Until today, I was blithely unaware of the existence of the beech marten (fouine in French, steenmarter or fluwijn in Dutch). After a conversation with the garage who just serviced my car, I am now aware not only of its existence but of its potentially expensive chewing habits. (See also pages 6-7 here.)
'We want to know, in the first place,' said Mr. Pickwick, 'whether you have any reason to be discontented with your present situation.'I got to page 118 of this and was beginning to despair, to the point that I actually put out a plaintive Tweet/Facebook post wondering if there would be a funny bit soon. But in fact Sam Weller arrives to rescue the book at the end of page 119, thank heavens; although there is a lot of snobbish condescension in Dickens' portrayal of him, he is also given some penetrating insights and just some generally good lines.
'Afore I answers that 'ere question, gen'l'm'n,' replied Mr. Weller, 'I should like to know, in the first place, whether you're a-goin' to purwide me with a better?'
There's a defence of The Pickwick Papers which would be similar to what apologists for some parts of Old Who might say: reading this as a novel is contrary to the author's original intent - it was written as a series of humorous installments, when Dickens was 24, and today's reader's experience of it is analogous to the puzzled New Who fan who puts on the newly bought DVD of An Unearthly Child for their first experience of Old Who.
Yet at the same time, that's not really good enough. The book is presented as a novel, and has been since 1837, only a few months after the original publication (unlike An Unearthly Child, broadcast in 1963 and released on video only in 1990), so I think it's fair to criticise its failings as a novel. Pickwick himself is much less clever than he realises, which is not actually all that funny at first and gets less funny as the book wears on. The plot, such as it is, revolves around some terribly conventional farce tropes which were old-fashioned when Plautus did them in about 200 BC, linking together various set-piece sketches of life in the old days (ie about a decade before the book was actually written).
But what makes the book is a) Weller's sardonic commentary, and b) some of the set-pieces. The Eatanswill by-election is still a favourite among us political types, but reading it in context I was struck that the author's emphasis - and the element from the episode that returns later in the book - is actually on the two local newspapers, who feud with each other in a gloriously fannish style which is very recognisable today. The ghost stories which punctuate various chapters are also neatly done for their type (in general better than the average Poe story) with The Bagman's Tale, in one of the later chapters, surely one of the first examples of a time travel romance in literature?
The Pickwick Papers is a long old slog, however, and I think the casual reader could be excused for seeking out the edited highlights only.