Thursday, March 22, 2012

I Read Books: The Pickwick Papers

1. Dickens first novel shows it's serial roots; it is a picaresque, more a series of linked adventures than a drama. To put it in modern terms, it's like a television show where each episode stands pretty much alone rather than one which tells a continuing story. This said, various early threads come back, especially in the last third, to get us to an ending that certainly resembles a traditional dramatic conclusion. Supposedly the novel is made up from the papers of the Pickwick club, specifically the letters sent by the corresponding society of it, edited together by Dickens.

2. Initially it is a light-hearted and humorous piece in which Mr Pickwick, a wealthy former businessman, and three companions set forth from the Pickwick club to investigate various locations and events on direct coaching routes from London. In general they then get caught up in silly situations. Sometimes they find themselves caught in compromising situations with a lady[1]; Mr Winkle, who has a reputation as something of a sportsman, goes very wrong with his shooting; Mr Snodgrass gets involved in a duel thanks to some mistaken identity; and Mr Tupman, who has an eye for the ladies, is extremely unromantic. The jokes are a bit hit and miss. The setups tend to be long and often obvious to sophisticates familiar with a 150 year longer comedy tradition. Some are pretty good though. Several characters have distinctive speech patterns for comedy effect; Sam Weller, who pronounces his Ws as Vs and Vs as Ws is a great character, but his speech is very annoying.

3. Some pieces are stories told by characters to Mr Pickwick, and these standalone short stories range across a variety of genres - ghost stories, historical/mythical tales, character pieces. They're generally pretty good.

4. Most of the novel has a light and affectionate satire of a variety of English peculiarities. Towards the end though, Mr Pickwick is sued for breach of promise of marriage[2], and disgusted by the shenanigans of the opposing lawyers refuses to pay the damages. He is imprisoned for debt, and here we see Dickens the social campaigner at work. Things become a little more serious, although only a little; earlier flirtations become romances, Sam Weller's comedy parent comes through as dependable when needed; Mr Pickwick deals with the fallout of various characters running off and getting married without permission and eventually everything ties up neatly. Even the rogues that Mr Pickwick spent the middle half of the book trying to expose learn their lesson.

5. In the end this is not a great Dickens novel, but it is entertaining and moves fairly swiftly for a 19th century novel, which admittedly is not very fast. As always the characters are distinctive, if a bit caricatured. Most interesting to me is some of the logistics of travelling by coach in this pre-railway England; there's not a lot of room on the inside and on the outside you freeze. Indeed, in an effort to stay warm, during one journey they drink from a flask and smoke cigars; the flask being refilled everywhere they stop to change horses, they end up quite drunk. In fact people end up quite drunk a lot, which leads to some of the escapades.A lot of the novel is spent in coaching inns, which I find an interesting establishment. I may be using some of what occurs in this novel in my ongoing redraft of my NaNoWriMo novel.

Read This: If you feel you'd like to read a competent set of entertaining Dickens stories
Don't Read This: If you find 19th century novels slow, or aren't interested is sometimes outdated satire and farce.
Previously on Night of the Hats: I compare Oliver Twist (Dickens second novel, which began publishing while the Pickwick Papers was still being serialised) to Great Expectations (Dickens eighteenth novel, written some 20 years later)
And Finally: The Pickwick Papers freely available online.

[1] As in going through the wrong door to find themselves alone with her in her bedchamber, or the lady faints into their arms just as half a dozen other characters come through the door.
[2] Due, of course, to a misunderstanding with his landlady.
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