Dickens is not one of my favorite authors. I struggled through several of his novels in college and was never able to understand what all the fuss was about. All his colorful characters were just irritating to me. Then again, my grandfather always claimed that The Pickwick Papers was his favorite novel. I held a deep respect for my grandfather's taste in literature, so if he identified a novel as his favorite, it must be worth reading.
Having now read The Pickwick Papers (for the Fifty Classics project), I can't honestly say that it is my favorite novel, but I can now say that it is my favorite Dickens novel (a spot formerly held by David Copperfield).
Pickwick Papers was Dickens' first novel. I think of Dickens as a Victorian, but Pickwick Papers is set in the 1820's, and it is nothing like a typical Victorian novel. Early on, I realized it reminded me of Jane Austen. Of course, if you compare anything to Jane Austen, everybody will want to read it, so I must warn you, Pickwick Papers isn't really like a Jane Austen novel, it just shows Jane Austen's era in an entirely different light from how she portrayed it.* This was definitely a cruder age. There is none of the Victorian primness, and everybody consumes staggering quantities of alcohol. The characters in Pickwick Papers are one or more levels lower on the social scale than Austen's. Pickwick and friends have the trappings of gentility: money, manners, leisure time, but Austen's characters would have given the side eye to Nathanial Winkle's connection to a Birmingham manufacturing family and Mr. Pickwick's business background.
Samuel Pickwick, Tracy Tupman, Augustus Snodgrass, and Nathanial Winkle are friends. They decide to travel around England and take notes of all they see. The story is a loosely bound string of adventures encountered on the road, and they spend a lot of time in stage coaches and inns. They pick up a few interesting characters along the way, the two most notable being Sam Weller, who is taken on as Mr. Pickwick's servant, and Mr. Jingle, a con artist. There are also several side tales--either stories told to them by people they meet in inns, or recorded on papers that Mr. Pickwick finds in his rooms. These stories all have merit of their own.
Our four friends really do have some good adventures and silly mishaps and more than one brush with the law. Indeed, Mr. Pickwick spends three months in jail. It must have been a real sensation when it was published in installments in the 1830's, perhaps the Breaking Bad of its day. Pickwick Papers is a lighthearted book, but the language is a little sharp in the jail chapters which must have been written from bitter personal experience, as Dickens' father was confined in a debtors' prison.
Pickwick Papers is so rich in character and experience, that you really need to read it twice to take it all in. Dickens was only about twenty-four years old when he wrote it, and it has a youthful exuberance, even though the main character is somewhat elderly. Now I understand why Dickens' colorful characters are so beloved, and why it was my grandfather's favorite.
*I know that Jane Austen's era was technically not the 1820s, but I'm referring to the larger pre-Victorian era.