The Pickwick Papers: “A source of amusing and pleasant recollection”

Published 180 years ago, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club became Charles Dickens’s first full-length book.

Popularly known as The Pickwick Papers, the novel is really a series of episodes interspersed with anecdotes. As Dickens noted in the Preface to the original edition, it was “designed for the introduction of diverting characters and incidents; that no ingenuity of plot was attempted, or even at that time considered very feasible by the author in connexion with the desultory mode of publication adopted.”

The name Pickwick was taken from Moses Pickwick, a well-known coach proprietor, who also ran several inns including the White Hart, Bath, visited in Chapter XXXVI. Bath is known to readers of Jane Austen as a fashionable resort, but Dickens mercilessly sends up its social pretensions:

“In the tea-room, and hovering round the card-tables, were a vast number of queer old ladies, and decrepit old gentlemen, discussing all the small talk and scandal of the day, with a relish and gusto which sufficiently bespoke the intensity of the pleasure they derived from the occupation. Mingled with these groups, were three or four match-making mammas, appearing to be wholly absorbed by the conversation in which they were taking part, but failing not from time to time to cast an anxious sidelong glance upon their daughters, who, remembering the maternal injunction to make the best use of their youth, had already commenced incipient flirtations in the mislaying scarves, putting on gloves, setting down cups, and so forth; slight matters apparently, but which may be turned to surprisingly good account by expert practitioners.”

When in Bath, imbibe the sulphurous spa water:

“Every morning, the regular water-drinkers, Mr. Pickwick among the number, met each other in the pump room, took their quarter of a pint, and walked constitutionally. At the afternoon’s promenade, Lord Mutanhed, and the Honourable Mr. Crushton, the Dowager Lady Snuphanuph, Mrs. Colonel Wugsby, and all the great people, and all the morning water-drinkers, met in grand assemblage. After this, they walked out, or drove out, or were pushed out in bath-chairs, and met one another again. After this, the gentlemen went to the reading-rooms, and met divisions of the mass. After this, they went home. If it were theatre-night, perhaps they met at the theatre; if it were assembly-night, they met at the rooms; and if it were neither, they met the next day. A very pleasant routine, with perhaps a slight tinge of sameness.”

The Pickwick Papers was turned into an opera by the conductor and composer Albert Coates (1882-1953). Born in Russia to an English father and a mother of Russian descent, he studied cello and piano at the Leipzig Conservatory, where he was tutored by the renowned conductor Arthur Nikisch. Coates made his debut in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann at the Leipzig Opera in 1904, led the London Symphony Orchestra 1919-21, and conducted in various opera houses before settling in South Africa in 1946.

Pickwick and Samuel Pepys were among seven operas that Coates composed. Pickwick was the first opera to be shown on television, just before its stage premiere at Covent Garden, when several scenes were included in the BBC’s new-fangled service in November 1936.

The libretto for Pickwick includes all the major incidents in the novel, concluding with Pickwick’s valedictory speech:

“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 recollection to me in the decline of life. God bless you all!”

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