Counting Down Dickens’ Greatest Novels. Number 7: The Pickwick Papers

For decades after Dickens’ death, The Pickwick Papers remained his most beloved book. It has largely fallen off the map, but once you’ve read Pickwick, you see how crucial it is to the Dickens canon.

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Anyone who has read the Anne of Green Gables series (bear with me, men) might remember the chapter midway through Anne of the Island when Gilbert Blythe first proposes to Anne. It’s terribly exciting and romantic. Do you recall what Anne is reading on that spring day at college when handsome, dreamy Gilbert asks her to be his wife? That book she’s treating herself to, because exams are over and she can relax and hang out at home with nothing to do? That’s right. She’s reading The Pickwick Papers.

The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, published in 1836-37, was Dickens’ first novel, though “picaresque romp” is a more accurate description of its structure. In his defense, Pickwick wasn’t meant to be a novel. It was meant to be what we refer to in the trade as deep captions. An illustrator named Robert Seymour had approached the publisher Chapman and Hall about doing a series of engravings of sporting life. They needed a writer to provide accompanying text, and Dickens, who was 24 and hungry for opportunity, took the job. Within a few weeks his writing had taken over the project, and the despondent Seymour, who suffered from depression, killed himself. Dickens chose a course of action more suited to the comedy he was composing: he got married. And the public went mad for his work. “Boz” (the pseudonym with which he began his career) was the talk of the town.

(READ: Counting Down Dickens’ Greatest Novels. Number 10: Oliver Twist)

The slapstick quality of Pickwick is apparent from the second chapter, when Mr. Pickwick is punched by a cab driver who has jumped to conclusions about notes Pickwick is making in his notebook; our hero ends up sitting in a waiting room with a stranger recommending he apply a beefsteak to his black eye. The stranger, and soon-to-be Pickwick Club nemesis, is named Alfred Jingle, a squirrely itinerant who preys on wealthy spinsters and speaks exclusively in breathless phrases punctuated by dashes — not refined, poignant Emily Dickinson dashes, but suspicious, mustachioed-villain dashes, like he’s too busy thinking up evil schemes to finish a sentence. Pickwick’s companions are named Nathaniel Winkle, Tracy Tupman and Augustus Snodgrass. Snodgrass has poetical tendencies. Tupman loves the ladies. They travel around the countryside, get into scrapes and misunderstandings, are challenged to duels, eat a lot of meat and entangle their fates with the nap schedule of a fat narcoleptic errand boy named Joe.

Pickwick’s first name is Samuel, and some quarter of the way through the book he hires a servant and companion with the same name, Sam Weller. With Sam’s arrival, the novel gets at once more funny and more serious: funny because Sam is, like Pickwick, an inadvertently comic philosopher (unlike Pickwick, he delivers his philosophy with a Cockney accent); serious because the bond between them is strong, and it broadens the scope and ambition of the novel to show that affection cultivated across class lines. Sam’s presence helped cultivate affection across class lines in Dickens’ audience too. His arrival cemented the book’s success; sales picked up noticeably after Pickwick makes his acquaintance at an inn, and though the Pickwickians remain the subject of the novel, loyal Sam becomes the soul of it.

At the beginning Dickens takes a slightly mocking approach to Pickwick’s grandiosity, as when he introduces of his protagonist on the morning of the club’s first journey:

That punctual servant of all work, the sun, had just risen, and begun to strike a light on the morning of the thirteenth of May, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-seven, when Mr. Samuel Pickwick burst like another sun from his slumbers, threw open his chamber window, and looked out upon the world beneath.

But the more time he spends on the Pickwick Club’s fearless leader, the more he softens toward him. Pickwick gradually becomes less pompous, humanized by Sam and by the course of human events. The author makes note of it in his preface to the definitive Charles Dickens Edition of 1867:

It has been observed of Mr. Pickwick, that there is a decided change in his character, as these pages proceed, and that he becomes more good and more sensible. I do not think this change will appear forced or unnatural to my readers, if they will reflect that in real life the peculiarities and oddities of a man who has anything whimsical about him, generally impress us first, and that it is not until we are better acquainted with him that we usually begin to look below these superficial traits, and to know the better part of him.

Dickens composed serially; he had to provide general plot points in advance for illustration purposes, and as he progressed toward more complex narratives he made more meticulous outlines, but he effectively developed characters in real time. What he writes about getting to know Mr. Pickwick is as true for himself as it is for the reader. I’m always surprised when critics describe Dickens as a realist; he’s far too fond of innocent heroes and idealized heroines for that. But consistently in his work, his connection with (and often affection for) his characters transfers to the reading experience. Their traits and personalities may be exaggerated for effect, but the effect — a pleasantly counterintuitive one — is that they begin to seem quite real in one’s mind.

(READ: Counting Down Dickens’ Greatest Novels. Number 9: Dombey and Son)

The Pickwick Club is a boys club, and the book reads like a Victorian buddy comedy, a nineteenth-century bromance. But you don’t have to be a guy to see the wisdom in its universally acknowledged truths — like this one about a wardrobe malfunction: “There are very few moments in a man’s existence when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat.” The image of Pickwick in pursuit (“The wind puffed, and Mr. Pickwick puffed, and the hat rolled over and over as merrily as a lively porpoise in a strong tide”) is enough to make you wish everybody wore hats again, so we could chase them around the countryside and laugh and then drink wine and eat pigeon pie at a roadside inn.

For decades after Dickens’ death, The Pickwick Papers remained his most beloved book. It has largely fallen off the map, mostly because it doesn’t fit our formal conception of what a novel should be. It feels haphazard, unformed. Dickens went on to write far better novels, strictly speaking. But once you’ve read Pickwick, you see how crucial it is to the Dickens canon. Even at his darkest, Dickens knew the power of the amusing character or image or turn of phrase, and virtually all the comic touches that lighten his future work can claim a page of Pickwick as their forebear. Dickens never wrote another full-fledged comedy again, which is an excellent reason to enjoy the one he did. It’s a joyous, jolly book, bursting with vitality. I feel jollier just having written about it. It was very good of Anne of Green Gables to recommend it.

Come back tomorrow for our look at Charles Dickens’ sixth best novel — A Tale of Two Cities.

READ: The Previous Entry in This Series—Number 8: Hard Times

MORE: The Secret of Charles Dickens’ Enduring Success