The Pickwick Papers (Dickens)

The Pickwick Papers - Charles Dickens

I remember an attempt at reading Pickwick very early on, possibly in my teens. It did not end well: I was not a sufficiently experienced reader to navigate either the playfulness of Dickens' language or the tone of gleeful grotesquerie masking a rather sentimental view of human nature. Let me qualify that - a rather sentimental view of masculine human nature. Dickens simply does not write good women, at least not in this first novel. He depicts them all as being grossly manipulative in ways that are foreign to our understanding over a century and a half later, namely falling into faints &/or hysterics, either real or feigned. Anyway, my first attempt at getting into Pickwick did not survive more than a third of the book, I believe, and the character of Sam Weller, whose advent in Chapter 10 is reputed to have multiplied the sales of an initially unremarkable novel-in-parts, would not have sold me any copies, for I could understand neither what he said, nor what he was about.

 

Fast forward half a lifetime, and I enjoyed the whole thing much better, even those chapters in the debtors' prison that I knew must have derived from Dickens' own painful childhood experiences. Pickwick, however, is a prisoner of his own free will, on a matter of principle (as, indeed, Weller is too), and so though we are shown pathetic instances of other people driven to famine or even death by poverty and imprisonment, we are spared having that fate inflicted directly on the protagonists who have our sympathies.

 

The last chapters show the author and Pickwick in the full flight of generosity. There's generosity towards his old enemies, Mr. Jingle & Job Trotter; there's generosity towards the woman who embroiled Pickwick in a breach of promise suit; and there's generosity towards all the young or youngish people pairing themselves off romantically.

 

I was happily swimming along in all this Pickwickian benevolence when unfortunately it became apparent that the older Aunt Rachel was going to be excluded from the final happy dance. It appears that of all the iniquities in the book, being a woman not of conventionally romantic years and making an attempt at a runaway marriage with a fraudster (or being bamboozled into same) is the one unforgiveable sin, and merits banishment from the narrative. And so, Mr. Dickens, my second attempt at your first novel ended up not being an unqualified success either. But this time there along the way lots of chuckles, some much better understood social satire (party politics, the vultures of the law) and even a heartwarming moment or two.

 

Next up: Oliver Twist.