Friday, 1 February 2008

Questions in 'Pickwick'

May Morris narrates an entertaining battle of wits between her father and a Birmingham acquaintance. The latter 'prided himself on his knowledge of Dickens, and was rather given to displaying it. This he did by putting (as his own) the questions he got from Calverley's Examination Papers. "He put them," says a friend, "to your father, who had no difficulty in answering all of them. He doubtless knew all about Calverley's questions, and having disposed of them, he proceeded to test M's knowledge of the book [Pickwick] and he put to him question after question which M could not answer. The questions seemed to show that your father knew Pickwick pretty well by heart"'.

The Pickwick examination, thirty questions long, was set in 1857 by the eccentric Cambridge don, Charles Stewart Calverley. It was first held, as a mock-formal exam, in his rooms at Cambridge where the undergraduate Walter Besant won first prize for his answers and refreshed himself after his Dickensian labours with a supper of oysters, beer and milk-punch. This gruellingly detailed test on the novel subsequently achieved considerable notoriety, though by 1889 Andrew Lang was writing mournfully in his Lost Leaders that 'The number of people who could take a good pass in Mr Calverley's Pickwick Examination Paper is said to be diminishing'.

We are fortunate today that Calverley's Pickwick questions are readily available in an online edition of his Fly Leaves at:, so that Morris fans who share their hero's passion for Dickens can now test themselves out on the book. Immediately following the thirty questions is the set of authorised answers to them, so take care how you scroll down into the site.

No comments: