Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

In the winter of 1835, publishing house Chapman and Hall approached the young Dickens and asked if he would write some serials to accompany the sporting plates of one Robert Seymour, a comic artist at the time. The idea was to call this ensemble the "Nimrod Club" in which a group of sportsmen would become entangled in different humorous situations. Dickens managed to secure an agreement more favorable to his own terms--namely, for monthly publication of "The Pickwick Papers" by February. The first monthly part of "Pickwick" (full title: "The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club") appeared on March 31st. The advertisement in the Times characterized the work as "containing a faithful record of the Perambulations, Perils, Travels, Adventures, and Sporting Transactions of the Corresponding Members."

"Pickwick," however, was not an instant success. The publishers only printed 1,000 copies of the first installment, and as a result of only a moderate response, they sent in a print order for only 500 for the second installment. In April, Seymour committed suicide, and there was a bit of a scuffle between Dickens and his widow as to who was the originator of "Pickwick." Meanwhile, Dickens sought a new illustrator, and finally settled on Hablot K. Browne ("Phiz" to Dickens's "Boz"). See David Perdue's site for Seymour and Phiz's prints. "Pickwick" finally met with greater success by the fifth installment in 1836, with sales rocketing up to 40,000 for the 15th installment.

In describing the importance of "Pickwick" to the everyday lives of the English reading public, G.K. Chesterton has famously wrote: "In the days when Dickens's work was coming out in serial, people talked as if real life were itself the interlude between one issue of "Pickwick" and another." (SOURCE: Fadiman Introduction)

Literary critical reception of Pickwick has generally focused on its "accidental" and episodic nature, especially in the context of its unpredicted rise to popularity. Dickens didn't set out to write a novelistic plot, though Pickwick would come to be known as an originary moment for Dickens's novel writing methods. As Jonathan Grossman has observed in his first book on the English law courts and the novel form, however, a novelistic plot does in fact gain momentum in Pickwick, specifically, one which issues forth from the case Mrs. Bardell mounts against Pickwick, eventually leading to the narrative arc of his incarceration in the Fleet debtor's prison and later release.

Pickwick's premise is that an editor, whose voice predominantly takes on the point of view of a good-humored, third person narrator throughout, has come upon a nine-year old archive of a traveling group of gentleman. The narrative which follows is an account which draws from the information found in these archives. The Pickwickian travelers (comprising of the genial, good-hearted Mr. Pickwick, Mr. Winkle, a sportsman, Mr. Snodgrass, a melancholy poet, and Mr. Tupman, an older man with nonetheless the "ardour of a boy") commence on a journey around English towns and villages, meeting with various and sundry adventures along the way.

Immediately upon commencing their journey to Golden Cross in a cab, Pickwick accidentally offends the cabman, who thinks he is taking notes to inform against him. They get into a bit of a scuffle, and emerge from this scuffle when a man in a green coat, Alfred Jingle, brings Pickwick and his friends into an Inn. Jingle accompanies the Pickwickians to Rochester; Jingle seems friendly enough but soon becomes a source for trouble for the Pickwickians. At Rochester, Jingle convinces Tupman to attend a ball with him, asking Tupman to steal Winkle's clothing so that he might have the proper attire for the event. At the ball, Jingle offends a military officer, who remembers the Pickwickian label on Winkle's coat, and so the next day Winkle is summoned to a duel. When the military man realizes the mistake, all turns out fine for Winkle.

Mr. Pickwick and his friends receive an invitation from Mr. Wardle, a fine country gentleman, to visit him at Manor Farm in Dingley Dell. On the way to Dingley Dell, Pickwick and his friends are involved in a slight accident because they do not know how to ride horses. They arrive eventually, and make the acquaintance of Mr. Wardle's sassy old mother, his spinster sister, and his two daughters, Isabella and Emily. Mr. Tupman falls in love with Miss Rachel, the spinster sister, but ends up being thwarted by Jingle's machinations. Rachel elopes with Jingle to London, and Pickwick follows him, at last finding him at the White Hart where Pickwick first makes the acquaintance of Sam Weller as he is cleaning some boots. Sam directs Pickwick and Wardle to the room where Rachel and Jingle are staying, and the confrontation leads to Jingle letting Rachel go after securing money from Wardle.

Pickwick's own troubles begin when he thinks about hiring Sam as his personal manservant: when he goes to let his landlady at Goswell Street (Maria Bardell) know, she mistakes his proposition as one for marriage. Overwhelmed, Maria faints into his arms, and unfortunately, Pickwick's travel companions are made witness of this strange encounter. After the close of this episode, Pickwick engages Sam, and the group travels to Eatanswill to see an election. At Eatanswill, Pickwick and his friends attend a costume party, where they meet with Jingle once again, who now calls himself Captain Fitz-Marshall. Jingle runs away from them, but Pickwick and his friends decide to pursue him at Bury St. Edmunds, in order to prevent him from conning others. Sam meets a servant, Job Trotter, who now travels with Jingle, and mistakes Job's professions of wanting to leave Jingle as true. Job tells Sam that Jingle will elope with a young lady from a seminary, luring Pickwick into an awkward situation wherein he trespasses on the seminary grounds at night. Meanwhile, Jingle and Job escape from the town.
At Mr. Wardle's, the friends are engaged to shoot birds, and because Pickwick has been slightly injured from his tresspassing encounter, and he is left behind in a wheelbarrow after consuming a large amount of cold punch. A neighbor of Wardle's finds Pickwick asleep and thinks him to be a poacher--again, it turns out that Pickwick has tresspassed because the Pickwickians had unwittingly wandered into this neighbor's ground. Pickwick is taken away to the Pound, where Sam finds him later and rescues him. Sam Weller's father, a coachman, now comes onto the scene, and actually offers a clue as to Jingle's whereabouts. The older Mr. Weller has married a widow, whom the narrative refers to as Sam's "mother-in-law," who is none too good to him, choosing to spend much of her time with a church man (the "shepherd") who is a leech on Weller's money and hospitality. Sam's father carries Pickwick and his friends to Ipswich in order that they might continue in pursuit of Jingle. At Ipswich, Pickwick is involved in another unfortunate incident, where he accidentally stumbles into a room already occupied by a middle aged lady; though Pickwick is very apologetic, she will not hear him and throws him out of the room. Pickwick is arrested when a misunderstanding ensues from the revelation that the lady is their new friend's (Peter Magnus) fiancee. The magistrate, Mr. Lupkin, happens to be in the company of Jingle and Job, and Pickwick manages to distract from his own case by exposing Jingle to be an impostor.

At this point in the narrative, Pickwick can no longer ignore the suit that Maria Bardell has began against him for a breach of promise, since she has thought he would marry her. She hires the profit-motivated Dodson and Fogg to represent her. At Pickwick's trial in London, the lawyers force Pickwick's friends to give testimony against him. The result is that Pickwick must pay damages to Mrs. Bardell, but on principle, Pickwick refuses. Pickwick refuses to pay, and goes off for a short and relaxing two month stay at Bath. Upon his return, he is committed to Fleet Prison, the debtor's prison, where he witnesses many a sad scene. Pickwick generously provides fellow prisoners with some comforts, including food and money, and is surprised to find Jingle and Job in the prison, now much humbled. Pickwick, seeing them humbled, actually pays their debts and arranges for Jingle to go to the West Indies; Job follows.

Sam is an equally devoted manservant: he devises a scheme whereby he becomes indebted to his father and joins Pickwick in prison. When Pickwick is in prison, his friends meet with some further adventures--Winkle is busy courting Arabella Allen, the sister of a medical man, Benjamin Allen. Ben, however, would like Arabella to become engaged to his friend Bob Sawyer, and so Arabella runs away with Winkle. Snodgrass, apparently, continues to write love letters to Emily Wardle.

Pickwick's situation comes to be resolved when Mrs. Bardell too is sent to Fleet, because she cannot pay the high fees which Dodson and Fogg require from her. Pickwick then agrees to pay all the costs, on the condition that his name be cleared.

The narrative ends happily after--and with a number of marriages: between Mr. Winkle and one Arabella Allen (for whom Pickwick intercedes, convincing Mr. Winkle's father to accept the marriage), between Emily Wardle and Mr. Snodgrass, and between Sam and Arabella's pretty servant, Mary.  Pickwick retires to a villa in Dulwich, satisfied that his travels were over.
Note: This main narrative is interpolated by many stories; I haven't included a summary of them here but for a good discussion see Patten, "The Art of Pickwick's Interpolated Tales" in ELH. My own reading of the often sensationalistic interpolated tales are that they provide a way of imagining interiority and time which the Pickwick narrative disallows--the stories give insight into character psychologies (e.g., "The Madman's Story") and also sometimes entire life histories (the convict's story). Pickwick's story is very much caught up in the dialogue and actions of the characters (as we might experience them in real life, without privilege into deeper interiors) and also the circumstances of their serialization underscored the "present" of Dickens's audience as each installment came out.

Reading against the common assumption of Pickwick haphazard and accidental, there have been suggestions that the work is a picaresque novel, or perhaps because of the "archive," a historical novel. Grossman reads against both suggestions. He points out that if Pickwick is a picaresque, it does not follow the sequential progress of a journey--rather, Pickwick and his friends don't go very far at all, they travel less than one hundred miles, circulating within the regional, passenger transport system of stagecoaches and cabs. By the 1830s, this regional transport system had already experienced rapid expansion due to the railways, so Pickwick and his friends are rather quite limited in their journeying. If Pickwick makes a nod to the historical novel, the archive is only nine years old. Thus Pickwick makes a joke of both genres rather than adopting them. 

I agree that thinking of Pickwick as haphazard due to its serialization tends to preclude understandings of potentially coherent logics within the work. Just because Pickwick wasn't intended from the first as a novel as defined by plot development doesn't mean that Dickens didn't imagine the series as integral on other levels. I imagine that these integrities may be made up of quite a number of different possibilities. Here are a couple that I'll posit:
  • Pickwick Papers abounds in "paper"--most prominently, legal documents drive the plot, but there are also letters, wills, newspapers (e.g., the electioneering chapter), and old leaflets bearing stories, to name a few others. The "Pickwick Papers" seem to counter the official documents which control modern life: legal documents, newspapers. Unlike these latter documents, the Pickwick Papers bring out the whimsical, the pathetic, the "everyday" human (rather than say, institutional) contingencies of the lives they chronicle. The Pickwick papers critique the twisted accounts of legal documents, and the rushed and partial accounts of the newspapers (incidentally, the "villain" of the story, Jingle, seems to speak in reporter's shorthand, which Dickens would have been well-versed in through his work as a Parliamentary reporter just previous to writing Pickwick). The Pickwick papers tell of everyday privations suffered by husbands who marry widows, of romantic machinations and mishaps, of clandestine kisses, of dinners, toasts, drinking, and hearing stories.    
  • Pickwick was contemporary with the volume re-publications of Sketches by Boz and also of Oliver Twist. And yet, the three seem pretty different as far as their overall effects go, even if they might bear some obvious similarities. The institutional critiques--of marriage, law courts, prison, for example--so scathing in Oliver Twist and later novels are in Pickwick, and the anecdotal, contained stories of Sketches are replicated in the episodic aspects of the main narrative of Pickwick and even more so in the interpolated tales. Yet what I mean about their overall effects is that Oliver Twist comes across as seriously moralistic bordering on allegorical, Sketches is journalistic but with a similarly moralistic bent, but Pickwick comes across as comic and light, even in the darkest scenes such as when Pickwick is in Fleet Prison, and hardly moralistic, even if there are embedded critiques. Unlike Sketches or Oliver, these critiques are never scathing nor calculated to strike deep emotional chords.
  • Pickwick and his gang, however, ask for sympathy as much as Oliver or the characters in Sketches do, but I think that it's of a generally different quality. We like Pickwick not because he is generous, but because his generosity is naive and sincere (this is why Sam likes him too, and we like Sam because he serves this sincerity even when he can see its role in getting Pickwick in trouble). Similarly, we like the others because of their recognizable limitations and foibles (especially when it comes to their romantic altercations). Even Pickwick is by no means a hero, his "good humor" and his incapacity for cynicism even when he begins to learn of "the ways of the world" is infectious--to the point where even Jingle and Job turn out reformed when they reach the West Indies.


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.

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