The Pickwick Club Minute Book: The Social Media of the Victorian Age by Dr. Maureen England

The Charles Dickens Museum has recently acquired an original manuscript minute book from the oldest known Pickwick Club, so named after Charles Dickens’s famous first novel The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Not only is this book evidence that young men were mimicking the Pickwick Club of Dickens’s novel while the novel was still being serialised, it also gives us a rare glimpse into the lives and thoughts of a few middle class young men from the Nineteenth Century.

The Minute Book records political sentiment, romantic musings, and literary debates of the members present in meetings held between 1837 and 1841. Like other recorded Pickwick Clubs, members take on the names of characters from Dickens’s novel during these gatherings. Thus, while the book occasionally records or mentions the real names of the members, for the most part records are for ‘Augustus Snodgrass’ and ‘Sam Weller’, and so forth. Some other clubs which have associated themselves with Pickwick are still meeting today such as the Pickwick Bicycle Club (PBC) which formed in 1870 not long after Dickens’s death. While the PBC was so named in homage to the recently deceased author, many other clubs take on their Dickens associated names not only in reference to Dickens’s novels but to Dickens’s own spirit of charity and fellowship.

As well as debating the merits of London architecture, English culture and history, and the value of certain literature, much of the focus of the debates written in the minutes concentrate on love and politics. When we consider that the young men of the club were middle class (due to their occupations as solicitors and clerks), and between the ages of 14 and 25, the preoccupation with these two topics overall is not surprising.

The somewhat radical members of the club often debate quite mature and serious questions such as:

                ‘Which is the most beneficial to the country, a Commonwealth Republic or a Monarchy?’

To which they record their verdict: ‘Republic.’

However, just as often their thoughts are focused on more personal affections. An obviously lovesick member asks the club:

                ‘Whether is it possible for a man or woman to die of Love?’

To which the club determines: ‘It is.’

At times, these questions of love become even more personal. A request is put forth for the club members, ‘To discover whether Miss M. Elliot has any affection for Mr S. Lowton’.

The debate is then lightened to the discussion of the merits of Pipe smoking over cigar smoking, and whether the club funds can be used to pay for a round of beer.

The importance of the Minute Book is not only in its connection to the past as an unusual historical artefact, but it also highlights the human social connections that are, at their core, very similar to the modern day. The hints of heartache and lovesick crushes, as well as the terse political opinions, are similar to modern Facebook posts or Tweets. In fact, many of the debates recorded in the book are probably the length of tweets. In addition, many of the questions the club seeks to answer sound like google searches; the difference being that the club members adjourn and research the answers for the next meeting instead of whipping out their mobile phones for a quick internet search.

While the members of the club did assume the names of characters from Dickens’s novel, the level of their role-playing is still unknown. It seems that even though they took assumed names, their opinions were personal rather than specific to their characters. The format of the social club as a whole also echoes Dickens’s novel. For example, the club does research in a similar manner to the characters in the novel. In the first chapter of The Pickwick Papers, Dickens writes:

‘That this Association has heard read, with feelings of unmingling satisfaction, and unqualified approval, the paper communicated by Samuel Pickwick, Esq., G.C.M.P.C. entitled “Speculations on the Source of the Hampstead Ponds, with some Observations on the Theory of Tittlebats’” [Charles Dickens, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Chapter 1.]

Similar questions are put forward and researched by members of the Pickwick Club and recorded in the Minute Book. Although we don’t get a record of a full lecture being given, the club sentiment seems the same.

Pickwick Minute Book Extract 1

[Extract transcription: ‘To discover the origin of the American tune called Yankee Doodle’ SL]

Pickwick Minute Book Extract 2

[Extract Transcription: ‘In whose reign were watches invented- SW Queen Bess’]

The entirety of the Pickwick Club Minute Book has yet to be transcribed. What we can see from this brief glance into the book is a resource thick with colloquial and everyday snapshots of Victorian life. This is not a book of newspaper articles or novel reviews, but thoughts and musings from regular people who lived in the time of Pickwick, and read and celebrated Dickens.

Acquisition supported by the Arts Council England/Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of the National Libraries.

 

Dr. Maureen England recently completed her PhD at King’s College London on Charles Dickens’s characters. She was a curatorial volunteer at the Charles Dickens Museum.

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