Thursday, December 2, 2010

The characters give us the Dickens

Title page with illustration.
The Christmas season always seems to evoke images of Charles Dickens and Victorian England, probably because of his enormously popular A Christmas Carol, a novel that has firmly established the iconic character of Scrooge and the phrase “Bah! Humbug!” in our culture.

That the story has been told and retold, produced on stage and in the movies, parodied and pilloried, is a testament to Dickens as a consummate storyteller. Indeed, from nearly the beginning of his writing career, Dickens’ work has been well received. Eager Londoners flocked to plunk down their shillings to get the next episode of his serialized first novel, The Pickwick Papers, in 1836.

A year later, The Pickwick Papers came out in book form and was equally sought by readers. There is a rare copy of that first edition in the Lighthouse Books, ABAA collection. It is a book that may give us among the best depictions of the coaching inns of old England.

The premise is simple: Members of a peculiar club experience life in the English countryside of the late 1820s and report back to fellow members about their adventures. They travel by coach and stay in the inns, encountering an amazing array of fascinating characters. This is, after all, Dickens’ primary gift to us, isn’t it? The characters? The humorous characters.

Pickwick, himself, of course. Mr. Samuel Pickwick, Esq., a kind old gentleman of means who conceives the idea for the club in the first place.

Mr. Nathaniel Winkle, his traveling companion and a man so inept with guns he could have been a prototype for a certain former U.S. vice president.

Mr. Augustus Snodgrass, a would-be poet. Mr. Tracy Tupman, a squat man with a self-image of a suave ladies man.

And then, of course, there’s Sam Weller, Mr. Pickwick’s Cockney valet, a character whose wry observations quickly found a following in Victorian London. Weller may have been singularly responsible for the early growth of Dickens’ popularity.

This is a beautiful full tan polished calf volume with gilt-decorated spine. It is extra-illustrated with nine additional plates by Buss and Miller––perhaps just the thing a wealthy Dickens character might have given as a Christmas gift, after a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past, of course.

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