I probably made a mistake by trying to read this at the beginning of a week off. I’ve attempted The Pickwick Papers twice before in the past year. Each time, the book eluded me, my interest in it slipping away before I was more than 10 pages in. Charles Dickens is, as usual, an excellent writer but one whose style is heavily idiosyncratic in a way that does not lend itself to the preferred prose styles of today. This, his first novel and serialized like most of his others, establishes many of the tropes for which Dickens becomes known over his impressive career.
The eponymous Mr. Pickwick is the leader of a kind of gentlemen’s club, and as the book opens, we see that he has persuaded the club to defray the costs of his rambles around the English countryside along with a couple of his friends. Over the course of about 700 pages, Dickens gets Mr. Pickwick into various scrapes and funny scenarios. Knowing that this book is a farce is extremely helpful in seeking to enjoy it, for otherwise you might conclude that the book is incredibly contrived and unrealistic. That’s rather the point!
See, this is entirely the reason I read 19th-century British literature. There are a few authors (particularly Eliot and Hardy) whom I adore and whose prose I think is truly exquisite. Dickens is passable at best, in my opinion—yet his characters, his stories, his ideas—wow! Seriously, have you read A Christmas Carol? There’s a reason it has been adapted so many times and—depending on which starving and desperate Dickens scholar you track down in their tiny office at the end of a disused corridor three wings over from the actual English department at your university—it was a hefty contributor to the renaissance of Christmas celebrations in Victorian England that resulted ultimately in many of the traditions we celebrate today.
But I digress.
I read 19th-century British literature because a great way to understand a time is to read about it from the lips of people who lived through it. As mentioned above, Victorian Britain was hugely influential throughout the world. Reading Dickens provides valuable insight into the shape of that society, the warp and weft not just of its political decisions but of the lives of the everyday people who moved through it.
As he does this, he loves to poke fun, to satirize and provide biting commentary. Much like Bleak House, my most beloved Dickens title, The Pickwick Papers places solicitors firmly in its crosshairs. There is a significant courtroom drama subplot here, complete with a fanciful and funny trial scene. Similarly, Dickens takes aim at the ridiculously stratified nature of debtors’ prisons—not just that people who could not or would not pay a debt were imprisoned, but that for rich debtors it was basically a kind of holiday where you could obtain anything you wanted from beyond the prison if only you wanted to pay for it.
In this way, there is so much enjoyment to be had from the cross-class depictions of characters Dickens delivers for us. From the wealthy, older Pickwick to his similarly well-off, younger companions to the youthful but poorer manservant that Pickwick engages, we have ourselves quite a diverse slice of urban English society. Many of the goings-on (from debtors’ prison to brawls over political newspapers and elections to Pickwick’s embarrassment at walking in on a lady’s room in an inn) might seem very alien and perhaps less amusing to modern readers, who lack a lot of the assumed context for these jokes. This is the Achilles’ heel of comedy, of course: it is usually far too topical, and over time its sting fades because our understanding of that which it critiques has faded too. Nevertheless, if you read carefully, I still think there is a lot of fun to be had here.
Really my dissatisfaction with the book is entirely subjective—it’s too long, too boring at times, and for some reason it really made me want to re-read Of Human Bondage (but I need a few palate cleansers before I tackle another huge book!). I suspect that if you like Dickens or Dickens-adjacent works, you will like The Pickwick Papers. If you tend to avoid Dickens like … well, like the Dickens, then this book probably won’t be the one that changes your mind.