The Joy of Dickens

October 19, 2020

Phyllis Orrick, a former journalist and retired research editor at UC Berkeley, was inspired to embark upon reading Dickens's fourteen novels in chronological order "by two circumstances that occurred nearly 30 years apart." She uses the example of 'The Pickwick Papers' to explore themes of poetry, narrative technique, and the aspirational semi-biographical Dickens.



Hello, I’m Phyllis Orrick, and I am delighted to have a chance to contribute to the UC Santa Cruz Dickens Project’s Dickens to go during the 2020 Pandemic. I am coming to you from Berkeley, California. Although I most recently worked in academia as a researcher and editor, like Dickens, I started my working life as a newspaper reporter.

Since I retired six years ago this fall, I have embarked on reading all of Dickens’s 14 novels in chronological order, along the way pulling out passages and grouping them according to some two dozen subjects: Among them: the city and urban life, hotels and taverns, the countryside, money and its corrupting influence, religion and hypocrisy, and, simply, Poetry. To name a few. I plan to use them as building blocks for my own writing.

I’ve completed this work on the first seven novels: stopping at David Copperfield, which will be up next.

I was inspired to do this by two circumstances that occurred nearly 30 years apart.

The first was the gift by someone dear and near to me of a complete set of Dickens after I was promoted. The second was the receipt of a dozen or so letters written by my mother, Ruth. Those letters awakened memories of my mother’s way of speaking and how she would often weave in allusions of a Dickensian or Victorian/Edwardian nature. “The shoemaker’s children shall have no shoes,” was something I heard often. Or, as she and I headed off to shop for groceries and other household necessities, “Getting and spending we lay waste our hours” (Shakespeare, I know, but it has a Dickensian ring to me). It’s been decades since she died, so it was a nice reawakening.

My father, too, had an Edwardian/Victorian sensibility. On the wall of his den at home hung a porcelain bas-relief depiction, about six inches wide and 4 high of a man reclining in his chair, legs crossed elegantly at a huge desk looking out over a country landscape: inscribed with the title "Charles Dickens in his study Gadshill." 

For this Dickens to go, I have chosen the Pickwick Papers, the first long fiction Dickens wrote. For a number of reasons: In it, Dickens established most of the themes and figures that he would explore throughout his later works. And it shows Dickens the author progress from a stand-offish observer of Samuel Pickwick and his three pals to a true friend of his creations whom, by the book’s end, he clearly holds in deep affection.

The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, to honor it with its full title, also displays some meta-fictional playfulness that goes beyond the typical Victorian narrator who is so eager to get his point across that he peeks through the gap in the narrative curtains and speaks directly to the reader.

In Pickwick, Dickens creates what I see as a self-portrait of him at his best, this coming near the book’s conclusion, when all the threads are tidied up, and the good go to their rewards, the redeemable evil-doers mend their ways, and the few irredeemable transgressors are allowed to fade from sight.

The first passage I assigned to the “Poetry” category, though Dickens’s intimate knowledge of the city shines through here as well. It has a particular appeal to me: the sheer joy and exuberance of a pretty morning with nothing much official to be done but lots of potential adventures of a gentle sort.

You can find it at the start of chapter two, which is on page 6 of my edition.

“That punctual servant of all work, the sun, had just risen, and begun to strike a light on the thirteenth of May, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-seven, when Mr. Samuel Pickwick burst like another sun from his slumbers; threw open his chamber window, and looked out upon the world beneath. Goswell-Street was at his feet, Goswell-street was on his right hand–as far as the eye could reach, Goswell-Street extended on his left; and the opposite side of Goswell-Street was over the way. ‘Such,’ thought Mr. Pickwick, ‘are the narrow views of those philosophers who, content with examining the things that lie before them, look not to the truths which are hidden beyond. As well might I be content to gaze on Goswell-street for ever, without one effort to penetrate to the hidden countries which on every side surround it.’ And having given vent to this beautiful reflection, Mr. Pickwick proceeded to put himself into his clothes; and his clothes into his portmanteau. Great men are seldom over-scrupulous in the arrangement of their attire; the operation of shaving, dressing, and coffee-imbibing was soon performed: and, in another hour, Mr. Pickwick, with his portmanteau in his hand, his telescope in his great-coat pocket, and his note-book in his waistcoat, ready for the reception of any discoveries worthy of being noted down, had arrived at the coach stand in Saint Martin's-le-Grand."

This next passage is one of the most amusing narrative asides, and it occurs at the start of Chapter 13, on page 161 of my edition. It happens on the occasion of The Pickwickians visiting the town of Eatanswill in the midst of a highly contested election. As someone who covered the intensely local, almost parochial, politics of Baltimore, I found this seems familiar. But this passage falls under the “narrative technique” category that I have created.

“We will frankly acknowledge, that up to the period of our being first immersed in the voluminous papers of the Pickwick Club, we had never heard of Eatanswill; we will with equal contour admit, that we have in vain searched for proof of the actual existence of such a place at the present day. Knowing the deep reliance to be placed on every note and statement of Mr. Pickwick’s, and not presuming to set up our recollection against the recorded declarations of that great man, we have consulted every authority, bearing upon the subject, to which we could possibly refer. We have traced every name in schedules A and B, without meeting that of Eatanswill; we have minutely examined every corner of the Pocket County Maps issued for the benefit of society by our distinguished publishers, and the same result as attended our investigation. We are therefore led to believe that Mr. Pickwick, with that anxious desire to abstain from giving offense to any, and with those delicate feelings for which all who knew him well know he was so eminently remarkable, purposely substituted a fictitious designation, for the real name of the place in which his observations were made. We are confirmed in this belief by a little circumstance, apparently slight and trivial in itself, but when considered in this point of view, not undeserving of notice. In Mr. Pickwick’s notebook, we can just trace an entry of the fact, that the places of himself and followers were booked by the Norwich coach; but this entry was afterwards lined through, as if for the purpose of concealing even the direction in which the borough is situated. We will not, therefore, hazard a guess upon the subject, but will at once proceed with this history; content with the materials which its characters have provided for us.”

Finally, the third passage is one in which I believe Dickens reveals himself as the way he would want to be thought of. It occurs at the beginning of chapter fifty-six when Pickwick declares he is done with his rambles and acts as a kind of summing up.

“‘All the changes that have taken place among us,’ said Mr. Pickwick, ‘I mean the marriage that has taken place, and the marriage that will take place, with the changes they involve, rendered it necessary for me to think soberly and at once upon my future plans. I determined on retiring to some quiet, pretty neighborhood in the vicinity of London: I saw a house which exactly suited my fancy. I have taken it and furnished it. It is fully prepared for my reception, and I intend entering upon it at once, trusting that I may yet live to spend many quiet years in peaceful retirement; cheered through life by the society of my friends, and followed in death by their affectionate remembrance.’

“Here Mr. Pickwick paused, and a low murmur ran round the table.

“‘The house I have taken,’ said Mr. Pickwick, ‘is at Dulwich; it has a large garden, and is situated in one of the most pleasant spots near London. It has been fitted up with every attention to substantial comfort; perhaps to a little elegance besides; but of that you shall judge for yourselves. Sam accompanies me there. I have engaged, on Perker’s representation, a housekeeper–a very old one–and such other servants as she thinks I shall require. I propose to consecrate this little retreat by having a ceremony, in which I take a great interest, performed there. I wish, if my friend Wardle entertains no objection, that his daughter should be married from my new house, on the day I take possession of it. The happiness of young people,’ said Mr. Pickwick, a little moved, ‘has been the chief pleasure of my life. It will warm my heart to witness the happiness of those friends who are dearest to me, beneath my own roof.’

“Mr. Pickwick paused again: and Emily and Arabella sobbed audibly.

“‘I have communicated, both personally and by letter, with the club,’ resumed Mr. PIckwick, ‘acquainting them with my intention. During our long absence it has suffered much from internal dissensions; and the withdrawal of my name, coupled with this and other circumstances, has occasioned its dissolution. The Pickwick Club exists no longer.

“‘I shall never regret,’ said Mr. Pickwick in a low voice–‘I shall never regret having devoted the greater part of two years to mixing with different varieties and shades of human character, frivolous as my pursuit of novelty may have appeared to many. Nearly the whole of my previous life having been devoted to business and the pursuit of wealth, numerous scenes of which I had no previous conception have dawned upon me–I hope to the enlargement of my mind, and the improvement of my understanding. If I have done but little good, I trust I have done less harm, and that none of my adventures will be other than a source of amusing and pleasant recollections to me in the decline of life. God bless you all.’

“With these words, Mr. Pickwick filled and drained a bumper with a trembling hand; and his eyes moistened as his friends rose with one accord and pledged him from their hearts.”

Thank you for listening to my thoughts about The Pickwick Papers and Dickens and I look forward to hearing from others for this project.



Phyllis Orrick got her BA in a self-defined degree in Philosophy and Literary Criticism at Yale. After a short stint in politics and working on Capitol Hill, she began a 20-year career writing long-form features and editing weekly alternative papers in Baltimore, Washington, New York, and San Francisco. After moving to the Bay Area in the mid-90s, she went to work at the University of California, Berkeley (now retired) as an editor and researcher and website designer for research units in transportation engineering and city planning. She is at work on a long writing project weaving in passages and concepts from Charles Dickens’s novels, Flaubert (Bouvard et Pecuchet and Sentimental Education), other Victorian writing including the Brontes and Harriet Martineau, and Anglo-Irish and Irish novelists and poets from the 19th century to the present, among them Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Ciaran Carson, Joan Trodden  Keefe and Máirtín Ó Cadhain; with some contributions from mid-century Holocaust literature and intellectuals and critics like F.W. Dupee, Tom Flanagan, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, Christina Stead, and Stella Gibbons. On Twitter @orrickle.



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