- The Beginning of Pickwick
Right from the start, The Pickwick Papers exhibited a remarkable power to generate stories about its own origins. Amid the unprecedented cultural excitement it prompted, readers pored over its details in the hope of discovering some new clue about the materials out of which Dickens had woven his text.1 They delighted, as many readers still do, in reading its caricatures as portraits of identifiable individuals, its backdrops as panoramas of real places, its episodes as allusions to actual events. Coupled with the impulse to trace the novelist’s models has been an equally keen desire to account for the origins of the novel itself: where had this astonishing book come from, and how had the relatively obscure young Boz emerged as the titanic Charles Dickens? Just ten years after the publication of the completed novel, Dickens noted that he had already heard “various accounts of the origin of these Pickwick Papers,” adding drily that all of them “possessed – for me – the charm of perfect novelty” (760; app. B). He was of course particularly anxious to lay to rest one of those origin stories – the one that held that the illustrator Robert Seymour deserved credit for many of the ideas behind the novel’s success – and so Dickens asserted a foundational myth of his own: “My views being deferred to, I thought of Mr Pickwick, and wrote the first number” (761). As origin stories go, this one has an appealing air of pithy finality, yet as Sylvère Monod observed, many readers continue to find it more tantalizing than otherwise.2 Generations of Dickensians have continued to explore the circumstances of the novel’s genesis, with the excellent justification of Pickwick’s immense importance in the history of [End Page 5] the novel; as James Eli Adams has written, it is the “single work that more than any other shaped the Victorian novel as a literary form” (55). Pickwick has been hailed for launching the career of the most important Victorian novelist, for redefining the meaning of authorship in an industrial age, for establishing fiction as a capitalist commodity-text, for pioneering a new relationship of writers and publishers, for revolutionizing the practices of publishing new fiction, and for heralding the advent of modern mass culture.3 A book that has been in so many ways a momentous beginning cannot fail to excite fascination with its own origins – the beginning of all those beginnings.
Compared with the grand narratives that have placed Pickwick at their head, this essay proposes only a modest contribution. Its story of the genesis of Pickwick concerns the inspiration of the first chapter, and more particularly of the uproar in the Pickwick Club caused by Mr. Blotton, who boldly calls Pickwick a “humbug” before retreating with the explanation that he “used the word in its Pickwickian sense” (20; ch.1). This Pickwickian fracas, I will argue, can be traced to a previously overlooked source, one that is ultimately more compelling and illuminating than the event to which we now conventionally point as the chapter’s model. The old appeal of tracing Pickwick’s sources is in this case especially beguiling, since it returns us to the very beginning of the text, and therefore promises a better understanding of what precisely Dickens was thinking when he first “thought of Mr Pickwick” and began to write. I shall also suggest, however, that this particular source casts new light on the conditions under which Dickens first fell to work, so that it teaches us about both the start of the story and the start of the process that produced the novel. I shall argue, finally, that by rethinking the origin of the novel’s first chapter, we can better appreciate a theme that it inaugurates, one that will develop throughout Pickwick and ultimately take a place among the most important concerns of Dickens’s fiction. In the end, the essay aims to provide a fresh approach to humbug in its parliamentary, Pickwickian, and Dickensian senses.
The novel’s short first chapter toys with curiosity about origins from its first line, where the narrator, adopting an ironic editorial pose, facetiously claims to have...