Dickens and the Pickwick Papers

MR. TONY WELLER, when Mr. Pickwick praised the intelligence of his son Samuel, expressed his pleasure at the compliment as something which reflected honor on himself. “I took,” he said, “ a great deal o’ pains in his eddication, sir; let him run the streets when he was werry young, sir, and shift for hisself. It’s the only way to make a boy sharp, sir.” When Mr. John Dickens was asked where his son Charles was educated, he exclaimed, “Why, indeed, sir,—ha! ha! —he may be said to have educated himself!” The effect of this system of education by neglect, which produced such specimens of humanity as Samuel Weller and Charles Dickens, shows that the method, however ruinous in the majority of cases, is sometimes seemingly justified by the results. Still, the great humorist of our time, the man who has domesticated himself as a genial companion at millions of firesides, the man who has provoked so many bursts of humane laughter and unsealed the springs of so many purifying tears, would have been a wiser guide, both in what he laughed at and in what he wept over, had his early culture been such as to furnish him, at the start, with demonstrated general principles in matters of history, government, political economy, and philosophy. Such knowledge would have checked and corrected the fallacies into which he was sometimes whirled by the intensity of his perception of unrelated facts, and the unwithholding warmth with which he threw himself into the delineation of exceptional individuals. In comparing him with such a master workman as Fielding, in the representation of life, manners, and character, we are at once struck by the absence in Dickens of the power of generalization. Fielding generalizes as easily as he individualizes; his large reason is always abreast of his cordial humor; and indeed his humor is enriched by his reason. The characters he draws most vividly, and in whom he takes most delight, never possess his sympathies so exclusively as to prevent his sly, subtle criticism of the motives of their acts and of the consequences of their acts. He always conveys the impression of knowing more about them than their self-knowledge reveals; and the culminating charm of his exquisite pleasantry comes from the broad and solid good sense he applies to the illusions, amiable or criminal, of the individuals he creates or depicts. He ever has in view the inexorable external laws which his characters can violate only at the expense of being victimized; his disciplined understanding more than keeps pace with his humorous creative imagination; and great as he unquestionably is in characterization, he is never imprisoned in any of his imagined forms of individual excellence, frailty, or depravity, but stands apart from his creations,— a philosopher, well grounded in scholarship, in experience, in practical philosophy, and specially judging individuals from his generalized knowledge of human life. Dickens never attained, owing to the defects of his early education, this power of generalization, and consequently he rarely exhibited those final touches of humorous perception which the possession of it gives. He loses himself in the throng of the individuals he represents; but Fielding impresses the reader with the fact that he is never himself fooled by the plausible fallacies which are uttered, in certain circumstances of their career, by the characters he so vividly represents.

Charles Dickens was the son of Wilkins Micawber, Esquire, — I beg pardon,— of John Dickens, a clerk in the navypay office. He was born on Friday, February 7, 1812. Friday is popularly supposed to be an unlucky day; but certainly, on the particular Friday which gave birth to Charles Dickens, humanity was “ in lock.” He was the second of eight children, and was, in his childhood, a small, frail, queer, and sickly boy, — a sort of Paul Dombey before he had developed into a David Copperfield. As a boy he was too feeble to find pleasure in the ordinary athletic amusements of his companions; but in his father’s limited collection of books were the Arabian Nights, the Tales of the Genii, some fairy tales, and the romances of De Foe, Fielding, Smollett, and Le Sage. The various schools in which he obtained the rudiments of his education afforded him little mental nutriment; and before such books could appeal injuriously to his senses and appetites, he had mastered and, in imagination, realized the lives and adventures of Tom Jones, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, and Humphrey Clinker. At the period he was devouring such novels as these, Scott was at the height of his popularity; yet there are no evidences that Dickens, at the age of ten, had caught sight of a volume of Waverley, Guy Mannering, The Antiquary, Rob Roy, or The Heart of Mid-Lothian. His father’s small library was confined to romances of an older date and a coarser texture. Still, books which might have corrupted a youth of thirteen were comparatively harmless to a boy of eight or ten; especially as this boy was a genius in embryo, with something of the chivalrous delicacy of feeling towards children and women which was afterwards indicated in the character of young Walter Gay. In connection with this love of whatever was innocent and pure, he early developed a closeness, certainty, and penetration of observation, a sureness of memory of what he had observed, a power of connecting his observations with the instinctive play of his latent qualities of sympathy and humor, and a force of will in the assertion of Charles Dickens as a personage not to be confounded with other boys of his age, which show that the child was, in his case, literally the father of the man. He observed everything and forgot nothing. As a boy, his realizing imagination identified himself with the hero of every romance he read, and reproduced in memory every scene he had witnessed. With the acutest observation of the actual world around him, in his limited experience, he still early lived in an ideal world of his own.

When he was about ten years old, his father, as was natural, was arrested for debt, and lodged in the Marshalsea prison for debtors. Charles, on a salary of six shillings a week, was sent, to do what he could to support himself and to aid the family, to an establishment for the manufacture of blacking, which was set up by a relative of Dickens, in rivalry of the world-renowned “ Warren,” whose name still survives in both hemispheres as the man who has been instrumental in giving the last and finest polish and shine to shoes and boots. Charles’s work was, in his own words, “ to cover the pots of paste-blacking, first with a piece of oil-paper, and then with a piece of blue paper; to tie them round with a string; and then to clip the paper close and neat, all round, until it looked as smart as a pot of ointment from an apothecary’s shop. When a certain number of grosses of pots had obtained this pitch of perfection, I was to paste on each a printed label, and then go on again with more pots.” He lodged during this period with a lady in reduced circumstances, whom he afterwards celebrated as Mrs. Pipchin; visited his Imprisoned father on Sundays; and herded, during the remaining days of the week, with the persons whom he has described — his recollections somewhat combined with his imaginations — in a few of the earlier chapters of David Copperfield.

In the performance of his duties in the blacking establishment, Dickens did nothing that he should ever have been weak enough to conceal; duties which have, in kind, been done by young clerks who have risen in time to take their place in the front rank of bankers, manufacturers, and merchants, and of which it might be said that it was only shameful to be ashamed. We must consider that the father of a large family was in prison, that the mother had in vain attempted to provide for daily necessities by setting up a school, and that the separate members of the scattered household must be either workers or paupers. A relative gives one of the boys — the boy who is not yet recognized as a genius — a situation where he has nothing to do but to paste labels on blacking bottles. Twenty-five years afterwards, when Dickens was famous all over the world, he committed to his friend, John Forster, this episode in his life. He solemnly informed him that he had never told to any other human being, not even to his own wife, the disgraceful fact that at the age of eleven he had worked with “ common men and boys, a shabby child.”

When his father and the proprietor of the blacking establishment quarreled, Mrs. John Dickens tried to reconcile them, and advised that the son be sent back to his business. For this advice Dickens could never more than half forgive her. The father prevailed, and Charles was again sent to school, was educated to a limited extent, and at the age of fifteen was placed in an attorney’s office as a clerk, or, rather, office lad. But by this time he had developed the strong point in his character, self-asserting will joined to untiring industry. He mastered the mystery of short-hand; became a reporter of proceedings in Parliament; and a wonderfully alert special reporter of speeches made by leading statesmen in the provinces. He could write out a clear report of a speech in a post-chaise, furiously driven through a storm of rain and sleet towards London, with only a lantern to guide the swift motions of his pencil, and supply the London Morning Chronicle, the newspaper to which he was attached, with the result of his night’s journey, in written words which gave the printers but little trouble to decipher. Indeed, his early successes as a reporter were marked by the same energy which characterized his after triumphs as a creator. Whatever he undertook to do he did resolutely and did well. The sickly boy grew rapidly up into a strong man, physically and intellectually strong. His rough experiences made him take discomfort and hardship not only bravely, but even laughingly. He converted, indeed, his experiences into commodities; and the Pickwick Papers are to a great extent the record of his humorously idealized perception of the various kinds of life he met in city and country while engaged in his duties as a reporter.

As an author, his first appearance in public was signalized by a slight sketch, published in The Monthly Magazine for January, 1834, entitled A Dinner at Poplar Walk, or, as he afterwards called it, Mr. Minns and his Cousin. For two years after this he stole sufficient time from his labors as a reporter to write for the same magazine, and for the Evening Chronicle, the series of papers which he afterward published under the title of Sketches by Boz. These show considerable powers of observation, wit, and satire; there are gleams, here and there, of his peculiar sentiment and fancy; and the manner and style of representation are bright, brisk, and “ clever;” but they are still comparatively flashy and superficial, and are specially shallow in characterization. The sketches, however, gave him sufficient notoriety to induce a shrewd publishing firm to propose to him a scheme which was rapidly to raise notoriety into reputation, and reputation into fame. Mr. Hall, of the firm of Chapman and Hall, waited upon him at his chambers in Furnival’s Inn, and proposed the publication of “ a monthly something,” of which Seymour was to furnish the illustrations and Dickens the text. The result of this conference was the publication, on March 31, 1836, of the first number of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, edited by “ Boz.” Mr. Seymour, the artist, had at first sketched Mr. Pickwick as a long, thin man. Mr. Chapman, one of the publishers, suggested instead the figure of a friend of his by the name of John Foster, “a fat old beau who would wear, in spite of the ladies’ protests, drab tights and black gaiters; ” and Dickens took the name from that of a celebrated coach-proprietor of Bath. Samuel Weller notices this coincidence in the thirty-fifth chapter of the work, when his master leaves London in the Bath stage. He sees the name on the coach-door, and thinks it a premeditated assault on the dignity of the club; for, he says, “ not content vith writin’ up Pickwick, they puts ‘ Moses ’ afore it, vich I call addin’ insult to injury, as the parrot said ven they not only took him from his native land, but made him talk the English langwidge afterwards; ” and Sam is much surprised when, in answer to his question, “ An’t nobody to be whopped for takin’ this here liberty, sir? ” he is told that the occasion furnishes no appropriate outlet for his propensities to pugilism. “I hope,” says Sam, as he reluctantly obeys, “ that ’ere trial hasn’t broke his spirit, but it looks bad, wery bad.”

The success of the Pickwick Papers was almost unprecedented in literary history. For the first number the binder was directed to prepare for only four hundred copies; for the fifteenth, the order was for forty thousand. The work literally took the town by storm. It quickly established itself as a favorite with high and low, wherever the English language was known. Macaulay received the earlier numbers when he was in India, and resisted the novelty of the style and characters with all the force of his critical conservatism, but began to appreciate the riotous humor of the work as early as in the second chapter, — where Alfred Jingle describes, in brief, broken-backed, inconsecutive statements, his conquest of Don Bolaro’s daughter, as the certain result of being himself a “handsome Englishman,”— and ended in being as fond of Pickwick as of Sir Charles Grandison. Sydney Smith and Jeffrey resisted a little longer; but when their objections gave way, they almost made an idol of the author they had at first tried to represent as a mere caricaturist. The marked distinction of the popularity of Dickens, as compared with that of all other novelists of the century except Scott, was due to the fact that it overleaped the barriers which separate the classes into which the English people are divided, and extended all the way down from the throne to the cottage. Dukes and dandies, lords and ladies of all descriptions, wits, humorists, critics, cynics, diners-out, — indeed, the whole army of the conventional aristocracy of birth, manners, and literature, — were more or less carried away by this genial humorist, who gave them the electric shock of a brisk and new surprise. Sam Weller elbowed his way into fashionable drawing-rooms from which even Pelham would have been excluded; and his estimable father, Tony of the same name, winked, lifted his pewter mug of beer to his lips, and, in the intervals of slowly imbibing the liquid, discoursed wisely on the terrors of second marriages, while lolling on damask cushions in the boudoirs of countesses. This welcomed intrusion of the vulgar, of what is called “ the common herd,” into the selectest of select circles, was doubtless to be referred, in some degree, to the disgust which intelligent people of fashion had begun to feel for “ fashionable novels,” then in the last stage of intellectual inanition; but the fact of their exceptional admission into exclusive circles is due to the exceptional genius of the man by whom they were introduced. The middle and the “lower” classes were more easily managed by this magician, for in these was the “ main haunt and region” of his romance; and they clung to him from the first with a grip that has never been relaxed. They felt that he had idealized their somewhat commonplace existence; that he had domesticated in the imagination of the English people a series of racy characters which were universally felt to belong to “the good society” of human nature, however distant they might be from the society of tedious lords and ladies; that until some genius should spring up, capable of idealizing aristocratic life in similar vivid and poetically humorous pictures of life and character, they would be dominant in the imaginations of men and women; and that, as the poet of the bourgeois and the proletariat, Dickens would give the law of essential humanity and politeness to the supercilious upper classes of gentry and nobility whom he and they equally disliked.

Dickens tells us that his friends dissuaded him from undertaking a work to be issued in monthly parts, price one shilling, because it was “a low, cheap form of publication,” by which he would ruin all his “ rising hopes.” Macaulay, in his essay on Addison, has recorded a few of the instances in which the friends of an author have adjured him not to undertake the particular work by which he raised himself to that eminence which now makes him widely known. Herder entreated Goethe not “ to take up so unpromising a subject as Faust.” The History of Charles the Fifth gave Robertson immense reputation, and put forty-five hundred pounds in his pocket; but Hume tried to persuade him not to choose such a period for the exercise of his historical talent. Pope advised Addison to print the tragedy of Cato, but not to run the risk of its being hissed from the stage. One of Scott’s best friends predicted the failure of Waverley, and urged him not to peril his reputation by publishing it. The list might be indefinitely extended of intelligent persons who, with the most cordial good-will to an author, have advised him not to think of doing the special thing which his taste or genius prompted him to do. In few cases has the wise neglect, by a man of genius, of the advice of friends been more triumphantly vindicated than by Charles Dickens in the matter of the Pickwick Papers.

The Pickwick Papers are specially interesting to the critic as exhibiting the genius of the author in its processes and growth. It requires two or three perusals before the direct assault on the risibility of the reader has sufficiently subsided to allow any opportunity for the exercise of analysis and judgment; even then the critic titters and chuckles as he dissects, and is reluctantly compelled to admit that humor, as well as beauty, “ is its own excuse for being.” Carlyle gives a singular illustration of the fascination that the work exercised on the public mind while it was in course of publication. “An archdeacon,” he says, “ with his own venerable lips repeated to me, the other night, a strange, profane story, of a solemn clergyman who had been administering ghostly consolation to a sick person; having finished, satisfactorily as he thought, and got out of the room, he heard the sick person ejaculate, ' Well, thank God, Pickwick will be out in ten days, any way!’ ” Such a work defies criticism; yet it may be well to note the marvelous progress of Dickens’s mind during the twenty months that he was engaged in its composition. In the earlier chapters, he evidently considered Pickwick, Winkle, Snodgrass, and Tupham as mere puppets, interesting only as they were made interesting by the humorous incidents in which they bear a part. The gradual process by which they become real men, and the incidents are made more humorous through their subordination to the development of character, is detected only by the most laborious scrutiny of the text. The author was himself unconscious of the process by which, month after month, he converted caricatures into characterizations. In respect to Mr. Pickwick, he accounts for the change by declaring that “ in real life the peculiarities and oddities of a man who has anything whimsical about him generally impress us first, and that it is not until we are better acquainted with him that we usually begin to look below those superficial traits, and to know the better part of him.” This indicates the method by which Dickens ever afterwards considered his creations as actual beings, whose sayings he quoted as though they had not been put into their mouths by himself; but in the Pickwick Papers he exhibits some of them as growing, and not, as in his succeeding romances, as grown. In a vast majority of cases we may say that his characters are fixed from the moment he introduces them, and never depart from the limitations to which he has confined them, either in intellect or in conduct. The character is formed before; he exhibits it on the scene, and all its expressions are almost mechanically true to its type.

In the Pickwick Papers, the first example of his presentation of characters thoroughly matured is Mr. Wardle, of Manor Farm, Dingley Dell; then, in Chapter X., we are introduced to Sam Weller; and finally, in Chapter XX., we are made acquainted with one of the great masterpieces of humorous genius, Tony Weller. In each of these cases the character is unchangeably formed, and all they say and do might be deduced from the logic of character. Mr. Pickwick comes gradually into the same category, and Tupham, Winkle, and Snodgrass solidify by degrees, from personified jokes into human beings. There is a question whether Weller the son is superior or inferior to Weller the father; but no discriminating reader can fail to see that Sam’s humor consists in what he says, while Tony’s consists not so much in what he says as in what he is. Tony’s mere bodily appearance, as surveyed by the eye of imagination, is more richly ludicrous than any of Sam’s jokes; and when he does condescend to furnish us with a single maxim from his accumulated stores of wisdom, the remark owes nine tenths of its wit to our vivid conception of the person by whom it is uttered. Indeed, if we could conceive of a literary flood destroying almost all of the inhabitants of Dickens’s ideal world, we think that Tony Weller would be sure to find a secure seat in the ark floating on the engulfing waters, snugly ensconced by the side of Mrs. Gump, with her dilapidated umbrella spread over them as a kind of shelter from the pitiless rain.

Dickens followed, in the Pickwick Papers, the method of his favorite novelist, Smollett. In the “ adventures ” of Roderick Random and Peregrine Pickle the interest is purely biographical; there is, properly speaking, no plot. Certain things occur in the experiences of those scapegraces, and are recorded as they occur; still there is no attempt, as in the Tom Jones of Fielding, to make each incident or occurrence an important element in the main design of the story. But the humorous incidents in Dickens’s narrative are distinguished from Smollett’s by the absence of coarseness. Smollett doubtless represented the manners of his age in depicting scenes which make us laugh, and at the same time make us somewhat ashamed of the cause of our laughter. The more literally true his descriptions are, the more he repels the taste. Besides, he had a misanthrope’s delight in exhibiting human beings in situations which were as degrading as they were ludicrous. Dickens’s immense animal spirits and his sense of comic situations might have been expected to drive him at times into violations of decorum if not of decency; but his imagination was so beautiful and humane that it allowed free course to his humorous spirit and invention, and still contained both spirit and invention within proper bounds for the production of humor at once beautiful and beneficent.

In the Pickwick Papers there are certain peculiarities of style, description, narrative, and characterization, which gradually deepened, in the novels which succeeded, into permanent traits of Dickens’s genius. We shall notice these hereafter, when we come to those works in which they received their full development.

Edwin P. Whipple.