Read PICKWICKIAN MANNERS AND CUSTOMS of Pickwickian Manners and Customs , free online book, by Percy Fitzgerald, on ReadCentral.com.

No English book has so materially increased the general gaiety of the country, or inspired the feeling of comedy to such a degree as, “The Pickwick Club.” It is now some “sixty years since” this book was published, and it is still heartily appreciated. What English novel or story is there which is made the subject of notes and commentaries on the most elaborate scale; whose very misprints and inconsistencies are counted up; whose earliest “states of the plates” are sought out and esteemed precious? “Pickwick,” wonderful to say, is the only story that has produced a literature of its own quite a little library and has kept artists, topographers, antiquaries, and collectors all busily at work.

There seems to be some mystery, almost miracle, here. A young fellow of four-and-twenty throws off, or rather “rattles off,” in the exuberance of his spirits, a never-flagging series of incidents and characters. The story is read, devoured, absorbed, all over the world, and now, sixty years after its appearance, new and yet newer editions are being issued. All the places alluded to and described in the book have in their turn been lifted into fame, and there are constantly appearing in magazines illustrated articles on “Rochester and Dickens,” “Dickens Land,” “Dickens’ London,” and the rest. Wonderful! People, indeed, seem never to tire of the subject the same topics are taken up over and over again. The secret seems to be that the book was a living thing, and still lives. It is, moreover, perhaps the best, most accurate picture of character and manners that are quite gone by: in it the meaning and significance of old buildings, old inns, old churches, and old towns are reached, and interpreted in most interesting fashion; the humour, bubbling over, and never forced, and always fresh, is sustained through some six hundred closely-printed pages; all which, in itself, is a marvel and unapproached. It is easy, however, to talk of the boisterousness, the “caricature,” the unlicensed recklessness of the book, the lack of restraint, the defiance of the probabilities. It is popular and acceptable all the same. But there is one test which incontestably proves its merit, and supplies its title, to be considered all but “monumental.” This is its prodigious fertility and suggestiveness.

At this moment a review is being made of the long Victorian Age, and people are reckoning up the wonderful changes in life and manners that have taken place within the past sixty years. These have been so imperceptibly made that they are likely to escape our ken, and the eye chiefly settles on some few of the more striking and monumental kind, such as the introduction of railways, of ocean steamships, electricity, and the like. But no standard of comparison could be more useful or more compendious than the immortal chronicle of Pickwick, in which the old life, not forgotten by some of us, is summarised with the completeness of a history. The reign of Pickwick, like that of the sovereign, began some sixty years ago. Let us recall some of these changes.

To begin: We have now no arrest for debt, with the attendant sponging-houses, Cursitor Street, sheriffs’ officers, and bailiffs; and no great Fleet Prison, Marshalsea, or King’s Bench for imprisoning debtors. There are no polling days and hustings, with riotous proceedings, or “hocussing” of voters; and no bribery on a splendid scale.

Drinking and drunkenness in society have quite gone out of fashion. Gentlemen at a country house rarely or never come up from dinner, or return from a cricket match, in an almost “beastly” state of intoxication; and “cold punch” is not very constantly drunk through the day. There are no elopements now in chaises and four, like Miss Wardle’s, with headlong pursuit in other chaises and four; nor are special licenses issued at a moment’s notice to help clandestine marriages. There is now no frequenting of taverns and “free and easies” by gentlemen, at the “Magpie and Stump” and such places, nor do persons of means take up their residence at houses like the “George and Vulture” in the City. No galleried inns (though one still lingers on in Holborn), are there, at which travellers put up: there were then nearly a dozen, in the Borough and elsewhere. There are no coaches on the great roads, no guards and bulky drivers; no gigs with hoods, called “cabs,” with the driver’s seat next his fare; no “hackney coaches,” no “Hampstead stages,” no “Stanhopes” or “guillotined cabriolets” whatever they were or “mail-carts,” the “pwettiest thing” driven by gentlemen. And there are no “sedan chairs” to take Mrs. Dowler home. There are no “poke” or “coal-scuttle” bonnets, such as the Miss Wardles wore; no knee-breeches and gaiters; no “tights,” with silk stockings and pumps for evening wear; no big low-crowned hats, no striped vests for valets, and, above all, no gorgeous “uniforms,” light blue, crimson, and gold, or “orange plush,” such as were worn by the Bath gentlemen’s gentlemen. “Thunder and lightning” shirt buttons, “mosaic studs” whatever they were are things of the past. They are all gone. Gone too is “half-price” at the theatres. At Bath, the “White Hart” has disappeared with its waiters dressed so peculiarly “like Westminster boys.” We have no serjeants now like Buzfuz or Snubbin: their Inn is abolished, and so are all the smaller Inns Clement’s or Clifford’s where the queer client lived. Neither are valentines in high fashion. Chatham Dockyard, with its hierarchy, “the Clubbers,” and the rest, has been closed. No one now gives dejeunes, not dejeuners; or “public breakfasts,” such as the authoress of the “Expiring Frog” gave. The “delegates” have been suppressed, and Doctors’ Commons itself is levelled to the ground. The “Fox under the Hill” has given place to a great hotel. The old familiar “White Horse Cellars” has been rebuilt, made into shops and a restaurant. There are no “street keepers” now, but the London Police. The Eatanswill Gazette and its scurrilities are not tolerated. Special constables are rarely heard of, and appear only to be laughed at: their staves, tipped with a brass crown, are sold as curios. Turnpikes, which are found largely in “Pickwick,” have been suppressed. The abuses of protracted litigation in Chancery and other Courts have been reformed. No papers are “filed at the Temple” whatever that meant. The Pound, as an incident of village correction has, all but a few, disappeared.

Then for the professional classes, which are described in the chronicle with such graphic power and vivacity. As at this time “Boz” drew the essential elements of character instead of the more superficial ones his later practice there is not much change to be noted. We have the medical life exhibited by Bob Sawyer and his friends; the legal world in Court and chambers judges, counsel, and solicitors are all much as they are now. Sir Frank Lockwood has found this subject large enough for treatment in his little volume, “The Law and Lawyers of Pickwick.” It may be thought that no judge of the pattern of Stareleigh could be found now, but we could name recent performances in which incidents such as, “Is your name Nathaniel Daniel or Daniel Nathaniel?” have been repeated. Neither has the blustering of Buzfuz or his sophistical plaintiveness wholly gone by. The “cloth” was represented by the powerful but revolting sketch of Stiggins, which, it is strange, was not resented by the Dissenters of the day, and also by a more worthy specimen in the person of the clergyman at Dingley Dell. There are the mail-coach drivers, with the “ostlers, boots, countrymen, gamekeepers, peasants, and others,” as they have it in the play-bills. Truly admirable, and excelling the rest, are “Boz’s” sketches actually “living pictures” of the fashionable footmen at Bath, beside which the strokes in that diverting piece “High Life below Stairs” seem almost flat. The simperings of these gentry, their airs and conceit, we may be sure, obtain now. Once coming out of a Theatre, at some fashionable performance, through a long lane of tall menials, one fussy aristocrat pushed one of them out of his way. The menial contemptuously pushed him back. The other in a rage said, “How dare you? Don’t you know, I’m the Earl of –­” “Well,” said the other coldly, “If you be a Hearl, can’t you be’ave as sich?”

After the wedding at Manor Farm we find that bride and bridegroom did not set off from the house on a wedding tour, but remained for the night. This seemed to be the custom. Kissing, too, on the Pickwickian principles, would not now, to such an extent, be tolerated. There is an enormous amount in the story. The amorous Tupman had scarcely entered the hall of a strange house when he began osculatory attempts on the lips of one of the maids; and when Mr. Pickwick and his friends called on Mr. Winkle, sen., at Birmingham, Bob Sawyer made similar playful efforts being called an “odous creetur” by the lady. In fact, the custom seemed to be to kiss when and wherever you could conveniently. Getting drunk after any drinking, and at any time of the day, seemed to be common enough. There was a vast amount of open fields, &c., about London which engendered the “Cockney sportsman.” He disappeared as the fields were built over. We have no longer the peculiar “stand-up” collars, or “gills,” and check neck-cloths.

But Mr. Bantam’s costume at the Bath Assembly, shows the most startling change. Where is now the “gold eye glass?” we know that eye glass, which was of a solid sort, not fixed on the nose, but held to the eye a “quizzing glass,” and folding up on a hinge “a broad black ribbon” too; the “gold snuffbox;” gold rings “innumerable” on the fingers, and “a diamond pin” on his “shirt frill,” a “curb chain” with large gold seals hanging from his waistcoat (a “curb chain” proper was then a little thin chain finely wrought, of very close links.) Then there was the “pliant ebony cane, with a heavy gold top.” Ebony, however, is not pliant, but the reverse black was the word intended. Then those “smalls” and stockings to match. Mr. Pickwick, a privileged man, appeared on this occasion, indeed always, in his favourite white breeches and gaiters. In fact, on no occasion save one, when he wore a great-coat, does he appear without them. Bantam’s snuff was “Prince’s mixture,” so named after the Regent, and his scent “Bouquet du Roi.” “Prince’s mixture” is still made, but “Bouquet du Roi” is supplanted.

Perker’s dress is also that of the stage attorney, as we have him now, and recognize him. He would not be the attorney without that dress. He was “all in black, with boots as shiny as his eyes, a low white neckcloth, and a clean shirt with a frill to it.” This, of course, meant that he put on one every day, and is yet a slight point of contact with Johnson, who described someone as being only able to go out “on clean shirt days;” a gold watch and seals depended from his Fob. “Depended” is a curious use of the word, and quite gone out.

Another startling change is in the matter of duels. The duels in Pickwick come about quite as a matter of course, and as a common social incident. In the “forties” I recall a military uncle of my own a gentleman, like uncle Toby handing his card to some one in a billiard room, with a view to “a meeting.” Dickens’ friend Forster was at one time “going out” with another gentleman. Mr. Lang thinks that duelling was prohibited about 1844, and “Courts of Honour” substituted. But the real cause was the duel between Colonel Fawcett and Lieut. Munro, brothers-in-law, when the former was killed. This, and some other tragedies of the kind, shocked the public. The “Courts of Honour,” of course, only affected military men.

Mr. Pickwick, himself, had nearly “gone out” on two or three occasions, once with Mr. Slammer, once with Mr. Magnus; while his scuffle with Tupman would surely have led to one. Winkle, presumed to be a coward, had no less than three “affairs” on his hands: one with Slammer, one with Dowler, and one with Bob Sawyer. At Bob Sawyer’s Party, the two medical students, tendered their cards. For so amiable a man, Mr. Pickwick had some extraordinary failings. He seems to have had no restraint where drink was in the case, and was hopelessly drunk about six times on three occasions, at least, he was preparing to assault violently. He once hurled an inkstand; he once struck a person; once challenged his friend to “come on.” Yet the capital comedy spirit of the author carries us over these blemishes.

When Sam was relating to his master the story of the sausage maker’s disappearance, Mr. Pickwick, horrified, asked had he been “Burked?” There Boz might have repeated his apologetic footnote, on Jingle’s share in the Revolution of 1830. “A remarkable instance of his force of prophetic imagination, etc.” For the sausage story was related in the year of grace 1827, and Burke was executed in 1829, some two years later.

Mr. Lang has suggested that the bodies Mr. Sawyer and his friend subscribed for, were “snatched,” but he forgets that this traffic was a secret one, and the bodies were brought to the private residence of the physicians, the only safe way (Vide the memoirs of Sir A. Cooper). At a great public Hospital the practice would be impossible.

“Hot elder wine, well qualified with brandy and spice,” is a drink that would not now be accepted with enthusiasm at the humblest wedding, even in the rural districts: we are assured that sound “was the sleep and pleasant were the dreams that followed.” Which is not so certain. The cake was cut and “passed through the ring,” also an exploded custom, whatever its meaning was. In what novel now-a-days would there be an allusion to “Warren’s blacking,” or to “Rowland’s oil,” which was, of course, their famous “Macassar.” These articles, however, may still be procured, and to that oil we owe the familiar interposing towel or piece of embroidery the “antimacassar,” devised to protect the sofa or easy chair from the unguent of the hair. “Moral pocket handkerchiefs,” for teaching religion to natives of the West Indies, combining amusement with instruction, “blending select tales with woodcuts,” are no longer used.

Old Temple Bar has long since disappeared, so has the Holborn Valley. The Fleet was pulled down about ten years after Pickwick, but imprisonment for debt continued until 1860 or so. Indeed Mr. Lang seems to think it still goes on, for he says it is now “disguised as imprisonment for contempt of Court.” This is a mistake. In the County Courts when small debts under 3 pounds 10s. are sued for, the judge will order a small weekly sum to be paid in discharge; in case of failure to pay, he will punish the disobedience by duress not exceeding fifteen days a wholly different thing from imprisonment for debt.

Where now are the Pewter Pots, and the pot boy with his strap of “pewters?” we would have to search for them now. Long cut glasses have taken their place. Where, too, is the invariable Porter, drunk almost exclusively in Pickwick? Bass had not then made its great name. There is no mention of Billiard tables, but much about Skittles and Bagatelle, which were the pastimes at Taverns.

Then the Warming Pan! Who now “does trouble himself about the Warming Pan?” which is yet “a harmless necessary and I will add a comforting article of domestic furniture.” Observe necessary, as though every family had it as an article of their “domestic furniture.” It is odd to think of Mary going round all the beds in the house, and deftly introducing this “article” between the sheets. Or was it only for the old people: or in chilly weather merely? On these points we must be unsatisfied. The practice, however, points to a certain effeminacy the average person of our day would not care to have his bed so treated with invalids the “Hot Water Bottle” has “usurped its place.” We find this superannuated instrument in the “antique” dealers’ shops, at a good figure a quaint old world thing, of a sort of old-fashioned cut and pattern. There only do people appear to trouble themselves about it.

“Chops and tomato sauce.” This too is superannuated also. A more correct taste is now chops au naturel, and relying on their own natural juices; but we have cutlets, with tomatos.

Again, are little boys no longer clad in “a tight suit of corduroy, spangled with brass buttons of very considerable size:” indeed corduroy is seldom seen save on the figures of some chic ladies. And how fortunate to live in days when a smart valet could be secured for twelve pounds a year, and two suits; and not less.

Surprising too was the valet’s accustomed dress. “A grey coat, a black hat, with a cockade on it, a pink striped waistcoat, light breeches and gaiters.” What too were “bright basket buttons” on a brown coat? Fancy Balls too, like Mrs. Leo Hunter’s, were given in the daytime, and caused no astonishment. Nor have we lodging-houses with beds on the “twopenny rope” principle. There are no “dry arches” of Waterloo Bridge: though here I suspect Boz was confounding them with those of the Adelphi.

Gone too are the simple games of childhood. Marbles for instance. We recall Serjeant Buzfuz’s pathetic allusion to little Bardell’s “Alley Tors and Commoneys; the long familiar cry of ‘knuckle down’ is neglected.” Who sees a boy playing marbles now in the street or elsewhere? Mr. Lang in his edition gives us no lore about this point. “Alley Tors” was short for “Alabaster,” the material of which the best marbles were made.

“Tor” however, is usually spelt “Taw.” “Commoneys” were the inferior or commoner kind. “Knuckle down,” according to our recollections, was the laying the knuckle on the ground for a shot. “Odd and even” was also spoken of by the Serjeant. Another game alluded to, is mysteriously called “Tip-cheese” of which the latest editor speculates “probably Tip-cat was meant: the game at which Bunyan was distinguishing himself when he had a call.” The “cat” was a plain piece of wood, sharpened at both ends. I suppose made to jump, like a cat. But unde “cheese,” unless it was a piece of rind that was struck.

“Flying the garter” is another of the Pickwickian boy games. Talking with a very old gentleman, lately, I thought of asking him concerning “Flying the garter:” he at once enlightened me. It was a familiar thing he remembered well “when a boy.” It was a sort of “Leap Frog,” exercise only with a greater and longer spring: he spoke also of a shuffle of the feet during the process.

And again. There is a piquant quaintness in the upside-down turning of every thing in this wonderful Book. Such as Perker’s eyes, which are described as playing with his “inquisitive nose” a “perpetual game of” what, think you? Bo-Peep? not at all: but “peep-bo.” How odd and unaccountable! We all knew the little “Bo-peep,” and her sheep but “peep-bo” is quite a reversal.

Gas was introduced into London about the year 1812 and was thought a prodigiously “brilliant illuminant.” But in the Pickwickian days it was still in a crude state and we can see in the first print that of the club room only two attenuated jets over the table. In many of the prints we find the dip or mould candle, which was used to light Sam as he sat in the coffee room of the Blue Boar. Mr. Nupkins’ kitchen was not lit by gas.

As to this matter of light it all depends on habit and accommodating. When a boy I have listened to “Ivanhoe” read out O enchantment! by the light of two “mould” candles the regular thing which required “snuffing” about every ten minutes, and snuffing required dexterity. The snuffers laid on a long tray were of ponderous construction; it was generally some one’s regular duty to snuff how odd seems this now! The “plaited wicks” which came later were thought a triumph, and the snuffers disappeared. They also are to be seen in the Curio Shops.

How curious, too, the encroachment of a too practical age on the old romance. “Fainting” was the regular thing in the Pickwickian days, in any agitation; “burnt feathers” and the “sal volatile” being the remedy. The beautiful, tender and engaging creatures we see in the annuals, all fainted regularly and knew how to faint were perhaps taught it. Thus when Mr. Pickwick was assumed to have “proposed” to his landlady, she in business-like fashion actually “fainted;” now-a-days “fainting” has gone out as much as duelling.

In the travellers’ rooms at Hotels in the “commercial” room we do not see people smoking “large Dutch pipes” nor is “brandy and water” the only drink of the smoking room. Mr. Pickwick and his friends were always “breaking the waxen seals” of their letters while Sam, and people of his degree, used the wafer. (What by the way was the “fat little boy” in the seal of Mr. Winkle’s penitential letter to his sire? Possibly a cupid.) Snuff taking was then common enough in the case of professional people like Perker.

At this moment there is to be seen in the corner of many an antique Hall Sedan chair laid up in ordinary of black leather, bound with brass-nails. We can well recall in our boyish days, mamma in full dress and her hair in “bands,” going out to dine in her chair. On arriving at the house the chair was taken up the steps and carried bodily into the Hall the chair men drew out their poles, lifted the head, opened the door and the dame stepped out. The operation was not without its state.

Gone too are the “carpet bags” which Mr. Pickwick carried and also Mr. Slurk (why he brought it with him into the kitchen is not very clear).

Skates were then spelt “Skaits.” The “Heavy smack,” transported luggage to the Provinces by river or canal. The “Twopenny Postman” is often alluded to. “Campstools,” carried about for use, excited no astonishment. Gentlemen don’t go to Reviews now, as Mr. Wardle did, arrayed in “a blue coat and bright buttons, corduroy (Boz also spells it corderoy) breeches and top boots,” nor ladies “in scarfs and feathers.” It is curious, by the way, that Wardle talks something after the fashionable manner of our day, dropping his g’s as who should say “huntin’,” or “rippin’” “I spent some evnins” he says “at your club.” “My gals,” he says also. “Capóns” are not much eaten now. “Drinking wine” or “having a glass of wine” has gone out, and with it Mr. Tupman’s gallant manner of challenge to a fair one, i.e. “touching the enchanting Rachel’s wrist with one hand and gently elevating his bottle with the other.” “Pope Joan” is little played now, if at all; “Fish” too; how rarely one sees those mother-of-pearl fish! The “Cloth is not drawn” and the table exposed to view, to be covered with dessert, bottles, glasses, etc. The shining mahogany was always a brave show, and we fear this comes of using cheap made up tables of common wood. Still we wot of some homes, old houses in the country, where the practice is kept up. It is evident that Mr. Wardle’s dinner was at about 3 or 4 o’clock, for none was offered to the party that arrived about 6. This we may presume was the mode in old fashioned country houses. Supper came at eleven.

A chaise and four could go at the pace of fifteen miles an hour.

A “1000 horse-power” was Jingle’s idea of extravagant speed by steam agency. Now we have got to 4, 5, and 10 thousand horsepower. Gentlemen’s “frills” in the daytime are never seen now. Foot gear took the shape of “Hessians’” “halves,” “painted tops,” “Wellington’s” or “Bluchers.” There are many other trifles which will evidence these changes. We are told of the “common eighteen-penny French skull cap.” Note common it is exhibited on Mr. Smangle’s head a rather smartish thing with a tassel. Nightcaps, too, they are surely gone by now: though a few old people may wear them, but then boys and young men all did. It also had a tassel. There is the “Frog Hornpipe,” whatever dance that was: the “pousette;” while “cold srub,” which is not in much vogue now, was the drink of the Bath Footmen. “Botany Bay ease, and New South Wales gentility,” refer to the old convict days. This indeed is the most startling transformation of all. For instead of Botany Bay, and its miserable associations, we have the grand flourishing Australia, with its noble cities, Parliaments and the rest. Gone out too, we suppose, the “Oxford-mixture trousers;” “Oxford grey” it was then called.

Then for Sam’s “Profeel machine.” Mr. Andrew Lang in his notes wonders what this “Profeel machine” was, and fancies it was the silhouette process. This had nothing to do with the “Profeel machine” which is described in “Little Pedlington,” a delightful specimen of Pickwickian humour, and which ought to be better known than it is. “There now,” said Daubson, the painter of “the all but breathing Grenadier,” (alas! rejected by the Academy). “Then get up and sit down, if you please, mister.” “He pointed to a narrow high-backed chair, placed on a platform; by the side of the chair was a machine of curious construction, from which protruded a long wire. ‘Heady stiddy, mister.’ He then slowly drew the wire over my head and down my nose and chin.” Such was the “Profeel machine.”

There are many antiquated allusions in Pickwick which have often exercised the ingenuity of the curious. Sam’s “Fanteegs,” has been given up in despair as though there were no solution yet, Professor Skeat, an eminent authority, has long since furnished it.

“Through the button hole” a slang term for the mouth, has been well “threshed out” as it is called. Of “My Prooshian Blue,” as his son affectedly styled his parent, Mr. Lang correctly suggests the solution, that the term came of George IV’s intention of changing the uniform of the Army to Blue. But this has been said before.

Boz in his Pickwickian names was fond of disguising their sense to the eye, though not to the ear. Thus Lady Snuphanuph, looks a grotesque, but somewhat plausible name snuff-enough a further indication of the manners and customs. So with Lord Mutanhed, i.e. “Muttonhead.” Mallard, Serjeant Snubbin’s Clerk, I have suspected, may have been some Mr. Duck whom “Boz” had known in that line.