In 1837, the year of the completion of Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers, also saw the merger of the Westminster Review with the London Review, to form the London and Westminster Review. The article reviewing Dickens' work appeared in only the second of the amalgamated form of the periodical. During the time the Westminster Review was still in and of itself, John Stuart Mill claimed the middle class as its target audience (Nesbitt, Benthamite Reviewing 42). It is conceivable to think that such a short time after the addition of the London Review, very little had changed. As such, the review of Pickwick Papers attempts to appeal to the prejudices of the middle class. This is both humorous and interesting, in light of the fact that the book was mostly intended for, and certainly most popular among the lower classes. Dickens' use of characterization, and the Review's commentary on this device is the most effective lens through which to see their differing class views.
Many times the article in the Review makes the assertion that Dickens' strength is in "describing and commenting on the comic peculiarities of the lower orders of Englishmen ("The Works of Dickens," London and Westminster Review 276)." By making observations such as "though he has sometimes described...and...portrayed members of the higher classes, it is not among either of these that his muse finds its favorite subjects (276)," the Review suggests that Dickens' parodies of the aforementioned categories were inaccurate. These statements, however, more likely intended to dull the offensive edge they may have had for that particular lot.
We cannot know for certain whether these claims are the exact truth, but our own reading of the book provides us with evidence. As for the "comic peculiarities of the upper orders of Englishmen," one need only witness Angelo Cyrus Bantam, Esquire, Master of Ceremonies. His ridiculously affected speech pattern; his dress, which includes a gold eyeglass, snuff-box, rings, watch, curb chain with gold seals, an ebony cane with a gold top, and a diamond pin set in gold; and his appearance "his wig was the glossiest, blackest, and curliest...his scent bouquet du roi. His features were contracted into a perpetual smile, and his teeth were in such perfect order that it was difficult at a small distance to tell the real from the false," is as full and rich a comic description as any lower-class character received, right down to the brilliant left-handed compliment regarding that gentleman's teeth (584). Other full upper-class parodies include the card-playing ladies of Bath and Mrs. and Mr. Leo Hunter (of the "Ode to an Expiring Frog").
In addition to the flimsy assertion that Dickens is not as skillful in parodying the upper echelons of society, insinuations that the lower classes are less intelligent serve to play to the pride of the upper classes. These intimations are evinced by statements about the lack of belief in Sam Weller, as a representative of his class, having some of the knowledge of the "higher" workings of the nation as a whole or of other countries (283). This belief that a person of the lower classes cannot have a wide range of knowledge is somewhat fallacious. Although it may well have been the tendency for the lower classes not to be thoroughly educated, there is no concrete reason to believe that Sam Weller could not have gained in his travels an atypical extensivity of knowledge. Sam's knowledge may be stretching the average a bit, but in he role he plays of the wise servant, it is both believable and appropriate.
The example of the peculiarity of Sam Weller's knowledge in the Review leads us to question whether or not Pickwick Papers was truly intended to be a broad caricature of society. The Review article says that Dickens "does not appear to excel so much in drawing characters as in describing and narrating incidents," and that "instead of drawing [the characters]...exactly as they are, he has...depicted them rather as they ought to be" (278). Although it may be true that Pickwick Papers is more obviously a commentary than a novel such as North and South, as such, it fulfills its role quite handily.
Some of the attributes of the "stock characters" and "personifications of ideals" have indeed been changed slightly from the traditional or given extra depth and dimension, but this does not serve to obscure Dickens' purpose or show his lack of characterization skill. On the contrary, Dickens' method allows both for clear ideas of the role of each character and for more depth than is commonly present in a caricature. For this reason the emotion is truly touching, and not just "there." For example, Tony Weller is more convincing and easier to identify with not only because he is driven crazy by his second wife, but also because he still loves her. The first attribute is a caricature, but the second adds depth and emotion to this potentially one-sided character. These enhanced character types now remind the reader not of one aspect of his or herself, but rather of how a real person would or could feel in such a position. Dickens' technique is hardly what could be called poor characterization.
"The Works of Dickens," The London and Westminster Review, Nos. X & LIII, William Lewer, New York City, July 1837.
Nesbitt, George L., Benthamite Reviewing, Columbia University Press, New York City, 1934.
Last modified 1996