For the love of Dickens

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The British author’s timeless storytelling is drawing fans to Auburn for Maine’s only reading group dedicated to him, the Pickwick Club.

Historian Jill Lepore said “history is a great time machine, and I love that about it. You can go backward and hang out there as long as you need to.”

Since 2012, on the fourth Saturday of every even-numbered month, readers from all Maine compass points descend on the Auburn Public Library. They carry book bags, digital devices, pens, scraps of paper and lunch. They’re indistinguishable from other library patrons until you see the eager zeal in their eyes as they make their way to the Androscoggin Community Room on the library’s ground floor. They greet each other and find seats around rearranged tables.

There’s not much idle chitchat or small talk. They unpack their books and get down to business. The business of Charles Dickens that is. For two hours these passionate readers travel back to Victorian England and hang out there, discussing the books of one of the most popular writers of all time.

The meeting of the Pickwick Club, Maine’s only Charles Dickens reading and discussion group, has begun.

THE BEGINNING: PICKWICK CAPERS

The Pickwick Club’s founding was serendipitous. In August 2011, New Yorker magazine ran an article about the University of California’s “Dickens Universe” program. According to the UCSC website, Dickens Universe is “a unique cultural event that brings together scholars, teachers, students and members of the general public for a week of stimulating discussion and festive social activity on the beautiful Santa Cruz campus of the University of California — all focused on one or two Victorian novels, usually (but not always) one by Charles Dickens.”

The writer of the article, historian Jill Lepore, quoted Dickens Universe participant Alexis DesRoches in the article and identified her as working “in a real estate office in Industry, Maine, population 697.”

Joanne Morse, of Waterford, laughs as she remembers reading the article. “It was the New Yorker article by Jill Lepore that named Alexis as a culprit.”

Morse contacted DesRoches by telephone.

“When I called her (about the New Yorker article) I said, ‘You’ve probably gotten lots of phone calls,’ and she said, ‘No, you’re the first one.’”

In January 2012, the two women met and made plans for a Dickens reading group. Marty Gagnon, of the Auburn Public Library, offered the meeting space and DesRoches said the library “adopted us and they’ve been supportive of our efforts.”

DesRoches and Morse named the new venture “The Pickwick Club” from the title of Dickens’ first novel-length work. The group’s first meeting was in February 2012, the bicentennial of Dickens’ birth.

Six years later, the Maine Pickwickians have read 14 of Dickens’ 15 major novels as well as works by Victorian contemporaries Henry Fielding, William Makepeace Thackeray and Anthony Trollope. Rounding out the years of reading, the group has tackled biographies of Dickens, his wife, and his mistress. Bates College English professor Lillian Nayder, a Dickens scholar, has twice been the club’s guest speaker, including a discussion of her 2011 book about Dickens’ wife, “The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth.”

The Pickwickians total approximately 50, although the average Saturday discussion generally consists of anywhere from 10 to 20 attendees.

THE CLUB: BECOMING MUTUAL FRIENDS

Last month, at the club’s most recent gathering, DesRoches, who was moderating, opened the discussion of the club’s current book, Dickens’ “Dombey and Son.”

“Is it a tragedy? A fairy tale? Or a melodrama,” she asked.

Sharon Estell, of Portland, noted there are five weddings in the last 30 pages of the book.

Debbie Bliss, of New Vineyard, said, “There was more crying, kissing and hugging in the book. It was a cry fest and a comfort fest.” Bliss was ambivalent about the novel.

Jennifer Karcher, of Augusta, was attending for only the second time. She said the novel was “not up to the level of staggering achievement that some of Dickens works are.”

There was much funny yet serious conversation about the book’s villain, Mr. James Carker, “with his two rows of teeth bristling,” as Dickens first described the choppers.

Everyone in the group had something to say about Paul Dombey, the novel’s arrogant and prideful namesake, who declares “Do you know who I am, madam?” Moderator DesRoches suggested that “pride is the overarching theme” of the novel.

Two hours among the Pickwickians passed quickly.

There are no hard and fast club rules, no parliamentary procedures, no circumlocution.

“We have no structure,” said DesRoches. “We have moderators for each book. People volunteer to lead. We take turns doing that. The moderator is basically a facilitator,” she said. “We’re pretty free-form. I like to make sure everyone has a chance to weigh in.”

There are no attendance requirements, no cookies to bake. Having the meetings at the library makes it easy, said Morse, “because if it’s at home it becomes an eating contest.”

“People think books are hard and they’re foreign and they won’t get it, but they do,” said DesRoches gently. “They may have more complex ideas than, say, Danielle Steele, but they are great books for a reason. They can be read and they can be re-read. You can always get something fresh. Like tackling the Russians (authors): If you can get by the unfamiliarity of the names and the nick names and trying to pronounce the names that are . . . long and are very foreign to you, you’ll find that Tolstoy is immensely readable.”

THE FUTURE: GREAT EXPECTATIONS

What is it about Dickens that prompts such ongoing interest 150 years later? Fans say it’s all about his storytelling, which has stood the test of time. 

He was considered the “writer of the people” during his lifetime, and not immediately popular with critics. 

“Everyone read Dickens. He was immensely popular with everyone. He was the rock star of his time,” said DesRoches. “He was writing for the movies before the movies were invented.”

When it comes to the Auburn group’s devotion, it doesn’t hurt that most members, if not all, are self-described book club junkies. They’re involved in other clubs and participate in reading-themed events like Winter Weekend, sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council and hosted by Bowdoin College in Brunswick. Or the New England Great Books Spring Retreat in Litchfield, Connecticut, and the Great Books summer reading program at Colby College in Waterville.

What’s next for the Pickwickians, now that they’ve almost finished reading through Dickens’ novels?

For their April 28 meeting, they’re reading a non-fiction book by Jenny Hartley, “Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women.” The book details Dickens’ efforts to help destitute women. For both summer meetings in June and August, the Pickwickians will cover “Great Expectations.” In October, the group will read a Dickens contemporary, Elizabeth Gaskell’s “North and South” and then finish the year with Dickens’ “Sketches by Boz” for December.

The history time machine awaits. Feel free to jump in at any time.

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