Mr. Pickwick's First Brush with the Law: Civil Disobedience in the Pickwick Papers

By Shatto, Susan | Dickens Quarterly, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Mr. Pickwick's First Brush with the Law: Civil Disobedience in the Pickwick Papers


Shatto, Susan, Dickens Quarterly


The climactic scene in chapter 22 of The Pickwick Papers describes the embarrassment that occurs when Mr. Pickwick tries to find his way back to his bedroom at night while staying at the Great White Horse at Ipswich, with its dark and labyrinthine passages. Having found what he thinks is his own room, he starts undressing and dons his nightcap, at which point he is horrified by the entrance of a middle-aged lady in curl-papers, returning to her bedroom (for it is her bedroom after all) and beginning to prepare for bed. A Fieldingesque scene of misunderstanding ensues which parallels the earlier misunderstanding between Mr. Pickwick and Mrs. Bardell.

Further embarrassment results in chapter 24, depicting the morning after the night before, when Pickwick's traveling companion, Mr. Magnus, introduces his betrothed, Miss Witherfield, who is, of course, the middle-aged lady in curl-papers. Miss Witherfield screams, Magnus and Pickwick quarrel, and Magnus tells Pickwick that "he should hear from him." This leads Miss Witherfield to vividly imagine a duel in which Pickwick shoots and possibly kills Magnus, and thus she sets off the rest of the action in this chapter and the next by making her way to the local magistrate, Mr. George Nupkins, Esquire, in order to have not Magnus but the innocent Pickwick and his unwitting second, Tupman, arrested for inciting a duel.

And so begins Mr. Pickwick's first brush with the law, a bildungsroman episode which helps to prepare him for the later courtroom drama of the breach of promise case. What follows Miss Witherfield's alerting the magistrate ("'I fear a duel is going to be fought here'") is an anarchic series of events characteristic of nineteenth-century farce and pantomime, in which, as Michael Booth explains, "man is initially responsible for his own absurd predicament, although chance and an implacable universe drive him inexorably thereafter over the edge of comic catastrophe." (1)

According to the work which was a vade mecum for magistrates in Dickens's time, Richard Burn's The Justice of the Peace and Parish Officer (2 vols., 1755), a duel constituted an "affray": "a public offence to the terror of the king's subjects". (2) Moreover, "it is certain, that it is a very high offence to challenge another either by word or letter to fight a duel" (3. 27). In law, duelling was a felony. Burn also explains Nupkins' duty on hearing Miss Witherfield: "There is no doubt but that a justice of the peace may and must do all such things to [suppress an affray].... in such case he may make his warrant to bring the offender before him, in order to compel him to find sureties for the peace" (3.29).

Neither Burn nor another well-known handbook for magistrates, William Robinson's Formularies, or, the Magistrate's Assistant (2 vols., 1827), contains an example of a warrant specifically regarding a duel, but Burn prints a model of a warrant for an affray:

   Warrant to apprehend Affrayers

   To the constable of--Whereas A. I. of--yeoman, hath this day
   made oath before me J. P. esquire, one of his majesty's justices of
   the peace for the said county, that on the--day of--in the--
   year of the reign of--A. O. of--yeoman, and B. O. of--yeoman,
   at--in the said county, in a tumultuous manner made an affray,
   wherein the person of the said A. I. was beaten and abused by them
   the said A. O. and B. O. without any lawful or sufficient
   provocation given to them, or to either of them, by him the said A.
   I. These are therefore to command you forthwith to apprehend the
   said A. O. and B. O., and bring them before me, or some other of
   his said majesty's justices of the peace for the said county, to
   answer the premises, and to find sureties as well for their
   personal appearance at the next general quarter sessions of the
   peace, to be holden for the said county, then and there to answer
   to an indictment to be preferred against them by the said A. … 

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