Death and Mr. Pickwick: A Novel
By Stephen Jarvis
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 816 pages
The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens’s first novel, published serially over 20 months in 1836 and 1837, was a phenomenon. Its popularity was unprecedented; eventually, it outsold every book in England save the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays, and it catapulted Dickens to superstardom. It was also the first literary marketing juggernaut. There were Pickwick souvenirs, Pickwick joke books, Pickwick theatrical productions, even Pickwick cigars. “If you were to gather every piece of porcelain, or item of clothing inspired by the book, and every doll, shoehorn, spoon and pipe tamper and every other object of a Pickwickian nature, you would fill up a small museum,” Stephen Jarvis writes in his debut novel, Death and Mr. Pickwick. “People speak of the Victorian era. They might just as well call it the Pickwickian era.”
Yet Death and Mr. Pickwick aims to do more than restore The Pickwick Papers’s reputation; the novel bills itself primarily as an exposé. In an ominous-sounding Address to Readers, Jarvis hints at a scandal: the story of the inspiration for Pickwick, he says, “as put forward by Dickens and his publisher Edward Chapman…is not true.” Dickens, in his preface to the novel’s 1867 edition, alludes to “intangible and incoherent assertions” made by one Robert Seymour “to the effect that he had some share in the invention of this book” and then spends several paragraphs denying Seymour’s involvement so emphatically that Jarvis, smelling a rat, decided to dig deeper.
It took Jarvis 10 years to research and write Death and Mr. Pickwick; in the end, he says, he discovered plenty of evidence to set the literary record straight.
Who was Robert Seymour? In 1836, when the first installment of what became The Pickwick Papers appeared, 24-year-old Charles Dickens was completely unknown. Robert Seymour, however, was a successful and highly prolific illustrator and engraver, famous for his caricatures and political cartoons as well as for serious works. (Seymour exhibited at the Royal Academy and illustrated volumes of Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and Cervantes.) Death and Mr. Pickwick takes great pains portraying Seymour’s childhood and early adolescence, describing in tremendous detail his artistic and personal development.
As Jarvis would have it, Seymour might have become a cleric had he not happened upon an illustrated magazine (of the sort that was hugely popular in early-19th-century London) purchased by his brother. Young Seymour and his sketchpad are soon inseparable. When he’s not drawing, he’s hovering around one of London’s many print shops, studying the illustrations on display: “Here was the prime minister depicted as a toadstool on a dunghill; there, politicians as a class shown as hungry piglets…climbing over each other to reach a teat on England’s poor sow, her ribs showing through her hide, as the life was sucked out by those who sought office…”
The years of his apprenticeship as a pattern-drawer (during which he befriends and has an affair with another young male artist) pass in a kind of delirious ecstasy, as Seymour hones his talent, sharpens his eye, and revels in the glorious spectacle—the street fairs, theaters, and taverns within the “one-mile radius of Piccadilly that forms a complete cyclopedia of the world”—that is London.
As his professional star rises, the quality of his personal life declines. In due course, Seymour represses his homosexuality, marries, teaches himself the arts of engraving and lithography, and takes every commission that comes his way. His manic activity leads to a breakdown, but he doesn’t dare slow his output; a good bit of his reputation depends on his ability to produce more prints in less time than any of his contemporaries. But the public’s tastes are changing. “People are reading more and more,” Seymour admits to one of his publishers. “A single picture displayed in a window perhaps means less these days.”
This cultural shift inspires him. In Jarvis’s telling, Seymour himself approaches the publishers Chapman and Hall with a plan he has for a new work. “A little pet idea…a new pictorial scheme. Etchings associated with letterpress. It would be a monthly publication.” The work in question will concern a “fat bald figure with spectacles who had founded the Pickwick Club.” All Seymour needs is “a letterpress writer…to show how the characters went from one scene to another.”
Chapman and Hall are delighted. “Good Lord, Mr. Seymour—good Lord—this character could be…like a portal to the marvelous! What you might do with him!” Chapman enthuses. And thus, in topsy-turvy fashion (drawings first, story second), The Pickwick Papers is born.
By this point—nearly 450 pages into an 800 page book—we have already met the man hired (after two other writers turned the gig down) to “do the words” for Seymour’s illustrations. Jarvis, rather coyly, refers to him at first only as “Chatham Charlie” or “the boy.” While fans of 19th-century literature will recognize Dickens from context, most modern readers will not.
This is a problem that dogs Death and Mr. Pickwick throughout. The book hews closely to The Pickwick Papers; from the novel’s first sentence, which deliberately echoes Dickens’s, Jarvis announces his intention to piggyback on the source, but readers unfamiliar with Dickens’s novel will find themselves frequently out to sea. There’s just too much to keep track of. The setting changes constantly, characters pop up and vanish at bewildering intervals, and Jarvis’s plot digresses so frequently and at such length that the narrative feels both overstuffed and frayed. Incidents that seem plausibly historical jostle with obviously tall tales, to the point where a reader struggling to orient himself becomes reluctant to suspend disbelief. It’s hard to sustain interest when one is perpetually confused.
Seymour and Dickens do not collaborate well. Jarvis makes them competitors, vying for artistic primacy as well as control of the story itself. “My pictures are intelligible to all who have eyes, whether or not they can even read,” Seymour tells his rival. “You are jealous of that power.”
Dickens disagrees. “I merely say that if a work is to be illustrated, the artist’s ambition should be to present the author’s scenes…rather than showing off his own abilities. Such as they are,” he replies. A moment later, Dickens is shouting: “You will do the dying clown exactly as I want it! You will do it!” Seymour flees the scene in fury. A day later he shoots himself.
Was Dickens responsible for Seymour’s suicide? Jarvis thinks so. But Seymour was, by all accounts, already depressed and unstable; it seems a bit much to lay the blame for his death at one man’s feet.
Did Dickens “steal” the inspiration for Pickwick from Seymour’s illustrations? Perhaps, at first. Yet it’s absurd to claim that Seymour’s influence extended much beyond the novel’s inaugural pages, since the artist killed himself before the second installment of The Pickwick Papers appeared in print. The novel’s surge in popularity didn’t occur until the 10th issue; even Jarvis doesn’t try to make the case that anyone other than Dickens is responsible for Pickwick’s ultimate trajectory. Still, he refuses to let the matter drop, piling more and more hysterical-sounding, far-fetched “evidence” on our weary heads. But why should we care? Pickwick is Pickwick, no matter who thought of it first.
The final 300 pages of the novel contain some lovely bits. Pickwick’s meteoric rise is beautifully described:
The surgeon would read Pickwick in a cab on his way to the hospital; the omnibus driver would read Pickwick while the horses were changed; the cook would read Pickwick when she was stirring the soup; the mother would read Pickwick when the child was at her breast. In all the unfilled gaps in people’s lives, in all those moments when it was possible for reading to overlap another activity, Pickwick appeared…Ordinary men who had never before been noted for a display of emotion were changed. The surly, sallow cheesemonger in a striped apron would now be seen howling with laughter when a housewife entered his corner shop, and a conversation ensued between the two—two people who had never been known for any exchange of words except the terse terms of a sale of cheddar—these two talked about Pickwick…There came a new astronomical order to peoples’ lives—never before had strangers chattered in this manner, with an upsurge every thirty days.
Equally poignant is Jarvis’s description of Pickwick’s eventual slide into obscurity: “The world grows less eccentric, less Pickwickian by the day…I heard an anecdote…that a woman who asked for The Pickwick Papers at Heathrow airport was told to look in the magazine section.” Jarvis’s novel will convince no one that he’s uncovered “the greatest literary hoax in history,” but it may well reverse Pickwick’s downward trend: any reader who manages to finish Death and Mr. Pickwick will certainly turn to The Pickwick Papers next. It’s a much more compelling book.