Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

The Pickwick Papers, Dickens’ first novel, starts out well. A middle-aged bachelor, Mr. Pickwick, and his three friends, Mr. Snodgrass, Mr. Tupman, and Mr. Winkle, travel about England in the 1830s, observing people and customs in order to report back to their quasi-scientific gentlemen’s club. The four friends are delightful nincompoops, and get themselves in a variety of awkward situations, more than once involving a shocked middle-aged lady in her nightcap. Early on they all, nearsighted to a man, are caught in an open field between two sides of an army regiment preparing to drill with live fire. For a while, it’s great fun.

Unfortunately, Mr. Pickwick’s three friends disappear after the opening one-fifth of the book. They are replaced by "Samivel Veller" (Samuel Weller), a working-class, salt of the earth young man whom Pickwick hires as his personal servant. Weller shepherds his innocent master through the remainder of the tale, as Pickwick tangles with two con men, Alfred Jingle and Job Trotter, and, more seriously, with a pair of dishonest lawyers pursuing a breach-of-contract suit against him on behalf of a lady who pretends Pickwick jilted her.

To take on the adventures of Sam Weller means taking on, first, Dickens’ obsession with dialect. Weller’s accent must have meant something to English readers in the 1830s, but for us it means enduring over 500 pages of transposed v’s and w’s. It becomes "wery inconwenient." And to take on Dickens at all means taking on, even here when he was only 24, his obsession with the workhouses and debtors’ prisons of his era. (Mr. Pickwick ends up in one.) I have no doubt that social conditions in 19th-century England were terrible, and Dickens himself probably deserves huge credit for helping publicize and rectify them. I only wish he could have been either preachy or silly. Too often, he is both. Throw in that early-Victorian mawkishness – the angelic little girl, gazing trustfully up at her palsied grandfather in the bowels of the workhouse, the ruined debtor grimly watching his creditor’s son drown – and you have an unsavory and fiercely dated mess. I was particularly struck by the young author’s contempt for the law.

All that said, Dickens remains a great wordsmith. He seems to have had the 19th- century gift for gorgeously convoluted language that plugs every hole in the reader’s awareness before he even knows the holes are there. And he is often funny. My complaint about him is that he himself is so much there. Maybe that’s a sign of greatness, but other great writers stand back and tell the story. Dickens strikes me as always interposing himself between the reader and the tale: here I am, I have suffered and understand all, and will now interpret because I am Great.

Incidentally, the three friends return at the end, and the book concludes happily. To carry on with Dickens’ oeuvre means reading nineteen more.


  1. Hello Nancy (if I may)

    You're probably surprised that someone has left a comment on a post you did seven years ago! Also, normally, I contact people about The Pickwick Papers when I find a real enthusiast for that novel – because I have a piece of Pickwick-news which I think will be of interest - and obviously I cannot count you as an enthusiast. Occasionally, though, I read a review of Pickwick, which is less than glowing, but there is something about it which makes me decide to get in touch. In your case, it was your description of Pickwick as “dated” and also your mention of the swapping of v’s and w’s, that made me decide to contact you.
    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 Random House (in the UK) and in June by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (in the USA) I think my novel might make you look at Pickwick in a new light. For one thing, some of my novel is set in modern times, which I hope addresses (in part, at least) the problem of datedness. And as for all those v’s and w’s being swapped – well, yes, I do have some of that in my novel, because the transposition of those letters was a feature of working-class London speech at the time of Pickwick. (Perhaps caused by the German-speaking monarchs coming to the British throne.) But I am rather more sparing in the usage v-w swapping than Dickens, and I hope that will make my novel a bit more bearable for you.
    Anyway, I do hope you will take a look at Death and Mr Pickwick if you get a chance. You can find out more at or, for a quick overview, here is the first, pre-publication review from Publishers Weekly:

    Best wishes

    Stephen Jarvis

  2. Good heavens, thank you so much for kindly stopping by (last year!!) and commenting. Congratulations on your novel. I apologize for the lack of notice, but I assume my blogs are lost except to the sight of God, and so I don't check for comments often. Thanks again.