There’s something about Dickens’s prose which has always made me feel connected. Connected to the past, connected to the country we share, connected to human nature in all its foibles. Because next to his anger, that’s one of Dickens’s most memorable traits for me as a reader: The perfect reflection, unchanged by all the many intervening years, of every angle of the many-faceted human spirit. The anger will come soon, in the next of his novels, Oliver Twist; here in The Pickwick Papers it’s a muted thing. This first, most comic of his novels is rooted in that latter quality, his insight.
It’s not what I thought I was in for when I went blindly into the buffoonery of the opening at the club. Mr. Pickwick initially comes across as deludedly self-important, and his travelling companions almost sycophantic, a far cry from his eventual gentle self-assuredness and the role of a substitute father that he adopts in the lives of his young club members. That opening, though, seems to exist more to tap its nose at the pompousness of the gentlemen’s clubs of the day than to create any kind of sympathetic connection between reader and Pickwickian.
It’s after Dingley Dell is in their rear view and the first betrayal of Jingle’s has left a crack or three in Pickwick’s naïveté that he and his companions develop more believeable personhood, and the novel begins to flow much better. It’s helped immensely both by the introduction of Sam Weller, whose dry wit and ignorance of gentlemen’s society yet worldliness among the lower echelons makes him a much-needed contrast for Pickwick’s starch and (ever-endangered) propriety, and by the gradual transition of the comedy from farcical to theatrical.
Once that transition takes place, I found myself laughing frequently at the unexpectedly gentle but sly humour that pervades the middle of the novel. I certainly knew Dickens had wit, but in his later novels it’s never something that has struck me as the laugh out loud kind of wit; rather, as something cutting and often acerbic, a thin veil over his anger at the injustices society perpetuated against the poor, the orphaned or abandoned.
It’s not as though those injustices are not tackled in The Pickwick Papers — during the experience of Pickwick’s incarceration in the debtors’ prison, Dickens pulls no punches in his wrenching examination of the lives of the poorest and longest-term debtors — but unlike the opening chapters of Oliver Twist, which drip with caustic commentary on the ill-treatment of the poor orphans, the portrayal here of 19th century injustices feels sorrowful rather than fiery. And although the protagonists of some of Dickens’s other novels are almost too angelic to be true, Pickwick, fortunately, receives no such rose-coloured glasses treatment even in his time of suffering. His imprisonment holds a mirror up to his pride: Is it correct for a man, even a wrongly accused one, to allow others to be denied a mentor, an employer, a father-figure, a friend, in order only to prevent the loss of such pride?
Some of Dickens’s novels suffer to varying degrees from the serialised forms in which they were initially published, but I think The Pickwick Papers benefits from it. It holds together well as a novel, albeit a better one after mostly ditching the framing device of the club, yet the rambling way in which it arrives at a point, much less an end point, allows for the very natural-seeming insertion of many asides. One of my favourites is the story of Gabriel Grub and the goblins, alongside an escapade which evokes Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
An area where the book falls down is in its depiction of women. I wouldn’t call Dickens a particularly accomplished writer of female characters in general, though in later novels I think that the women do benefit from his particular insights into people and their motivations — and of course, many of them appear as loving immortalisations of his sister-in-law — but no one is about to confuse him with George Eliot. It’s too egregious to ignore in The Pickwick Papers, however, which sees more histrionics than a hen house full of cats. It becomes something of a novelty to get through a female character’s appearance without any incidences of fainting, crying, throwing herself to the ground kicking and screaming, or other behaviour best befitting a toddler.
All in all, it’s not about to go down as my favourite Dickens book, but I am very glad I read it. I took far more pleasure from it than the opening left me thinking I would, and it marks a very interesting point in Dickens’s development as a writer.