The Pickwick Papers was published as a monthly serial over twenty months starting in 1836. Only twenty five years separate it from the first of Jane Austen's books but what a huge chasm there is between the two of them. Austen's neat little comedies of manners are rooted in Georgian society; servants and tradesmen are all but invisible. Pickwick, though straddling the accession of Victoria and set in a world before railways, is belly laughs rather than titters. It is vulgarly comic and it celebrates the underclass of servants and innkeepers and coachmen and the great unwashed. It must have burst upon the reading public like a sudden sunrise.
It is highly picaresque; it rambles. The periodical nature of its publication is inherent within the narrative. In the first instalment we are introduced to the main characters including comic villain Mr Jingle who speaks in staccato bursts. Before the end of the first instalment there has been a duel following a case of mistaken identity. (There is a clear streak of farce throughout the novel: at one stage Pickwick ends up in a lady's bedroom by mistake.) From time to time Dickens interrupts the narrative with little short stories, including two ghost stories. The initial emphasis is on Mr Winkle who has a great reputation as a sportsman which is repeatedly shown to be false (out shooting he clearly does not know how to hold a gun and manages to wing one of his friends). But after Jingle's elopement with the spinster aunt fancied by Mr Tupman we meet Sam Weller who becomes the classic cockney servant extricating his rather naive but determined master out of the scrapes that Pickwick lands himself in.
Presumably one of the reasons why the characters get into so much trouble is the enormous amounts of alcohol they drink. Even the temperance preacher gets drunk; Pickwick is regularly inebriated and many other characters spend much of their time sloshed.
Later Dickens presages some of the great themes from his other novels. He savagely satirises the law which he would return to in Bleak House. Pickwick is locked up in a debtors' prison; he would revisit this in Little Dorrit.
Such a huge book with such a loose structure is bound to have points where the action drags or the coherence disappears but on the whole Pickwick is a joy to read. January 2015; 798 pages
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57