9.12.11

Dickens from the Start, No. 3 - The Pickwick Papers

Or, to give it its full title, 'The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club'.

This was the first book in my 'Dickens from the Start' challenge, and, well, there was a lot of it. A lot. 801 pages, to be exact, and I feel like I felt every single one.

The premise is pretty nice, if a little antiquated: a group of likely young men of a certain social standing traverse around the countryside, drinking like fishes and looking for girls and a good time. It was, of course, originally published in serialised form, with each edition as a stand alone but linked episode in the great collection of Pickwick Papers, which means that reading it as a complete collection is a bit like watching a box set of half hour episodes of a rogueish sitcom, where some storylines persist throughout (Ross and Rachel), but for the main part it is the characters repeating and then resolving mistakes (Joey and his dating, Chandler and the awkwardness) that make up the main narrative thrust. Pickwick's most capital chaps, Augustus Snodgrass, Tracy Tupman and Nathaniel Winkle, are a kind of amalgous mass of good humour and carpe diem recklessness, indistinguishable from each other as far as I could ascertain, but rather fond of the odd comely servant or marriagable middle-aged widow. There's also a lot of ghosts, goblins and ghouls, as well as a talking chair who dispenses romantic advice:

'Tom gazed at the chair; and, suddenly as he looked at it, a most extraordinary change seemed to come over it. The carving of the back gradually assumed the lineaments and expression of an old shrivelled human face; the damask cushions became an antique, flapped waistcoat; the round knobs grew into a couple of feet. encased in red cloth slippers; and the old chair looked like a very ugly old man..."Tom," said the old gentleman, "the widow's a fine woman - remarkable fine woman - eh, Tom?" Here the old fellow screwd up his eyes, cocked up one of his wasted little legs, and looked altogether so unpleasantly amorous that Tom was quite disgusted with the levity of his behaviour; - at his time of life, too!'

I thought that bit was actually quite funny.  

[via]
Sometimes, however, it is easy to lose that narrative thrust and wander off alone into the hinterland where things are kind of funny, but not that funny, and these irrepresible chaps laugh at their own jokes and slap themselves on the back without any thought for whether I, as the reader, am laughing too. That's how it felt largely to read this book - it was largely like being at a party where everyone is having a good time, so they assume you must be too, even if you're standing in the corner looking miserable with your cheese and pineapple on a cocktail stick and one eye on the time. Never did it invite me in; instead the characters just kept winking at me and saying 'what hijinks we are having! How entertained you must be by our scintillating and scandalous lives!' One can imagine how annoying that gets after a while. This is just a chapter opening, to give you a feel of it:

'Chapter XX

Showing how Dodson and Fogg were Men of Business, and their Clerks Men of Pleasure; and how an affecting Interview took place between Mr. Weller and his long-lost Parent; showing also what Choice Spirits assembled at the Magpie and Stump, and what a capital Chapter the next one will be.'

(I think he presumes that we'll enjoy it.)

I'm being a bit harsh perhaps, but there was such an insistent tone of forced levity that I found that it lacked depth and emotional connection, and there was just too much of it to really feel you needed to engage with it much, as you were never quite sure if you were at a turning point or a climax of a story; often it would break off in another direction, in another installment, and that storyline you'd been concentrating on would disappear off for 300 pages, and you'd have forgotten it by the time it returned. This quote actually made me laugh out loud, as it was such a perfect description of itself - 'Too full of adventure to be briefly described' - but there were so many little stories that I skimmed a lot of it, thinking how could I miss something important when there was just so much more?

The Goblin and the Sexton
Reading in the prologue that Dickens overlapped the writing of this and 'Oliver Twist' by 13 months actually makes perfect sense of the tone, the speed at which he gets bored and changes direction and the way it's kinda shallow - I guess in some ways, this is the anti-'Oliver Twist'. I did read a quote somewhere as the Pickwick Papers-Oliver Twist relationship being the only instance where the second of a writer's books had such an influence on his first. Also, talking of later books, there is a very clear precurser to the storyline of 'A Christmas Carol', where a goblin appears before a drunkard in a graveyard on Christmas Eve and makes him ashamed of hating children and Christmas by showing him little diarama scenes of the effect of a sick children on a good family of hard working, God-fearing folk. He then gets pulled down through the earth into a type of Goblin Court, where they judge him for being miserable and kick him until he realises the error of his ways (yes, really). This leads to an epiphany:

'He saw that men who worked hard, and earned their scanty bread with lives of labour, were cheerful and happy; and that to the most ignorant, the sweet face of nature was a never-failing source of cheerfulness and joy. He saw that those who had been delicately nurtured, and tenderly brought up, cheerful under privations, and superior to suffering that would have crushed many of a rougher grain, because the bore within their own bosoms the materials of happiness, contentment, and peace.'

All this provokes him into wandering off and seeking a better life, the tale of which becomes a treasured tale of redemption and goblins for the local folk. All this is undermined by his reappearance 10 years later, as a wheezing, rheumatic old man, but the town's people choose to gloss over that, so so will I.

All in all, this book had moments of greatness, but I think maybe Dickens was too young or inexperienced to develop those brief flashes into the classic stories that several of them would eventually become. And, my God, it needed an edit. Why use one word where 18 will suffice, it seems to say. It didn't feel like classic Dickens, and it wasn't for me. A fairly epic starter for 10 from a talented man at the start of his career, and I'm certain I would have enjoyed it more if serialised as intended, rather than a slightly overwhelming brick. Look for this copy in a charity shop near me soon! Beautiful cover though, bravo Vintage.

Info:

Title: The Pickwick Papers
Author: Charles Dickens
Publisher:Vintage Classics
Original Publication date: 1836-7
Edition Publication Date: 2009
Format: Paperback, 801 pages, second hand copy (previously of Stockport Library Trust!), and I bought it.

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