It's the story of Samuel Pickwick and his various travels and adventures. The basic plot is simple. Pickwick is the founder of the Pickwick Club, and his mission is to go on a walk-about into the world (greater London and the surrounding area) and learn all he can. Then he writes it down and reports back to his club.
I'm going to give you a tiny example. This will lay down the pattern for the whole book. Mr. Pickwick is traveling through a village and comes across an inscription carved in an old stone in front of a cottage. He asks the man in the cottage about it.
'Do you know how this stone came here, my friend?' inquired the benevolent Mr. Pickwick.
'No, I doan't, Sir,' replied the man civilly. 'It was here long afore I was born, or any on us.'
Mr. Pickwick glanced triumphantly at his companion.
'You—you—are not particularly attached to it, I dare say,' said Mr. Pickwick, trembling with anxiety. 'You wouldn't mind selling it, now?'
'Ah! but who'd buy it?' inquired the man, with an expression of face which he probably meant to be very cunning.
'I'll give you ten shillings for it, at once,' said Mr. Pickwick, 'if you would take it up for me.'
The astonishment of the village may be easily imagined, when (the little stone having been raised with one wrench of a spade) Mr. Pickwick, by dint of great personal exertion, bore it with his own hands to the inn, and after having carefully washed it, deposited it on the table.
The exultation and joy of the Pickwickians knew no bounds, when their patience and assiduity, their washing and scraping, were crowned with success. The stone was uneven and broken, and the letters were straggling and irregular, but the following fragment of an inscription was clearly to be deciphered:—
[cross] B I L S Tu mP S H IS. M.ARK
Yeah, pretty cool, right? Well, after presenting it to the Pickwick Club, a dissenter arose.Mr. Pickwick's eyes sparkled with delight, as he sat and gloated over the treasure he had discovered. He had attained one of the greatest objects of his ambition. In a county known to abound in the remains of the early ages; in a village in which there still existed some memorials of the olden time, he—he, the chairman of the Pickwick Club—had discovered a strange and curious inscription of unquestionable antiquity, which had wholly escaped the observation of the many learned men who had preceded him.
Mr. Blotton, with a mean desire to tarnish the lustre of the immortal name of Pickwick, actually undertook a journey to Cobham in person, and on his return, sarcastically observed in an oration at the club, that he had seen the man from whom the stone was purchased; that the man presumed the stone to be ancient, but solemnly denied the antiquity of the inscription—inasmuch as he represented it to have been rudely carved by himself in an idle mood, and to display letters intended to bear neither more or less than the simple construction of—'BILL STUMPS, HIS MARK'...
The Pickwick Club (as might have been expected from so enlightened an institution) received this statement with the contempt it deserved, expelled the presumptuous and ill-conditioned Blotton from the society, and voted Mr. Pickwick a pair of gold spectacles, in token of their confidence and approbation: in return for which, Mr. Pickwick caused a portrait of himself to be painted, and hung up in the club room.
That makes me laugh out loud, right down to the part where Pickwick had his portrait painted in honor of the occasion. Well the whole book is just that same sort of thing. It's a "riotous romp" through merry old England.
Pickwick has an enemy in the book - Mr. Jingle. One of the funniest scenes is where Mr. Jingle tricks Pickwick into a midnight rendezvous at a women's boarding school. Several of the scenes are funny because of the uptight 19th century manners and attitudes. For example, in one scene, Pickwick wanders into the wrong hotel room at night. A woman comes in and finds Pickwick in her bed. However, due to social constraints, he simply can't let her see him in his nightcap, and he can't seem to get the darn thing off.
That particular scene is one example where the humor is slightly lost on us today, because we can't relate to that. We want to scream, "Oh, for crying out loud. Just tell her it was a mistake. Who cares if she sees you in a nightcap!"
The social commentary is always there, of course. This is Dickens, after all. In this case it involves breach of contract and debtors prison. I won't go into details, I want to leave you with some of the fun.
Sam Weller, the good and faithful servant of Mr. Pickwick, is a classic study. He's everyone's favorite character. He's clever and funny. He is of a lower class than Mr. Pickwick and his companions, so naturally we can't expect them to be best friends. But as the story went along (it was serialized in a magazine, and he wrote another chapter every month) Dickens got feedback that Sam was a favorite character. So he increased his role and we're introduced to Sam's family, and later to his lady friend.
Once again, the old fashion class system is on full display. But if we can live with it in Downton Abbey, I'm sure this won't bother us too much. It's more likely that we may have trouble understanding some of the relationships and customs of the day. For example, one of Pickwick's companions, Mr. Tupman, falls for a spinster aunt, Miss Wardle. But the sly Mr. Jingle steals her away in the night with the idea of elopement. Her brother catches the two before it's too late and buys off the evil Mr. Jingle. But now Miss Wardle is ruined, for some reason. It's not like they had "premarital relations", but just the idea that she ran off with him was enough to mark her as damaged goods. Mr. Tupman wants nothing more to do with her. I understand his feelings might be hurt, but the story implies it's more than that. But some of this stuff you have to just brush over and keep going.
The main point to remember is this. Funny things happened even back in the day. If you can get through the dialog and the rest, then the absurd situations will put a smile on your face.