December 26, 2012

Before the Beatles There Was Sam Weller: Concluding The Year of Dickens and England

You read me Shakespeare on the 

rolling Thames, 

That old river poet that never, ever ends

– Kate Bush

“The new year belongs to England” is how I began the column (Jan. 11, 2012) marking the Charles Dickens (1812-1870) bicentenary, my first subject being PJ Harvey’s brilliant album, Let England Shake. Harvey’s song “England” was wrenchingly emotional, the message “Undaunted, never-failing love for you, England, is all, to which I cling.” If you have close ties to the U.K., that song should remind you that you love the place in spite of the politics and politicians, the surveillance cameras, the crazed drivers, and the unthinkably bad weather (even for England) they’ve been enduring lately. A quite different song, Kate Bush’s “Lionheart” from her 1978 album of the same name, is guaranteed to put you back in touch with the England of the White Cliffs of Dover, that “old river poet” the Thames, “London Bridge in rain,” air-raid shelters “blooming clover,” and at this time of year, of course, A Christmas Carol.

And since Dickens’s 200th year is coming to an end, it feels right to travel back to the time when he began laying claim to the hearts of his countrymen, on his way to capturing hearts around the world. He was all but unknown when his first full-length work of fiction, The Pickwick Papers, began appearing in monthly installments in 1836. Sales were sluggish until the noble-souled if unworldly Mr. Pickwick met his Cockney servant and saviour Sam Weller in the fourth installment, at which point monthly sales rose from 400 to 40,000. The moment Dickens conceived Sam was as significant for his work and for the world as the moment Chaplin created his Tramp. Sam’s charm is on another level, however, even though almost everything he says is funny or wise or both. Sam’s a true hero, tough, charming, infinitely resourceful, and, like the best characters in Balzac and Shakespeare, he’s been touched with the glow of the author’s genius, so that the humble task of tending to the boots of an Inn’s various guests (as he’s doing when he makes his first appearance) becomes in his hands an admirable endeavor.

Once Sam arrived, Pickwick “was read upstairs and downstairs,” according to Wolf Mankowitz’s Dickens in London, “by judges on the bench and the cleaners after them,” by boys and girls who talked Sam’s talk and by critics who spoke of Dickens as another Cervantes. “Poor people shared a shilling copy and read it aloud in groups …. No hat or coat, cigar or cane, plagiaristic paper or play could be sold but with a Pickwick tag.” There were novelties flogged in Sam’s name, and Sam Weller joke books, and the publishers were selling the back numbers in the thousands.

At the age of 24, Dickens had the 19th Century equivalent of rock star fame and fortune. And he had the looks, “with long brown hair falling in silky masses over his temples” and “eyes full of power and strong will.”

“The limelight never left him,” Mankowitz writes. “The Pickwick mania was unparalled.”

True enough, but there are definite parallels to another mania of once-in-a-century dimensions that swept England and the world 130 years later in the form of four guys from Liverpool who were roughly the same age as Pickwick’s Dickens. While Sam was neither singer nor songwriter, his lively, virile, down-to-earth wit had something in it akin to that flashed by John Lennon and the other Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night. No less than Sam’s, their sassy upbeat attitude attracted all levels of society, rich and poor, upstairs and downstairs. That Sam was a rock star a century ahead of his time is clear to see in the 1985 BBC version of Pickwick (the DVD is available at the Princeton Public Library) where he’s slyly, appealingly played by Phil Daniels, who did the Cockney rap on one of the great rock singles of the 1990s, Blur’s “Park Life” (“I get up when I want except on Wednesdays when I get rudely awakened by the dustmen …. I put my trousers on, have a cuppa tea and I think about leaving the house …. I feed the pigeons, I sometimes feed the sparrows too, it gives me a sense of enormous well being”), not to mention his iconic Jimmy the Mod, the main character in the film version of the Who’s Quadrophenia.

The Joys of Jingle

My reaction to the BBC Pickwick followed a pattern similar to what happened in England when the first serial installments were released in booklet form in the spring of 1836. The first episode almost lost me (it did lose my wife), with its clubby 18th-century atmosphere. Who among this group of antic, quaintly convivial twits called Pickwickians could possibly be worth sticking around for? The reason I kept watching was a fast-talking charlatan whose rushed, manic, non-stop speechifying creates an effective cover for his scheming. Bearing the fine Dickensian name, Alfred Jingle (and played to a T by Patrick Malahide), he stole the show the first time I read The Pickwick Papers. It was as if Dickens had set his fancy loose in its purest state, unfettered, exposed in the quick of creation, raw wit gushing forth, as here, in one of Jingle’s first (to use Dickens’s own word for it) “stenographic” effusions, rattled off while riding atop a coach:

“‘Heads, heads — take care of your heads!’ cried the loquacious stranger, as they came out under the low archway, which in those days formed the entrance to the coach-yard. ‘Terrible place — dangerous work — other day — five children — mother — tall lady, eating sandwiches — forgot the arch — crash — knock — children look round — mother’s head off — sandwich in her hand — no mouth to put it in — head of a family off — shocking, shocking!’”

With Jingle’s stream of consciousness riffing, Pickwick seems to look miraculously ahead to the madcaps of the Goon Show, John Lennon’s wordplay, and Monty Python. Here in the free-flowing speech of a single character, Dickens is tapping the vein of comic eloquence that six years later will enliven the language of fabulous creations like Mr. Pecksniff and Mrs. Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit. The jaunty elliptical nature of Jingle’s word jazz also harks back to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.

The Soul of Christmas

In fact, Dickens was working on Martin Chuzzlewit when he took time off to write the work Thackeray called “a national benefit and to every man or woman who reads it a personal kindness.” If Dickens laid claim to England’s heart with Sam and Pickwick, he sealed the deal with the tale of Scrooge’s ghost-driven voyage from misery and morbidity to joy and glory. A Christmas Carol was written in six weeks, just in time for the Christmas of 1843. By Christmas Eve the first edition of 6000 had sold out. In his study of Dickens, George Gissing call it “a book no one can bear to criticize.”

John Forster, Dickens’s friend and first biographer, describes the author’s infatuation with A Christmas Carol: “how he wept over it, and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself to an extraordinary degree, and how he walked thinking of it fifteen and twenty miles about the black streets of London, many and many a night after all sober folks had gone to bed.”

Looking Back

After Let England Shake, with its fixation on war and soldiers (“So our young men hid/with guns, in the dirt/and in the dark places”), my next column moved on to Cary Grant and the bombing of Bristol, then Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Wordsworth, Keats and Constable on Hampstead Heath, April with Robert Browning and late lamented singer songwriter Clifford T. Ward (“Home Thoughts from Abroad”), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, two columns on the Beatles and three on Dickens, including one about his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), left unfinished (yet subtly finished) at the time of his death.

So, there’s finally nothing left to say in England’s year but Hail Britannia, God Save the Queen and the Kinks and beautiful Kate Middleton, and to quote Ray Davies, the true poet laureate of the British Isles, “God save little shops, china cups, and virginity.”