George W. M. Reynolds was reputedly the bestselling novelist of Victorian England although today he is largely forgotten. Instead, Charles Dickens is usually thought of as the best known and perhaps the greatest of the Victorian novelists, although Reynolds books outsold his. I’ve blogged previously on Reynolds’ bestselling novel The Mysteries of London, as well as his Gothic novels Faust: The Secret of the Tribunals, Wagner the Werewolf, and The Necromancer, but while these are perhaps Reynolds’ best-known works today—among the few literary critics and historians who read him—Reynolds’ career began in a way that made him the target of Charles Dickens’ spite right from the beginning.
Following the success of Sketches by Boz (1836), Dickens had embarked on his first full-length novel, The Pickwick Papers (1837), although its lack of a plot and its picaresque elements make it only loosely able to be classified as a novel. Dickens’ first true novel would be Oliver Twist (1838). Regardless, The Pickwick Papers were an overnight success as readers clamored for each installment of the adventures of Mr. Pickwick and his fellow members of the Pickwick Club as they journeyed about the country getting into various mishaps, falling in love, and meeting shady characters.
Before Pickwick’s installments had completed, according to Edgar Johnson in Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, the book had become a mania:
“Nothing like it had ever happened before. There were Pickwick chintzes, Pickwick cigars, Pickwick hats, Pickwick canes with tassels, Pickwick coats of a peculiar cut and color; and there were Weller corduroys and Boz cabs. There was a Pickwick Comic Almanac, a Pickwick Treasury of Wit, a Sam Weller’s Pickwick Jest Book, and a Pickwickian Songster. There were innumerable plagiarisms, parodies, and sequels—a Pickwick Abroad, by G. W. M. Reynolds; a Posthumous Papers of the Cadger Club; a Posthumous Notes of the Pickwickian Club, by a hack who impudently called himself Bos; and a Penny Pickwick—not to mention all the stage piracies and adaptations.”
Despite The Pickwick Papers’ success, modern readers are apt to find it a bit dull. Upon just rereading it, I only found myself laughing out loud at two passages. The lack of plot and the somewhat forced humor make parts of the novel tedious to read, especially the first few hundred pages before Mr. Pickwick’s landlady sues him for breach of affections, mistakenly thinking he was romantically interested in her, a situation that results in Pickwick refusing to pay the court costs and judgment rendered against him, and thereby, ending up in debtor’s prison. Here is really the only semblance of a plot, along with the occasional recurrences of the crooked Mr. Jingle and his servant Job Trotter, who continually try to put one over on Pickwick and friends.
The novel is also interspersed with long, rather dull, dark stories irrelevant to the plot but randomly told by various characters that Pickwick and friends meet. These stories slow down the plot and add nothing to the narrative, although the dark atmosphere of them, as at least one critic (Steven Marcus in the Afterword to the Signet Classic edition of 1964) has pointed out, contrasts with the general good of the world that Pickwick feels despite the difficulties he encounters. Marcus also concludes his discussion of the novel by saying “No novel could move further than Pickwick Papers toward asserting not only that the Kingdom of God is within each man but also that it is possible to establish something that resembles the Kingdom of God on Earth.” This interpretation is based upon Mr. Pickwick’s general kindness, even toward those who do him wrong, and overall generosity of character—points that are legitimate, although Marcus’ statement feels exaggerated since Dickens does not preach in this novel or make such a worldview clear as his theme. Rather, he wanders about with his story, slowly carving it into a novel and developing a worldview. The Pickwick Papers, then, is a trial run in which Dickens learned how to write a novel, but it is far from a great novel and rather dull, at least for the modern reader. Personally, I think it would have been quickly forgotten if Dickens had not gone on to write his many other and far greater novels.
But regardless, The Pickwick Papers was the runaway hit of its day, and so it did inspire sequels, as Johnson notes. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to determine who else wrote sequels to it, but Reynolds’ Pickwick Abroad was clearly one of them, and it is a remarkable book because like The Pickwick Papers itself, Pickwick Abroad; or, the Tour in France, is its author’s second published book (Reynolds’ first was The Youthful Impostor of 1835) and the beginning of an illustrious career for him. Interestingly, Reynolds first published before Dickens.
Of course, Dickens must get full credit for creating the “immortal Mr. Pickwick,” but Reynolds, who tended to steal other authors’ ideas and make them his own, most notably his successful The Mysteries of London (1844) that he was inspired to create from Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris (1842-3), deserves credit for creating a very readable—even more readable—version of Pickwick than Dickens. As if stealing his characters wasn’t enough reason for Dickens to hate Reynolds, there may have been some jealousy involved in that the book is quite well-written. None of Dickens’ faults are here—the book is not overly stylized, and neither are there any long unrelated stories inserted into it to slow down the main plot, and best of all, there is more of a plot. Reynolds creates Adolphus Crashem, a confidence man who, along with his accomplice Anastasie de Volage, repeatedly inserts himself into the lives of the individual members of the Pickwick Club and hoodwinks them. Anastasie manages to get the men repeatedly to fall in love with her, letting them think she is of a higher station than she is. In the end, both villains are brought to justice, but their constant presence throughout the novel gives it a continuity Dickens’ novel lacks.
Reynolds’ versions of Pickwick’s characters are fair and accurate depictions of Dickens’ characters. The only place where Reynolds slightly goes astray is in Mr. Pickwick losing his cool a bit with Mr. Tupman who reprimands him twice for his pursuit of the opposite sex. The only other major deviation from Dickens is that the book exists at all when Dickens made the point at the end of his novel to have Pickwick say that his traveling days were over, yet in Reynolds, Pickwick travels to France.
I will leave readers to discover the other joys of Reynolds’ Pickwick for themselves, just adding that I am sad the only copy available is published by Forgotten Books, a reprint of an American edition, and actually a photocopy of it, so that the print is excruciatingly small to read.
But one final comment before I close. If Dickens didn’t already have enough reason to hate Reynolds, if he perused the book or his friends did, he would have been infuriated by Reynolds pointing out errors in the original novel. Reynolds does so by having Mr. Pickwick review the original novel as edited by Boz. The following is from the November 11, 1834 passage from Mr. Pickwick’s journal in Chapter VI of Reynolds’ novel:
Was a quarter of an hour too early for my breakfast, so took up the biography of myself and friends, and glanced cursorily over the notes which I have prepared for my editor, “Boz.” Found that in 1827 I had made Mr. Jingle declare himself to have written a poem on the French Revolution, which only took place in 1830. Could not mean the first Revolution, as Mr. Jingle was present (according to my notes) at the one of which he wrote; and he was not born when the first began. Must think of this: there is a grievous error somewhere.
Discovered another error. In the memoranda of a speech which I made on the night before my first sally-forth in search of adventures in 1827, I am represented to have said that “philanthropy was my Swing!” Now the incendiary Swing—the fabled illuminator of all the hay-stacks in the kingdom—had not then acquired his name, nor was he known. Must correct this error also.*
* We are sorry to find that Mr. Pickwick omitted these necessary corrections; and that his Editor, “Boz,” has also unaccountably suffered them to remain.
This first error occurs in the second chapter of Dickens’ novel. However, the novel contains a footnote that states: “A remarkable instance of the prophetic force of Mr. Jingle’s imagination; this dialogue occurring in the year 1827, and the Revolution in 1830.” I have consulted multiple versions of the novel and they all contain this footnote, so I am not certain whether it was in Dickens’ original book or the original installment and he was poking fun at himself and Mr. Jingle by the anachronism of describing something still in the future, or if the footnote was placed into the book in later editions to apologize for an error in original installments of the book. Did Reynolds’ pointing out the error in Pickwick Abroad lead to Dickens inserting a footnote to excuse the point? It seems more likely, given that he often made little revisions to his books when new editions came out, that Dickens would have rewritten the sentence to remove the error, so Reynolds’ humor here is really in line with Dickens’ own mocking of his character in this scene and not true fault-finding.
The second error occurs in the first chapter of The Pickwick Papers; however, Reynolds’ misquotes the line. The actually passage is, “The praise of mankind was his swing; philanthropy was his insurance office.” The use of “swing” here seems equal to saying today, “Music was his life,” meaning it is the person’s great activity or favorite hobby. I suspect Reynolds is just playing with words here since I was unable to find any reference to a person named Swing who was an illustrator or artist of the time period.
Did Dickens read and take offense at Reynolds pointing out these errors? Who’s to say? He was probably already infuriated enough to have his first book’s characters stolen for an unauthorized sequel. Did Dickens express his anger to Reynolds? If he did, it didn’t stop Reynolds from continuing to steal Dickens’ ideas. In 1841, Dickens published Master Humphrey’s Clock, a series that would ultimately include his novels Barnaby Rudge and The Old Curiosity Shop. Reynolds capitalized upon it by publishing Master Timothy’s Bookcase in 1841-42.
Whatever Reynolds’ faults, he knew how to tell a good story, and he did so in Pickwick Abroad, and even more so in The Mysteries of London and his three Gothic novels. Reynolds is well worth exploring, and ultimately, more readable than much of Dickens even if he never reached the heights of Dickens’ style or the meatiness of his themes.
Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, and Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.