I read Oliver Twist in 1962, half a century ago, but my first introduction to Dickens was in my grade three classroom in Port Essington, 1958-59. The following passage, taken from The Pickwick Papers, was that introduction, which was reprinted in my grade three reader. Some of the language seems a little advanced for 8-year-olds. Perhaps it was simplified for the schoolbook.
Although Pickwick was the first Dickens I encountered, the book was the last of his novels that I read. I don’t think Dickens really found his voice in this book until the introduction of Sam Weller, which doesn’t happen until many tedious passages have already gone by. Weller, on the other hand, is one of the best of Dickens’ characters, redeeming the book finally. I have known people, who, whether they have read Dickens or not, use Wellerisms as a form of humour. (A Wellerism? ‘That’s the pint, sir,’ interposed Sam; ‘out vith it, as the father said to his child, when he swallowed a farden.’)
Winkle on the Ice
‘Now,’ said Wardle, after a substantial lunch, with the agreeable items of strong beer and cherry-brandy, had been done ample justice to, ‘what say you to an hour on the ice? We shall have plenty of time.’
‘Capital!’ said Mr. Benjamin Allen.
‘Prime!’ ejaculated Mr. Bob Sawyer.
‘You skate, of course, Winkle?’ said Wardle.
‘Ye-yes; oh, yes,’ replied Mr. Winkle. ‘I—I—am RATHER out of practice.’
‘Oh, DO skate, Mr. Winkle,’ said Arabella. ‘I like to see it so much.’
‘Oh, it is SO graceful,’ said another young lady. A third young lady said it was elegant, and a fourth expressed her opinion that it was ‘swan-like.’
‘I should be very happy, I’m sure,’ said Mr. Winkle, reddening; ‘but I have no skates.’
This objection was at once overruled. Trundle had a couple of pair, and the fat boy announced that there were half a dozen more downstairs; whereat Mr. Winkle expressed exquisite delight, and looked exquisitely uncomfortable.
Old Wardle led the way to a pretty large sheet of ice; and the fat boy and Mr. Weller, having shovelled and swept away the snow which had fallen on it during the night, Mr. Bob Sawyer adjusted his skates with a dexterity which to Mr. Winkle was perfectly marvellous, and described circles with his left leg, and cut figures of eight, and inscribed upon the ice, without once stopping for breath, a great many other pleasant and astonishing devices, to the excessive satisfaction of Mr. Pickwick, Mr. Tupman, and the ladies; which reached a pitch of positive enthusiasm, when old Wardle and Benjamin Allen, assisted by the aforesaid Bob Sawyer, performed some mystic evolutions, which they called a reel.
All this time, Mr. Winkle, with his face and hands blue with the cold, had been forcing a gimlet into the sole of his feet, and putting his skates on, with the points behind, and getting the straps into a very complicated and entangled state, with the assistance of Mr. Snodgrass, who knew rather less about skates than a Hindoo. At length, however, with the assistance of Mr. Weller, the unfortunate skates were firmly screwed and buckled on, and Mr. Winkle was raised to his feet.
‘Now, then, Sir,’ said Sam, in an encouraging tone; ‘off vith you, and show ’em how to do it.’
‘Stop, Sam, stop!’ said Mr. Winkle, trembling violently, and clutching hold of Sam’s arms with the grasp of a drowning man. ‘How slippery it is, Sam!’
‘Not an uncommon thing upon ice, Sir,’ replied Mr. Weller. ‘Hold up, Sir!’
This last observation of Mr. Weller’s bore reference to a demonstration Mr. Winkle made at the instant, of a frantic desire to throw his feet in the air, and dash the back of his head on the ice.
‘These—these—are very awkward skates; ain’t they, Sam?’ inquired Mr. Winkle, staggering.
‘I’m afeerd there’s a orkard gen’l’m’n in ’em, Sir,’ replied Sam.
‘Now, Winkle,’ cried Mr. Pickwick, quite unconscious that there was anything the matter. ‘Come; the ladies are all anxiety.’
‘Yes, yes,’ replied Mr. Winkle, with a ghastly smile. ‘I’m coming.’
‘Just a-goin’ to begin,’ said Sam, endeavouring to disengage himself. ‘Now, Sir, start off!’
‘Stop an instant, Sam,’ gasped Mr. Winkle, clinging most affectionately to Mr. Weller. ‘I find I’ve got a couple of coats at home that I don’t want, Sam. You may have them, Sam.’
‘Thank’ee, Sir,’ replied Mr. Weller.
‘Never mind touching your hat, Sam,’ said Mr. Winkle hastily. ‘You needn’t take your hand away to do that. I meant to have given you five shillings this morning for a Christmas box, Sam. I’ll give it you this afternoon, Sam.’
‘You’re wery good, sir,’ replied Mr. Weller.
‘Just hold me at first, Sam; will you?’ said Mr. Winkle. ‘There—that’s right. I shall soon get in the way of it, Sam. Not too fast, Sam; not too fast.’
Mr. Winkle, stooping forward, with his body half doubled up, was being assisted over the ice by Mr. Weller, in a very singular and un-swan-like manner, when Mr. Pickwick most innocently shouted from the opposite bank—
‘Here. I want you.’
‘Let go, Sir,’ said Sam. ‘Don’t you hear the governor a-callin’? Let go, sir.’
With a violent effort, Mr. Weller disengaged himself from the grasp of the agonised Pickwickian, and, in so doing, administered a considerable impetus to the unhappy Mr. Winkle. With an accuracy which no degree of dexterity or practice could have insured, that unfortunate gentleman bore swiftly down into the centre of the reel, at the very moment when Mr. Bob Sawyer was performing a flourish of unparalleled beauty. Mr. Winkle struck wildly against him, and with a loud crash they both fell heavily down. Mr. Pickwick ran to the spot. Bob Sawyer had risen to his feet, but Mr. Winkle was far too wise to do anything of the kind, in skates. He was seated on the ice, making spasmodic efforts to smile; but anguish was depicted on every lineament of his countenance.
‘Are you hurt?’ inquired Mr. Benjamin Allen, with great anxiety.
‘Not much,’ said Mr. Winkle, rubbing his back very hard. ‘I wish you’d let me bleed you,’ said Mr. Benjamin, with great eagerness.
‘No, thank you,’ replied Mr. Winkle hurriedly.
‘I really think you had better,’ said Allen.
‘Thank you,’ replied Mr. Winkle; ‘I’d rather not.’
‘What do YOU think, Mr. Pickwick?’ inquired Bob Sawyer.
Mr. Pickwick was excited and indignant. He beckoned to Mr. Weller, and said in a stern voice, ‘Take his skates off.’
‘No; but really I had scarcely begun,’ remonstrated Mr. Winkle.
‘Take his skates off,’ repeated Mr. Pickwick firmly.
The command was not to be resisted. Mr. Winkle allowed Sam to obey it, in silence.
‘Lift him up,’ said Mr. Pickwick. Sam assisted him to rise.
Mr. Pickwick retired a few paces apart from the bystanders; and, beckoning his friend to approach, fixed a searching look upon him, and uttered in a low, but distinct and emphatic tone, these remarkable words—
‘You’re a humbug, sir.’ ‘A what?’ said Mr. Winkle, starting.
‘A humbug, Sir. I will speak plainer, if you wish it. An impostor, sir.’
With those words, Mr. Pickwick turned slowly on his heel, and rejoined his friends.
From The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, 1837.