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...