All year long the Free Library of Philadelphia will be holding Dickens Literary Salons. We’ll be meeting on the third Thursday of every month to discuss a different novel by Dickens in the Elkins Room of the Rare Book Department. A full schedule can be found here. The Salons are free and open to the public (we ask only that you register ahead of time on Eventbrite). Our first book of the year is The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Some background, notes and questions to consider:
In March 1836, the first part of Charles Dickens’ monthly serial, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, appeared. This was Dickens’ first novel, although a month earlier, he had already published Sketches by Boz, a collection of short works in two volumes. Pickwick would be a major hit for Dickens with sales increasing as the serial continued. Only 1000 copies were printed for the first issue, but by the end of its run, the publishers were turning out 40,000 copies to satisfy demand.
The serial recounts the adventures of Samuel Pickwick, Esq. and his manservant, Sam Weller, as well as several members of the Pickwick Club. At the start, Pickwick announces his intention of touring England with his friends and writing about their encounters to later share with the Club. What follows is a picaresque romp through rural England and the city of London that is more akin to 18th Century comic novels by authors such as Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne and Oliver Goldsmith, than it is to Dickens later works. The chapters are only connected by the character of Pickwick himself; there is no overarching plot or structure that came to embody what readers expected in a novel. Instead, we are treated to the misadventures of one of the greatest comic creations of all English literature: Pickwick.
According to GK Chesterton:
“Pickwick, indeed, is not a good novel; but it is not a bad novel, for it is not a novel at all. In one sense, indeed, it is something nobler than a novel, for no novel with a plot and a proper termination could emit that sense of everlasting youth — a sense as of the gods gone wandering in England. This is not a novel, for all novels have an end; and “Pickwick,” properly speaking, has no end — he is equal unto the angels.”
I have to admit that I fell in love with Pickwick from the very start. I wanted to be in the Pickwickian world of this novel. I’ve read comic novels before, that I’ve really enjoyed and laughed throughout. But Pickwick, for me, operated on another level, one of serene joy. If I wasn’t laughing, I was smiling (except, of course, for the Fleet Prison scenes). He does seem like some kind of superior being, like Chesterton’s pagan god wandering the countryside. Pickwick is the flip-side of the other titan comic character of English literature, Falstaff. Where Falstaff generates joy through debauchery and vice, Pickwick brings joy through benevolence and love. I wouldn’t mind meeting up with Falstaff for a night at the tavern, but it’s Pickwick with whom I want to wander the roads.
Some questions to inspire discussion:
The Realist novel that we are more accustomed to reading is still yet to be when Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers. Pickwick is closer to the 18th Century novels of Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne: picaresque, comic, rambling, adventurous. It is a series of adventures, not a structurally unified plot. How does reading a novel like this (indeed, can we call it a novel) differ from our usual reading experience? Did the book’s absence of a unifying plot confound your expectations?
At several points, the narrative is interrupted by a character telling a tale — “The Stroller’s Tale,” “The Story of the Convict’s Return,” “A Madman’s Manuscript”— that is unrelated to Pickwick and his friends. How did you react to these stories? Did they enhance your reading experience?
For many readers, the word Dickensian conjures the streets of the city of London, often squalid, yet always lively, where the poor rub shoulders with the rich, and danger lurks close by innocent joy. Although part of Pickwick takes place in London, most of it is set in country towns and roadside inns. Pickwick is a novel about the past for Dickens (not the present he would recount in his next book Oliver Twist). Does the novel still seem nostalgic to contemporary readers, even though we are hundreds of years removed from its experience?
When Sam Weller appeared in the tenth chapter of the novel (the fourth monthly part, June 1836), the serial exploded in popularity. For me, Sam is the lynchpin of the novel, more than just the Sancho Panza to Pickwick’s Quixote. How does Sam Weller change the novel? Does Pickwick become more unified in plot or structure after Sam is introduced?
The illustrations to Dickens novels were central to their popularity when first published. Our contemporary novels are rarely illustrated. If you read an edition with the original illustrations (or any illustrations), how did they enhance your reading experience? Are the characters more or less real if you can see an illustration of them?
I’ll add to this post over the next week, leading up to the Pickwick Literary Salon. Hope you enjoy Pickwick and I hope you can join us for some Pickwickian discussion.
Some Pickwickian links for your enjoyment:
A well written piece on Pickwick at The Lectern blog
The Lectern has also collected the sayings of Sam Weller. Not sure if this is a complete list, but most of the Wellerisms seem to be here.
GK Chesterton’s chapter on Pickwick
Some background to the novel on David Perdue’s Dickens site
This original complete serial edition recently sold at Bonham’s for $31, 250. I was shocked not to find it under my Christmas tree.
You can find all kinds of film versions of Pickwick on youtube, from the 1952 film to various animated features.