As Christmas is now definitely heading our way, and the geese are getting fat etc I thought we should be festive and jolly this week and focus on some Christmas reading recommends, and what better way to start the week than by re-visiting that Dickens bi-centennial that we'd almost all forgotten about now. A Dickens and I seasonal reminder before the year is up, and my thanks to David Waller, author of The Magnificent Mrs Tennnant which I wrote about here, and David has waited very patiently for this piece to appear, and my sincere thanks to him for writing it.
Pickwick Papers, by David Waller
Last Christmas we stayed with my in-laws at their lovely old house on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon, not too far away I imagine from dovegreyreader’s own idyllic home. Sitting by the fire, glass of sloe gin in hand, snoring dog at my feet, there was no better place to read Pickwick Papers for the first time.
Pickwick is Dickens’s first novel, the book that transformed him, a mere 24 years old when he started writing in February 1836, from a relatively obscure journalist into a colossal celebrity. After a slow start, the monthly episodes sold by the tens of thousands and Dickens became the darling of the pre-Victorian public, never to look back. It captured the imagination of his contemporaries, but does it appeal to the modern reader?
Like many people who love Dickens, I simply had never read this book, probably because by repute it is long, unrelentingly cheerful and perhaps not even a proper novel in the sense that we understand it: a structured story with a beginning, middle and an end. As I would find, Pickwick is indeed episodic, rambling and always improvised, a collage of unconnected stories and sketches, without the ingenious plotting and coherence of his mature works.
I wasn’t especially taken by the early, especially meandering chapters. But as the afternoon wore on and the sloe gin glass was replenished a couple of times, I found the story came to life with the arrival if the impish cockney servant Sam Weller, who plays Sancho Panza to Mr Pickwick’s Don Quixote. We follow the bumbling, benevolent Pickwick and his band of hapless chums as they travel the length and breadth of southern England on a series of madcap adventures.
Set in the late 1820s, the book is fascinating in part as a portrait of pre-Victorian England. This is the age of the stagecoach and so much of what we think of as typically Dickensian simply does not exist in the world of Pickwick: there are no trains, for a start, and the rapid industrialisation of the mid century and the build up of the overpopulated cities is yet to come. The chapters on the elections at Eatandswill are a classic description of rambunctious politics before the Reform Act of 1832.
Yet Pickwick is as much about a state of mind as a place: there is no evil, merely benevolence and good cheer. Whatever quandary Mr Pickwick finds himself in, whether breaking into a girl’s school at night or getting himself locked up in Fleet Prison, the world rights itself, assisted by copious quantities of Pickwick’s money, Weller’s ingenuity and generous helpings of porter, punch and other alcoholic beverages.
So Pickwick is a Christmassy book: bluff, hearty, always “the season of hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness…” Sitting by the fire as you read it, you might doze off from time to time, but when you wake again you will soon find yourself chuckling and helping yourself to another glass of sloe gin.
As Mr. Weller concluded this moral tale, with which the fat boy appeared much affected, they all three repaired to the large kitchen, in which the family were by this time assembled, according to annual custom on Christmas Eve, observed by old Wardle's forefathers from time immemorial.
From the centre of the ceiling of this kitchen, old Wardle had just suspended, with his own hands, a huge branch of mistletoe, and this same branch of mistletoe instantaneously gave rise to a scene of general and most delightful struggling and confusion; in the midst of which, Mr. Pickwick, with a gallantry that would have done honour to a descendant of Lady Tollimglower herself, took the old lady by the hand, led her beneath the mystic branch, and saluted her in all courtesy and decorum. The old lady submitted to this piece of practical politeness with all the dignity which befitted so important and serious a solemnity, but the younger ladies, not being so thoroughly imbued with a superstitious veneration for the custom, or imagining that the value of a salute is very much enhanced if it cost a little trouble to obtain it, screamed and struggled, and ran into corners, and threatened and remonstrated, and did everything but leave the room, until some of the less adventurous gentlemen were on the point of desisting, when they all at once found it useless to resist any longer, and submitted to be kissed with a good grace.
David Waller’s latest book is The Perfect Man, a life of the Victorian strongman Eugen Sandow. See www.victorianstrongman.com for further details. His biography of Mrs Tennant, Victorian society hostess, was reviewed here in 2009.