I had an odd relation to this novel. In the beginning I liked it more than I did when I’ve tried to read it before. Then I thought it stupid. Then the character Sam Weller appeared and I kept reading just to see what he would say next. Then the narrative got tiresome. I took a break and read a spy novel. The most I can say about the last 200 pages is that I touched every one of them once. And I read all the footnotes. In some cases they were more interesting than the text.
The Pickwick Papers is the book that made Dickens’ name. Serialized over the course of 18 months, it was wildly popular. But the 19th century was a different time. Today the characters come across like a bunch of arrested twelve year old boys in gaiters and waistcoats. If they had actually been twelve year old boys in gaiters and waistcoats, they might have been endearing, and certainly would have been funnier. Mr. Pickwick is a man in his 60s who forms a little club of his friends—all of independent means—to travel around southeast England, have adventures, and record them. Guileless, they get into various scrapes usually on account of their naïveté about women and the ways of the world.
The scrape that carries the plot along is the one which also gives the world Sam Weller. Here is an early conversation with a hotel guest while cleaning boots in the yard of the hostelry where he is employed:
Pretty busy, eh?” said the little man
“Oh werry well, Sir,” replied Sam. “We shan’t be bankrupts and we shan’t make our fort’ns. We eat our biled muttons without capers and don’t care for horse-radish ven ve can get beef.”
“Ah,” said the little man. “You’re a wag, a’nt you?”
“My eldest brother was troubled with that complaint,” Sam said. “It may be catching—I used to sleep with him.”
“This is a curious house of yours,” said the little man, looking round him.
“If you’d a sent word you was a-coming, we’d a ha’ it repaired.”
When Mr. Pickwick meets the young cockney man, he is impressed and amused, and wants Sam as his valet. Mr. Pickwick and his friends can’t say anything without making a formal discursive of at least three paragraphs accompanied by hand gestures. But here is the hiring of Sam Weller:
“I have half made up my mind to engage you myself.”
“Have you, though?” said Sam.
Mr. Pickwick nodded in the affirmative.
“Wages?” inquired Sam.
“Twelve pounds a year,” replied Mr. Pickwick
“To attend upon me, and travel about with me and these gentlemen here.”
In discussing Sam’s lodging with his landlady, Mr. Pickwick begins by telling her he has something important to discuss with her, sends her little boy out of the room and begins thus: “Do you think it’s a much greater expense to keep two people as to keep one?” After a series of ambiguous exchanges Mrs. Bardell decides Mr. Pickwick has proposed marriage and she accepts. Mr. Pickwick is oblivious to what has happened until 300 pages later when Mrs. Bardell sues him for breach of promise.
Another couple hundred pages later is the trial in which the court finds for the plaintiff. Rather than pay the damages, which though hefty, Mr. Pickwick can easily afford, he goes to debtors’ prison. He refuses to let Sam stay with him in prison. So Sam borrows money from his own father (who is himself an entertaining character) on condition that he sue to get it back the next day. By such a contrivance Sam lands himself in prison in order to keep an eye on Mr. Pickwick.
In the debtors’ prison Mr. Pickwick does something that gives English majors something to write about: he matures. He sees the real suffering about him—people who are truly destitute, not dandies like himself whose noses are out of joint because they never bothered to grow up and understand anything about women. It’s not quite enough to make him pay up, but it’s a start.
The slimy attorneys –Dickens had a lifelong antipathy for lawyers– who handled the Bardell/Pickwick case turn around and sue Mrs. Bardell for court costs and she, too, ends up in the debtors’ prison. Mrs. Bardell agrees to drop her breach of promise suit if Mr. Pickwick will pay her court costs—a much smaller sum than the breach of promise—and they all walk out the door of the prison.
A man who appreciates Sam Weller deserves a second consideration and in the end I liked Mr. Pickwick, but I kept reading the book so as to not miss a single scene that Sam appeared in. “Wellerism” is actually a word. Rather than give a tedious explanation, here are some of my favorite examples and you can deduce your own definition:
*“Then the next question is, what the devil do you want with me, as the man said, wen he see the ghost?”
*“Wery glad to see you, indeed, and hope our acquaintance may be a long ‘un, as the gen’l’m’n said to the fi’ pun’ note.”
*“Avay vith melincholly, as the little boy said ven his schoolmissus died.”
*“Wotever is, is right, as the young nobleman sweetly remarked wen they put him down in the pension list ‘cos his mother’s uncle’s vife’s grandfather vunce lit the king’s pipe vith a portable tinder-box.”
*“Anything for a quiet life, as the man said wen he took the sitivation at the lighthouse.”
Here are a few other bon mots I enjoyed in The Pickwick Papers:
*“Hocus the brandy and water”—put laudanum in it
*“British Hollands”—Dutch Gin.
*“There are very few moments in a man’s existence, when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat.”
*“It wasn’t the wine,” murmured Mr. Snodgrass in a broken voice. “It was the salmon.”
*“Dumb as a drum with a hole in it, sir.”