“It was the season of hospitality, merriment and open-heartedness; the old year was preparing, like an ancient philosopher, to call his friends around him, and amidst the sound of feasting and revelry to pass gently and calmly away.”
…and isn’t that just the loveliest Christmas quote you’ve heard all year? No mention of Jesus, or God, or Christianity, you notice; just friendliness and warmth. And that sums up Dickens’ novels quite well, I think. Of course, there are tragedies and injustices, like the heart-wrenching fate of the Chancery prisoner in The Pickwick Papers, the subject of today’s review; but, equally, there are always moments of warmth and light, like the Christmas scene described above.
SPOILER ALERT! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.
The Pickwick Papers is an odd fish. (Yes, I know it’s not a fish. Yes, I know not to put a book in water. Look, it’s a figure of speech, all right?) At first, it really has no discernible plot or direction – but that’s true of many of Dickens’ later novels. Dombey and Son, anyone? Did you know where that was going when you started reading it? But then, of course, a shape starts to emerge, and you begin to discover the reasons for the multifarious happenings of the narrative.
The novel is founded on the premise of the Corresponding Society of the Pickwick Club, a branch of the Pickwick Club, apparently, and somewhat dubiously, an association dedicated to science founded by the eponymous Mr Pickwick. Basically, the Corresponding Society (consisting of the said Mr Pickwick and three of his Pickwickian friends) go on adventures round the country: Bath, Birmingham, a place called Eatanswill that almost certainly doesn’t exist, and, of course, London. The tales of their journeyings are supposedly compiled from various diaries and records of the Transactions of the Pickwick Club by some unseen “editors”, although Dickens appears conveniently to forget about them about halfway through the novel, telling us things they could not possibly have known. So, really, The Pickwick Papers is a misleading title, in my opinion. Oh, apart from the random stories interpolated into the main narrative that have absolutely no connection to the story in any way, shape or form. So we have the story of Gabriel Grub, which appears to be a prototype of A Christmas Carol; the bagman’s story, which comes near the end of the novel and kills the drawing-together of threads that characterises Dickens’ novels (and which, incidentally, I am sure inspired the ghostly post office scene in Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal); the story of the convict’s return…there are many, some very interesting, some pathetic, but all completely tangential to the story.
And I hate pointing out failings in Dickens, but Mrs Weller’s death-bed repentance is completely unbelievable:
I hope ven I’m gone, Veller, that you’ll think on me as I wos afore I know’d them people, and as I raly was by natur’.
Excuses won’t get you anywhere, Mrs Weller.
But for the most part the characters are, as usual, a joy. Dodson and Fogg, the manipulative lawyers, allow Dickens an opportunity for some Social Criticism; Mr Jingle, dastardly but brilliant, is as interesting a villain as Our Mutual Friend‘s Bradley Headstone; and then there is Sam. Ah, yes, Sam, the faithful servant (remind you of anyone? Sam Gamgee, for instance?), the character who can see through pretence and show, the wise but unlearned, who interprets the action for the reader.
I know I’ve compared Pickwick with some unlikely authors. But I think that’s a demonstration of its universality. Everyone’s read it – and it’s influenced everyone who has.