The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (also known as The Pickwick Papers) is Charles Dickens's first novel. He was asked to contribute to the project as an up-and-coming writer following the success of Sketches by Boz, published in 1836 (most of Dickens' novels were issued in shilling instalments before being published as complete volumes). Dickens (still writing under the pseudonym of Boz) increasingly took over the unsuccessful monthly publication after the original illustrator Robert Seymour had committed suicide.
With the introduction of Sam Weller in chapter 10, the book became the first real publishing phenomenon, with bootleg copies, theatrical performances, Sam Weller joke books, and other merchandise.
After the publication, the widow of Robert Seymour claimed that the idea for the novel was originally her husband's; however, in his preface to the 1867 edition, Dickens strenuously denied any specific input, writing that "Mr Seymour never originated or suggested an incident, a phrase, or a word, to be found in the book.
Dickens was a young man, 24 years old, who had written nothing more than a group of sketches dealing mainly with London life. A firm of London publishers, Messrs. Chapman and Hall, was then projecting a series of "cockney sporting plates" by illustrator Robert Seymour. There was to be a club, the members of which were to be sent on hunting and fishing expeditions into the country. Their guns were to go off by accident; fishhooks were to get caught in their hats and trousers. All these and other misadventures were to be depicted in Seymour's comic plates.
At this juncture, Charles Dickens was called in to supply the letterpress – that is, the description necessary to explain the plates and connect them into a sort of picture novel such as was then the fashion. Though protesting that he knew nothing of sport, Dickens nevertheless accepted the commission; he consented to the machinery of a club, and in accordance with the original design sketched Mr Winkle who aims at a sparrow only to miss it.
Only in a few instances did Dickens adjust his narrative to plates that had been prepared for him. Typically, he himself led the way with an instalment of his story, and the artist was compelled to illustrate what Dickens had already written. The story thus became the prime source of interest, and the illustrations merely of secondary importance. By this reversal of interest, Dickens transformed, at a stroke, a current type of fiction, consisting mostly of pictures, into a novel of contemporary London life. Simple as the process may appear, others who had tried the plan had all failed. Pierce Egan partially succeeded in his Tom and Jerry, a novel in which the pictures and the letterpress are held in even balance. Dickens won a complete triumph. In future years, however, Dickens was suspiciously eager to distance himself from suggestions that Pierce Egan's Life in London had been a formative influence.
Robert Seymour provided the illustrations for the first two instalments before his suicide. Robert Buss illustrated the third instalment, but his work was not liked by Dickens and the remaining instalments were illustrated by "Phiz" (Hablot Knight Browne) who went on to illustrate most of Dickens' novels. The instalments were first published in book form in 1837.
Written for publication as a serial, The Pickwick Papers is a sequence of loosely-related adventures. The action is given as occurring 1827–8, though critics have noted some seeming anachronisms. It has been stated that Dickens satirized the case of George Norton suing Lord Melbourne in The Pickwick Papers. The novel's main character, Samuel Pickwick, Esquire, is a kind and wealthy old gentleman, and the founder and perpetual president of the Pickwick Club. To extend his researches into the quaint and curious phenomena of life, he suggests that he and three other "Pickwickians" (Mr Nathaniel Winkle, Mr Augustus Snodgrass, and Mr Tracy Tupman) should make journeys to places remote from London and report on their findings to the other members of the club. Their travels throughout the English countryside by coach provide the chief theme of the novel. A distinctive and valuable feature of the work is the generally accurate description of the old coaching inns of England. (One of the main families running the Bristol to Bath coaches at the time was started by Eleazer Pickwick).
Its main literary value and appeal is formed by its numerous memorable characters. Each character in The Pickwick Papers, as in many other Dickens novels, is drawn comically, often with exaggerated personality traits. Alfred Jingle, who joins the cast in chapter two, provides an aura of comic villainy. His devious tricks repeatedly land the Pickwickians in trouble. These include Jingle's nearly-successful attempted elopement with the spinster Rachael Wardle of Dingley Dell manor, misadventures with Dr Slammer, and others.
Further humour is provided when the comic cockney Sam Weller makes his advent in chapter 10 of the novel. First seen working at the White Hart Inn in The Borough, Weller is taken on by Mr Pickwick as a personal servant and companion on his travels and provides his own oblique ongoing narrative on the proceedings. The relationship between the idealistic and unworldly Pickwick and the astute cockney Weller has been likened to that between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
Other notable adventures include Mr Pickwick's attempts to defend a lawsuit brought by his landlady, Mrs Bardell, who (through an apparent misunderstanding on her part) is suing him for breach of promise. Another is Mr Pickwick's incarceration at Fleet Prison for his stubborn refusal to pay the compensation to her — because he doesn't want to give a penny to Mrs Bardell's lawyers, the unscrupulous firm of Messrs. Dodson and Fogg. The generally humorous tone is here briefly replaced by biting social satire (including satire of the legal establishment). This foreshadows major themes in Dickens's later books.
Mr Pickwick, Sam Weller, and Weller Senior also appear in Dickens's serial, Master Humphrey's Clock.
Sam Weller and his father Tony Weller (The Valentine)
Samuel Pickwick — the main protagonist and founder of the Pickwick Club. Following his description in the text, Pickwick is usually portrayed by illustrators as a round-faced, clean-shaven, portly gentleman wearing spectacles.
Nathaniel Winkle — a young friend of Pickwick's and his travelling companion; he considers himself a sportsman, though he turns out to be dangerously inept when handling horses and guns.
Augustus Snodgrass — another young friend and companion; he considers himself a poet, though there is no mention of any of his own poetry in the novel.
Tracy Tupman — the third travelling companion, a fat and elderly man who nevertheless considers himself a romantic lover.
Sam Weller — Mr Pickwick's valet, and a source of idiosyncratic proverbs and advice.
Tony Weller — Sam's father, a loquacious coachman.
Alfred Jingle — a strolling actor and charlatan, noted for telling bizarre anecdotes in a distinctively extravagant, disjointed style.
Joe — the "fat boy" who consumes great quantities of food and constantly falls asleep in any situation at any time of day; Joe's sleep problem is the origin of the medical term Pickwickian syndrome which ultimately led to the subsequent description of Obesity hypoventilation syndrome.
Job Trotter — Mr Jingle's wily servant, whose true slyness is only ever seen in the first few lines of a scene, before he adopts his usual pretence of meekness.
Mr Wardle — owner of a farm in Dingley Dell. Mr Pickwick's friend, they meet at the military review in Rochester. Joe is his servant.
Rachael Wardle — the spinster aunt who tries in vain to elope with the unscrupulous Jingle.
Mr Perker — an attorney of Mr Wardle, and later of Mr Pickwick.
Mary — "a well-shaped female servant" and Sam Weller's "Valentine".
Mrs Martha Bardell — Mr Pickwick's widowed landlady who brings a case against him for breach of promise.
Emily Wardle — one of Mr Wardle's daughters, very fond of Mr Snodgrass.
Arabella Allen — a friend of Emily Wardle and sister of Ben Allen. She later elopes with Mr. Winkle and marries him.
Benjamin "Ben" Allen — Arabella's brother, a dissipated medical student.
Robert "Bob" Sawyer — Ben Allen's friend and fellow student.
Mr Serjeant Buzfuz — Mrs Bardell's lawyer in legal dealings with Mr Pickwick.