Two years ago (almost to the day) I proposed a read-along of Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers, or to give it its original title, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, and I'm happy to say some of you were kind enough to join me! It was a twenty month read-along that mirrored the publication of the novel from 1836 - 1837 and marked its 180th anniversary. This was the schedule, and I've linked my monthly posts:
I – March 1836 (chapters 1–2)
II – April 1836 (chapters 3–5)
III – May 1836 (chapters 6–8)
IV – June 1836 (chapters 9-11)
V – July 1836 (chapters 12–14)
VI – August 1836 (chapters 15–17)
VII – September 1836 (chapters 18–20)
VIII – October 1836 (chapters 21–23)
IX – November 1836 (chapters 24–26)
X – December 1836 (chapters 27–29)
XI – January 1837 (chapters 30–32)
XII – February 1837 (chapters 33–34)
XIII – March 1837 (chapters 35–37)
XIV – April 1837 (chapters 38–40)
XV – June 1837 (chapters 41–43)
XVI – July 1837 (chapters 44–46)
XVII – August 1837 (chapters 47–49)
XVIII – September 1837 (chapters 50–52)
XIX – October 1837 (chapters 53–55)
XX - November 1837 (chapters 56–57)
|Original announcement of The Pickwick Papers.|
One of the reasons I wanted to do this was because when I first read The Pickwick Papers I really hated it, and one of my friends told me his friend read it as monthly instalments and loved it, so I thought it would be fun to give it a go. That was one of the reasons I ended up loving it, the other reason was that I came to accept it for what it was, not what I wanted to be.
What I mean by that is that The Pickwick Papers doesn't read like a traditional novel with a definite plot. The Pickwick Papers is nothing like that, in fact it's almost quite modern in its structure: I'd go so far as to say it's like an early Victorian Ulysses. It begins with a suggestion from Samuel Pickwick that he and his friends Nathaniel Winkle, Augustus Snodgrass, and Tracy Tupman should form a group, which came to be known as The Corresponding Society of the Pickwick Club, and travel outside of London, recording events and experiences as they go. The motion is happily passed and they do just that, and The Pickwick Papers follows these adventures focusing largely on Mr. Pickwick. It is that that holds the novel together, this is the point of it: to simply make a record "of journeys and investigations, of their observations of character and manners, and of the whole of their adventures". Aside from that there isn't really a single unifying plot, the reader simply goes hither and thither with Samuel Pickwick and his companions.
|The original cover of the first instalment.|
And what adventures they have! Ladies are saved from unscrupulous suitors, Mr. Pickwick gets into deep deep trouble when his landlady Mrs. Bardell mistakenly thinks he has proposed (so deep in fact a long section of the novel is set in Fleet Prison), an election takes place, cricket of course is played, and we also follow the miserable marriage of the father of Pickwick's man Sam Weller: Tony, Sam's father, marries a widow and rues the day until her death. Along the way we meet some of Dickens' finest characters: the swindler Alfred Jingle, the sly Job Trotter, the excellent and forever sleepy fat boy Joe, Mr. Wardle, the owner of the farm in Dingley Dell, and the two medical students Ben Allen and Bob Sawyer to name just a few. And throughout we're told some short stories by various characters: The Stroller's Tale, for example, The Story of the Goblins who Stole a Sexton, the Legend of Prince Bladud, and The Story of the Bagman's Uncle.
Another interesting and pleasant aspect of The Pickwick Papers is that it's told in 'real time' so to speak: these twenty months are twenty months in life of the Pickwick Club, and correspond with the month; more often than not, I would say, Dickens includes a rather charming description of the month. One of my favourites was from August 1836:
There is no month in the whole year in which nature wears a more beautiful appearance than in the month of August. Spring has many beauties, and May is a fresh and blooming month, but the charms of this time of year are enhanced by their contrast with the winter season. August has no such advantage. It comes when we remember nothing but clear skies, green fields, and sweet-smelling flowers—when the recollection of snow, and ice, and bleak winds, has faded from our minds as completely as they have disappeared from the earth—and yet what a pleasant time it is! Orchards and cornfields ring with the hum of labour; trees bend beneath the thick clusters of rich fruit which bow their branches to the ground; and the corn, piled in graceful sheaves, or waving in every light breath that sweeps above it, as if it wooed the sickle, tinges the landscape with a golden hue. A mellow softness appears to hang over the whole earth; the influence of the season seems to extend itself to the very wagon, whose slow motion across the well-reaped field is perceptible only to the eye, but strikes with no harsh sound upon the ear.
And as we are so close to Christmas, here's another one from December 1836:
And numerous indeed are the hearts to which Christmas brings a brief season of happiness and enjoyment. How many families, whose members have been dispersed and scattered far and wide, in the restless struggles of life, are then reunited, and meet once again in that happy state of companionship and mutual goodwill, which is a source of such pure and unalloyed delight; and one so incompatible with the cares and sorrows of the world, that the religious belief of the most civilised nations, and the rude traditions of the roughest savages, alike number it among the first joys of a future condition of existence, provided for the blessed and happy! How many old recollections, and how many dormant sympathies, does Christmas time awaken!
The Pickwick Papers is a great book and in some respects is more like Dickens' first work Sketches by Boz than any of his subsequent novels. It's a collection of events, warmly and wonderfully told, that gives a little glimpse into pre-Victorian England. It's very entertaining and I do think I benefited greatly from the reading schedule. The only thing I would say is that at times it was a little slow: I think if anyone's thinking of reading The Pickwick Papers reading over a period of twenty months is a tad excessive! Nevertheless it was a valuable experience to read Dickens as his early readers did and really appreciate the cliff-hangers I wouldn't have picked up on had I have read it the way I would any other book. It was a great read, and a great reading experience, and I'm sorry in a way to say goodbye to it. I do think one I'll read another one of Dickens' novels in a similar way, so if anyone's up for another two year reading project let me know 😉 And thanks to all who joined in - I hope you found it as fun and as interesting as I did.