If you have wanted to read Dickens but then thought it all seems a bit heavy and tragic, then this is the book for you. The Pickwick Papers is a good sized book, mine is about 35mm thick and printed in very small letters, but the heft of it is deceiving as it was written as a serial and is actually very easy to read.

Sam Weller, by Kyd. Public domain image.

The best character in the book is Mr Pickwick’s servant Sam Weller. He has an interesting accent, it’s cockney and also swaps the V’s and W’s for each other. In the 1830s this was a feature of Cockney accents, possibly due to European Jewish communities in London’s East End at the time. Sam Weller, or ‘Samivel Veller’, is famous for his amusing aphorisms.

“Don’t say nothing whatever about it, Ma’am”, replied Sam. “I only assisted nature, ma’m; as the doctor said to the boy’s mother, after he’d bled him to death.”

“If you’d know’d who was near, sir, I rayther think you’d change your note. As the hawk remarked to himself with a cheerful laugh, ven he heard the robin redbreast a singin’ round the corner.”

Sam also expounds interesting theories.

“Never knowed a churchyard where there wos a postboy’s tombstone, or see a dead postboy, did you?” inquired Sam, pursuing his catechism.

“No.” rejoined Bob, “I never did.”

“No! rejoined Sam, triumphantly. “Nor never vill; and there’s another thing that no man never see, and that’s a dead donkey, ‘cept the gentleman in the black silk smalls as know’d the young woman as kept a goat; and that was a french donkey so wery likely he warn’t one o’ the regular breed.”

“Well, what’s that got to do with the postboys?” asked Bob Sawyer.

“This here,” replied Sam. “Without goin’ so far as to assert, as some wery sensible people do, that postboys and donkeys is both immortal, wot I say is this; that whenever they feels theirselves gettin’ stiff and past their work, they just rides off together, one postboy to a pair in the usual way; wot becomes of them nobody knows, but it’s wery probable as they starts avay to take thier pleasure in some other vorld, for there ain’t a man alive as ever see, either a donkey or a postboy, a takin his pleasure in this!”

Sam’s statements are both funny and sad, he is a social critic, he has some wry wisdom and he is preoccupied with death, which was a far more everyday visitor in Dickens’s time than it is now. Nevertheless The Pickwick Papers is still quite a light read, and ends nicely.

I think it’s a good first Dickens, because it’s not tragic and it can be picked up and put down again like a magazine. It follows Mr Pickwick, Sam and various friends of Mr Pickwick (who comprise the Pickwick Club) on their travels and adventures, in love, in country houses, in mounting troubles, and in a happy ending which celebrates humanism and kindness.

The Pickwick Papers is widely available second hand and it may be worth checking your local library to see if they hold a copy. There are also audio recordings of the book available and it’s free to download or read online in various formats on Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/580