A Pickwickian Construction

Robert Seymour illustration depicting Pickwick addressing the club.

For many years now, I’ve read with a dictionary near at hand. One of the reasons that I read so slowly is that I look up the meaning of many words, often even ones that I think I know already. I regularly find that my understanding of a word’s meaning is mistaken, or I’m ignorant of a word’s nuance that better informs my reading.

Except on the Sabbath, most of my reading, nowadays, is done on an e-reader. E-readers allow me to check a word’s meaning quickly by simply clicking on it, far faster than having to find it in a printed dictionary. Another benefit is that I can choose to use different dictionaries, even foreign language ones, if necessary. I also use various English dictionaries depending upon the nationality of the author. When reading a British novel, for example, I use the Oxford Dictionary of English; when reading an American one, I use the New Oxford American Dictionary or Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary Eleventh Edition. When I read Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, written in 1839, I used Webster’s 1828 dictionary, reasoning it was closer in time to when Darwin wrote his book and might contain words or the meaning of words that have changed or are no longer in use. That turned out to be true!

Recently, I was reading Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. I felt as if I needed to look up every other word. Here’s a list of some words I looked-up in just the first few pages: aeroplane, commissionaire, programme, sentry-go, bob, guineas, buer, and front. A few of the words are just British spellings but their meaning is the same as their American variants, aeroplane, and programme, for example. The sense I needed for “bob,” was the first one given for the third definition of the word, “(Brit.) ‹informal› a shilling.” Interestingly, neither the British nor the American dictionaries defined buer. But my e-reader easily allowed me to access the web where I found this: “Britain, archaic, slang, often derogatory) A woman, especially a sexually promiscuous one.” That was the meaning Greene intended.

However, there was a case when I thought I knew what a word meant but didn’t. Greene’s sentence reads: “Down the front, mixing as quickly as possible with the current of the crowd, glancing to right and left of him and over each shoulder in turn.” I thought it meant that the protagonist left the bar he was in and went down the building’s front steps. But, somehow, my understanding didn’t feel right. So I looked up the word. 

The scene takes place in Brighton, a city on England’s southern coast. The dictionary told me what I needed to know: “(chiefly Brit.) short for seafront or waterfront.” I want to point out that this definition is the seventh of seventeen listed for “front” as a noun. Of course, the word can also be used as a verb and adverb, as well as in phrases, like “out front,” for example. It would have been easy for me to pass over Greene’s sentence, thinking I understood what I had read when I hadn’t.

This month (March 2021), I begin reading The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club by Charles Dickens. Also known simply as The Pickwick Papers, it was the first novel Dickens wrote. I am beginning what I hope will be a reading of all of Dickens’ novels. However, given my reading speed, I will need to live to at least the 120-year human limit to complete the task.

Like many 19th century novels, The Pickwick Papers was published in installments. The first was released in March 1836, and the last in October 1837. Here’s the release schedule as recorded in its Wikipedia entry:

  • I – March 1836 (chapters 1–2);
  • II – April 1836 (chapters 3–5);
  • III – May 1836 (chapters 6–8);
  • IV – June 1836 (chapters 9-11);
  • V – July 1836 (chapters 12–14);
  • VI – August 1836 (chapters 15–17);
  • VII – September 1836 (chapters 18–20);
  • VIII – October 1836 (chapters 21–23);
  • IX – November 1836 (chapters 24–26);
  • X – December 1836 (chapters 27–29);
  • XI – January 1837 (chapters 30–32);
  • XII – February 1837 (chapters 33–34);
  • XIII – March 1837 (chapters 35–37);
  • XIV – April 1837 (chapters 38–40);
  • XV – June 1837 (chapters 41–43);
  • XVI – July 1837 (chapters 44–46);
  • XVII – August 1837 (chapters 47–49);
  • XVIII – September 1837 (chapters 50–52);
  • XIX-XX – October 1837 (chapters 53–57)

Wikipedia notes that Dicken’s missed the May 1837 installment. He was mourning the loss of Mary Hogarth, his sister-in-law. I plan to read the novel using its original release schedule updated for the year. For example, this month, March 2021, I read the installment published in March 1836; next month, April 1836, etc.

One of the reasons I want to read the novel in installments is, insofar as possible, to experience it as the novel’s first readers did. Doing it this way allows me to enjoy the Victorian age’s equivalent of a modern-day soap-opera. It also seems that writing his work in this way may have affected how Dickens wrote, something in which I’m interested. For example, he needed to generate enough interest in the current release to make us want to read the next one. How did he do that?

I’m reading the book on my e-reader. Already, my dictionary is serving me well. In the first chapter, I looked up Windsor chair, drabs, humbug, and Pickwickian. When I asked my wife if she knew what a “Windsor chair” is, she said, “Yes. It’s what we have at our dinner table.” For me, it was like, who knew? 

The most unusual word I looked up was “Pickwickian,” an adjective. For The Pickwick Papers, I am using the Oxford English Dictionary. It gives two definitions: “1. of or like Mr Pickwick in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, especially in being jovial, plump, or generous. 2. (of words) misunderstood or misused, especially to avoid offence.” In this case, I needed the second meaning. The word is used with this meaning twice in the first chapter. 

While addressing the Pickwick club’s members, Mr. Pickwick hears someone in the audience call him a “humbug.” He is offended. The meeting’s chairman asked the offender, a Mr. Blotton, if he used the term (humbug) in its common sense. Here’s the full exchange:

‘Mr. BLOTTON had no hesitation in saying that he had not—he had used the word in its Pickwickian sense. (Hear, hear.) He was bound to acknowledge that, personally, he entertained the highest regard and esteem for the honourable gentleman; he had merely considered him a humbug in a Pickwickian point of view. (Hear, hear.) Mr. PICKWICK felt much gratified by the fair, candid, and full explanation of his honourable friend. He begged it to be at once understood, that his own observations had been merely intended to bear a Pickwickian construction. (Cheers.)’

Charles dickens, The Pickwick Papers [with Biographical Introduction] (p. 6). Neeland Media LLC. Kindle Edition. 

I am looking forward to Dickens’ next installment. Hmmm, I wonder how he made me do that?

All the best,
Gershon

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham holds an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics). His writing has appeared in Big Muddy, Gravel, Image, Jewish Literary Journal, Poetica, The Rappahannock Review, Tipton Poetry Journal, and others. His short story “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) earned “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition.

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