The 1890s has long been recognized as a revolutionary period in British publishing history, ushering in the collapse of the triple-decker novel and the circulating library syndicate on which it was based and instating the single-volume bestseller that remains a staple of the popular fiction market today.[i]But alongside these significant innovations, the period’s literary market was also punctuated by a curious revivalism and celebratory nostalgia for the popular literary forms and canons of the past. There are few better examples of the latter tendency than the fin de siècle cult of Pickwick which flourished in Britain between 1889 and 1910. This period saw a massive resurgence in all things Pickwickian, including not only new editions of Dickens’ early picaresque novel by leading literary lights such as Andrew Lang (1897), George Gissing (1899), and G.K. Chesterton (1907), but also eclectic gift books and reference volumes such as Percy Fitzgerald’s A History of Pickwick (1891), Pickwickian Manners and Customs (1897), and The Pickwickian Dictionary and Cyclopedia (1900), scripts of recent and revived Pickwick stage adaptations, tributes to Pickwickian visual culture such as Joseph Grego’s Pictorial Pickwickiana (1889) and H.M. Paget’s Pickwick Pictures (1891), and children’s gift books such as Thomas Cartwright’s expurgated The Children’s Pickwick (1904). Perhaps most bizarrely of all, the Third World Congress of Esperanto, which took place in Cambridge in 1907, premiered a dramatized Esperanto performance of the Bardell versus Pickwick trial, appropriating Dickens’s beloved eighteen-thirties characters for their own quest for linguistic internationalism. “ ‘Pickwick,’ wonderful to say,” remarks Percy Fitzgerald in 1897, “is the only story that has produced a literature of its own—a little library—and has kept artists, topographers, antiquaries, and collectors all busily at work.” (178)
The rise of the Pickwick industry coincided with and, as my larger article demonstrates, in at least one instance came to fuel, another, seemingly entirely disparate, late Victorian revival: that of occultism. In the final decades of the nineteenth century, more and more Victorians were exploring, or at least encountering through the popular press, new and traditional expressions of occult thought, including Theosophy, astrology, Kabbalah, alchemy, and the ritual magic practices associated with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. What did the late Victorian taste for what Wouter J. Hanegraaff has termed “rejected knowledge” have to do with popular fiction fandom? Notably, some of period’s best-known occult initiates were ardent collectors and champions of cheap popular fiction, arguing for its centrality to British social history and creative production alike long before the cultural studies turn of the mid-twentieth century. The prolific occult historian and practitioner A.E. Waite, who jokingly referred to himself in 1903 as “the most initiated man in Europe” (Gilbert 117), wrote some of the Victorian period’s earliest and most impassioned defences of the Penny Dreadful, claiming that the genre represented a form of secret and occluded discourse that only the initiate could plumb. His close friend and one-time fellow member of the Golden Dawn, Arthur Machen, went even further than Waite, not simply aligning historical forms of popular fiction and occult wisdom, but recognizing the Western popular romance, and Pickwick most of all, as cipher for ancient mystery rites and traditions that the public instinctively if unconsciously recognized. In his seminal piece of occultic popular fiction criticism, Hieroglyphics (1902) Machen presented Pickwick as a modern-day translation of the Bacchanalian rituals, one that occult and secular audiences could access alike. The cult of Pickwick, to which Hieroglyphics itself contributes, was thus reconfigured not as an expression of literary commercialization but of arcane religious sentiment, its participants seeking communion with the divine through the ritual actors and quest structure of its chaotic picaresque form.
The occultic literary criticism produced around Pickwick offers us new avenues into the study of heterodox spirituality and popular fiction alike in the nineteenth century. It allows to reconsider serialized fiction, not simply as an explicit representational site or propaganda vehicle for particular forms of new religious thought, but as itself a ritual object whose conventions might mimic those of esoteric initiation. From this vantage, the fact that Dickens’s beloved The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836-7) had no sincere, direct, or sustained dialogue with esoteric thought did not prevent it, for some aficionados, from being one of the most important occult texts of the nineteenth century.
Fitzgerald, Percy. “Pickwickiana.” The Gentleman’s Magazine. February 1897: 178-202.
Gilbert, R.A. A.E. Waite: A Magician of Many Parts. Wellingborough: Crucible, 1987.
Hanegraaff, Wouter J. Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
[i] See Peter McDonald’s British Literary Culture and Publishing Practice: 1880-1914 (Cambridge University Press 1996) and Mary Hammond’s Reading, Publishing, and the Formation of Literary Taste in England, 1880-1914 (Ashgate 2006) for more on this transformation.