The Beautiful Pickwickians

The Pickwick PapersI quite loved The Pickwick Papers. I’ve been making my way through Dickens in chronological order (beginning with Sketches by Boz), but while I blithely cut and pasted my favourite passages into a draft thanks to Project Gutenberg, I did not blog it properly before moving on to blogging Oliver Twist (though I’m not quite done with him yet). It matched better with Flora Tristan’s London Journals (though I’m not quite done with her either).

The 31st of March marked the anniversary of the publication of The Pickwick Papers in 1836, however, making me feel bad about my pasted quotations languishing in draft-form obscurity. While this post is now two days past due, it is something. I cannot imagine a way to summarise this novel, think of something deep to say about it, explain just why I enjoyed it so much.

So instead I present a few of my favourite bits.

On old inns, the ways that every generation looks fondly backwards, and indirectly the entrance of everyone’s favourite character, Samuel Weller:

There are in London several old inns, once the headquarters of
celebrated coaches in the days when coaches performed their journeys in a graver and more solemn manner than they do in these times; but which have now degenerated into little more than the abiding and booking-places of country wagons. The reader would look in vain for any of these ancient hostelries, among the Golden Crosses and Bull and Mouths, which rear their stately fronts in the improved streets of London. If he would light upon any of these old places, he must direct his steps to the obscurer quarters of the town, and there in some secluded nooks he will find several, still standing with a kind of gloomy sturdiness, amidst the modern innovations which surround them.

In the Borough especially, there still remain some half-dozen old inns, which have preserved their external features unchanged, and which have escaped alike the rage for public improvement and the encroachments of private speculation. Great, rambling queer old places they are, with galleries, and passages, and staircases, wide enough and antiquated enough to furnish materials for a hundred ghost stories, supposing we should ever be reduced to the lamentable necessity of inventing any, and that the world should exist long enough to exhaust the innumerable veracious legends connected with old London Bridge, and its adjacent neighbourhood on the Surrey side.

George-InnThere is, of course, still an inn like this in Borough — The George. I recommend it, though best in summer when the annoying throngs that visit can sit outside and you can enjoy the rambling queer inside. It only smells funny because it is old.

I like the glimpse of Pickwick’s home, before it is shattered by Mrs. Bardell’s legal team:

Mr. Pickwick’s apartments in Goswell Street, although on a limited scale, were not only of a very neat and comfortable description, but peculiarly adapted for the residence of a man of his genius and observation. His sitting-room was the first-floor front, his bedroom the second-floor front; and thus, whether he were sitting at his desk in his parlour, or standing before the dressing-glass in his dormitory, he had an equal opportunity of contemplating human nature in all the numerous phases it exhibits, in that not more populous than popular thoroughfare.

His landlady, Mrs. Bardell–the relict and sole executrix of a deceased custom-house officer–was a comely woman of bustling manners and agreeable appearance, with a natural genius for cooking, improved by study and long practice, into an exquisite talent. There were no children, no servants, no fowls. The only other inmates of the house were a large man and a small boy; the first a lodger, the second a production of Mrs. Bardell’s. The large man was always home precisely at ten o’clock at night, at which hour he regularly condensed himself into the limits of a dwarfish French bedstead in the back parlour; and the infantine sports and gymnastic exercises of Master Bardell were exclusively confined to the neighbouring pavements and gutters. Cleanliness and quiet reigned throughout the house; and in it Mr. Pickwick’s will was law.

While I might not agree with the sentiments, I feel sure Dickens copied this dialogue word for word in a pub somewhere:

‘Rum creeters is women,’ said the dirty-faced man, after a pause.

‘Ah! no mistake about that,’ said a very red-faced man, behind a cigar.

After this little bit of philosophy there was another pause.

‘There’s rummer things than women in this world though, mind you,’ said the man with the black eye, slowly filling a large Dutch pipe, with a most capacious bowl.

‘Are you married?’ inquired the dirty-faced man.

‘Can’t say I am.’

‘I thought not.’ Here the dirty-faced man fell into ecstasies of mirth at his own retort, in which he was joined by a man of bland voice and placid countenance, who always made it a point to agree with everybody.

What is probably the best poem ever, by Mrs Leo Hunter. It beats out — though barely — the phenomenal poem about Dick Turpin that I present closer to the end of this post:

Can I view thee panting, lying
On thy stomach, without sighing;
Can I unmoved see thee dying
On a log
Expiring frog!

Being at LSE I came to know Holborn well, and each and every one of its surrounding pubs. This one once sat in the epicentre of these pub ramblings — or pumblings:

With this direction, and having been furthermore informed that the hostelry in question was situated in a court, happy in the double advantage of being in the vicinity of Clare Market, and closely approximating to the back of New Inn, Mr. Pickwick and Sam descended the rickety staircase in safety, and issued forth in quest of the Magpie and Stump.

This favoured tavern, sacred to the evening orgies of Mr. Lowten and his companions, was what ordinary people would designate a public-house. That the landlord was a man of money-making turn was sufficiently testified by the fact of a small bulkhead beneath the tap-room window, in size and shape not unlike a sedan-chair, being underlet to a mender of shoes: and that he was a being of a philanthropic mind was evident from the protection he afforded to a pieman, who vended his delicacies without fear of interruption, on the very door-step. In the lower windows, which were decorated with curtains of a saffron hue, dangled two or three printed cards, bearing reference to Devonshire cider and Dantzic spruce, while a large blackboard, announcing in white letters to an enlightened public, that there were 500,000 barrels of double stout in the cellars of the establishment, left the mind in a state of not unpleasing doubt and uncertainty as to the precise direction in the bowels of the earth, in which this mighty cavern might be supposed to extend. When we add that the weather-beaten signboard bore the half-obliterated semblance of a magpie intently eyeing a crooked streak of brown paint, which the neighbours had been taught from infancy to consider as the ‘stump,’ we have said all that need be said of the exterior of the edifice.

There was actually (and is) a Magpie and Stump opposite the Old Bailey — a bit far and so hitherto unvisited, but apparently the good old George IV most likely stands on the site of the one Dickens described here. But really I need to get over to the George and Vulture – mentioned many a time in this book though without the same delicious description, and ‘the headquarters of the City Pickwick Club since its foundation.’  I found a Dickens pub crawl with no real effort of course, and while the digital Dickens website makes me realise I have nothing new to add on the subject of Dickens, at least I am among the good company of those who try.

On Portugal St, now at the heart of LSE and its absence felt as a loss by me but clearly replaced by reality television for those who once filled its halls:

In a lofty room, ill-lighted and worse ventilated, situated in Portugal Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, there sit nearly the whole year round, one, two, three, or four gentlemen in wigs, as the case may be, with little writing-desks before them, constructed after the fashion of those used by the judges of the land, barring the French polish. There is a box of barristers on their right hand; there is an enclosure of insolvent debtors on their left; and there is an inclined plane of most especially dirty faces in their front. These gentlemen are the Commissioners of the Insolvent Court, and the place in which they sit, is the Insolvent Court itself.

It is, and has been, time out of mind, the remarkable fate of this court to be, somehow or other, held and understood, by the general consent of all the destitute shabby-genteel people in London, as their common resort, and place of daily refuge. It is always full. The steams of beer and spirits perpetually ascend to the ceiling, and, being condensed by the heat, roll down the walls like rain; there are more old suits of clothes in it at one time, than will be offered for sale in all Houndsditch in a twelvemonth; more unwashed skins and grizzly beards than all the pumps and shaving-shops between Tyburn and Whitechapel could render decent, between sunrise and sunset.

The Pickwick Papers
Not the court here described but Pickwick’s own trial. Still, isn’t it nice?

It must not be supposed that any of these people have the least shadow of business in, or the remotest connection with, the place they so indefatigably attend. If they had, it would be no matter of surprise, and the singularity of the thing would cease. Some of them sleep during the greater part of the sitting; others carry small portable dinners wrapped in pocket-handkerchiefs or sticking out of their worn-out pockets, and munch and listen with equal relish; but no one among them was ever known to have the slightest personal interest in any case that was ever brought forward. Whatever they do, there they sit from the first moment to the last. When it is heavy, rainy weather, they all come in, wet through; and at such times the vapours of the court are like those of a fungus-pit.

A casual visitor might suppose this place to be a temple dedicated to the Genius of Seediness. There is not a messenger or process-server attached to it, who wears a coat that was made for him; not a tolerably fresh, or wholesome-looking man in the whole establishment, except a little white-headed apple-faced tipstaff, and even he, like an ill-conditioned cherry preserved in brandy, seems to have artificially dried and withered up into a state of preservation to which he can lay no natural claim.

This description of a religious meeting by the elder Mr Weller is pure genius:

I dresses myself out wery smart, and off I goes with the old ‘ooman, and up we walks into a fust-floor where there was tea-things for thirty, and a whole lot o’ women as begins whisperin’ to one another, and lookin’ at me, as if they’d never seen a rayther stout gen’l’m’n of eight-and-fifty afore. By and by, there comes a great bustle downstairs, and a lanky chap with a red nose and a white neckcloth rushes up, and sings out, “Here’s the shepherd a-coming to wisit his faithful flock;” and in comes a fat chap in black, vith a great white face, a-smilin’ avay like clockwork. Such goin’s on, Sammy! “The kiss of peace,” says the shepherd; and then he kissed the women all round, and ven he’d done, the man vith the red nose began. I was just a-thinkin’ whether I hadn’t better begin too–‘specially as there was a wery nice lady a-sittin’ next me–ven in comes the tea, and your mother-in-law, as had been makin’ the kettle bile downstairs. At it they went, tooth and nail. Such a precious loud hymn, Sammy, while the tea was a brewing; such a grace, such eatin’ and drinkin’! I wish you could ha’ seen the shepherd walkin’ into the ham and muffins.

As is this commentary by the elder Mr Weller on poetry:

‘Wery glad to hear it,’ said Mr. Weller. ‘Poetry’s unnat’ral; no man ever talked poetry ‘cept a beadle on boxin’-day, or Warren’s blackin’, or Rowland’s oil, or some of them low fellows; never you let yourself down to talk poetry, my boy. Begin agin, Sammy.’

And on compliments:

Wot’s the good o’ callin’ a young ‘ooman a Wenus or a angel,
Sammy?’

‘Ah! what, indeed?’ replied Sam.

‘You might jist as well call her a griffin, or a unicorn, or a king’s
arms at once, which is wery well known to be a collection o’ fabulous animals,’ added Mr. Weller.

‘Just as well,’ replied Sam.

‘Drive on, Sammy,’ said Mr. Weller.

His view of Camberwell (as opposed to Gissing’s among others):

‘I don’t like it, Sam,’ rejoined Mr. Weller. ‘I never know’d a
respectable coachman as wrote poetry, ‘cept one, as made an affectin’ copy o’ werses the night afore he was hung for a highway robbery; and he wos only a Cambervell man, so even that’s no rule.’

And a mention of Brixton — I am collecting the literary geographies of South London you see:

The office of Wilkins Flasher, Esquire, of the Stock Exchange, was in a first floor up a court behind the Bank of England; the house of Wilkins Flasher, Esquire, was at Brixton, Surrey; the horse and stanhope of Wilkins Flasher, Esquire, were at an adjacent livery stable; the groom of Wilkins Flasher, Esquire, was on his way to the West End to deliver some game; the clerk of Wilkins Flasher, Esquire, had gone to his dinner; and so Wilkins Flasher, Esquire, himself, cried, ‘Come in,’ when Mr. Pell and his companions knocked at the counting-house door.

Some hilarious commentary on Bath and Tradespeople:

‘The ball-nights in Ba-ath are moments snatched from
paradise; rendered bewitching by music, beauty, elegance, fashion, etiquette, and–and–above all, by the absence of tradespeople, who are quite inconsistent with paradise, and who have an amalgamation of themselves at the Guildhall every fortnight, which is, to say the least, remarkable. Good-bye, good-bye!’ and protesting all the way downstairs that he was most satisfied, and most delighted, and most overpowered, and most flattered, Angelo Cyrus Bantam, Esquire, M.C., stepped into a very elegant chariot that waited at the door, and rattled off.

On Bristol (finally Dickens tackles Bristol!):

Having inspected the docks and shipping, and viewed the cathedral, he inquired his way to Clifton, and being directed thither, took the route which was pointed out to him. But as the pavements of Bristol are not the widest or cleanest upon earth, so its streets are not altogether the straightest or least intricate; and Mr. Winkle, being greatly puzzled by their manifold windings and twistings, looked about him for a decent shop in which he could apply afresh for counsel and instruction.

Now, as promised, we come to Samuel Weller’s song about Dick Turpin:

ROMANCE

I

Bold Turpin vunce, on Hounslow Heath,
His bold mare Bess bestrode-er;
Ven there he see’d the Bishop’s coach
A-coming along the road-er.
So he gallops close to the ‘orse’s legs,
And he claps his head vithin;
And the Bishop says, ‘Sure as eggs is eggs,
This here’s the bold Turpin!’

CHORUS

And the Bishop says, ‘Sure as eggs is eggs,
This here’s the bold Turpin!’

II

Says Turpin, ‘You shall eat your words,
With a sarse of leaden bul-let;’
So he puts a pistol to his mouth,
And he fires it down his gul-let.
The coachman he not likin’ the job,
Set off at full gal-lop,
But Dick put a couple of balls in his nob,
And perwailed on him to stop.

CHORUS (sarcastically)

But Dick put a couple of balls in his nob,
And perwailed on him to stop.

Thus we are brought to the end, and I quite loved the end because it eased my sadness at parting:

Mr. Pickwick, having said grace, pauses for an instant and looks round him. As he does so, the tears roll down his cheeks, in the fullness of his joy.

Let us leave our old friend in one of those moments of unmixed
happiness, of which, if we seek them, there are ever some, to cheer our transitory existence here. There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast. Some men, like bats or owls, have better eyes for the darkness than for the light. We, who have no such optical powers, are better pleased to take our last parting look at the visionary companions of many solitary hours, when the brief sunshine of the world is blazing full upon them. It is the fate of most men who mingle with the world, and attain even the prime of life, to make many real friends, and lose them in the course of nature. It is the fate of all authors or chroniclers to create imaginary friends, and lose them in the course of art. Nor is this the full extent of their misfortunes; for they are required to furnish an account of them besides.

I’m afraid it makes me terribly sentimental. I am saving all the grim debtor’s prison stuff for a much better, more forceful and fascinating post. But this is everything I loved most.

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2 thoughts on “The Beautiful Pickwickians”

  1. Hi – Your name seems familiar, so I am not certain whether we have communicated before. Anyway, I am the author of the novel Death and Mr Pickwick, published by Random House in 2015, which tells the story behind the creation of The Pickwick Papers. In my view, The Pickwick Papers is not only a great novel, it also has the greatest backstory of any work of fiction. So you might like to take a look at my novel. There is also a very active facebook page, where I shall share a link to this page – http://www.facebook.com/deathandmrpickwick One of my fans has just posted the link to your page – and I was delighted to discover that you are a Pickwick fan! All the best Stephen Jarvis

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