Page images
PDF
EPUB

THE PORTRAIT OF MR. PICKWICK

BY GEORGE AUGUSTUS SALA

On the second Saturday in July 1870 there were sold at Christie's rooms in King-street a number of choice pictures, and a quantity of china and miscellaneous nicknacks, which had been the property of CHARLES DICKENS, and had adorned the houses which the great English writer successively occupied in Devonshire-terrace, in Tavistock-square, and at Gadshill. Some of these objects even might have come from his still earlier residence in Doughty-street. Among the miscellanea, and the last items in the catalogue, were a set of ladles in silver-gilt, the stems ornamented with little figures, beautifully modelled, of the principal characters in the chief comic epic of our ageThe Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. These curious travesties of the “ Apostle Spoons,' with which you meet in cabinets of mediæval art, had been a gift to the successful young author from his publishers, Messrs. Chapman and Hall, at the termination of the work by which they made so much money, and he such an immensity of fame. The prices brought on the 9th of July by the sale of these droll trifles were enormous; and, in the result of the respective biddings, curiously marked the delicate gradations of affection and admiration in which the public held the various personages of the Pickwickian epopea as effigied on the ladles. Thus, the immortal Mr. Pickwick himself bore away, as in duty bound, the bell. He was knocked down at the prodigious price of sixty-nine pounds to a perfervid Scotch gentleman, who had only barely missed acquiring, with a bid of one hundred and fifteen guineas, a stuffed raven in a glass case, which was supposed to be the original. Grip' celebrated in Barnaby Rudge. The bird (which intrinsically, perhaps, was worth about three-and-sixpence) brought a hundred and twenty guineas; just five guineas more than the perfervid Scotch gentleman's desperate maximum. Sam Weller was next in favour ; he produced sixty-four pounds. Next in rank was the elder Mr. Weller, who was finally appraised at fifty-one pounds; the Fat Boy and Mr. Alfred Jingle paired at thirty pounds a-piece ; while the comparatively uninteresting Mr. Winkle brought only twenty-three pounds. The principles of poetic justice were surely fully vindicated in this oddest of auctions. Let me imagine a parallel, and assume that such a set of ladles had been presented by some platersque patron to Don Miguel de Cervantes of Saavedra, and had been sold, SECOND SERIES, VOL. II. F.S. VOL. XII.

M

after his death, in the Plaza Mayor, the chosen haunt of the Spanish pregoneros de almoneda. I am afraid that, in reality, the poor fellow's goods and chattels would not have fetched a dozen ducats; but the assumption will serve. How much would the 'Don Quixote'

' ladle have brought ? Say a thousand doubloons. How much Sancho Pança ? Say eight hundred. And the Curate? Well, two. And the Barber? Not more than one, perchance; while so much as two hundred and fifty might have been given for dear meek Dorothea, and fifty for that most unsatisfactory heroine, the Señorita Dulcinea del Toboso, whom I look upon as the 'Miss Harris' of fiction ; for may not Mrs. Gamp's friend have had a daughter who nearly brought her gray hairs with sorrow to the grave by rampaging about the Ventra de Cardenas on the back of a donkey, and carrying on' with a landed proprietor in La Mancha, who was quite the gentleman, but not quite in his right mind ?

Wishing the perfervid Scotch gentleman all joy of his purchase, and hoping that he might never be forced to ascertain the hypothecatory or 'Attenborough' value of his spoon, I came home, and spent my Saturday night in re-reading Pickwick through. Yes, he was the English Don Quixote; and the inartistic but thoroughly human change which comes over his character as the story progresses is wonderfully analogous to the mutation of the Don in Cervantes' novel. That novel is professedly and avowedly a burlesque, and its intent is to turn the romances of chivalry into ridicule. The novelist designedly surrounds the sham knight with sordid and humiliating accessories. He mounts him on a sorry screw fit only for the knacker's yard. As a squire he gives him an ignorant peasant, reeking of garlic and bestriding a jackass. The adventures into which he leads the errant pair are of a nature to make us ridicule and despise them. Don Quixote tilts at windmills, defies wild-beast showmen, strives to rescue galley-slaves, makes love to unkempt wenches with bare feet, and is disgracefully hoodwinked by the Duke and Duchess. Sancho shares the misadventures of his master, and is tossed in blankets, kicked, cuffed, and made a fool of to the end of the chapter. Yet with the development of the story a surprising alteration takes place in both characters. We dare to laugh at the Don; we dare to contemn Sancho. The knight becomes a courteous, single-minded, self-denying gentleman ; and in nobility of heart and spirit he takes very high rank indeed above the Duke and Duchess, who amuse themselves by hoaxing him. The squire undergoes an analogous transformation. He becomes as faithful as Achates, as prudent as Ulysses, as wise as Nestor. He is honest and sage and true; and when at last the Don dies, we weep; and when we think of honest Sancho, we say, 'God bless him !' The secret of all this is, that Humanity triumphed over Cervantes' burlesque. The man was stronger than the caricaturist. He grew to love the imaginary

personages he created, and he ended by making his readers love them too. A precisely similar metamorphosis of character is perceptible in Pickwick. The hero is, in the opening chapter, little better than a fatuous old idiot, perpetually thrusting his nose into affairs which do not concern him; incessantly starting on the wildest of wild-goose chases; the butt of every wag; the easy dupe of every swindler. Jingle cheats him, Job Trotter laughs at him, Mrs. Bardell bubbles him, Dodson and Fogg play at battledore and shuttlecock with him, a schoolmistress locks him in a cupboard, he has scarcely strength of mind enough to resist the extortion of an impudent cabman. As to Sam Weller, when we are first introduced to him he is simply a low blackguard, and next door to what, in the present era, would be termed a 'rough.' He confesses that his early knowledge of the world has been gained after he was turned out of doors by his father—by roaming about the streets and sleeping in the dry arches of Waterloo-bridge, or on the twopenny rope' in low lodging-houses. This is not even true to burlesque art, for the son of a well-to-do stage-coachman and licensed victualler should not have been reduced to such shifts. But, as the story progresses, all this changes. The doddering, prying, pottering old simpleton Pickwick grows to be a philanthropist of the kindest and noblest heart, the widest and tenderest sympathies. He is discriminating in his goodness, he is delicate in his benevolence. He is every inch a gentleman. Thus it is also with Sam Weller. The waif and stray of the London slums, the grimy drudge of the innyard in the Borough, develops into a servitor heroically devoted to his master, and capable -witness his voluntary incarceration in the Fleet, and his refusal to wed the pretty housemaid when his master is anxious to make him happy-of the noblest acts of self-sacrifice. It is the story of Don Quixote and Sancho Pança over again; but with this single exception : Cervantes was bound by no bond. He was independent from the beginning as to the conduct of his fable and the moulding of his characters' idiosyncrasies. Charles Dickens, on the contrary, began Pickwick in some kind of leading-strings. In the outset he was only engaged as a clever young man who could write to cuts'—that is to say, who could furnish some amusing literary matter to accompany the etchings of Mr. Seymour. The artist was a caricaturist pure and simple. He had invented a diverting but impossible monster—the Cockney sportsman-a creature that never did and never could exist; and the machinery of the Club served only at first as a means of entangling a number of Cockney sportsmen in ludicrous adventures. Mr. Winkle was to be the real hero of Seymour's Cockney romance; and on him and the dolt Tupman, and the mere ass Snodgrass, the artist evidently meant to fasten all the comic mischances he could conceive.

The trammels which, in the early numbers of Pickwick, encompassed the author, are manifest in the etching of the sportsman with his preternaturally wise dog, to elucidate which Dickens has been fain to paraphrase one of Jesse's 'anecdotes.' The cut, in fine done, and had to be written to. But no sooner had death removed poor Seymour, than the wielder of the pen shook himself free, at once and for ever, from the controlling influence of the pencil. The draughtsman was to be henceforth not his master, but his slave; and his early divorce from George Cruikshank (who only illustrated two of his works) may have been due to a half-unconscious impatience on his part of collaboration with another man of original genius (for George was undoubtedly, according to his lights, a creator); and Fagin, Bill Sikes, and Nancy had about them, pictorially, so strong a stamp of originality, that they had, to a certain extent, to be

written up to.' In the good old days of folios and quartos, a harmless, nay, sometimes useful creature, called a scholiast, was permitted to encompass a great author's text with notes, commentaries, glosses, and marginalia. Sometimes these addenda fulfilled only the questionable purpose attained by an iron pot when it is tied to a dog's tail; but in many cases they really served to elucidate the author's meaning, to strengthen his arguments, and to draw attention to his beauties. The name of the scholiasts on Homer, Dante, Horace, Milton, Shakespeare, Dryden, and Pope, are legion ; nay, there are even variorum editions of Boswell's Johnson, and amply annotated issues of Pepys' Diary. It is a hundred years too soon, perhaps, for the scholiast on Dickens, in a literary sense, to make his appearance on the stage ; and no gloss is yet needed to make us understand all the niceties of Sam Weller's slang, of his father's witticisms, or of Mr. Stiggins's cant. Yet in the interests of the study of the history of civilisation, it is well worth the while of the inquirer— leaving, for the nonce, the literary merits of the performance entirely on one side — to plod carefully through the pages of Pickwick, and mark the many and important changes which have taken place in our national manners since the book made its appearance, nearly five-and-thirty years ago. He who approached Vanity Fair in a similar spirit, and with an analogous intent, would lose his labour, or would be bitterly disappointed. The period in which the action of that drama of human life is laid ranges between 1815 and 1829; but the manners depicted belong almost exclusively to the time in which the book really made its appearance, 1845-6. In nearly the opening chapter Thackeray boldly threw overboard, in the etchings he himself appended to his text, every pretension of fidelity to the costumes of the epoch in which his personages moved.

He proved to demonstration—by a little vignette copied from some fashion-plate of 1815—that to depict men and women in the dresses they really wore during the Regency and the reign of George IV. would be so outré, as to become offensive and intolerable. Not avowedly, but still tacitly to completeness, he repudiated the manners, as he had repudiated the swallow-tails and short waists, of the Georgian era. His guardsmen, club-folk, flunkies, swindlers, toadies, school-girls, governesses, duchesses, and demireps, are all to their finger-tips of the Victorian age. These artistic solecisms are not existent in Pickwick. The author simply described that which he saw before him, literally, faithfully, and exactly; and he could have said with greater truth than Jean Jacques had on his side when he penned the epigraph to the Nouvelle loïse, "J'ai vu les mæurs de mon temps, et j'ai publié ces lettres.'

There could not, perhaps, be a more striking example of that which I have advanced than in the allusions to drunkenness in Pickwick, compared with that which we know to be the actual aspect of intemperance among us. We are a drunken people enough in 1870; but it is undeniable that the ruinous and degrading vice in question has been, to a very great extent, banished from respectable and refined society; while it is probable that among the chief causes of its decline in the higher classes have been the spread of the practice of cigar-smoking (which may seem a paradox, but is not one : a drunken man cannot enjoy a cigar at all; and a sober one cannot appreciate any wine save thin claret while he is smoking); the universal use of soda-water and other aërated drinks; the surprising increase of foreign travel; and the amelioration in the social position of women, who are now permitted to share in many of the recreations of men from which a generation since they were senselessly and brutally debarred.

There are some intoxicated characters in most of Dickens's novels; but Pickwick absolutely reeks with alcohol. Everybody gets drunk. The first club-night described is an orgie. The famous duel at Rochester arises from a violent debauch. Mr. Pickwick, his club-friends, Mr. Wardle, Mr. Stiggins, Mr. John Smauker and his fellow-flunkies, the stage-coachmen who rally round the elder Mr. Weller,—are all represented at various times in a state of more or less violent or stupid intoxication. Mr. Bob Sawyer and Mr. Ben Allen are in a chronic state of delirium tremens, and all their associates of the medical-student class get as drunk as they. The two ghost-stories in the book are both connected with inebriety. Sam Weller and his father drink deeply, but are only saved from making themselves ridiculous through the superior hardness of their heads. The Reverend Mr. Stiggins represents only so much detestable hypocrisy floating about in so much pine-apple rum-andwater. Mr. Job Trotter is in a continual state of vinous thirst. As for Mr. Pickwick, there is no end to his bibbing; and when he is tired while wandering about the City with Sam, he steps into the nearest public-house—in the middle of the day—and orders a glass of brandy-and-water hot. If an attorney's clerk be wanted, he is

« PreviousContinue »