14.10.11

Dickens from the Start, No. 2 - Pickwick's Prefaces

The start of Dickens has been strong - I'm not 20 pages in and I've found something I want to talk about! The prefaces and dedications of Pickwick Papers are damn right intriguing and not just a little bit hilarious.

The first one in this edition is the Dedication to the Original Edition from 1837, which seemed to be a masterclass in the subversive and sarcastic comment, until I looked up the person involved (one 'Serjeant Talfourd') and found out that it was true! Sincere! An honest dedication to a friend! See if you agree with me that times have somewhat changed:

'Many a fevered head and palsied hand will gather new vigour in the hour of sickness and distress from your excellent exertions;many a widowed mother and orphan child, who would otherwise reap nothing from the fame of departed genius but its too frequent legacy of poverty and suffering, will bear, in their altered condition, higher testimony to the value of your labours than the most lavish encomiums from lip or pen could ever afford.'

How overblown is that? Clearly stomachs were stronger back then - reading it makes me look slightly askew at the page for the punchline. Apparently, Thomas Noon Talfourd was a Serjeant-at-Law, an order of barristers that hasn't existed in the UK since the 1920s, and he got the first Copyright Bill passed in the UK in 1837, the year of Dickens writing this. It seems Dickens really respected him and that they were close personal friends. It's worth mentioning that my spell checker is having a fit trying to change 'serjeant' to 'sergeant' (ha, by putting them both together, it's hoping that I'm learning), but that is how sergeant was spelt until the end of WW1, and how The Rifles still spell it today. So, it's seems the first joke in Dickens, as I find it, wasn't even deliberate. The Preface to the Original Edition, from the same 1837 volume, goes about explaining the book to the reader before they've read it, somewhat ruining the joke, and tells the reader that he didn't mean to offend anyone with it; indeed, he'd be 'proud and happy' if it caused the reader to 'look upon the brighter and more kindly side of human nature'. Bless him. How green.

We then have the Preface to the Cheap Edition from 1847, ten year later, when presumably it did the Victorian version of switching to paperback. It starts off rather knowingly, disparaging prefaces as things that are 'seldom read' and 'no doubt for the behoof of that so richly and so disinterestedly endowed personage, Posterity' - oh Charles, how droll you have become, har har. Again he explains the book as largely plotless  but hopefully funny, and tells a sweet little story about the first time he saw his work in print ('my eyes were so dimmed with joy and pride') and what a good omen it was that the publisher of that piece was involved in the book publication of the Pickwick Papers. We then have an interesting little treatise on Christianity - 'Lest there should be any well-intentioned persons who do not perceive the difference...between religion and the cant of religion, piety and the pretence of piety...let them understand that it is always the latter, and never the former, which is satirized here' - and some loaded hopes for social change by the time the 'series reaches its conclusion'. A clue to the ethos of the developing social reformer, no doubt. He then says hurrah to cheap literature, hurrah.

The last preface before we get to the story (all this and no book so far) is the Preface to the Charles Dickens edition, from 1867, so 20 years after the cheap edition and only 3 years before his death. In  this one, he shows no dislike of his earlier prefaces as he reproduces a number of paragraphs from them exactly as the originals, before launching into a statement of innocence with regard to a Mr. Seymour, who seemingly disputed the origins and the originality of the book. It caught me rather by surprise to go from a discussion of the illustrations, to:

'I confine myself to placing on record here the facts:

That, MR. SEYMOUR never oruginated or suggested an incident, a phrase, or a word, to be found in this book. That, MR. SEYMOUR dies when only twenty-four pages of this book were  published, and when assuredly not forty-eight were written. That, I believe I never saw MR. SEYMOUR'S hand-writing in my life...'
I love the angry capitalisation (MR. SEYMOUR!), the convenient death (twenty-four pages, ha! Not the forty-eight that you suppose...) and the fact that his hand-writing is mentioned upon - how antiquitated, how twee. What would the modern equivalent be? 'I never knew his IP address or his Google Docs password!'? Strange also that these 'accusations' were from, what, 30 years before, and he judges his final reprint of The Pickwick Papers as the place to air them. After the fist-banging comes a reiteration of the mocking of the pretence of piety only and the misty-eyed recollection of his first publication, a chat about some legal matters and a hope still for social reform. The endorsement of cheap literature mysteriously disappears from the final paragraph, otherwise reproduced to the final comma, in this last preface, but I guess by then literature was livelihood to him, and he had no use of it, being, by this time, stonkingly rich. How sad.

So, a brief overview of the life and times of Dickens, in 24 pages. What an endorsement for the writing of the man himself: idealism, nostalgia, suspicion, long-held grudges, a defence of sincere religion and a hope for the betterment of man's view of itself, next to a defence against plagiarism and an illustration of his own personal alteration in the journey from rich to poor. Bravo, Dickens, bravo. What a complicated man you were. Roll on the rest!

Challenge progress to date: The Pickwick Papers, p19.


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