Charles Dickens comic novel The Pickwick Papersoften overlooked today as a lighthearted period piece, was once a matter of very serious concern to thousands of fans around the world, some of whom have adopted the personas of their favorite characters and founded appreciation societies.
Now the first evidence that Mr Pickwick has become a central part of many fans’ lives is when he went on display at the Charles Dickens Museum in the novelist’s former London home in April. the minute book contains the official club notes of the earliest known Pickwick club and gives a clear picture of how the book brought friends together to discuss intrigue and debate social issues of the time.
Published in monthly episodes, Dickens’ English story about a group of fellow adventurers caused a stir and inspired readers’ clubs to come together, as did international enthusiasts of the television series. Kill Eve Where Peaky Blinders join online communities or follow episode blogs today.
“This minute bookthat we acquired at auction, is now one of the most fascinating objects in our huge collection,” said Cindy Sughrue, the museum’s curator, speaking to the Observer before the opening of Imagine Pickwick, an exhibition about the novel and the artists who worked on it. “The first club started in east London in 1837, while pickwick papers was still being serialized, and the book dates back to 1841.
Many other Pickwick clubs followed including early groups in Edinburgh and New Zealand and a few still exist today. But James Plater and his Whitechapel friends, who were aged between 14 and 24 and largely worked in the legal profession as clerks or barristers, are the first to leave surviving evidence of their formalized club status.
“They met at a local pub, although we don’t know which one. The book only notes the topics of debate and the verdicts, but it gives a real sense of what they were interested in,” Sughrue said. “They discussed whether it was ‘beneficial’ for the country to be a republic or a monarchy and whether Waterloo Bridge or London Bridge was more appealing. They also all voted once that a suet vendor working in Paternoster Square near St Paul was very annoying, but don’t say why.
The politics of the day were debated, with votes on the slave trade in March 1838 as well as another discussion sparked by Dickens’ own pamphlet on a bill to restrict public activities on Sundays. This parliamentary bill, which was not supported by the club, would have imposed fines for hobbies such as gambling and hunting. It was approved in the House of Commons, but was never enacted as the King died the following week and parliament was therefore dissolved.
“The Pickwick the series went from 500 subscriptions to 40,000 and became a huge hit,” Sughrue said. “It has shaped public conversation in the same way as the most popular Netflix series today. History-inspired debating clubs have popped up in pubs, including the Sun Tavern near Covent Garden and the George and Vulture. [in the City of London]a pub that appears in the novel.
Interacting with fans was important to Dickens, Sughrue added, even as the 24-year-old author wrote his new episodes. He wanted to hear feedback from readers and then built any fictional character that sparked interest.
“As amateur psychologists, we can now guess that Dickens loved the reinforcement the clubs gave him. He sent them letters, some of them for many years.
In 1837 Dickens wrote to welcome the founding of the Edinburgh Pickwick Club, exclaiming: “I cannot tell you how glad it gave me to hear of its existence… Mr. Pickwick’s heart is still with you.
Sughrue discovered the Pickwick fan club phenomenon in the pages of another classic, Little woman. “The March sisters are fans and they decide to start a Pickwick club and each play a character from the book. As a literary type, Jo is Augustus Snodgrass.
Louisa May Alcott wrote Little woman in 1868, shortly after Dickens’ second reading tour of America began and ended in nearby Boston.
“It shows you that Pickwick appealed to women as well as men, maybe because he didn’t care about men’s silliness,” Sughrue said.
And women were sometimes the subject of debate at the first Whitechapel club. the minute book records a positive vote on the question of whether it is possible to “die of love”. Another vote decided that “yes, definitely”, “love is blind”.
On the grounds that more women than men usually attended public executions, however, opinions were less decisive. “We don’t know”, judge the members of the club.