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Reviewed by
Stephen Jarvis. Death and Mr. Pickwick. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. Pp. 802. $30.00; £20.00.

The artist Robert Seymour is known to posterity for two accomplishments: he created the first illustration of Samuel Pickwick and, in the month of Mr. Pickwick’s debut, committed suicide. A definitive life of the artist has yet to be written. In the meantime, there is Death and Mr. Pickwick, a novel by Stephen Jarvis. Events may not have transpired exactly as Jarvis portrays them, but he offers a sympathetic portrait of a troubled man. Of course, if Seymour is to be a sympathetic character, then someone else must be unsympathetic. To pity Salieri, we are obliged to see Mozart as a monster or a buffoon. Three days before Robert Seymour pulled the trigger to end his life, he met (perhaps for the first and last time) Charles Dickens. Was the young author too rough with the sensitive artist? Did Dickens, the single-minded taskmaster bent on success, drive Seymour to an early grave and future oblivion? A suicide note (quoted by Jarvis) implores the grieving Mrs. Seymour to blame no one. But the question raised by this novel is not who killed Seymour but rather who created The Pickwick Papers, which became a publishing and cultural phenomenon like no other.

Critics will call Death and Mr. Pickwick Dickensian, which is code for long. Perhaps we should call the new work Pickwickian: digressive, heterogeneous, and long. Jarvis, in Pickwickian mode, deploys interpolated tales – short stories, local legends, historical anecdotes. But like some nineteenth-century imitations of Pickwick, Jarvis’s novel upsets the balance between the center and the periphery: digressions overwhelm the main thrust. Like Pickwick itself, Death and Mr. Pickwick offers a fictional frame to get things going. A man known to us as Mr. Imbelicate employs someone he calls Inscriptino (aka Scripty) to write the story of Pickwick’s origins, based on Imbelicate’s research. Seymour, the main character in the resulting narrative, dies on page 534, with more than 250 pages to go.

Seymour was a successful visual artist with a brilliant idea. He wanted to produce a monthly publication, with images and letterpress, built around the doings of a fictional London-based club. Other fictional clubs had appeared in print; in the eighteenth century, for instance, both Edward Ward and Henry Fielding exploited this device. But Seymour’s timing was superb. [End Page 65] The publishers Chapman and Hall liked his proposal, and the rest is literary history. However: had Seymour lived, would Pickwick still be Pickwick? In 1854, his widow, the former Jane Holmes, composed a pamphlet, An Account of the Origin of the “Pickwick Papers.” She asserts, “[H]ad there been no Mr. Seymour, Pickwick Papers could not have been written; but had there been no Dickens, they would have been written notwithstanding.” One wonders: by whom? In the words of G. K. Chesterton, “It was quite easy to originate ‘Pickwick.’ The difficulty was to write it.” Jarvis does not quote Mrs. Seymour’s pamphlet, even though An Account of the Origin of the “Pickwick Papers” could be the novel’s subtitle.

One question raised by Jarvis’s book is that of genre. The dust jacket assures us that we are reading “A Novel,” but this may be a marketing tactic: some people still buy novels. Jarvis’s book aspires to the status of non-fiction or at least a non-fiction novel, such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. At times, Death and Mr. Pickwick reads like a sketchbook or a series of detached essays on early nineteenth-century print culture. One wishes that it included an index, so that interested readers could trace what Jarvis has to say about “Egan, Pierce” or “Figaro in London.” At other times, the book reads like a pallid rewrite of The Pickwick Papers. Jarvis retells the incident of Mr. Pickwick and the pugnacious cabman, for instance, but adds nothing to Dickens’s account. One might as well read the source. In such passages, Jarvis’s book is closer to paraphrase or even plagiarism. Indeed, Death and Mr. Pickwick is a metatext – a book about a book. As one obsessed character says, “My long life has been dominated by one author – specifically, one book by that one author” (764).

Ultimately, the generic description that may suit best is roman à thèse. The argument is that Dickens lied or intentionally misled readers in his various Pickwick prefaces. Mr. Imbelicate (or perhaps Jarvis) fails to register that a preface is a paratext, rather like the elaborate Pickwick prospectus, published on 26 March 1836, or even the monthly wrapper, which relates that the new work is “Edited by ‘Boz.’” In fact, it was written by Charles Dickens. Yet Death and Mr. Pickwick wonders if the misleading prefaces form “the greatest literary hoax in history” (742). The villain is John Forster, who concocts the masterful cover-up of Seymour’s original conception (whatever it was) in order to protect Dickens’s reputation and, we presume, “the dignity of literature.” Jarvis’s novel thus recalls the efforts of the Shakespeare doubters (aka anti-Stratfordians). It is not that they are wrong; it is that it does not matter. If conclusive proof eventually shows that Christopher Marlowe or the Earl of Oxford wrote the works we attribute to Shakespeare, they would still be very good plays.

The strongest evidence to support the view that Seymour “created” Pickwick is that, before The Pickwick Papers, he had a tendency to draw [End Page 66] overweight, bespectacled men. Samuel W. Lambert’s 1924 book When Mr. Pickwick Went Fishing makes this claim: proto-Pickwicks appear in at least two of Seymour’s earlier publications, Maxims and Hints for an Angler, and Miseries of Fishing (1833) and The Book of Christmas (1836). But what does it mean to create a literary character? If Seymour draws a pudgy man in tights and gaiters, has he created Samuel Pickwick or a drawing of a pudgy man in tights and gaiters? Neither Dickens nor Seymour invented the name Pickwick; that belonged to coach proprietor Moses Pickwick. Jarvis, nevertheless, makes a convincing case that the raw materials that were synthesized into Dickens’s breakthrough work were all available by the 1830s: London clubs and cockney sportsmen, Washington Irving and Pierce Egan, Dr. Syntax and Jorrocks, the theatrical performances of Charles Mathews and Sam Vale. According to the novel, the alchemist was Robert Seymour; but in a fit of rage, he burns all the evidence.

Jarvis is at his best when describing details of nineteenth-century life: the Fleet prison, the processes of book making and etching, and the Pickwick phenomenon itself. The two most vivid characters are not Dickens and Seymour but rather Robert Buss, the unfortunate successor to the late artist, and “Mr N,” another obsessive who creates an index and a now-lost concordance to Pickwick. (One C. M. Neale produced An Index to Pickwick, in 1897.) Admirers of Dickens may feel frustrated by Jarvis; he insists on calling the novelist “Chatham Charlie” and later “Boz,” whereas other historical characters are designated by their names. Dickens scholars may further wonder why Jarvis fails to exploit Master Humphrey’s Clock, in which Dickens revived Pickwick and the Wellers. But for an in-depth view of nineteenth-century print culture and an exploration of one literary masterpiece’s extraordinary impact, Death and Mr. Pickwick has much to offer. [End Page 67]

Adam Abraham
University of Oxford