Dickens' Pickwick Papers
I've been reading the 24 year old Charles Dickens' breakthrough, The Pickwick Papers
, as the first installment of the plan to get through all of Dickens' novels in the next few months.* I read Oliver Twist
and Christmas Stories
in my youth like every other good boy and girl, and David Lean's films of the former and Great Expectations
are among my favorite films, but it took a reading of G.K. Chesterton's wonderful book on the man recently to inspire me on to tackle the whole lot. He writes of Dickens' early masterpiece:
"Pickwick is in Dickens's career the mere mass of light before the creation of sun or moon. It is the splendid, shapeless substance of which all his stars were ultimately made. You might split up Pickwick into innumerable novels as you could split up that primeval light into innumerable solar systems. The Pickwick Papers constitute first and foremost a kind of wild promise, a pre-natal vision of all the children of Dickens. He had not yet settled down into the plain, professional habit of picking out a plot and characters, of attending to one thing at a time, of writing a separate, sensible novel and sending it off to his publishers. He is still in the youthful whirl of the kind of world that he would like to create. He has not yet really settled what story he will write, but only what sort of story he will write. He tries to tell ten stories at once; he pours into the pot all the chaotic fancies and crude experiences of his boyhood; he sticks in irrelevant short stories shamelessly, as into a scrap-book; he adopts designs and abandons them, begins episodes and leaves them unfinished; but from the first page to the last there is a nameless and elemental ecstasy -- that of the man who is doing the kind of thing that he can do. Dickens, like every other honest and effective writer, came at last to some degree of care and self-restraint. He learned how to make his dramatis personæ assist his drama; he learned how to write stories which were full of rambling and perversity, but which were stories. But before he wrote a single real story, he had a kind of vision. It was a vision of the Dickens world -- a maze of white roads, a map full of fantastic towns, thundering coaches, clamorous market-places, uproarious inns, strange and swaggering figures. That vision was Pickwick."
Not expecting more than a messy comedy by a young future genius I have been astounded to find a book much more than that: a messy comedy by a young but already bonafide genius. After I began reading it and was seeking out other materials I was suprised to find that it is none other than the redoubtable Harold Bloom's favorite Dickens novel.
The book has its quirks as well as problems due to it's episodic structure and the jarring inclusion of strange and lurid tales told by the new acquaintances of the Pickwick Club as the wander around England, but it's sheer comic brilliance, biting irony and joyful tone carry the book away:
Mr. Pickwick's oration upon this occasion, together with the
debate thereon, is entered on the Transactions of the Club. Both
bear a strong affinity to the discussions of other celebrated
bodies; and, as it is always interesting to trace a resemblance
between the proceedings of great men, we transfer the entry to
'Mr. Pickwick observed (says the secretary) that fame was dear
to the heart of every man. Poetic fame was dear to the heart of
his friend Snodgrass; the fame of conquest was equally dear to
his friend Tupman; and the desire of earning fame in the sports
of the field, the air, and the water was uppermost in the breast of
his friend Winkle. He (Mr. Pickwick) would not deny that he was
influenced by human passions and human feelings (cheers)--
possibly by human weaknesses (loud cries of "No"); but this he
would say, that if ever the fire of self-importance broke out in his
bosom, the desire to benefit the human race in preference
effectually quenched it. The praise of mankind was his swing;
philanthropy was his insurance office. (Vehement cheering.) He
had felt some pride--he acknowledged it freely, and let his
enemies make the most of it--he had felt some pride when he
presented his Tittlebatian Theory to the world; it might be
celebrated or it might not. (A cry of "It is," and great cheering.)
He would take the assertion of that honourable Pickwickian
whose voice he had just heard--it was celebrated; but if the fame
of that treatise were to extend to the farthest confines of the
known world, the pride with which he should reflect on the
authorship of that production would be as nothing compared
with the pride with which he looked around him, on this, the
proudest moment of his existence. (Cheers.) He was a humble
individual. ("No, no.") Still he could not but feel that they had
selected him for a service of great honour, and of some danger.
Travelling was in a troubled state, and the minds of coachmen
were unsettled. Let them look abroad and contemplate the scenes
which were enacting around them. Stage-coaches were upsetting
in all directions, horses were bolting, boats were overturning, and
boilers were bursting. (Cheers--a voice "No.") No! (Cheers.)
Let that honourable Pickwickian who cried "No" so loudly
come forward and deny it, if he could. (Cheers.) Who was it that
cried "No"? (Enthusiastic cheering.) Was it some vain and
disappointed man--he would not say haberdasher (loud cheers)
--who, jealous of the praise which had been--perhaps undeservedly--
bestowed on his (Mr. Pickwick's) researches, and smarting under
the censure which had been heaped upon his own feeble attempts at
rivalry, now took this vile and calumnious mode of---
'Mr. BLOTTON (of Aldgate) rose to order. Did the honourable
Pickwickian allude to him? (Cries of "Order," "Chair," "Yes,"
"No," "Go on," "Leave off," etc.)
'Mr. PICKWICK would not put up to be put down by clamour.
He had alluded to the honourable gentleman. (Great excitement.)
'Mr. BLOTTON would only say then, that he repelled the hon.
gent.'s false and scurrilous accusation, with profound contempt.
(Great cheering.) The hon. gent. was a humbug. (Immense confusion,
and loud cries of "Chair," and "Order.")
'Mr. A. SNODGRASS rose to order. He threw himself upon the
chair. (Hear.) He wished to know whether this disgraceful
contest between two members of that club should be allowed to
continue. (Hear, hear.)
'The CHAIRMAN was quite sure the hon. Pickwickian would
withdraw the expression he had just made use of.
'Mr. BLOTTON, with all possible respect for the chair, was quite
sure he would not.
'The CHAIRMAN felt it his imperative duty to demand of the
honourable gentleman, whether he had used the expression which
had just escaped him in a common sense.
'Mr. BLOTTON had no hesitation in saying that he had not--he
had used the word in its Pickwickian sense. (Hear, hear.) He was
bound to acknowledge that, personally, he entertained the
highest regard and esteem for the honourable gentleman; he had
merely considered him a humbug in a Pickwickian point of view.
'Mr. PICKWICK felt much gratified by the fair, candid, and full
explanation of his honourable friend. He begged it to be at once
understood, that his own observations had been merely intended
to bear a Pickwickian construction. (Cheers.)'
Here the entry terminates, as we have no doubt the debate did
also, after arriving at such a highly satisfactory and intelligible