[(essay date 2006) In the following essay, Wolfreys details the theoretical framework for his book-length study of The Pickwick Papers, focusing on such themes as Dickens’s rendering of the past, his insight into how Victorians viewed themselves, and the difficulties entailed in constructing a vision of Englishness.]
Centuries are the children of one mighty family, but there is no family-likeness between them. We ourselves are standing on the threshold of a new era, and we are already hastening to make as wide a space, mark as vast a difference as possible, between our own age and its predecessor.Letitia Elizabeth Landon, On the Ancient and Modern Influence of Poetry (1832)
Fundamentally, form is unlikeness … every difference is form.George Eliot, “Notes on Form in Art” (1868)
So much we can see; darkly, as through the foliage of some wavering thicket …Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus (1833-34)
I. About This Book
In addressing at length Charles Dickens’ first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836-37), what is this book about? What does it think it is doing, and around what focal points will it circle? The visible, visuality, visibility, vision, visions, visualization, invisibility, view, prospect, observation, perception, sight, insight, hindsight, foresight, introspection, retrospection, eyes, reflection, appearance, spectacle, spectacles, optics, magnification, apparitions, phantasms, microscopes, telescopes, focal point, dream, looking, gazing, glancing, mental picture, hallucination.
Not every term here will be treated in equal measure. However, each in some manner will be seen to touch upon every other, and so to inform the skein of words, the lines, motions, and rhythms they enable, and the images they shape, giving us to apprehend and to imagine that which we cannot see with the naked eye, from page to page across the novel. We are dealing here with the intimate proximity and unbridgeable distance by which sight touches. Each term is of significance to the ways in which The Pickwick Papers makes us feel and, equally importantly, perhaps “before all,” makes us see (Conrad 1988, xlix). The echo of Joseph Conrad’s famous statement concerning the work of narrative art is deliberate, for it announces a relationship between differing senses of sight with regard to what the literary can or at least strives to cause to appear, and the effect that such an appearance can produce. That which is caused to appear, or which by chance we might come to see, can involve reception of, and reflection on, the work of memory, or traces of the past. Where this is the case, such manifestations will be addressed through consideration of envisioning.
Having stated my focus as starkly as possible, I would like to make a few brief comments on what The Old Story, with a Difference: Pickwick’s Vision is not about. It is not about text and context, at least not in any direct or straightforward fashion. Nor is it about Pickwick [The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club]’s relation to “history” in any simple manner. My concerns are not to do with...