Friday, 28 December 2012

The Magical Mystery Tour

A bit of Dickens is good at any time of year, but I agree that the end of the year, as we move towards the holidays, is a great time to settle down with one of his chunky novels.  While Christmas Down Under is a little different to how it is back home (not much chance of snow in Melbourne in December!), reading about winter delights from the Victorian era makes it feel a little more like home ;)

One of my favourite Dickens works is his first novel, The Pickwick Papers.  Like many of his books, it was serialised in a magazine, and it was so successful that readers clamoured to get the next instalment as soon as possible.  In fact, with people making their own Pickwick Club badges, it was something of a craze, the Harry Potter or Twilight of its day - not bad for a twenty-four-old writer...

The hero of the piece is Samuel Pickwick, a retired businessman and founder of the club which bears his name.   Deciding (in the interests of social science) that he would like to observe more of English society, he creates a small sub-group for the purpose, and along with Tracy Tupman (a portly admirer of the fairer sex), Augustus Snodgrass (a self-proclaimed poet) and Nathaniel Winkle (who is reputed to excel in all sporting matters) he sets off to see the delights of life outside London.  As you can imagine, many an adventure lies in store...

The Pickwick Papers starts off as a humorous, sketch-comedy romp through the English countryside, in a style which is reminiscent of various classic works of literature.  The episodic nature reminds the reader of The Canterbury Tales or The Decameron, but it's a certain Spanish novel from which Dickens appears to have taken his inspiration in part.  At times, poor Pickwick can appear very quixotic...

...and what would the noble Don be without his faithful Sancho Panza?  Luckily, Dickens provides us with one a little into the book, and he turns out to be the best character of all.  Sam Weller is a Cockney jack-of-all-trades who is chosen by Pickwick to be his manservant, and from the very start he steals most scenes he is in.  Unsure as to his actual role, the imperturbable Weller is nevertheless very happy that he has landed on his feet:
"Well," said that suddenly-transformed individual, as he took his seat on the outside of the Eatanswill coach next morning; "I wonder whether I'm meant to be a footman, or a groom, or a gamekeeper, or a seedsman.  I looks like a sort of compo of everyone on 'em.  Never mind; there's change of air, plenty to see, and little to do; and all this suits my complaint uncommon; so long life to the Pickwicks, says I!"
p.154 (Wordsworth Editions, 2000)
The surprisingly unworldly Pickwick will have many opportunities to be grateful for the assistance of his faithful offsider before the book is done.

As the novel progresses, the tone becomes a little more serious, and a plot does eventually emerge.  Pickwick, owing to a comical misunderstanding, is sued for breach of promise by a widow who believes he has agreed to marry her, and his refusal to bow to pressure to make the issue go away leads to his enforced stay in a debtor's prison.  By this point, the comical, portly buffoon of the first few chapters has developed into a kindly, virtuous character who has the reader firmly on his side - and when you've also got the cunning Sam Weller in your corner, things are bound to turn out well in the end :)

The Pickwick Papers is interesting reading for fans of Dickens' later work as there are glimpses of later creations in its pages.  The writer's skill in inventing comic characters is already in force, shown in the figure of the conman actor Alfred Jingle (and his servant, the sly Job Trotter) and the obese (and possibly narcoleptic) house boy Joe.  Echoes of later themes are also apparent, with Dicken's obsession with the law (later seen in Bleak House and Little Dorrit) already prominent here.

In the end though, The Pickwick Papers is an entertaining book in its own right, created by a writer who was having fun finding out how to write a novel.  In terms of greatness, it pales beside some of his later works; however, its characters remain among Dickens' most popular.  By the end of the book, we are happy to concur with Sam's opinion of his master:
"And now we're upon it, I'll let you into another secret besides that," said Sam, as he paid for the beer. "I never heerd, mind you, nor read of in story books, nor see in picters, any angel in tights and gaiters - not even in spectacles, as I remember, though that may ha' been done for anythin' I know to the contrairey - but mark my vords, Job Trotter, he's a reg'lar thoroughbred angel for all that, and let me see the man as wenturs to tell me he knows a better vun." pp.597-7