The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, more commonly referred to now as The Pickwick Papers, was Charles Dickens’s first novel, originally published as a monthly serial between March 1836 and October 1837. The work helped to propel Dickens to become one of the foremost writers of the time.
Following his success as an up-and-coming writer with a series of newspaper sketches (collated as Sketches by Boz), Charles Dickens was asked to contribute to a new project by the publishers Chapman and Hall. The firm had recently had success with the Squib Annual of Poetry, Politics, and Personalities by the illustrator Robert Seymour. Seymour had a new idea he termed the Nimrod Club, revolving around a group of Cockney sportsmen, and the mishaps they get up to. Seymour would illustrate the new work and Chapman and Hall wanted Dickens to write the narrative. Dickens agreed to write for the project, although changed some of Seymour’s original ideas.
Barely three weeks after the first edition of The Pickwick Papers had appeared its illustrator, Robert Seymour, committed suicide in the garden of his Islington home in north London. He had held a meeting with Dickens just two days before and many people have speculated that Seymour was said to be crushed that his original concept for the story had not been adopted. However at the inquest into his death, it was revealed Seymour suffered from mental illness and left a note blaming just himself, which included the words ‘Blame, I charge you, no one. It is my own weakness and infirmity. I do not think any one has been a malicious enemy to me‘. A verdict is given of ‘Temporary insanity‘ was recorded at the inquest.
Charles Dickens had just turned 24 when he agreed to write The Pickwick Papers and married life was knocking. He was engaged to Catherine Hogarth, daughter of the Scottish journalist and publisher George Hogarth. Marriage was less than two months away. Publishers Chapman and Hall offered Dickens a monthly wage for his writings, giving him financial security at this important time. The Pickwick Papers was started whilst Dickens was living at Furnival’s Inn and completed at Doughty Street. He also wrote parts whilst holidaying at lodgings in Broadstairs, Kent.
The Pickwick Papers first appeared in instalments, costing one shilling each, of 19 issues over the 18 months between March 1836 and October 1837. The last was double-length and cost two shillings. The serialisation originally went under the long-winded title of ‘THE POSTHUMOUS PAPERS of the PICKWICK CLUB. Containing a faithful Record of the Perambulations, Perils, Travels. Adventures, and Sporting Transactions of the Corresponding Members‘. The novel was first published in book form in 1837.
Initial sales of The Pickwick Papers was quite muted but began to pick up as critics and the public enjoyed the humourous writing Dickens put into the work. The introduction of the character Sam Weller was reputed to help propel sales from a reported 400 copies an issue at the beginning of the series to 40,000 towards the end. As a result, The Pickwick Papers helped catapult Charles Dickens to become a household name, nationally and internationally, and launched his career as one of the foremost writers of the nineteenth century. Following his success, The Pickwick Papers was followed by the novels Oliver Twist (1837 – 1839), Nicholas Nickleby (1838 – 1839) and The Old Curiosity Shop (1840 – 1841).
The Pickwick Papers is a sequence of loosely-related adventures revolving around a small group of gentlemen travelling around southern England in the 1820’s. The novel’s main character, Samuel Pickwick, is a kind and wealthy old gentleman, and the founder and perpetual president of the Pickwick Club. To extend his research into the quaint and curious phenomena of life, he suggests that he and three other ‘Pickwickians’ (Nathaniel Winkle, Augustus Snodgrass, and Tracy Tupman) should make journeys to places remote from London and report on their findings to the other members of the club. Later on in the serial Charles Dickens introduced the character of the comic cockney Sam Weller as a personal servant to Samuel Pickwick, and with his own take on the adventures.
The Pickwick Papers is set at the end of the 1820’s, roughly ten years before its publication. King George IV was on the throne and the government of the day was dominated by the Tory party. Passenger railway development was in its infancy and stagecoaches were still the dominant way of travel for those that could afford them. Very few people had the right to vote and electoral corruption was frequent in an age before the Reform Act of 1832 brought in sweeping changes to the electoral system of England and Wales. Under English Common Law, a man could be sued for failing to fulfill a promise to marry.
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