Like most English kids, I first encountered Dickens at school and this put me off reading Dickens for a long while. I remember Mrs Holgate taking us drearily through “A Tale of Two Cities” asking us innane questions about the text. Daniel Pennac in “Comme un Roman” (The English title was “The Rights of the Reader“) describes how young children are introduced to the magic of reading. Then he examines how they’re put off usually at school, when they are asked questions about what they are reading and reading becomes a dreary chore. School can put people off reading for life!
Dickens was a showman and an entertainer, he tackled many social issues of his time, like child labour, but he did so with a lot of humour. “A Tale of Two Cities” lacks a lot of Dickens humour and is probably a poor introduction to his oeuvre. I did read it again in 2016.(My Review )
Seeing Simon Callow play Charles Dickens in an episode of Doctor Who (“The Unquiet Dead“) rekindled my interest in Dickens and I picked up “Great Expectations“. Pip, Magwitch and Miss Havilsham got me back on board with Dickens, I had earlier read some of Dickens ghost stories of my own volition when I was at college including the celebrated “Christmas Carol”.
“The Pickwick Papers” (also known as “The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club”) was the first of Dickens’ novels, it came out in a serialised form, the first installment of Pickwick sold about 500 copies while the last installment sold about 40,000 copies. The young Dickens was 24 at the time. This was the novel that propelled Dickens into the public spotlight.
It is a comic novel about the escapades of a club, the Pickwick Club, whose founder and perpetual president is one Samuel Pickwick. He and his fellow Pickwickians: Mr Nathaniel Winkle, Mr Augustus Snodgrass, and Mr Tracy Tupman travel from London to more remote parts of the country and report back to the club about their findings. There are wonderful details of various coaching inns of the time.
Pickwick enlists a servant, the cockney Sam Weller, who has a comic turn of phrase and is a source of idiosyncratic proverbs and advice.
The novel is less plot driven than many of Dickens’ later novels, and tends to meander from one story to the next. There is social commentary like descriptions of the Fleet debtor’s prison, where Pickwick finds himself incarcerated after a misunderstanding and some underhand practices by the legal firm of Messrs. Dodson and Fogg.
Dickens worked as a law clerk and his outrage over the inequities and incompetence of the system show up in this and later novels. Each character in The Pickwick Papers, as in many other Dickens novels, is drawn comically, often with exaggerated personality traits. Alfred Jingle, who joins the cast in chapter two, provides an aura of comic villainy, with his devious tricks repeatedly landing the Pickwickians into trouble.
Having read the first two Harry Potter novels, I was amused to see one of the places mentioned in the text named “Muggleton”. The twenty-ninth chapter, “The Story of the Goblins who stole a Sexton“, a Christmas story contains some of the themes Dickens’ more famous Christmas story, “a Christmas Carol“, written seven years later.
I have another Dickens’ novel “The Old Curiosity Shop“, ready for my next dip into Dickens’ prolific oeuvre.
My rating 4 out of 5
My review of “Hard Times”: Hard Times Review