Behold the Stars has organized a readalong of The Pickwick Papers, timed to the publication of its first installment in March 1836. Readalongs and the academic schedule don’t mesh well, but the idea here is to read the book as it was first published, that is, according to its original publishing schedule. It means taking a year and a half to read the book, but I figure even I can manage the 50 pages or so each month.
So I’m giving it a try.
I’m hardly an expert in Dickens, having only read Great Expectations, Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby and, long ago, so long ago I remember nothing but that 19th century Madoff Mr. Merdle, Little Dorritt. Oh, and the first third of Our Mutual Friend three times. (Story for another day.) Something about Pickwick always put me off. I had the impression it wasn’t really a novel, or that it was more like something from the 18th rather than the 19th-century. I thought it would be hard.
But I read the first two chapters—the opening installment—over the weekend. They’re wonderful! If the other 700 pages are anything like them, this has got to be one of the greatest English books.
We begin with the proceedings of the Pickwick Club from May 12, 1827, where Samuel Pickwick, Esq., has just triumphed with his presentation of a brilliant paper on the origins of the Hampstead ponds, along with some observations on the creature he calls tittlebats and others persist in calling sticklebacks. So that the Club might continue to promote similar contributions to the study of science, the membership approves the creation of a Corresponding Society, a traveling subset of club members who will report back on their findings and adventures. I assume the rest of the novel will comprise those exploits.
At the head of this group, of course, is Pickwick himself—who I can’t help but picture as Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon, even though I don’t think there’s any suggestion that he’s fat. The one who is fat is Tracy Tupman, ardent yet hapless lover of women everywhere. Joining them are the dreamy poet Augustus Snodgrass and the impetuous sportsman Nathaniel Winkle.
Things get off to a rousing start when the Club makes its first journey, to Rochester in Kent. Mishaps ensue even before they make it to the coaching inn: the cabbie takes exception when Pickwick records in his ever-present notebook the answers to the questions he’s posed to him, mistaking Pickwick’s dedication to increasing the store of human knowledge for the assiduity of an informer looking to find the cabbie in violation of the newly regulated hackney carriage business.
The cabbie, a nervous type, eventually challenges Pickwick and friends to a fight; a melee develops, from which our heroes are rescued only by a man known (so far, anyway) as the stranger, a man who, we learn in due course, is also, it turns out, traveling to Rochester. The stranger—I hope we learn his name, because I sure want him to stick around—has a richly elliptical way of speaking that is pure joy to read. Here he is reflecting, if that is the right word, on recent events at the coach-yard, which has a notoriously low archway:
Terrible place–dangerous work–other day–five children–mother–tall lady, eating sandwiches–forgot the arch–crash–knock–children look round–mother’s head off–sandwich in her hand–no mouth to put it in–head of a family off–shocking, shocking.
“Tall lady, eating sandwiches.” Perfect! The stranger, who might be a reprobate, or more likely simply blithely unconcerned by consequences, one of those people the world can’t seem to touch—maybe he’s a much more intelligent Skimpole?—joins the Club members for dinner once they arrive in Rochester.
A ball is about to begin in the room above the dining room and Tupman can’t stop thinking about the ladies who will soon be arriving. The wine flows freely, the stranger passing the bottle around at every opportunity. Eventually everyone but Tupman and the stranger fall into a stupour. The stranger admits that he too would like to go to the ball, but alas he has nothing to wear. (His belongings have been sent ahead of him; he is leaving England for some inscrutable reason, or maybe for a clearly stated reason that I can’t remember.) Tupman has a brainwave. Winkle has a new evening suit, made especially for members of the club, complete with a button bearing Pickwick’s visage and the letters P.C. to either side.
The suit fits the stranger just fine and the two have an excellent time, especially when the stranger cuts in on a little fat bald man, a Doctor Slammer, who has designs on a rich widow. As the stranger puts it: “Lots of money–old girl–pompous doctor–not a bad idea–good fun.” The stranger makes a fool of the brilliantly named Slammer, but Slammer gets his revenge when the next morning he sends a Second to the inn to challenge the man who insulted him. Of course, the stranger has disappeared and the Second, who doesn’t know the name of the man he wants, is able only to describe his unusual outfit. Said outfit is duly discovered in Winkle’s room, rather the worse for wear, as is Winkle, who can’t remember going to a ball or insulting anyone, but can only look at the state of the suit and assume the accusations are true.
In a state of pitiable terror, Winkle acquiesces to the Second and prepares to fight a duel, which his own second, Snodgrass, feels confident about, given Winkle’s renown as a sportsman. Turns out, although Snodgrass never learns it, that Winkle doesn’t even know how to load a gun and the duel, which threatens to be very grim indeed, turns to comedy when, at the last minute, Slammer realizes that his opponent isn’t the man he wants. The men part amicably, with “cordial farewells,” even arranging to have dinner later. Perhaps the next chapter will include Slammer. Who cares if it doesn’t: Pickwick and the others are more than enough to go on.
I’m sure I’m not saying anything new here, but reading Pickwick I suddenly realized: this is where P. G. Wodehouse comes from. (Wodehouse comes from other things too, of course: Jerome K. Jerome, Edwardian music halls, etc, etc.) There’s that same sense of a world that looks so much like our own but in which nothing bad can ever happen. Mishaps? Of course, there are plenty of those: mistaken identities, swindles, misunderstandings. But they all get resolved, and everything ends with a nice bit of supper. Of course, I could prove to be wrong about all of this. But the ironic narrative voice seems so Wodehousian (or, I suppose, Wodehouse so Dickensian, or, better, Pickwickian). Consider this sentence, for example. The stranger has just idly insulted Tupman, calling him a second-rate Bacchus:
Whether Mr Tupman was somewhat indignant at the peremptory tone in which he was desired to pass the wine which the stranger passed so quickly away; or whether he felt properly scandalized, at an influential member of the Pickwick club being ignominiously compared to a discounted Bacchus, is a fact not yet ascertained.
“An influential member of the Pickwick club,” “is a fact not yet ascertained”—the jokes are all the funnier for the gentleness of the expression here. We can see too that the novel is going to be interested in facts–what counts as one and what are they good for?
When Behold the Stars announced this readalong, Amateur Reader said it would be hard for participants to limit their reading only to the assigned chapters. Too true!
Let’s see if I have the willpower to stick to schedule.