‘The characters simply go on and on, behaving like idiots, in a kind of eternity.’
This is what reading The Pickwick Papers is like, according to George Orwell. I heard this quote the other day, which terrified me, as Pickwick was first on my to-do list of reading all of Charles Dickens’s novels, in order, one a month. Easy, right? I’d planned to do this because (a) it is Dickens’s 200th anniversary in 2012 and (b) I decided I couldn’t put off reading his books until retirement or enforced bed-rest any longer.
A few brave souls, including Becky from our Art department, have decided to join me (well, there were more, but some dropped out – maybe they’d heard the quote too), and we had our inaugural Dickens discussion today.
So was George Orwell right about Pickwick? Well yes and no. It’s true, it is a bit of a picaresque adventure, where characters lurch from one calamity to another without much in the way of aim or conclusion. There’s a lot of ‘whoops, I’m in the wrong bedroom!’ and ‘oh no, I’ve fallen in a ditch’. But once you get past that, Pickwick is a brilliant read, for a number of reasons:
• Everyone is drunk all the time.
• People insult each other with words like ‘poltroon’ and ‘gammon’.
• The fabulous Mr Jingle, whose elliptical speech (‘Present! Think I was; fired a musket, – fired with an idea, – rushed into wine shop – wrote it down – whiz, bang!’) reminded me of drunken Rowley Birkin QC from The Fast Show. Apologies to readers under thirty for this ancient cultural reference.
• The even more wonderful ‘Fat Boy’, with his ‘mountainous cheeks’, who either eats, passes out or looks at food (and occasionally people) ravenously.
• The way Dickens treats his characters ironically and is very happy for us to laugh at them as well as with them. Pickwick gets everything wrong, and we know it.
• The bizarre switches in mood, with dark and often shocking stories-within-stories about mistreated children, hauntings and criminals.
• That you can see what makes Dickens Dickens in embryo – law courts, debtors’ jails, feasts, ghosts, Christmas – and think of treats to come.
• It mentions Gravesend, my home town!
By the end of Pickwick its characters had started to feel like slightly annoying but adorable friends. Not only that, I feel Dickens is going to be my friend too. I’m already starting to get quite defensive of him – wanting to ask people who say ‘I hate Dickens’: have you read him? In fact, have you read a book? You may disagree though – in fact, I’m sure a lot of people will.
Next on the list: Oliver Twist. This is shorter than Pickwick, and we already know the plot, so I’m looking forward to our next meeting. (We’re thinking of dressing up and having Victorian pies and everything…)
Copywriter Manager, Penguin Press