If you love Charles Dickens’ novels and anything Dickensian and/or Pickwickian, you will love Stephen Jarvis’ cleverly phantasmagoric narrative, Death and Mr. Pickwick, and immediately speculate on the meaning of the title. So let me guide you, because the multiple surprises in Jarvis’ work will delight and startle you—and keep you turning the pages for many hours. Yes, it’s a long slog, but the rewards are delicious, totally entertaining, which is exactly what we expect a Dickens novel to be. Except for the fact that Death and Mr. Pickwick is not so much a novel as a biography of the novel’s original illustrator, Robert Seymour (1798-1836), and a history of the popularity of Dickens’ first novel (though there are plenty of people who say that The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, also known as The Pickwick Club, but also known as Pickwick, is not a novel).
Let me elaborate.
Robert Seymour was one of the more celebrated British illustrators of the early part of the nineteenth century, a rival to George Cruikshank. Jarvis’ book claims that Seymour tried to imitate Cruikshank’s artistry and that most critics would declare the latter the better artist and Seymour something akin to a caricaturist. The first several hundred pages of Jarvis’ work are devoted to Seymour’s early life, beginning with his childhood, his life as a young man as a closeted gay, his marriage and successes with numerous popular illustrated magazines where the illustrations were much more important than the text (known as “letterpress”).
As Jarvis explores Seymour’s life, he intermixes it with brief accounts of many other people, related and unrelated to his primary subject, brief narratives, and what the publisher even calls “shaggy-dog tales,” but very much akin to Dickens’ own narrative digressions relating to characters besides the main ones. The sights and smells of London are on every page of Death and Mr. Pickwick—the city is dirty, truly filthy, full of squalor, gin shops and dog fights, and, of course, always full of colorful characters. One of these will eventually include Moses Pickwick, a foundling and eventual owner of pubs and a transport company outside of Bath. It will take Jarvis a good bit of time to draw all his characters together, but Seymour is the glue that unites them.
The middle pages of Jarvis’ story devote a great amount of space to the development of serialized novels, preparing for Dickens’ entry. The serial novel was not new when Dickens began writing Pickwick, but he certainly perfected it as few writers had. Unlike novelists today who often begin writing their works with no idea as to what will happen, Dickens—especially with the novels that followed Pickwick—had to have every detail of the plot planned in advance. There was no opportunity for corrections, going back and changing things. Dickens’ vision was so vast that he could excel in spite of this restriction. And as an investment, the publisher needed only a fraction of the money necessary for the finished work. As one of the contemporary narrators explains, “A work produced in twenty monthly numbered parts needs an initial outlay of just one-twentieth of the total cost…. And when put on the market, the receipts come in within a month, and are used to finance the next part.”
Pickwick was not immediately successful, but it didn’t take that long for it to catch on. One thousand copies of the first installment were published—launched on March 31, 1836—and, roughly, half sold. By the fourth month—which introduced Sam Weller—sales of the book skyrocketed and eventually hit 40,000 copies per installment. In the meantime, the real struggle was not with building up sales but the fight between Robert Seymour—who conceived of the idea for the book and drew the illustrations for the first installment and part of the second—and Dickens, who had been chosen to write the text and quickly discovered that he could not write the story he wanted to write around Seymour’s illustrations. A huge argument developed between the two of them, with Chapman and Hall, the publisher, caught in the middle.
Dickens won. He had been writing under his earlier pen name, Boz, which he had used for a volume of sketches. His career as a writer had begun as a court reporter. The issue became one of “ownership,” who was the real creator of Mr. Pickwick, illustrator or writer? Dickens asked Seymour to change certain aspects of his illustrations; Seymour balked and—after it was clear that Dickens had gained the more powerful position—he committed suicide soon afterwards. At the time of his death, Seymour had produced thousands of illustrations, but no one had ever requested that he alter them. In one argument, Seymour shouted, “Mr. Pickwick is mine!” But Dickens’ characters—ordinary people in ordinary situations—quickly pulled in ordinary readers, the man on the street, not the elite.
Mrs. Seymour returned to Chapman and Hall and to Dickens himself, demanding additional compensation. Dickens made a fortune on the book because his contract had stated that if it were successful, his compensation would be increased. Contemporary critics tried to sort out the inspiration for the book, but again Dickens won, in part because Seymour was no longer around. But if you read biographies of Dickens himself, you will see that the controversy was not short-lived. Even Seymour’s son, years later, tried to make the case for his father’s originality and not Dickens’.
Stephen Jarvis’ Death and Mr. Pickwick is a gigantic book—too long, of course, but still, totally amazing. Though this is Jarvis’ first novel, you wouldn’t know it— just as Dickens appeared out of nowhere and wrote what is often claimed to be the most popular British novel of all time. Jarvis has done his research. His two contemporary narrators (known has Mr. Inbelicate and Scripty) are sleuths, piecing together Seymour’s story from his illustrations. Inbelicate’s pseudonym is drawn from a typo in the original edition in a line spoken by Sam Weller. Bits and pieces of Dickens’ early life are pulled into the narrative and used for any number of the minor characters, including an imaginative account of Dickens’ life in a blacking factory (when his father was in debtor’s prison). British issues of class and the desire to pull one’s self out of their restrictions if you’re at the bottom are ubiquitous. How can one not have admiration for a writer who takes on The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club and writes a story as long as Dickens’ 200,000 word original?
Stephen Jarvis: Death and Mr. Pickwick
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 816 pp., $30.00
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @LarsonChuck.