Perhaps the most famous and best-loved character in The Pickwick Papers is Sam Weller. In the first few numbers of The Pickwick Papers, Dickens ascribes qualities of wisdom and benevolence to Pickwick himself, and to his friends, but these qualities remain rather abstract until the introduction of Sam, who is eloquently easygoing, street smart, and kindly. He is a foil for Pickwick's own bland innocence, and he provides commentary on what could easily become a series of meaningless episodes. His voice substitutes for the voice of the narrator, which the young Dickens has not yet mastered as he soon will. Sam Weller's voice is free, whereas the narrator's voice is still inhibited by middle-class convention and eighteenth-century diction. The innate skill for writing compelling voices that Dickens shows so well with Jingle and several of the other characters he practices and develops in Sam Weller. As soon as he is introduced, he is interesting: "Well, you are a nice young 'ooman for a musical party, you are. Look at these her boots—eleven pair o' boots; and one shoe as b'longs to number six, with the wooden leg..." His dialogue has accent and rhythm; it expresses his character while showing what he is doing and what he has observed. He adds something unexpected to the narrative every time he opens his mouth. Very soon after Sam appears and disappears, the Pickwickians witness the Eatanswill election. In this scene we have the beginnings of Dickensian social satire. The narrative style is slightly more ironic than earlier, but neither the narrator nor Pickwick himself can assume such an ironic voice without materially changing how they have already been presented. It is no coincidence that Sam returns to the narrative soon after, the perfect solution to the problem of how to comment upon the events of the narrative without betraying the tone of what has gone before. That the introduction of Sam Weller coincided with the rise in sales of the serial numbers indicates that through him Dickens had found his marriage of story and theme—great variety and breadth of incident plus overt, but comically expressed, social commentary. This form would remain constant to the end of Dickens's life, changing in mood and balance, but always constituting what we consider to be quintessentially "Dickensian."

No author's life is a strand of pearls, with books or plays or poems strung in a neat sequence upon a smooth string of personal events, but Dickens's life is even less sequential than most. Events and projects cascaded over one another, each requiring the author's intensive focus. He did not write the two volumes of Sketches, and then Pickwick, and then Oliver Twist, and so on. Rather, he was still gathering together the Sketches while he was writing Pickwick, and Oliver Twist began to run as a serial before Pickwick had finished. He was also writing essays and articles, and in some of them can be seen the germs of characters or ideas that are later developed more extensively in the novels. And during the extremely productive period of the late 1830s, Charles Dickens threw himself into two other activities that were to shape much of the rest of his life. One of these was editing.

In the autumn of 1836, publisher Richard Bentley approached Dickens with a plan for a new monthly magazine that Dickens would edit, and in January 1837, Dickens introduced the first number. This was the author's first experience wearing a hat he would continue to wear for many decades. He was no figurehead, but a very active and opinionated director of all aspects of the magazine. He read and considered eighty manuscripts each month, then prepared them for publication. He even did the proofreading. When his relationship with Bentley broke down after only a few years, it was because he found Bentley too interfering, not because he felt overburdened by work (though he often felt overburdened by work). Dickens was always looking for control and autonomy, and his career was marked by ferocious battles with publishers over contracts, money, and independence. His correspondence with authors shows that he had specific and very strong views about how pieces should be written and what effect they should have. His views were both aesthetic and political—to make a piece more lively and interesting was also to take a stand against the mechanical dreariness that Dickens felt was overwhelming English life. He was always in favor of imagination and "fancy," always opposed to dullness and the ponderousness that was a mask for social cruelty. His success in depicting the variety of lower-class English life was no accident—he was both interested in the lower orders and eager to show them to themselves and to the middle and upper classes.

Reprinted from Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley, copyright © 2002, with the permission of Penguin Books


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