Book review: Death And Mr Pickwick

Did Charles Dickens execute the most audacious literary fraud ever or was the Pickwick Papers a work of stunning originality? Mary Leland unravels the threads of a riveting fictionalised account of the book’s origins.

Stephen Jarvis

Vintage, €11.80

IT CAN’T be often that a novel demands a concordance; Death and Mr Pickwick is almost impenetrable without one. 

Stephen Jarvis has produced a book of such complexity that it compels its readers into greater scholarship on Charles Dickens than they might have anticipated. 

For many that will be its allure. It is possible however that the less dedicated will succumb, as did this reviewer, to the temptation of the final pages, just to see how it is all brought together in the end.

There is no end. This must be the writer’s intention as Facebook and website seed and sprout conversations about further research, information, coincidence, memoire, statuary, geography and, god help us, Further Reading.

Again, this reviewer has to admit to not having done any preliminary reading, The Pickwick Papers not being her favourite or even familiar Dickens. 

Its many characters and their rollicking adventures have no place among her early Victorian volumes. 

This absence suggests a shameful ignorance of what Jarvis idolises as one of the greatest of all books, with a readership rivalling that of the bible and Shakespeare. 

However, outside university lecture halls poor Mr Pickwick has not worn as well as, perhaps, Miss Havisham or Mrs Jellaby or Scrooge or Uriah Heep.

What may have retained some popular currency are the illustrations which enlivened the early editions of the array of novels and stories from Charles Dickens succeeding the serial publication of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club in 1836. 

It is through these images that Stephen Jarvis knits his plot, which might with some justification be called his thesis. 

A doctoral thesis, to judge by the imaginative scope of his research and the integrity of his fictional dialogues.

“I told you that our mission was to correct historical errors,” says the antiquarian Mr Inbelicate to his assistant Scripto. 

A hint of the intricacies to come is that both names are based on printers’ errors from early Pickwick editions which Inbelicate, the older patron, or literary detective, introduces to the younger man who acts as his editorial secretary.

This collaboration is introduced as the very necessary frame for the succession of chapters and intersecting commentaries on historical or legendary characters and occurrences given impetus and significance by Jarvis who transforms actuality into atmospheric fiction.

For instance, the crucial error to be corrected is the belief, perpetuated by Dickens himself, that Pickwick was his own inspiration, unassisted by anyone else. The core of this novel is the claim that The Pickwick Papers did not begin with Charles Dickens, but with its original illustrator, Robert Seymour.

This was the era of caricaturists and cartoonists (Punch arrived sometime later) such as Cruikshank and writers such as Surtees, and Robert Seymour was an immensely popular artist whose engravings were admired by readers of the magazines, journals and periodicals then current in England.

(There are several chapters here about the process of etching and the techniques and economics of early 19th century publishing, with diversions on pipe-smoking, the qualities of steel, and the varieties of ink and paper.)

It was Seymour who went to the publishers Chapman and Hall with sample plates for a series of stories based on the illustrations he would supply on the comic theme of a sporting club composed of newly rich Cockney men eager to emulate the country pursuits of the squires and gentility of England.

All that was needed was someone to write the text, and Chapman and Hall had found the very man, a young Mr Dickens, already writing as ‘Boz’.

Offered an income which would allow him to marry, Dickens yielded to their entreaties but on condition that the relationship

between artist and writer was to be reversed: the text would dictate the images, not the other way around. The untried Dickens, in other words, would be in control.

Known to be a sensitive and nervous man Seymour, shortly after his only meeting with Dickens, went home, sat in his garden, and shot himself through the heart. 

The immediate shock could not be allowed to interfere with publication and Seymour who had only contributed seven etchings to two issues before his death was quickly replaced by Hablot Knight Browne — ‘Phiz’ to Dickens’ ‘Boz’ and his collaborator for the next 24 years. 

Browne, Dickens and the newly introduced Sam Weller, valet to Mr Pickwick, sent the series what would today be described as ‘viral’.

In Michael Slater’s biography of Dickens published in 2009, Robert Seymour gets 10 mentions; Claire Tomalin in 2011 gives him two, crisply attributing his suicide to depression. Both these books are substantial accounts of the writer’s life. 

Tomalin is rather better on the warts and all, and Dickens, an intimidating liar obsessed with the world-wide glorification of his public image, had a lot of warts.

So, according to Jarvis in an annihilating chapter, had John Forster, Dickens’s intimate and utterly faithful friend and also his first biographer.

Forster has reassured a worried Dickens that Seymour has burned his documents and left no evidence that it was he, the artist, and not the novelist, who created Mr Pickwick. 

Now Seymour’s impoverished son, also Robert, has also committed suicide; ‘found drowned’ the inquest decides, in a poignant echo of a scene in Our Mutual Friend.

Reconsidering this tragedy, Forster has no compunction, reminding himself that in his writings about historical events, he had committed certain deceptions which, so far, no one had noticed. 

“These fabrications were as nothing compared to his work on Pickwick. Was it possible that he had carried off the greatest literary hoax in history?”

By the way, a man called Foster is to be confused with Forster in a ruse typical of Jarvis.

The possibility of that hoax is the hub of the text which spins in dizzying circles through the book. 

The devoted reader who can keep all the clues at his or her finger-tips like a literary cat’s cradle will find considerable satisfaction in separating the strands to make a single line from beginning to a potential ending.

However, like life itself there is no single strand. Along the way there are cataracts of information, intense and often colourful episodes of fictional biography rippling through these 800 pages to join, like far-flung tributaries, the great river of narrative which Jarvis has produced.

Some are recognisable, such as the clown Grimaldi (and his unfortunate son) or Lady Caroline Norton, notorious victim of a ruthless husband; most, like Ely Stott, are vague or familiar only to Dickens scholars who will relish this coalition of retrieved fact and transformative fiction.

Jarvis also charts the England of Mr Pickwick from inns of the past coaching days to newer pubs, from hunting lodges and fine old houses to street markets and the studios of artists, the entire tumultuous cavalcade rushing from The Pickwick Papers into that particular landscape with which Charles Dickens was so adept: death.

There are delights in this book, not least Mr Pickwick himself. And there can be no doubt that this immense undertaking has been achieved with remarkable skill; Jarvis himself is a storyteller of Dickensian measure. 

The question begged, however, is why he had to put all these many separate and often fascinating tales into a single book.



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