Charles Dickens’s comic novel The Pickwick Papers, often overlooked today as a lighthearted period piece, was once a matter of very serious concern to thousands of fans across the world, some of whom adopted the personas of their favourite characters and founded appreciation societies.
Now the earliest proof that Mr Pickwick became central to the lives of many fans is to go 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 first known Pickwick club and gives a clear picture of the way the book brought friends together to discuss the plots and debate social issues of the day.
Published in monthly episodes, Dickens’s English story about a group of adventuring companions created a popular sensation and inspired clubs of readers to get together, just as international devotees of the television series Killing Eve or Peaky Blinders join online communities or follow episode blogs today.
“This Minute Book, which we acquired at auction, is now one of the most fascinating items in our huge collection,” said Cindy Sughrue, the curator of the museum, speaking to the Observer before the opening of Picturing Pickwick, an exhibition about the novel and the artists who worked on it. “The first club started up in east London in 1837, while Pickwick Papers was still being serialised, and the book goes up to 1841.”
Many other Pickwick clubs followed, including early groups in both Edinburgh and New Zealand and a few are still in existence today. But James Plater and his friends from Whitechapel, who were aged between 14 and 24 and largely worked in the legal profession as clerks or solicitors, are the first to have left surviving proof of their formalised club status.
“They met in a local pub, although we are not sure which. The book only notes the topics of debate and the verdicts, but it gives a real sense of what was interesting to them,” said Sughrue. “They discussed whether it was ‘beneficial’ for the country to be a republic or a monarchy and they argued about whether Waterloo Bridge or London Bridge was the more attractive. They also all once voted that a tallow chandler working at Paternoster Square, near St Paul’s, 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 prompted by Dickens’s own pamphlet about planned legislation to restrict public activities on a Sunday. This parliamentary bill, which was not supported by the club, would have imposed fines for leisure pursuits such as gambling and hunting. It was approved in the House of Commons, but never enacted because the King died the next week and so parliament was dissolved.
“The Pickwick serial went from 500 subscriptions to 40,000 and became a huge success,” said Sughrue. “It shaped public conversation much in the way the most popular Netflix serials today do. Debating clubs inspired by the story popped up in pubs, including in the Sun Tavern near Covent Garden and at 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 readers’ reactions and would then build up any fictional character that had piqued interest.
“As amateur psychologists, we can now guess Dickens loved the reinforcement the clubs gave him. He sent letters to them, some of them for many years.”
In 1837, Dickens wrote to welcome the foundation of the Edinburgh Pickwick Club, exclaiming, “I cannot tell you how much delight it has afforded me to hear of its existence… Mr Pickwick’s heart is among you always.”
Sughrue first came across the Pickwick fan club phenomenon inside the pages of another classic, Little Women. “The March sisters are fans and they decide to set up a Pickwick club and each play a character from the book. As a literary type, Jo is Augustus Snodgrass.”
Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women in 1868, shortly after Dickens’ second reading tour of America had both begun and ended in nearby Boston.
“It shows you that Pickwick appealed to women as well as men, perhaps because it made fun of the idiocies of men,” said Sughrue.
And women were occasionally the subject of debates 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, certainly,” “love is blind”.
On the reason that more women than men customarily attended public executions, though, views were less decisive. “We don’t know,” the club members judged.