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Charles Dickens: a writing lifetime

Pickwick Papers 1837

Engraved illustrated title page and frontispiece from the Pickwick PapersEngraved frontispiece and title pageCharles Dickens. The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. With forty-three illustrations by R. Seymour and Phiz. London: Chapman and Hall, 1837 [Rare Books Collection PR4569.A1 1837]

Dickens was approached in 1836 by Chapman and Hall with the commission to write a series of sporting stories/anecdotes to accompany images by the caricaturist Robert Seymour. At the time Seymour was well-known, and the scheme had been his own idea. Dickens, however, was not a writer with very sporty interests, so he negotiated leeway for himself and his work. Instead of a sporting club, he developed the Pickwick Club, a loose group of male friends with leisure time and a willingness to travel, and a love of the convivial life.

First page of textFirst page of textThe idea was a success, but only a few months later, Seymour – who suffered from depression – committed suicide. The publishers decided not to halt the project, and instead searched for a different artist. Their first choice was not a success, but the second was Hablot K Browne, whose pen-name 'Phiz' complemented Dickens's 'Boz'. He and Dickens were to work together for more than 20 years on this and other works.

Illustration showing mayor on platform, with supporters struggling and fighting belowEatanswill election hustingsPickwick is generally regarded as one of Dickens's happiest books – although it has its serious moments, it is light and amusing. The structure is picaresque: not a tightly plotted novel but a loose series of adventures touched with moments of pathos and of farce, interspersed with tales told during evenings over the ubiquitous punch bowl.

Illustration showing Mr Pickwick seated in the clerks' officeMr Pickwick and the clerksThe loveable central character of Mr Pickwick is the embodiment of kindly decency, and the peccadillos of his friends comparatively innocent. The book took off with the appearance of a new character, Sam Weller, who is first seen as the 'boots' of an inn. Weller's delightful London wit and charm, and his endearing devotion to Mr Pickwick, became increasingly central as the book developed during its serial publication.

Illustration showing Mr Pickwick in the debtors' prison surrounded by some other groups of prisonersMr Pickwick in the poor side of the debtors' prisonJohn Forster happily described Sketches by 'Boz' as 'the first sprightly runnings' of Dickens's genius. Both it and Pickwick embody elements in their story-lines and characterization which re-emerge in Dickens's later works, some of which are noticeably influenced by Dickens's own life-experience, for example of the role of lodgers and legal clerks, the mayhem of the Eatanswill election in Pickwick (Dickens had worked for a while as an election agent for a Member of Parliament) and especially the sequence in which Pickwick is incarcerated in a debtors' prison.

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