Friday, February 18, 2011

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens: Tracing Roots in Wodehouse & Tolkien

As a child, I reread my sister’s copy of Little Women until my mother bought me my own, which I then lovingly destroyed. But I never made much sense of Chapter 10, “The P.C. and P.O.,” where the four March sisters conduct a meeting of their own Pickwick Club and induct Laurie as a member. Each sister goes by the name of a Pickwickian.

I could only scratch my head.

I recently read Jane Smiley’s biography of Dickens, in which she describes how The Pickwick Papers, first appearing in serialized form in March of 1836, made the young Charles Dickens an almost overnight literary sensation. I had never read the novel, so I set out to do so, despite Smiley’s warning that modern readers find the novel largely inaccessible. I can’t fully dispute that charge, but it ought not to be the case. Though long, rambling, episodic, and at times seemingly unfocused, The Pickwick Papers is still hilarious, snarky, rich, ridiculous, and enormously worth reading.

But more on that to come.

The Pickwick Papers is an early farce, and the first flexings of the literary muscle that would dominate (and partially create) the 19th Century novel, and indeed, all English prose fiction since. Even if modern readers may overlook Pickwick, it’s clear to me that generations of authors have known and loved the Pickwick Club, and it has sent tendrils of influence into modern works. Below are just two I noticed.

The first is a clear line connecting Pickwick to the huge catalog of farces by the comic master, P.G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse’s genius is undiminished in my eyes by the discovery that his formula for success had a precedent in Pickwick. His most successful Bertie and Jeeves novels provide the best illustration.

Both Pickwick and Wodehouse follow a band of bungling gentleman bachelors around the English countryside. The characters are useless but endearing, bickering but loyal when tested. They roam from house to country house, falling in love and spreading havoc. The main character, always aloof from matters of love, is nevertheless far from immune to getting into embarrassing and compromising scrapes with women, including prompting a breach of marriage contract suit (something perennially threatened in Wodehouse’s comedies). The main character is wholly dependent on his loyal, streetwise, practical commoner servant. Sam Weller and Jeeves are quite different personalities, but both are memorable originals, and both, in fact, make their series. Both Jeeves and Sam Weller provide needed cohesion for their respective episodic adventures. The Pickwick Papers’s serial sales began to soar when Sam Weller entered the narrative.

Both Dickens and Wodehouse employ a superabundant cast of memorable characters and recognizable types. Both authors display an affectionate regard for their (anti-) heroes’ follies. The Pickwick Club is a roaming pack of innocents, led by Mr. Pickwick, whose genteel manners may be more polished and mature than his companions’, but whose wisdom isn’t much greater than that of his younger charges. They’d all be lost in the woods still were it not for Sam Weller. The same could be said for Bertie Wooster and Jeeves.

Let’s look at another pair that I can’t help thinking traces its roots to Mr. Pickwick and Sam – Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee. I still have Tolkien on my mind from my January rereading of Lord of the Rings, but in Frodo and Sam I couldn’t help noticing the replayed dynamic of a master who is painted as noble of character yet greatly in need of the practical, worldly-wise, common sense service of his loyal Sam in order to survive, that I saw in The Pickwick Papers. The bond between Frodo and Sam caught my attention more on this recent read, and puzzled me. I had nothing more than Tolkien’s word and Bilbo’s money to persuade me why Frodo deserved to be “Master,” and Sam his loyal subservient, yet that loyalty and that gulf of rank and superiority between them was acknowledged, understood, and even revered (by Sam) throughout. By contrast, the deep affection between Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller rang much more believably to me, and yet I wonder to what extent all such master-servant relationships in British fiction are idealized, perhaps, as a means of attempting to reconcile a fundamentally unequal social structure?

Be that as it may, Sam Weller is endlessly endearing, his spontaneous similes are delicious, and I wish I had Mr. Pickwick for a friend. This is one way Dickens shines for me, especially in his comic novels. His affection for his characters is ever-apparent, no less so for his allowing them to make convivial nincompoops of themselves. And the wit that pervades his narrative voice is a fountain that never stops bubbling and spilling over the sides. No wonder the book made 24-year old Dickens a star.

All this said, The Pickwick Papers isn’t a perfect read for time-pressed readers in 2011. It’s LONG. It’s episodic. It meanders at first, and ramps up slowly. It takes a bit of time to hit its full comic stride and confidence (cue Sam Weller). Before long the affectionate irony of the colorful narrative voice is in full bloom, a source for constant laugh-out-loud delight, but for me at least, it took some chapters to get my bearings. Again, thank heaven for talented audiobook actors. Mine was narrated by Patrick Tull, and published by Recorded Books, and I cannot imagine a greater talent to bring all the characters to life and to add so much humor and nuance to the production.

So if you’ve got 36 hours of drive time to spare, find The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens and narrated by Patrick Tull. Give yourself time. It’s okay if your mind wanders now and then. Sam Weller will get you where you need to be, on time, well dressed and fed, with a pint in your fist and a guinea in your pocket. I grieved when it ended, and smiled for a long time after.


  1. I really enjoy your book reviews Julie!

  2. I first began The Pickwick Papers when I had finished my sixth or so rereading of Little Women at age 12 or so. I was definitely too young...because I came away with the impression that anyone who liked Dickens was starved for good books. Years later I read and loved many of his other novels, but never quite had the courage to return to Pickwick. But as Wodehouse is my favorite humor writer and Tolkien is my favorite fantasy writer, I think I'd better take another look.
    Thank you so much for sharing your insights! This was truly fascinating.

  3. Must be an enjoyable read Pickwick papers by Charles Dickens. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.

  4. Dear Julie (if I may)
    That’s a very insightful review of Pickwick. And, by referring to the influence of Pickwick on Wodehouse and Tolkien, I think you are combating Smiley’s assertion that modern readers find Pickwick inaccessible – you are giving readers a pathway into this extraordinary novel, and for that you should be applauded. I wonder if I may tell you about my own attempt to make Pickwick accessible to modern readers?
    You see, I have actually written a novel about Pickwick’s origins and history. It’s called Death and Mr Pickwick, and it will be published in May by Random House (in the UK) and in June by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (in the USA). I do hope you will take a look at it – you can find out more at: And one thing I should say: quite a large part of my novel is set in the modern era.
    I also hope that I shall make all sorts of new friendships and associations by writing the novel, so if you ever feel like getting in touch, please do so. I can be contacted at the website.
    I liked your closing line, by the way: “I grieved when it ended, and smiled for a long time after”. I cannot claim that my book will make you smile afterwards – there is too much tragedy in Pickwick’s backstory for that – but, if I have done my job, you might just a grieve a little, especially for my main character, Robert Seymour, the first illustrator of Pickwick.
    Best wishes
    Stephen Jarvis