I have read several sobering articles about the decline in reading for pleasure, not only in America, but also across the world. There are numerous reasons given for this decline, including the rise of electronics and more hours spent in front of the TV. However, I’m not an academic, a statistician or any type of reading specialist. I’m just a person who loves reading for pleasure – and for our purposes here, we will define pleasure as “enjoyment.” The choice of reading that gives you pleasure or enjoyment may be poetry or cookbooks or mysteries or romance novels, or even, as in the case of Mr. Pickwick’s fellow Pickwick Club members, the report titled “Speculations on the Source of the Hampstead Ponds, with some Observations on the Theory of Tittlebats.”
I have no “recipe” for developing a love in reading in children; I only know that I was lucky to grow up in a house filled with books, magazines and newspapers. My three siblings and I received books at Christmas and on birthdays, and my parents usually read every day. My dad was an avid lifelong reader, encouraged by his own father’s reading. He, along with his two brothers, were urged when they all were young and noisy to read at the dinner table so that their mother (a former Canadian school teacher) could have some peace and quiet.
For me, reading was and is as natural and necessary as breathing. I was the quiet oldest of three girls, plus our kid brother, and I was usually upstairs in my room reading while my athletic younger siblings were outside playing. How my mother would urge me to go out and get some “fresh air”! I don’t remember the first books I read, although I do remember my mother asking my 5th-grade teacher, Mrs. Brown, for advice after finding me reading her copy of Gone with the Wind. My mother told me much later that my wise teacher merely told her that I would skip over any parts I didn’t understand, and I am grateful to both of them for leaving me to it.
This introduction brings me to my book of choice today, The Pickwick Papers. My family loved the traditions of Christmas, although my father usually restricted his activities to placing the strings of lights on the tree. Duty done, he would then pop a large bowl of popcorn, turn the radio to some sports game, and retire to the den with his copy of The Pickwick Papers. As we hung ornaments in the other room, we occasionally could hear my dad chuckle or even laugh loudly.
When I grew older, I first read the entire book and then read the three “Christmas chapters” every year. No chapters in that book are as beloved to me as those chapters, so-called because my father – and then I – read these pages before Christmas for many years. I don’t always reread the chapters every year now; however, I almost have memorized them.
“Christmas was close at hand, in all his bluff and hearty honesty; it was the season of hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness…. Gay and merry was the time; and right gay and merry grew at least four of the numerous hearts that were gladdened by its coming.” Charles Dickens wrote these lines of his first book (begun as a serial) in 1836, when he was only 24.
The “four hearts” he mentioned belonged to Samuel Pickwick, the plump, kindly, naive founder of the Pickwick Club, and his three friends: Tracy Tupman, Augustus Snodgrass, and Nathaniel Winkle, also club members. The group’s mission was to explore areas outside of London and report back to the club; their activities and misadventures made up the book.
Sam Weller, a level-headed and shrewd cockney, became personal servant to Mr. Pickwick in Chapter 10. With his introduction, sales of the serial began to rise. At the beginning of Chapter 28, the travelers, along with Sam Weller, are headed for their old friend Mr. Wardle’s home, Manor Farm, in the parish of Dingley Dell. (And how my father delighted in that name!) Not only will they celebrate Christmas; they also will attend the wedding of one of Wardle’s daughters, Arabella.
Having both a wedding and a family celebration of Christmas together gives Dickens a wonderful opportunity. Simon Callow, in his 2017 essay, “Charles Dickens and the Victorian Christmas Feast,” states: “For Dickens, it is the coming together of people around a table, the celebration of their humanity, the sharing of their bounty, the reward of this indulgence (even if it is only once a year) that is the essence of the meal.” In these chapters, Dickens has not only the wedding breakfast and the wedding feast, but also the Christmas breakfast, and each one is a celebration.
Elsewhere in The Pickwick Papers, Dickens touches upon the topics that make up others of his books: poverty, the lack of education and opportunities for lower classes, and the evils of the debtors’ prisons. In these chapters, however, he describes the best instincts of mankind as seen through the actions of kindly, naive Samuel Pickwick, his shrewd manservant Sam, and the friends Pickwick gathers throughout the book. The very beginning of Chapter 28 leaves us smiling: “As brisk as bees, if not altogether as light as fairies, did the four Pickwickians assemble on the 22nd day of December…” (My father often exhorted my three siblings and me to be as “brisk as bees” when we were not moving fast enough for him.)
After a slow start, the four friends, plus Sam, set off over the frost-covered streets, stopping at the Blue Lion, where we meet one of Dickens’s comic characters, “Joe, the fat boy,” Mr. Wardle’s servant, who has come to take their luggage to Manor Farm in his cart. Joe alternates between sleeping and eating and is an object of amazement to Sam. While the cart carries the luggage and Sam, the four friends walk briskly in the cold to Manor Farm. There, the night before the wedding, is a feast, lots of drinking and toasts, games, and stories – the epitome of the Victorian feast.
However, when it comes time for Arabella Wardle’s wedding the next day, Dickens is serious and sentimental: “A wedding is a licensed subject to joke upon, but there really is no great joke in the matter after all;—we speak merely of the ceremony, and beg it to be distinctly understood that we indulge in no hidden sarcasm upon a married life. Mixed up with the pleasure and joy of the occasion, are the many regrets at quitting home, the tears of parting between parent and child, the consciousness of leaving the dearest and kindest friends of the happiest portion of human life, to encounter its cares and troubles with others still untried and little known—natural feelings which we would not render this chapter mournful by describing, and which we should be still more unwilling to be supposed to ridicule.”
When the ceremony is over, a feast is laid, with more drinking, and then the dancing room is readied: “The best sitting-room at Manor Farm was a good, long, dark-panelled room with a high chimney-piece, and a capacious chimney, up which you could have driven one of the new patent cabs, wheels and all. At the upper end of the room, seated in a shady bower of holly and evergreens were the two best fiddlers, and the only harp, in all Muggleton. In all sorts of recesses, and on all kinds of brackets, stood massive old silver candlesticks with four branches each. The carpet was up, the candles burned bright, the fire blazed and crackled on the hearth, and merry voices and light-hearted laughter rang through the room. If any of the old English yeomen had turned into fairies when they died, it was just the place in which they would have held their revels.”
Isn’t this the type of Christmas we all secretly long for? Who would not love to be transported there back in time, for only those brief moments? (Here I like to emphasize that I am a huge fan of modern sanitation. My time at the Dickensian revels would have been brief, after partaking of some food, some beverage and a very little dancing.) And Wardle was a kind employer. The maids and other servants had their own meal, were invited into the main dining room with the guests for toasts, and I believe that Joe, the “fat boy,” even had his own individual pie.
Dickens cannot stay serious or sentimental for long. As we open Chapter 30, the end of the “Christmas chapters,” two young “sawbones” have arrived at Wardle’s home to take Emily Sawyer, one of their sisters, back home the next day. There is no reverence whatsoever for these young medical students who need to hunt up and/or buy their own cadavers of body parts – and who are quite drunk. That afternoon, the Pickwickians skate and “slide” and Mr. Pickwick falls through the ice. Having been rescued, “Mr. Pickwick was wrapped up, and started off, under the guidance of Mr. Weller; presenting the singular phenomenon of an elderly gentleman, dripping wet, and without a hat, with his arms bound to his sides, skimming over the ground, without and clearly-defined purpose, at the rate of six good English miles an hour.” (Cue my father’s laughter.) After a night in bed and much hot punch, Pickwick arose as good as new.
The party broke up that morning, with the two sawbones inviting Mr. Pickwick to visit their lodgings at his convenience. There is a vague note of melancholy over this parting, as there appears to be after every Christmas in my own experience. “Death, self-interest, and fortune’s changes are every day breaking up many a happy group, and scattering them far and wide; and the girls and boys never come back again.” Rather, they do come back but in not quite the same way as before.
I will be rereading these three chapters before this coming Christmas, wishing my father and mother could be present, but happy that I will see my two sons. My siblings and their families used to get together with mine, but now we are too large and too far apart. I won’t be cooking a feast this year, but I will prepare a large Christmas breakfast. Although my sons are both adults, they still want some of their childhood traditions, and, for that, I am happy.
Thank you, Charles Dickens, for giving us not only A Christmas Carol, but also The Pickwick Papers, two books that celebrate the holiday season in two different ways.
Lucinda “Cindy” Knox, raised in Illinois, is a retired social worker who also worked as an English teacher and a legal assistant. A member of OLLI-USF since 2007, Cindy has taken numerous courses in literature, writing, theater, poetry, science, humanities, history and politics. She is a regular Great Books course participant.