Mr. Pickwick Addresses the Club
Chapter 1, Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
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Dickens, despite his youth and desire to be a published author, had the nerve to object to William Hall's suggestion of the mere episodic adventures of a "Nimrod Club," given his lack of knowledge about sporting activities and the fact that such a concept was already rather hackneyed — thanks largely to work by Seymour and Surtees between 1832 and 1834.
My views being deferred to, I thought of Mr. Pickwick, and wrote the first number; from the proof sheets of which, Mr. Seymour made his drawing of the Club, and his happy portrait of its founder: — the latter on Mr. Edward Chapman's description of the dress and bearing of a real personage whom I had often seen. I connected Mr. Pickwick with a club, because of the original suggestion, and I put in Mr.Winkle expressly for the use of Mr. Seymour. [Dickens, "Preface," The Household Edition iv]
What a study for an artist did that exciting scene present! The eloquent Pickwick, with one hand gracefully concealed behind his coat tails, and the other waving in air to assist his glowing declamation; his elevated position revealing those tights and gaiters, which, had they clothed an ordinary man, might have passed without observation, but which, when Pickwick clothed them — if we may use the expression — inspired involuntary awe and respect; surrounded by the men who had volunteered to share the perils of his travels, and who were destined to participate in the glories of his discoveries. On his right sat Mr. Tracy Tupman — the too susceptible Tupman, who to the wisdom and experience of maturer years superadded the enthusiasm and ardour of a boy in the most interesting and pardonable of human weaknesses — love. Time and feeding had expanded that once romantic form; the black silk waistcoat had become more and more developed; inch by inch had the gold watch-chain beneath it disappeared from within the range of Tupman's vision; and gradually had the capacious chin encroached upon the borders of the white cravat: but the soul of Tupman had known no change — admiration of the fair sex was still its ruling passion. On the left of his great leader sat the poetic Snodgrass, and near him again the sporting Winkle; the former poetically enveloped in a mysterious blue cloak with a canine-skin collar, and the latter communicating additional lustre to a new green shooting-coat, plaid neckerchief, and closely-fitted drabs. [chapter 1, p. 2 in the Boston ed.]
The first plate, marking the inauguration of the Cockney sporting club, is set on 12 May 1827. The principals, apart from Pickwick (holding forth while standing on a chair) are Tracy Tupman, the poet Augustus Snodgrass, and the experienced "sportsman," Nathaniel Winkle. As Pickwick addresses the club, Mr. Blotton (one of three figures in the first illustration: the man with the pipe, up centre; the man gesticulating, down centre; or the sour-looking gentleman with the pipe, down left) denounces Pickwick as a "Humbug," an insult which Ebenezer Scrooge made famous seven years later in A Christmas Carol, implying a species of imposture, deceit, or delusion. That Robert Seymour (1798-1836) was not much invested in the club members so much as their "sporting" activities is implied by the artist's failure to individualise the other club members, and by their postures suggest which figure is Blotton. The passage realised suggests that Tupman is to Pickwick's immediate right, and that Snodgrass and Winkle are to Pickwick's immediate left.
Nothing in the initial illustration prompts a reader's sympathy with any of the characters, and the illustrator fails to suggest a precise narrative moment for realisation, other than the visual allusion to Pickwick's having one hand in his coat tails. But Seymour was a well-known, popular artist, so Dickens's bided his time. The crisis came when, having just married Catherine Hogarth, young Dickens wanted a reprieve from monthly writing in order to take her on a honeymoon. Consequently, when he simply inserted in an instalment a short story he had written some time earlier — "The Stroller's Tale," whose morbid tone and subject are hardly consistent with a jolly group of Cockney sportsmen — in "The Dying Clown" (the fifth plate) Seymour failed to provide an illustration that pleased the writer. Although Dickens has never reported the substance of their conversation on Sunday, 17 April 1836, one can easily guess at the tone of the meeting; on the 19th, Seymour blew his brains out with a fowling piece in his back garden.
Dickens is not being entirely truthful when he writes, "I thought of Mr. Pickwick," for a character who looks very much like the retired merchant occurs in Seymour's Maxims and Hints for an Angler (1833): even the delightful Sam Weller, whose introduction after Phiz took over the serial's illustration resulted in a spike in sales, may not be entirely a Dickens original, since a similar, smart-tongued Cockney appears in Seymour's Cockney Sporting Sketches.
Left: Mr. Pickwick Addresses the Club by Thomas Nast. Right: The location of the illustration in relation to the text.
Compare Seymour's handling of the incorporation scene to Thomas Nast's untitled version of Pickwick's presenting the charter and terms of incorporation to the club on page 9 of the American Household Edition, a woodcut in which the viewer is situated behind the Presiding Perpetual Vice-President, Joseph Sniggers, with Pickwick to his and our right.
Cohen, Jane Rabb. Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio State U. P., 1980.
Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File and Checkmark Books, 1998.
Dickens, Charles. Pickwick Papers (1836-37). Il. Hablot Knight Browne. The Charles Dickens Edition. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1867. Facing title-page.
Dickens, Charles. Pickwick Papers (1836-37). Il. Hablot Knight Browne. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1873.
Dickens, Charles. Pickwick Papers (1836-37). Il. Thomas Nast. The Household Edition. New York: Harper and Bros., 1873.
Guiliano, Edward, and Philip Collins, eds. The Annotated Dickens. Vol. 1. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1986.
Hammerton, J. A. The Dickens Picture-Book. London: Educational Book Co., 1910.
Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington & London: Indiana U.P., 1978.
Last modified 4 July 2002