The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (serialized 1836-1837, published as a book 1837) was Charles Dickens' first novel, originally published under his pseudonym Boz. His publishers, Chapman and Hall, had originally proposed that he write the adventures of "The Nimrod Club", a group of inept would-be sportsmen who would wander the English countryside attempting, poorly, to engage in various pursuits of manly vigor, with hilarious consequences. The main selling point was to be the comic illustrations of the popular artist Robert Seymour, with the 24-year old Dickens as a journeyman who would write his prose around Seymour's drawings.
Dickens demurred, on the grounds, "that the idea was not novel, and had already been much used; that it would be infinitely better for the plates to arise naturally out of the text; and that I would like to take my own way, with a freer range of English scenes and people, and was afraid I might ultimately do so in any case, whatever course I might prescribe myself at starting."
The idea he persuaded his publishers to accept instead was the adventures of the corresponding society of the Pickwick Club, consisting of the eponymous Mr. Pickwick, a kind elderly gentleman of leisure and a would-be natural philosopher, and his three younger companions and rapt admirers: Mr. Tupman, Mr. Snodgrass, and Mr. Winkle. None of these three could really be called a developed character; they all have the same personality, with the addition of a unique comic foible for each of them.
Mr. Tupman is fat but fancies himself quite the lady's man, though whatever distinguishing effect this might have is vitiated by the fact that all three get in constant romantic misadventures. Mr. Snodgrass, we are told, has pretensions to a poetic temperament, though the actual narrative consequences of this fact are nonexistent. Mr. Winkle pretends to be a great sportsman, but in fact is unable to do anything requiring more dexterity than sitting quietly in a corner without mishap. Mr. Winkle, presumably, was included so that Seymour would still have the chance to draw inept sportsmen. This makes the fact that Seymour killed himself after the publication of the second chapter, supposedly in despair over Dickens' changes to the original plan, all the more unfortunate.
These were not auspicious circumstances under which to begin publication, but The Pickwick Papers eventually became a resounding success. Initial sales were lackluster, but by shortly after Chapter 10, word-of-mouth had built up, and Pickwick was selling 40,000 copies an issue, up from around 400 for the first few. It had also become fodder for the Early Victorian equivalent of water cooler chatter throughout Britain, with the adventures of the Pickwickians and the possible events of the forthcoming episode a popular topic of conversation across every social class, a state of affairs that was to repeat itself across the course of Dickens' literary career. A unique advantage of serial publication was that an issue, at a shilling a copy, was affordable to the poor in a way that bound books were not.
The tenth chapter, not coincidentally, marked the introduction of Sam Weller, Pickwick's most popular character. Sam, a smart-mouthed and streetwise cockney who quickly becomes Mr. Pickwick's faithful manservant, and in many ways as much the protagonist as Pickwick himself. One would not be entirely incorrect in seeing a sort of prototype of Wooster and Jeeves in Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller, though Pickwick left to his own devices is not nearly as incompetent as Bertie Wooster.
One particularly pertinent aspect of serial publication is that once an issue has been published, revision is impossible. Most authors have the luxury of revising earlier portions of a novel if they find it neccesary over the course of writing and developing the book, but this is clearly out of the question if the earlier portions have already seen print and an audience. This makes reading Pickwick particularly interesting because it was Dickens' first novel, and it is possible to see the structure and subject of the book gradually change as Dickens gains confidence and finds his authorial voice.
The plot of the first half or so of Pickwick is entirely episodic, and more than a little sitcom-ish. Mistaken identity, indadvertent double entendre, women fainting into men's arms and being discovered, and duels nearly fought for mistaken reasons, but called off at the last minute all figure heavily. This format is never abandoned entirely, but the latter portion of the book has some elements, such as the lawsuit of Bardell vs. Pickwick, and Mr. Pickwick's sojourn in debtor's prison, that are markedly more serious than anything Dickens would have allowed himself to write earlier.
One suspects that Dickens also realized the relative weakness of Tupman, Snodgrass and Winkle as characters, as, while they are never abandoned entirely, most episodes late in the novel only include one of the three in a substantial role, probably so their essential similarity would stand out less. Mr. Pickwick's character also changes quite a bit as the book runs its course, his benevolent characteristics coming more and more to fore, and the more than slightly silly old man who takes pieces of graffiti for ancient artifacts and writes scientific papers on tittlebats fading away.
Dickens' ingenious explanation was that, "I do not think this change will feel appear forced or unnatural to my readers, if they will reflect that in real life the peculiarities and oddities of a man who has anything whimsical about him, generally impress us first, and that it is not until we are better acquainted with him that we usually begin to look below these superficial traits, and to know the better part of him." While accepting that there may be some truth to this, I strongly suspect that had Dickens had the opportunity to rewrite some of the earlier passages, he would have exercised it.
The pop culture phenomenon of The Pickwick Papers is as lost to us as that of the Simpsons would be to a viewer in the 22nd century, but we can still appreciate it as pure comedy, and as one of the first works of a master, all the more endearing for its few early false steps. Dickens is accessible in a way that we tend not to expect from the literary "giants", and Pickwick remains a pleasure to read.