The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (also known as The Pickwick Papers) was Charles Dickens's first novel. He was asked to contribute to the project as an up-and-coming writer following the success of Sketches by Boz, published in 1836 (most of Dickens' novels were issued in shilling instalments before being published as complete volumes). Dickens (still writing under the pseudonym of Boz) increasingly took over the unsuccessful monthly publication after the original illustrator Robert Seymour had committed suicide.
With the introduction of Sam Weller in chapter 10, the book became the first real publishing phenomenon, with bootleg copies, theatrical performances, Sam Weller joke books, and other merchandise.
After the publication, the widow of Robert Seymour claimed that the idea for the novel was originally her husband's; however, in his preface to the 1867 edition, Dickens strenuously denied any specific input, writing that "Mr Seymour never originated or suggested an incident, a phrase, or a word, to be found in the book."
Dickens, a young writer, 24 years old, was working as a Parliamentary reporter and a roving journalist; a collection of his "colour" sketches mainly of London life had been published as Sketches by Boz. A firm of London publishers, Messrs. Chapman & Hall, was then projecting a series of "cockney sporting plates" by illustrator Robert Seymour. There was to be a club, the members of which were to be sent on hunting and fishing expeditions into the country. Their guns were to go off by accident; fishhooks were to get caught in their hats and trousers. All these and other misadventures were to be depicted in Seymour's comic plates.
At this juncture, Charles Dickens was called in to supply the letterpress – that is, the description necessary to explain the plates and connect them into a sort of picture novel such as was then the fashion. Though protesting that he knew nothing of sport, Dickens nevertheless accepted the commission; he consented to the machinery of a club, and in accordance with the original design sketched Mr Winkle who aims at a sparrow only to miss it.
Only in a few instances did Dickens adjust his narrative to plates that had been prepared for him. Typically, he himself led the way with an instalment of his story, and the artist was compelled to illustrate what Dickens had already written. The story thus became the prime source of interest, and the illustrations merely of secondary importance. By this reversal of interest, Dickens transformed, at a stroke, a current type of fiction, consisting mostly of pictures, into a novel of contemporary London life. Simple as the process may appear, others who had tried the plan had all failed. Pierce Egan partially succeeded in his Tom and Jerry, a novel in which the pictures and the letterpress are held in even balance. Dickens won a complete triumph. In future years, however, Dickens was suspiciously eager to distance himself from suggestions that Pierce Egan's Life in London had been a formative influence.
Robert Seymour provided the illustrations for the first two instalments before his suicide. Robert Buss illustrated the third instalment, but his work was not liked by Dickens and the remaining instalments were illustrated by "Phiz" (Hablot Knight Browne) who went on to illustrate most of Dickens' novels. The instalments were first published in book form in 1837.
Written for publication as a serial, The Pickwick Papers is a sequence of loosely related adventures. The action is given as occurring 1827–8, though critics have noted some seeming anachronisms. It has been stated that Dickens satirized the case of George Norton suing Lord Melbourne in The Pickwick Papers. The novel's main character, Samuel Pickwick, Esquire, is a kind and wealthy old gentleman, the founder and perpetual president of the Pickwick Club. To extend his researches into the quaint and curious phenomena of life, he suggests that he and three other "Pickwickians" (Mr Nathaniel Winkle, Mr Augustus Snodgrass, and Mr Tracy Tupman) should make journeys to places remote from London and report on their findings to the other members of the club. Their travels throughout the English countryside by coach provide the chief theme of the novel. A distinctive and valuable feature of the work is the generally accurate description of the old coaching inns of England. (One of the main families running the Bristol to Bath coaches at the time was started by Eleazer Pickwick).
Its main literary value and appeal is formed by its numerous memorable characters. 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. These include a nearly successful attempted elopement with the spinster Rachael Wardle of Dingley Dell manor, misadventures with Dr Slammer, and others.
Further humour is provided when the comic cockney Sam Weller makes his advent in chapter 10 of the novel. First seen working at the White Hart Inn in The Borough, Weller is taken on by Mr Pickwick as a personal servant and companion on his travels and provides his own oblique ongoing narrative on the proceedings. The relationship between the idealistic and unworldly Pickwick and the astute cockney Weller has been likened to that between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
Through humor Dickens is able to capture quintessential aspects of English life in the mid-nineteenth century that a more sober approach would miss. Perhaps the popularity of this novel was due in part to the fact that the readers of the time were able to truly see themselves, and could accept themselves because of Dickens's skillful use of humor.
Other notable adventures include Mr Pickwick's attempts to defend a lawsuit brought by his landlady, Mrs Bardell, who (through an apparent misunderstanding on her part) is suing him for breach of promise. Another is Mr Pickwick's incarceration at Fleet Prison for his stubborn refusal to pay the compensation to her — because he doesn't want to give a penny to Mrs Bardell's lawyers, the unscrupulous firm of Messrs. Dodson and Fogg. The generally humorous tone is here briefly replaced by biting social satire (including satire of the legal establishment). This foreshadows major themes in Dickens's later books.
Mr Pickwick, Sam Weller, and Weller Senior also appear in Dickens's serial, Master Humphrey's Clock.Samuel Pickwick — the main protagonist and founder of the Pickwick Club. Following his description in the text, Pickwick is usually portrayed by illustrators as a round-faced, clean-shaven, portly gentleman wearing spectacles.
Nathaniel Winkle — a young friend of Pickwick's and his travelling companion; he considers himself a sportsman, though he turns out to be dangerously inept when handling horses and guns.
Augustus Snodgrass — another young friend and companion; he considers himself a poet, though there is no mention of any of his own poetry in the novel.
Tracy Tupman — the third travelling companion, a fat and elderly man who nevertheless considers himself a romantic lover.
Sam Weller — Mr Pickwick's valet, and a source of idiosyncratic proverbs and advice.
Tony Weller — Sam's father, a loquacious coachman.
Alfred Jingle — a strolling actor and charlatan, noted for telling bizarre anecdotes in a distinctively extravagant, disjointed style.
Joe — the "fat boy" who consumes great quantities of food and constantly falls asleep in any situation at any time of day; Joe's sleep problem is the origin of the medical term Pickwickian syndrome which ultimately led to the subsequent description of Obesity hypoventilation syndrome.
Job Trotter — Mr Jingle's wily servant, whose true slyness is only ever seen in the first few lines of a scene, before he adopts his usual pretence of meekness.
Mr Wardle — owner of a farm in Dingley Dell. Mr Pickwick's friend, they meet at the military review in Rochester. Joe is his servant.
Rachael Wardle — Mr. Wardle's spinster sister, who tries in vain to elope with the unscrupulous Jingle.
Mr Perker — an attorney of Mr Wardle, and later of Mr Pickwick.
Mary — "a well-shaped female servant" and Sam Weller's "Valentine".
Mrs Martha Bardell — Mr Pickwick's widowed landlady who brings a case against him for breach of promise.
Emily Wardle — one of Mr Wardle's daughters, very fond of Mr Snodgrass.
Arabella Allen — a friend of Emily Wardle and sister of Ben Allen. She later elopes with Mr. Winkle and marries him.
Benjamin "Ben" Allen — Arabella's brother, a dissipated medical student.
Robert "Bob" Sawyer — Ben Allen's friend and fellow student.
The novel has been adapted to film, television, and radio:1913 — a silent short starring John Bunny as Samuel Pickwick and H. P. Owen as Sam Weller.
1921 — The Adventures of Mr. Pickwick, silent, lost, starring Frederick Volpe and Hubert Woodward
1936 — On 13 November 1936 (less than two weeks after the BBC began regularly scheduled television broadcasts) The British Music Drama Opera Company under the direction of Vladimir Rosing presented the world's first televised opera: Pickwick by Albert Coates.
1938 — 'The Pickwick Papers', Orson Welles's Mercury Theater on the Air radio adaptation (20 November 1938)
1952 — starring James Hayter, Nigel Patrick, Alexander Gauge and Harry Fowler (the first sound film version, and to this day, the only sound version of the story released to cinemas)
In 1985 BBC released a 12-part 350-minute miniseries starring Nigel Stock, Alan Parnaby, Clive Swift and Patrick Malahide.
There was also a London stage musical version entitled Pickwick, by Cyril Ornadel, Wolf Mankowitz, and Leslie Bricusse. It starred Harry Secombe, later to become more famous as Mr Bumble in the film version of Oliver!. But Pickwick (the musical) was not a success in the United States when it opened there in 1965; in 1969 the BBC filmed the musical as the TV movie Pickwick. Both versions featured the song If I Ruled the World, which became a modest hit for Secombe.
Part of The Pickwick Papers were featured in Charles Dickens' Ghost Stories, a 60-minute animation made by Emerald City Films (1987). These included The Ghost in the Wardrobe, The Mail Coach Ghosts, and The Goblin and the Gravedigger.
The novel was published in 19 issues over 20 months; the last was double-length and cost two shillings. In mourning for his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, Dickens missed a deadline and consequently there was no number issued in May 1837. Numbers were typically issued on the last day of its given month:I – March 1836 (chapters 1–2);
II – April 1836 (chapters 3–5);
III – May 1836 (chapters 6–8);
IV – June 1836 (chapters 9-11);
V – July 1836 (chapters 12–14);
VI – August 1836 (chapters 15–17);
VII – September 1836 (chapters 18–20);
VIII – October 1836 (chapters 21–23);
IX – November 1836 (chapters 24–26);
X – December 1836 (chapters 27–29);
XI – January 1837 (chapters 30–32);
XII – February 1837 (chapters 33–34);
XIII – March 1837 (chapters 35–37);
XIV – April 1837 (chapters 38–40);
XV – June 1837 (chapters 41–43);
XVI – July 1837 (chapters 44–46);
XVII – August 1837 (chapters 47-49);
XVIII – September 1837 (chapters 50–52);
XIX-XX – October 1837 (chapters 53–57);
It is interesting to keep the number divisions and dates in mind while reading the novel, especially in the early parts. The Pickwick Papers, as Charles Dickens's first novel, is particularly chaotic: the first two numbers featured four illustrations by Robert Seymour and 24 pages of text. Seymour killed himself and was replaced by R W Buss for the third number; the format was changed to feature two illustrations and 32 pages of text per issue. Buss didn't work out as an illustrator and was replaced by H K 'Phiz' Browne for the fourth issue; Phiz continued to work for Dickens for 23 years (he last illustrated A Tale of Two Cities in 1859).
As a testament to the book's popularity, many other artists, beyond the three official illustrators, created drawings without the approval of the author or publisher, sometimes for bootleg copies or hoping that 'Extra Plates' for the original issue would be included in later issues. These artists included William Heath, Alfred Henry Forrester ("Alfred Crowquill"), Thomas Onwhyn (who sometimes signed as "Sam Weller") and Thomas Sibson. In 1899 Joseph Grego collected 350 Pickwick Paper illustrations, including portraits based on stage adaptations, with other notes and commentary in Pictorial Pickwickiania.
In 1841 the three-volume anthology titled The Pic-Nic Papers was published, composed of miscellaneous pieces by various authors. It was originated by Dickens to benefit the widow and children of 28-year-old publisher John Macrone, who died suddenly in 1837. Dickens had begun soliciting submissions in 1838, and he eventually contributed the "Introduction" and one short story "The Lamplighter's Story". Other contributors included William Harrison Ainsworth, Thomas Moore, Leitch Ritchie and Agnes Strickland. Macrone's widow eventually received 450 pounds from this charitable publication.
Mary Weller, Charles Dickens's nurse, recalling her famous charge's occupations as a child, said: "Little Charles was a terrible boy to read".
"In the young Charles Dickens's reading we have in some ways the very core of his novels...the young Charles came upon the great picaresque novels of the eighteenth century — Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, The Vicar of Wakefield, their French counterpart Gil Blas, and their great predecessor Don Quixote. Don Quixote's connection with Mr Pickwick, as Dostoyevsky saw, is basic. With Don Quixote, of course, goes Sancho Panza, who with the reinforcement of the faithful, shrewd, worldly servants of the young heroes Tom Jones, Peregrine Pickle, Roderick Random and the rest, goes to make up Sam Weller."
The popularity of The Pickwick Papers spawned many imitations and sequels in print as well as actual Clubs and Societies inspired by the club in the novel. One example is the still in operation Pickwick Bicycle Club in London, which was established in 1870, the same year as Charles Dickens' death. Other clubs, groups, and societies operating under the name "The Pickwick Club" have existed since the original publication of the story.
In 1837, Charles Dickens wrote to William Howison about the Edinburgh Pickwick Club. Dickens approved of the use of the name and the celebration of the characters and spirit of the novel. He wrote:
Other known clubs include one meeting as early as December 1836 in the East of London and another meeting at the Sun Tavern in Long-acre in London. Dickens wrote to the secretary of the latter club in 1838 about attending a meeting:
In many Pickwick Clubs, members even take on the names of the characters in the novel. As the website for the Pickwick Bicycle Club states, "Our rules state that 'Each Member shall adopt the sobriquet allocated by the Management Committee, being the name of some male character in the Pickwick Papers, and be addressed as such at all meetings of the Club." Imitations/plagiarisms published at the same time as Dickens's Pickwick Papers include G. W. M. Reynolds' Pickwick Abroad; or, The Tour in France