newspaper. And there is Pickwick, who is rich enough and big hearted enough to protect everybody, because nobody really means any harm, and everything is ultimately for the best, and in any case it is the journey, not the destination, which matters.


rohit said...

Must be an enjoyable read Pickwick papers by Charles Dickens. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.

Stephen Jarvis said...

I have immersed myself in the literature about Pickwick, and as far as I can recall, I think you’re the first person who has ever mentioned that there could be an echo of Maria Beadnell’s name in Mrs Bardell. Well done! I love things like that. I suspect that Maria was often in Dickens’s mind as he worked on Pickwick, and Jingle’s chatter (echoing a routine of the actor Charles Mathews) would remind him of his desire to become an actor when he knew Maria. There is also the tale in Pickwick which includes a coquettish girl who is even called Maria.

I have been looking for Pickwick-enthusiasts online, and whilst your review indicates that you are not a total Pickwick-fan, I hope you might still be interested in a piece of Pickwick-news. You see, I have written a novel about the origins and subsequent history of The Pickwick Papers. It’s called Death and Mr Pickwick and it will be published in May by Jonathan Cape of the Random House Group (in the UK) and in June by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (in the USA). You can find out more at:

I do hope you will take a look at the novel if you get an opportunity. In my view, Pickwick has the most fascinating backstory of any work of literature.

Best wishes
Stephen Jarvis

Chris said...

Thanks for the comment Stephen, I do like finding puns in Dickens. There was a tutorial long ago on 'Little Dorrit' when we were told that Dickens would have pronounced Marseilles 'Mar Sales', and I piped up that this made it a match for 'Marshalsea' - also an Original Observation, as far as I'm aware. Anyone who's read the first page of 'Martin Chuzzlewit' knows he's not above punning.

Your novel sounds very interesting, best of luck with it!

Stephen Jarvis said...

Thanks, Chris. Strangely enough, on the novel's facebook page,, I have just done a post about how a literary text will often contain puns, in-jokes and half-concealed allusions. I make one in Death and Mr Pickwick about the Bob Dylan song. Positively 4th Street, and have just posted the video of that song.

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